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November 1, 2011 2:43 am

Southern Israeli Residents Struggle Under ‘Nightmarish’ Rocket Fire

avatar by Anav Silverman

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Young Ashkelon resident, Liz Sheetrit stands in front of her rocket-damaged home. Photo: Anav Silverman.

Sixteen-year-old Liz Sheetrit and her family stand in their home with shell-shocked expressions as they point to their burnt front yard and shattered kitchen window. “I can’t believe this happened to us,” Liz exclaims. A Grad rocket fired from Gaza struck the family’s street on Saturday night, damaging four homes in their neighborhood, leaving a splattering of shrapnel holes, shattered glass, and pieces of metal piercing the housing exterior.

Liz says she feels only slightly lucky. She and her family were thankfully not home at the time of the explosion but her dog, which was home at the time of the explosion, was wounded in the attack.

The Sheetrit family and the other neighborhood families are lucky for another reason as well. They live in relatively new homes, all of which have bomb shelters. “Our neighbors entered their shelter as soon as the alarm went off. If they had been anywhere near the kitchen or living room, someone could have been seriously injured,” Liz’s father said.

More than fifty percent of Ashkelon’s residents live in older buildings that were built without shelters, according to a municipal spokesperson, Yossi Assoulin.

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“But thanks to the Iron Dome, residents here, even during Grad rocket attacks from Gaza, haven’t lost their sense of security,” explains Assoulin.

The Iron Dome is a mobile air defensive system that was developed in Israel to intercept incoming Palestinian rockets through radar detection. Although the system has been criticized for its steep operating costs, it has become an important tool in defending Israeli civilians by successfully shooting down countless rockets. Israel plans to invest $1 billion in the Iron Dome missile defense system in coming years, of which the US Congress has pledged to provide $205 million.

However, the defense system offers no guarantees.

On the same day that the Sheetrit family’s home was struck by rocket shrapnel, an Ashkelon man, Moshe Ami, a father of four, was killed in a rocket attack on his way home. The air raid siren, which gives Ashkelon residents about 25 seconds to find cover, went off as Ami was driving home in the heart of the city along Rabin Road. Unable to make it to the shelter in time, a piece of shrapnel from the rocket explosion struck Ami. He later died of his wounds in Ashkelon’s Barzilai Medical Center.

Shrapnel impact from rocket explosion in front yard of Ashkelon residential home this past Saturday. Photo: Anav Silverman.

In addition to Ashkelon, a city of over 120,000, the barrage of Grad missiles also struck Be’er Sheva, Ofakim, and Ashdod, considered major metropolitan areas of Israel’s south.The rockets hit an Ashdod school and caused extensive damage to countless buildings and homes in residential neighborhoods across the region. Twenty Israelis were hospitalized for shock and injury including a baby.

A total of 35 projectiles including Iranian-made Grads and mortar shells struck Israel this past Saturday.

Elad, an Ashkelon taxi driver, who was born and raised in the city, said that Saturday night was a nightmarish experience. “Working as a taxi driver during these kinds of terror attacks is the worst experience. While everyone else stays at home and in their shelters, we have to go out to make our living.”

“There’s no way we can make peace now,” the Israeli taxi driver continued. “There is no one to make peace with. How many more rocket attacks are needed to prove that?”

Ashkelon’s mayor Benny Vaknin said on Sunday that the type of missiles fired on Saturday caused much greater destruction than past rockets. “These types of rockets are much more accurate and capable of great devastation, damaging concrete building and roads. Within six months, we have experienced three rounds of destructive rocket attacks, in late April, August and now, October. We need to rethink how to address this situation.”

Vaknin refused to allow Ashkelon students to attend schools on Monday, for the second day in a row. On Sunday, over 200,000 students in Be’er Sheva, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Kiryat Malachi, Sderot and other communities stayed home as schools were closed because of continued rocket threats. Although, Israel’s Home Front Command declared that safety precautions had been lifted on Monday, and that students could once again attend school, Vaknin did not want to take any chances.

Most of Ashkelon’s schools are not protected against rocket attacks. The city has close to 30,000 students in its education system including 6,000 college students at Ashkelon’s Academic College.

Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for most of the rocket attacks during the weekend. According to an analysis by the Jerusalem Post’s Khaled Abu Tomeh, the Islamic Jihad organization has become a major player in Gaza thanks to the financial and military help of Iran and Syria. Hamas has taken up a secondary role during the current fighting, allowing Egypt instead to mediate a cease-fire between Islamic Jihad and Israel. “Some Palestinians in the Gaza Strip said on Sunday that Hamas is probably afraid of violent confrontation with Islamic Jihad, whose members have managed to smuggle into the Gaza Strip new weapons stolen from Libya,” wrote Abu Tomeh.

Islamic Jihad’s leader in Syria, Ramadan Abdullah attended Iran’s Fifth International Conference in Support of the Palestinian Intifada earlier in October, where he stated that jihad and resistance are the only “options” for the Palestinians. Islamic Jihad has called for the destruction of Israel on numerous occasions.

The Israel Defense Forces were able to identify and strike an Islamic Jihad rocket cell in Gaza earlier on Saturday, killing five terrorists, including a senior commander responsible for rocket production facilities. Israel’s Channel 10 reported late Saturday night that Islamic Jihad’s Quds Brigades said the first wave of rockets was its “initial response” to the strike on its rocket cell, and that “the enemy should expect the worst in the coming hours.”

Meanwhile, Liz Sheetrit hopes that life will return to normal for her family and neighbors. “We are trying to get back to a routine, but no one can guarantee that rockets won’t strike here once again.”

Anav Silverman is an international correspondent based in Jerusalem, Israel. She writes for numerous news sources including the Huffington Post, Jerusalem Post, Sderot Media Center, The Center for Near East Policy Research, and YNet News.

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