Rockets make Israel rethink West Bank pullback

ASHDOD, Israel (AP) – As rockets from Gaza reach deeper into Israel than ever before, they may be weakening what has long been a cornerstone of Middle East peace efforts — the prospect of exchanging land for peace.

Israeli hard-liners have warned for many years that any territory Israel vacates will be used to attack it.

Now they can point to the Hamas missile that slammed into a bus stop in this port city Monday, killing a 39-year-old woman. It was fired from the Gaza Strip, which Israel gave up in 2005 and is now ruled by Hamas militants who reject the existence of the Jewish state.

Even in the midst of the war, many Israelis still argue that a peace deal with the Palestinians, which would require a withdrawal from virtually all the West Bank, is the country’s only real security guarantee.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, in defending the Gaza offensive in a speech to parliament Monday, said Israel remains committed to the idea of a Palestinian state alongside it.

But the missile that hit Ashdod, Israel’s largest southern city with 207,000 residents 23 miles north of Gaza, drove home a grim new reality for 32-year-old Alin Ben-Yosef. She fled to Tel Aviv for the night with her two young daughters after the attack.

“Tel Aviv is the safest place we have,” Ben-Yosef said. “But it is starting to feel as if there are no safe places anymore.”

At least one-tenth of the country’s 7 million citizens and some of its largest cities are now in range of Gaza missiles, and millions more live within reach of Hezbollah rockets from Lebanon.

Israelis who never thought they would be living under rocket fire prepared bomb shelters. Newspapers and TV stations displayed color-coded maps informing Israelis that they had 15, 30 or 45 seconds to reach cover after a warning siren goes off. In Ashdod malls, directions to the nearest shelters were posted.

Four Israelis have died in rocket fire since the strikes began. Gaza officials say 390 people there have been killed in airstrikes including 200 members of Hamas security forces.

Israel is now being hit by more sophisticated weapons that Hamas has smuggled into Gaza through underground tunnels along the border with Egypt.

Militants once relied on crude homemade rockets that could fly just 12 miles to terrorize Israeli communities near the border with Gaza. Now they are firing more accurate weapons manufactured in China and Iran that have dramatically expanded their range, Israeli defense officials say.

More than two dozen rockets and mortar shells had been fired by midday Wednesday, including five that hit in and around the major southern Israeli city of Beersheba, whose 186,000 residents live 22 miles from Gaza. One hit an empty school. Another landed in a small farming community about 20 miles southeast of Tel Aviv, the country’s most populated urban area. No serious casualties were reported.

The expansion of rocket range has implications for the West Bank, where U.S.-led diplomacy long focused on a withdrawal that would make way for a Palestinian state at peace with Israel.

The West Bank is run by a government headed by moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a Hamas rival who has been conducting peace talks with Israel. Hamas seized control of Gaza by force from Abbas’ Fatah faction forces in 2007.

Israeli opponents of this strategy argue that such a peace would be too fragile to survive, and would bring Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and the nation’s international airport within rocket range.

Meanwhile, Israel is developing an anti-missile system called “Iron Dome,” but completion is years away.

Israeli historian Michael Oren, a Georgetown University professor and fellow at the Shalem Center think tank in Jerusalem, said the events of recent days, and especially the international criticism of Israel’s response, are likely to “compound Israelis’ reluctance” to support further withdrawals.

“This has become a recurring nightmare for Israelis and has made them reluctant to give up strategically vital territory,” Oren said.

But Shaul Arieli, a former military colonel and peace negotiator, said the current violence did not mean an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank was dead. Israel’s mistake in Gaza was to withdraw unilaterally instead of reaching an agreement with the Palestinians, he said, adding that the missiles from Gaza began long before Israel withdrew.

“Israel has to leave the West Bank in an agreement with someone who recognizes it,” Arieli said.

Israeli hard-liners maintain that every withdrawal brings Israel’s enemies closer: They say the Oslo accords negotiated in the Norwegian capital in the 1990s turned parts of the West Bank into breeding grounds for suicide bombers; the 2000 pullback from south Lebanon brought Hezbollah closer to Israel.

Israeli intelligence believes the Lebanese militia now has rockets that can reach 125 miles, far beyond Tel Aviv — meaning the vast majority of Israelis are in range.

“The historical lesson of Oslo, of Lebanon and of Gaza proves that with every concession, every territory we leave is used for attacks against us,” said Yaakov Amidror, a former general now with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.