In Israel’s battered south, little joy at ceasefire

Weary after yet another round of fighting and a decade of rocket fire, residents of Ofakim expect a few months of quiet at best

Ehud Ben-David, 23, in Ofakim on Thursday (Times of Israel/Matti Friedman)
Ehud Ben-David, 23, in Ofakim on Thursday (Times of Israel/Matti Friedman)

There are no optimists in Ofakim.

One day after a ceasefire ended the last round of fighting between Israel and the rocket squads of Gaza, the residents of this hardscrabble town in southern Israel seem to believe — with a unanimity rare among typically fractious Israelis — that the decision to call off the military’s offensive in Gaza was a mistake.

“We needed to keep going until we finished this,” Ehud Ben-David, 23, said Thursday. He stood on the roof of an Ofakim house next to a hole made by a Gazan rocket on its way down into the bathroom below.

An elderly woman in the living room survived. The interior of the house, and the top floor of an adjoining house, were gutted, and windows in surrounding homes were blown out.

“We’re already in our safe rooms. We’re already getting hit. The soldiers are already called up,” he said. “We should not have stopped.”

Ben-David gave the ceasefire three to five months. In Ofakim, that appears to be a fairly generous estimate.

Ofakim, with 27,000 residents, is 14 miles from Gaza, easy rocket range for terrorists in the Palestinian territory. The town has been hit repeatedly in recent years and suffered five hits in the past week; other incoming missiles were intercepted en route by Israel’s Iron Dome system.

On Sunday, four people here were wounded when a rocket hit near their car.

The houses in this neighborhood are typical for an Israeli development town — modest and spotless, with prominently displayed pictures of Middle Eastern rabbis. Batya Sabag was standing in one of them, across a narrow alleyway from the one hit by the rocket. Israel was paying the price for pulling out of Gaza in 2005, she said. That withdrawal enjoyed broad public support at the time, but the increased rocket fire since then has made this an increasingly common position.

“We pray that things will improve, but we don’t believe it,” she said.

On Thursday the town was beginning to come back to life. The mayor, Tzvika Greengold, said he was “deeply proud” of residents’ steadfastness and patience in face of the rocket assault. Greengold is a Yom Kippur War hero, famous for holding off dozens of Syrian tanks with one during desperate fighting on the Golan Heights in 1973.

Ofakim, like many towns in the south, lives a marginal existence on the periphery of the prosperity in Israel’s center, and Greengold said he was afraid the fighting had caused damage from which his town might have trouble recovering.

“We need people to move here and make their lives here,” he said. “If we’re seen as being in a war zone, that won’t happen.”

As for the ceasefire, Greengold said he was “ambivalent,” rather than dismissive outright, making him a wide-eyed dreamer by local standards. (Born on a kibbutz in Israel’s north, he is not an Ofakim native.) But he could not summon up much hope.

“After eight days of shooting, following years of shooting, no one can say that we don’t want quiet. But our experience tells us that understandings do not bring quiet,” he said.

“We’re no longer prepared to be hostages of Hamas in their conflict with the State of Israel,” he said.

To the extent that it is possible to generalize about the national mood, it seems there might be somewhat more optimism in the center of the country. In areas in and around Tel Aviv, residents experienced air-raid sirens for the first time over the last week and have not gone through the south’s dispiriting cycle of rocket fire-military operation-ceasefire-rocket fire over the past decade.

Avri Gilad, a popular radio and TV host from Tel Aviv, said on his Army Radio show Thursday that the ceasefire came at the “right time,” and praised the government for not giving in to hardliners pushing for a ground invasion.

The results of a continuing military operation, and of a ground incursion, were highly uncertain. The Israeli military has gone into Gaza before with no long-term effect.

“The shouts of disappointment from the Likud are proof in my eyes that this was done right on time,” he said.

He praised the Iron Dome system as an effective counter to the Palestinians’ rockets.

Hamas members, he said “might as well take their missiles and make them into toothpicks — of course they’re a threat, but not as bad as we thought.”

Ofakim residents saw Iron Dome interceptions. But they know the system did not stop all incoming rockets or prevent Gaza’s militant groups from paralyzing their lives and terrorizing them and their children for eight days, as they have on and off for years.

“We shouldn’t have stopped. It was a total failure,” said Avraham Yitzhak, 55, a security guard. “They won.”


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