World and Nation

Few Israelis Near Gaza Feel War Achieved Much

The wheat and potato fields of this kibbutz, or communal farm, in southern Israel stretch right up to the Gaza border fence. In almost surreal proximity on the other side rise the apartment buildings, water towers and minarets of the Palestinian village of Abasan.

Israel’s deadly offensive against Hamas in Gaza ended on Sunday, with both sides having unilaterally declared a cease-fire. Yet there was little sense of triumph here in the days after, more a nagging feeling of something missed or incomplete.

Elad Katzir, a potato farmer, was nervous as he drove through the lush fields, agreeing to stop the car only behind clumps of trees or bushes as cover in case of sniper fire. By one thicket, nestled among wildflowers, was a memorial to a soldier who was shot dead here while on patrol seven years ago.

“I do not feel any victory,” said Katzir. “I still do not feel safe.”

Israel began its three-week campaign on Dec. 27 after border communities like this one had suffered eight years of rocket, mortar and sniper fire, and after Hamas expanded its arsenal with imported rockets that reached major southern cities like Ashkelon and Ashdod.

The Israeli government’s stated war goals were relatively modest: to reduce Hamas’ ability and will to fire rockets and to change the security equation in the south.

Most Israelis are satisfied that action was taken. But with Gaza’s death toll at more than 1,300, many of them civilians, according to Palestinian health officials, and with 13 Israelis, including three civilians, killed, many here were wondering what had been achieved.

“So they changed the security situation for the next six months — bravo!” said another potato farmer, Eyal Barad. He added, “They should have gone on longer and finished the job.”

After such a tremendous show of force, many Israelis were hoping to see a more definitive picture of victory, like a scene of Hamas leaders coming out of their bunkers and raising a white flag. At the very least, several said, Israel should not have left Gaza without Gilad Shalit, the Israeli corporal who was captured in a cross-border raid and taken into the Palestinian enclave in 2006 and has been held hostage by Hamas ever since.

Residents of the south, in particular, were sober about how long the peace would last. Some spoke in terms of weeks or months. In Sderot, the Israeli border town that has suffered the most from rocket attacks, a supermarket owner, Yaakov Dahan, said this time he was “optimistic that a cease-fire would hold up even more than a year.”

Israel had long been wary of taking on Hamas in Gaza, knowing that a decisive blow against such a broad and popular movement would be elusive at best.

So the campaign focused instead on crushing the military machine of the Islamist group. Even then, as a senior Israeli military official recently said, it was considered a matter of “cutting the grass.”

Israel says it has blown up most of the tunnels beneath Egypt’s border with Gaza that were used for smuggling in weapons, and destroyed a significant portion of Hamas’ rocket manufacturing facilities and stockpiles. Its diplomatic efforts are now focused on obtaining an internationally guaranteed mechanism to stop the weapons smuggling across the Egyptian border and to ensure that Hamas cannot rearm.