Border town protest over Gaza missile attacks

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The Independent Online

Amir Peretz, the Israeli Defence Minister, has warned critics clamouring for more draconian military action against Gaza militants launching Qassam rockets into Israel that wholesale escalation could increase rather than reduce the attacks.

Mr Peretz was in his home town less than three miles from the Gaza border to confront angry local residents, led by the Likud mayor Eli Moyal, who called on the cabinet to resign yesterday because of its failure to deal with the attacks.

Sderot has borne the brunt of the 200 Qassam rockets fired from Gaza in the past 10 days and is at the centre of a fierce debate in Israel between the government - particularly Mr Peretz, the Labour leader - and right-wing opponents over how to handle attacks.

The most recent barrage was a Hamas-led response to the explosion that killed seven members of one Palestinian family on a Gaza beach 10 days ago and for which a military investigation concluded Israel was not responsible.

A 61-year-old caretaker, severely injured by one rocket, is unconscious in an Ashkelon hospital and schools have shut early for the summer holiday in response to parents' fears for their children's safety.

Mr Peretz, who joined a visit by the state President Moshe Katsav after Mr Moyal threatened direct action by residents to block anyone - including the Defence Minister - from entering or leaving the town for 24 hours - declared: "I will do everything possible in order to avoid an escalation because it would lead to days of Qassam barrages." Mr Peretz has not ruled out an unexploded Israeli shell as the cause of the deaths in Gaza 10 days ago.

But he strongly hinted he would step up air strikes against Gaza militants if the rockets did not stop. "We definitely intend to stop the firing of rockets towards Israel," he asserted.

Earlier, Mr Moyal declared: "This is a government which cannot protect the lives of its citizens. After disengagement all the leaders declared on the front pages of the Israeli media that Israel would now have more security. Since then there have been more than 1,000 Qassams, and a Sderot man is fighting for his life in hospital."

Mr Moyal said the United States had set an example by invading Afganistan after 11 September and added: "If it was the Americans who lived in Sderot, there would not be a building standing in Gaza."

A total of five residents have been killed by Qassams in the past five years. While the toll is dwarfed by the far greater loss of Palestinian civilian life in Gaza, residents - by no means all critics of Mr Peretz - said that everyone's nerves were at breaking point.

At a protest tent near the Defence Minister's home, where nine residents are on hunger strike - taking only liquids - Rami Cohen, 66, said it was a "miracle" that the death toll was not higher. If a recent rocket had landed seven metres from where it fell three weeks ago, "the children playing nearby would have all been killed".

Jack Cohen, 70, a relative, said: "I have been through most of Israel's wars. I have never been as frightened as this. I am frightened for my children and my grandchildren. A Qassam fell in my garden. Thank God the children were not there."

Moshe Cohen, 72, another relative originally from Morocco, and chairman of the local pensioners' association, said: "I don't want people to think we don't want peace with the Palestinians because of the Qassams. We all want peace.

"But you see how the world is talking about the Ghalia family [killed in the Gaza beach explosion] when it is not clear we did it. Who pays attention to our problems? Who knows about them?"

One of the hunger strikers, Sima Haddad, aged 33, said: "The army should use more force. For five years there has been no solution for Sderot. The army should go into Gaza and scrub them out."