Two top contenders to become Israel's next prime minister have both called for a stronger military response to attacks.
Rhetoric rises as rockets hit in Israel
TEL AVIV // For Aryeh Lazar, it was nothing short of a miracle. On Wednesday, Mr Lazar was playing with his three small children in the living room of their home in southern Israel when a community-wide rocket alert system sounded. Just seconds after he rushed his children into a bomb shelter, a missile slammed into the two-storey house, whizzed through the living room and bored a gaping hole through the wall before landing in the bathroom. Mr Lazar, a 38-year-old engineer, still sounded shaken as he described his family's narrow escape from the attack as a "Hanukkah miracle", referring to the holiday celebrated by Jews this week. But the ordeal left him angry. "We're showing weakness to the enemy - and the government isn't doing anything," he said. "We're living in a reality of war, and we need to act and show force." Like Mr Lazar, a growing number of Israelis living in southern Israeli communities, which serve as frequent targets of rocket fire by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, are calling on their government to take more aggressive action against the increasing salvoes. Militants in the impoverished territory of 1.5 million Palestinians that is ruled by the Islamic group Hamas have pelted dozens of rockets and mortars at Israel since an Egyptian-brokered, six-month-old ceasefire with the Jewish state expired a week ago. The rocket fire, which has so far caused no injuries in Israel but sowed panic among those living near the Gaza border, came as Israel launched a series of air strikes in Gaza and closed off its border crossings with the territory, leading aid groups to run out of food and other basic supplies upon which many Gazans rely. Israel insists it has so far exercised restraint in the face of the escalating rocket attacks and has been reluctant to press ahead with an all-out assault liable to exact heavy casualties on both sides. So far, more Israelis than not agree. A poll published by the left-wing Haaretz newspaper yesterday showed that while 40 per cent of Israelis would support an aggressive campaign, some 46 per cent would still oppose such action because it could claim soldiers' lives. However, the paper said the number of supporters would have been greater had the survey been taken on Wednesday night, after militants fired the biggest one-day rocket barrages at Israel in at least six months to avenge Israel's killing of three Hamas fighters. Meanwhile, despair is mounting in Israeli communities that are bearing the brunt of the rocket fire. Daniel Dahan, a supermarket owner in the town of Sderot, a community of 20,000 people some two kilometres from Gaza, said he feels "humiliated" that Israel, with its advanced army and technology, cannot halt the attacks. "We look like cowards," he said. He added he would support Israeli action, including a large military operation or the assassinations of Hamas leaders, even if it means that Sderot will temporarily be bombarded by Gaza rockets. "If I need to go into a bomb shelter for two months so that the state will do its job, I'm prepared for it." Many politicians are also demanding a fiercer Israeli response. The two top contenders in the race for the premiership, an election which will take place on Feb 10, have both urged Israel to launch an offensive against Gaza militants and have pledged to topple Hamas rule in the tiny enclave if elected. Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the right-wing Likud party that is leading in the polls, said he does not "know one country that would absorb so many rockets and not do anything". He added that Israel should attack "in order to rehabilitate its national pride". Tzipi Livni, Israel's foreign minister and the head of the centrist Kadima party, yesterday said during a visit in Cairo that "enough is enough - the situation is going to change". Ms Livni, who spoke after talks with Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, on the Gaza escalation, said that the more than 70 missiles fired on Israel on Wednesday had been "unbearable" for the country. Indeed, the pressure for an assault appears to be working. Ehud Olmert, the outgoing prime minister, on Wednesday convened his security cabinet which, Israeli media reported, approved a large-scale, primarily aerial military operation in Gaza. Ehud Barak, the defence minister, yesterday warned that "whoever hurts the civilians and soldiers of Israel will pay a heavy price", though he declined to elaborate on the army's plans. The growing calls for aggression drowned out the lone voices calling for dialogue. Chaim Oron, head of Meretz, the most left-wing of Israel's Jewish parties, said the government should conduct talks with Hamas - an unlikely scenario since Israel refuses to deal with the group directly. "A focused negotiation on a ceasefire, as much as it is fragile and not a long-term solution, is better than an exchange of mutual blows that will only get worse," he was quoted on a popular news website as saying. firstname.lastname@example.org