In rocket-scarred south, quiet returns but anger simmers

Residents carry on with their daily routines, but lament lack of a long-term agreement to end the violence emanating from Gaza Strip

An Israeli child on May 6, 2019, looks at shattered glass at the entrance to a building damaged by a rocket strike from the Gaza Strip, in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod. (Jack Guez/AFP)
An Israeli child on May 6, 2019, looks at shattered glass at the entrance to a building damaged by a rocket strike from the Gaza Strip, in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod. (Jack Guez/AFP)

After a weekend of deadly Palestinian fire on the Israeli city of Ashkelon, the underground bunker where public officials studied CCTV and incoming rockets from Gaza was hushed Monday amid a tentative ceasefire.

Half-drained coffee cups and unfinished sandwiches still sat on desks, but opposite city hall, the parking lot of a local mall was packed as people went back to business as usual.

Earlier in the day, the leaders of Gaza’s terror groups announced a ceasefire with Israel, ending a sharp escalation of violence that threatened another war between them. There was, as in previous truces, no confirmation from the Israeli side, but there were no reports of rocket launches or retaliatory Israeli strikes during the day and Israel lifted security precautions on residents.

The intense fighting over the past two days came to a halt early Monday and residents on both sides went back to their daily routines. Schools and roads had been closed, and Israelis had been urged to remain indoors and near bomb shelters as the deadliest rocket fire since the 2014 Gaza war pounded the area on Saturday and Sunday.

A man examines the damage inside a building on May 6, 2019, that was hit during a rocket attack from the Gaza Strip on the southern Israeli city of Ashdod (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

On a highway along the Gaza border, the army on Monday began assembling two-meter-high concrete barriers, a day after civilian Moshe Feder, 68, was killed on the road when an anti-tank missile struck his car in an attack claimed by Hamas, according to Hebrew reports.

He was one of four Israeli fatalities in the violence, which saw over 600 rockets fired at Israeli towns and cities from the Gaza Strip, drawing over 300 Israeli reprisal airstrikes. The other three victims —  Moshe Agadi, 58; Ziad al-Hamamda, 47; and Pinchas Menachem Prezuazman, 21 — were killed by rocket fire and buried on Sunday.

Relatives mourn during the funeral of Israeli Moshe Agadi at a cemetery in the southern Israeli town of Ashkelon near the Gaza border on May 5, 2019. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

‘We are too nice with them, like suckers’

Civilians on both sides of the Gaza border, just four kilometers (2.5 miles) from Ashkelon’s city limits, said they were unhappy with the absence of a long-term solution and feared it would not be long before the bloodletting resumed.

Israeli emergency personnel evacuate a wounded woman from the site of rocket attack in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod on May 5, 2019. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

Nissim Dadon, a resident of the nearby Israeli town of Sderot, accused Israel’s government of being too soft on Hamas.

“We are too nice with them, like suckers,” he told AFP.

“We need to make a thorough clean-up there with a firm hand and without mercy, and to be over with this situation once and for all.”

The heavy barrage also prompted some residents of the region to seek far-reaching measures not previously sought in previous exchanges.

Residents of an unnamed kibbutz along the border on Sunday for the first time requested a full evacuation of their community until the rocket fire ceased, according to Israel’s Channel 12. The military official who received their request said he would make a decision by the morning, but the ceasefire then made the request unneccessary. 

Still, it provided a preview for what may come, should the fighting resume, as many assume it will.

“When we have the upper hand, we need once and for all to finish the terror because this will repeat itself and will not stop,” said Jacque Mendel, a resident of the coastal city of Ashdod, where a man was killed in his car by a rocket Sunday night.

An army official cautioned Monday night that war could be back in just a few weeks if the government did not change its policies and work to ease conditions in the Strip.

Israel appears to have little appetite for another prolonged conflict. Later this week, the country marks Memorial Day, one of the most solemn days of the year, followed by the festive Independence Day. Next week, Israel is to host the popular Eurovision song contest, and the fighting could have deterred visitors.

A picture taken from the southern Israeli village of Netiv Haasara shows rockets fired from the Gaza Strip on May 4, 2019. (Jack GUEZ / AFP)

In Gaza City, where the funerals of Palestinians killed in Israeli air strikes were taking place, the truce was welcomed.

At least 11 of the 29 Palestinians killed in Israeli strikes on the Gaza Strip since Friday were members of terror groups, according to Islamic Jihad and Hamas. Eight of the 11 members of terror groups belonged to the Al-Quds Brigades, Islamic Jihad’s military wing.

The ceasefire coincided with the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when believers fast during daylight hours.

A Palestinian vendor sells olives and pickles on the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip May 6, 2019. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

“We are happy that there is a truce agreement, but we need peace and calm for all the month of Ramadan,” Rami Abu Azzam, 30, told AFP.

“This morning I rushed to the market early to buy all we need for Ramadan out of fear that the airstrikes would start again. We didn’t buy anything in the three days before fasting started.”

From routine to emergency, ‘in seconds’

Some parents in the south appealed Monday to Culture Minister Miri Regev not to air the memorial siren on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning that marks Israel’s Memorial Day for its fallen soldiers and terror victims, over fears their children would mistake it for a rocket alert siren and panic, Channel 12 reported.

For some, though, sirens and rockets have become part of daily life.

Sitting in his blast-proof office, Ashkelon’s municipal chief of emergency services and security, Yossi Greenfeld, said rockets have pummeled his town since 2006, a  year after Israel’s pullout from the Gaza Strip.

The fire intensified, he said, after the Islamist terror movement Hamas seized power in Gaza from the administration of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007.

“People here, in going about their daily lives, take into account the possibility of rocket fire,” he told AFP.

The scene where a house was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, in southern Israel, on May 4, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“Every resident is aware that he can find himself going from routine to a state of emergency in seconds.”

Israel said some 690 rockets were fired from Gaza in total and it hit some 350 terror targets in the strip in retaliation.

In Sderot, resident Amir Plut said: “We don’t want war, where all sides only lose.”

“We want peace with the Arabs, who are human beings like us.”

A car bursts into flames after it was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod on May 5, 2019. (Flash90)

Emerging from the Ashkelon bunker, Greenfeld pointed to a patch in the road outside, where a rocket crater from a previous attack had been filled in.

“You see that in many places around the city,” he said, then gestured to the walls of neighboring buildings, pockmarked by shrapnel.

“It’s like living in a Wild West town. You need to know how to survive.”

AP contributed to this report.

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