SDEROT, Israel — In response to recent violence on its southwestern flank, Israel on Wednesday assassinated Ahmad Jabari, the military leader of Hamas, the Palestinian faction that rules the Gaza strip.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu forewarned that he would retaliate for Hamas assualts, which in recent days have included a direct hit on an Israeli tank and more than 110 missiles aimed at urban centers. "Whoever thinks that they can damage the daily lives of residents of the south, and that they won't pay a heavy price for this — they are mistaken," he said in a meeting of southern mayors in Be'er Sheva.
Jabari was apparently Netanyahu's principal target. Israel also assisinated the commander of Hamas' Khan Yunis unit, Raed Attar, Wednesday afternoon.
Immediately following confirmation of the assassinations, southern communities including Sderot and Ashkelon announced measures anticipating a major response from Gaza, including the closure of schools on Thursday.
Hamas declared that the assassination of Jabari would "start a war."
The rising tension with Hamas comes at a delicate moment for Netanyahu, who faces elections in just over two months. And Gaza is not the only front the prime minister is concerned about.
Syria's civil war has begun to spill over into the Golan Heights, the rocky territory Israel seized from Syria during the Six Days War in 1967. The territory has remained disputed, but quietly so, ever since.
This week, for the first time in four decades, Israeli tanks shot back across the Golan border, hitting Syrian army mortar units that — accidentally or not — struck inside Israel. On Wednesday, in part to distract from the planned action in Gaza, Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak toured the Golan Heights areas bordering Syria.
In Gaza, Netanyahu faces an antsy Hamas — which has ruled the tiny strip for the past six years. Hamas is trying to retain power and legitimacy amid a spate of diplomatic initiatives undertaken by their Palestinian rivals, Fatah, in the West Bank. Hamas is also scrambling to navigate its as yet-undefined ties with Egypt, now ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Post-revolution Egypt is proving a thorny neighborhood for Israel as well. The Brotherhood issued a statement on Tuesday that was reminiscent of pre-peace accord times, referring to Israel as the "Zionist occupier" and claiming that Netanyahu belongs on the "far right's fringes."
Meanwhile, adding to Netanyahu's troubles, Hamas finds itself enmeshed in a scenario in which it is competing with even more extremist groups such as Islamic Jihad, a small Palestinian militant group, and a growing Salafi presence in the teeming Gaza Strip.
It is by any measure an uneasy juncture.
More than a hundred missiles launched in Gaza hit Israel between Sunday and Tuesday.
The Iron Dome — an early warning and anti-missile system — continues to drastically reduce the loss of human life, but the quality of life for citizens dealing daily with the disruptions of living in a war zone remains a significant challenge.
Graciela Rinkevich, 54, a kindergarten teacher lives on Kibbutz Mefalsim, a cooperative village near the hard-hit town of Sderot. She works as head teacher at a pre-school for children at risk.
Yes, she says, half chuckling, there are troubled families here too.
Her 82-year old mother recently moved to the kibbutz from Argentina and is experiencing the need for bomb shelters for the first time.
"For me, personally, it's been a pretty divided experience," Rinkevich said. "Sometimes there's an alarm here, sometimes at home, it depends on the direction of the missiles, so I've spent a lot of time on the phone."
She presides over a new, missile-proofed kindergarten. They have not yet been hit. Missiles twice hit the school she last taught in and its bulletproof windows shattered, pretty much blowing the school year with them.
All young children learn colors, but the kids in her school are particularly attuned to the sounds of the words Code Red, which mean a missile is on its way. When that happens, she says, she rounds the kids up and "we go deeper in the building, away from the windows. We have a room that has steel shutters and we have a completely isolated room."
"It’s a very recent experience for the kids," she explained. "On the whole they react well, like a game. I never show that I'm in panic and we haven't been hit, but sometimes the youngest get sacred and cry. You have to distract them. We hold our heads with our hands."
On Monday, Netanyahu convened the diplomatic corps on the coastal city of Ashkelon, a fishing town, for what appeared to be a somber talk about Israel's need to protect itself. But by Tuesday, both sides seemed to have stepped back from the brink.
Hamas appeared satisfied to have a achieved a major hit on an Israeli tank (soldiers were wounded but not killed) and Netanyahu seemed to have chosen not to engage in an all out ground war — while warning of "a very heavy price" that will be paid if the missile launchings continue.
Still, the threat of a major ground incursion or of intensifying air attacks on Gaza remains imminent.
"I think there must be another solution," Rinkevich said, recalling her anguish during the Cast Lead operation in 2008, in which her son served as a combat soldier. "I felt terrible about the bombing of Gaza. I had a kid in the army, and he had to face a very difficult situation of killing or survival. That anguished me as a mother. And then — they are good people in Gaza. They are the victims of Hamas tyranny. So I felt just terrible about that too."
The early warning missile systems and the construction of bomb shelters has worked so well that the number of Israeli civilian fatalities has fell to almost zero. As a result, it is all too easy for leaders in Jerusalem to forget the plight of Southern residents.
However, an election year is bringing it all to the fore, not always in a manner to the prime minister's liking. For example, a member of Netanyahu's own party, with an eye on the right-wing votes in the upcoming elections, suggested on Tuesday "eliminating" the leader of Hamas.
More than 1,000 missiles have hit Israel's south in the past 12 months. A million people in the affected zone try to live a normal life while dodging shrapnel.
Some of the kids in Rinkevich's class suffer from panic attacks. Some have still to be weaned from diapers. Some stutter. "It's complicated. You don't really know to what extent they are reacting to the country's predicament or whether it's just their own troubles getting to them. But I am only really afraid when we're taking them home. Then you really have no protection."
At 7.30 p.m. Rinkevich herds the kids into a minivan and begins to escort them home, described by her as the moment of "my worst fears."
If a Code Red alarm sounds through the air while she is in the minivan, the fifteen seconds warning she is afforded just isn't enough time to stop the car, get the kids safely out, cross the street, and secure them in a cement safe room — that is, if there is one nearby. "That's when I'm just terrified," she says.
Of course, even the advance warning system is not perfect. Ohad Raz, 26, a communications major at Sapir College in Sderot was sipping coffee on his balcony the other day when a rocket fell two hundred yards from the place he was sitting.
"You're sitting there and you go online and read that a missile fell in open land, there are no injuries, and you think, 'yeah, but it’s a matter for 200 yards.'"
Raz is originally from Kfar Vardim, in the northern Galilee, where he grew up under the cloud of Katyusha rockets, which were launched from southern Lebanon. "Given where I grew up I can't say this is foreign to me," he said. "But the explosions here every hour or two — it's just that even if you are ‘accustomed’ to it each time you hear Code Red it stresses you completely. It takes 20 minutes for your heart to calm down."