Two sounds dominate the lives of Israelis living near Gaza: the wail of a siren and, 25 seconds later, the whistling screech of an incoming rocket fired by the Palestinian militant group Hamas. That gives Israeli families just enough time to dive for cover â€” even as they pray the rocket will miss.
At 11:30 a.m. on Dec. 27, a new sound filled the azure Mediterranean sky: the rolling boom of Israeli bombs and missiles slamming into Gaza. Many Israelis climbed the low, green hills outside the city of Sderot and cheered while watching black pillars of smoke rise over Gaza as a wave of 64 Israeli jet fighters struck again and again. It meant that Israel’s leaders were hitting back at the Gaza militants who had rained rockets on the communities of southern Israel even weeks before Dec. 19, when an Egyptian-brokered truce between Israel and Hamas officially ended. (See pictures of Israel’s deadly assault on Gaza.)
But underneath the black smoke, the Israeli bombs weren’t hitting just the rocket men of Hamas, but civilians too. With 1.5 million people packed tightly into Gaza’s jumble of cities, towns and refugee camps, it was inevitable that hundreds of ordinary Palestinians would become collateral victims. The Israeli bombardments pounded Hamas strongholds â€” the Interior Ministry, suspected caches of rockets, hideouts of top militant leaders â€” but they also caught five sisters asleep at home next to a targeted mosque, kids coming home from school, and a graduation ceremony for police cadets and their proud families. By Dec. 30, more than 375 Palestinians had been killed and some 1,500 injured; the U.N. said at least 62 of the dead were civilians. Hamas’ continued rocket barrage had killed four Israelis.
The lopsided toll inevitably led to accusations of Israeli overkill. While the Bush Administration blamed the escalation of violence squarely on Hamas, other world leaders, including France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, scolded Israel for its “disproportionate” response. Arguably the most important outside voice remained silent: President-elect Barack Obama would not comment on the conflict, with his spokesman citing the principle that there can be only “one President at a time.”