Ashkelon residents doubtful of IDF strikes

Palestinians fired two rockets on Monday, one landing at nearby Kibbutz Zikim, but residents of Ashkelon fear that they too are within Kassam range. They are less certain about what the IDF can do to protect them. The rocket crews cannot be seen from Zikim Beach, but through the drizzle one can make out the gray apartment blocks of the Gaza Strip. That's how close the enemy is. This month two IDF bases in the area were targeted and five soldiers, including a battalion commander and his deputy, were lightly wounded at the Yiftah army base. Ever since Operation First Rain in September, the military has responded to Palestinian attacks with artillery and aerial bombardment of their launch sites - like it did following Monday's Kassams. Critics like Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Chairman MK Yuval Steinitz (Likud) derided the policy as "bombing sand dunes." More recently, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz promised a total of NIS 210 million for the defense of front-line towns. Pock-marked concrete barriers, recycled from the days of the Gaza presence, have also arrived on flatbed trucks at the Zikim training base. Still, the government's promise of stepped-up retaliation had yet to materialize. "I knew that it would eventually come to this," grumbled Shimon Chalis, 48, an unemployed father of four from Ashkelon. He expressed doubt that any military operation authorized by the government will go far enough to root out the rocket crews. "There are responses, and then there are responses," he said. Arieh Zana, 56, a father of four and manager of a kiosk at the city's central bus station, said that he can hear the sound of Kassams being fired even though he lives on the north side of town. He too is dubious of the promises. "There'll be pressure from the Americans [to limit the response]," he said. "There's no one you can rely on." For their part, settlers have taken talk of "free-fire zones" in the Strip as proof that the Sharon government is rudderless. "The government destroyed [the Gaza settlements of] Dugit, Nisanit and Elei Sinai just for the sake of it," said Yesha Council spokeswoman Emily Amrusy. "Had we stayed there, the IDF would have been in a better position to act than it is now." Still, none of these settlements protected Zikkim Beach and Ashkelon's industrial zone from being hit in August 2003. Back in Ashkelon, an off-duty security guard said he'd prefer a Kassam to patrolling the Gaza Strip any day of the week. "A year ago I was in the Givati Brigade's reconnaissance unit in Gaza," he said. "This is nothing."