Israelis, sipping Pepsi, watch bombardment of Gaza town

SDEROT, Israel — A tower of white smoke rose from the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun after another Israeli bombardment Monday morning, and a half-dozen Israelis, perched on a dusty hilltop, gazed at the scene like armchair military strategists.

Avi Pilchick took a long swig of Pepsi and propped a foot on the plastic patio chair he'd carried up the hillside to watch the fighting. "They are doing good," Pilchick, 20, said of Israeli forces battling Palestinian militants in Gaza, "but they can do more."

Somewhere in Beit Hanoun, Ashraf El-Masri's family cowered in their concrete tenement home, their neighborhood surrounded by Israeli soldiers. El-Masri said that five residents had been killed by Israeli shelling that morning, and the blasts had traumatized the youngest of his nine children into a terrified silence.

The scenes were separated by less than two miles, but they illustrated the dramatically different perspectives on Israel's ground incursion into the Gaza Strip on its second full day.

While the Israeli spectators watched with hope that the invasion would finally stop the militant Islamic group Hamas from lobbing crude rockets from Gaza into their towns, the cost of that operation for now is borne by Palestinian families, who are trapped in their homes, their electricity cut off and their food supplies dwindling.

"No one leaves his house," said El-Masri, a taxi driver.

As one of the closest towns to the Israeli border, Beit Hanoun is a primary launching point for the militants' rockets, many of which are homemade, short-range and pack relatively little explosive power. In 2006, Israeli forces staged a major, six-day operation against militants in Beit Hanoun and killed 62 people. Palestinian medical officials said that at least 20 were civilians.

The operation didn't stop the rockets, however, and Sderot, a town of about 20,000 people, has been the most frequently hit. On Monday morning at around 11, the familiar warning of incoming rocket fire — a booming Hebrew voice announcing, "Red color, red color" — echoed through Sderot, and residents scrambled into shelters for cover.

One rocket crashed through the roof of an empty marketplace in Sderot and another struck a neighborhood a few hundred yards away, but paramedics who were on the scene within minutes said that no one was seriously wounded.

About 30 rockets landed on southern Israel on Monday, Israeli news media reported. Rocket fire has killed four Israeli civilians since the offensive against Hamas began 10 days ago.

A short while later, on the hilltop overlooking Beit Hanoun, Pilchick squinted into the sharp sunlight. He'd taken time off from his job at a foreign exchange bureau in Jerusalem and driven down to Sderot with a friend on Saturday, the day the ground operation opened.

After watching the fighting for two days, Pilchick pronounced that significant curtailment of rocket fire — which Israeli officials have cited as the main reason for the offensive — was the only way that Israel could claim victory.

"They have to stop the rockets," he said. "If they don't do that, they haven't changed anything."

Sderot residents — some of them carrying binoculars — have gathered on the hilltop since the offensive began for a glimpse of the fighting, but little was clear Monday morning besides the pop of outgoing Israeli shells and the occasional helicopter gunship overhead. Pilchick was the only spectator who brought chairs and snacks including bread, cheese and a can of olives.

Moti Danino, bundled in a sweater and cotton overcoat, said his 20-year-old son was a platoon commander in Gaza. Three years ago, a rocket fell in his garden and lightly wounded his two daughters.

"My son is in there fighting for the daughters. It is a good thing," Danino said. Still, he added, "What parent wouldn't worry if his son is fighting?"

In their darkened home in Beit Hanoun, Ashraf El-Masri's children were in utter distress. No one has stepped outside since Israeli ground forces entered the town Saturday night, and more Israeli shelling awakened them Monday morning, including a strike on a nearby mosque.

El-Masri's 12-year-old son, Abdelatif, has suddenly begun to wet the bed. His 10-year-old, Ahmad, a talented soccer player and popular kid in the neighborhood, spends the days hiding in a corner of the room where the whole family now sleeps. Four-year-old Mahmoud, usually a nonstop talker, is barely saying a word.

The smell of fresh fruit, vegetables and bread used to waft through the house, but for several days the family has eaten only lentils and rice.

El-Masri knew that Israeli forces would target Beit Hanoun. For now, all he can do is hope that it ends soon.

"We have always stood against the launching of rockets from our area because it has always made us a target of Israeli aggression," El-Masri said. "We have protested to Hamas many times. But there is no law in the Gaza Strip."


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