We'll hear now about life in Ashkelon. And in a moment, we'll hear from a Palestinian in Gaza City. But first we turn to Sigal Ariely. She's an Israeli who lives in the city of Ashkelon. Ms. Ariely, thanks for joining us.
Ms. SIGAL ARIELY: You're welcome.
RAZ: Where are you at the moment?
Ms. ARIELY: At the moment I am in my house in Ashkelon.
RAZ: And what do the streets of Ashkelon look like right now?
Ms. ARIELY: Pretty much empty and deserted. A lot of people are in their houses. Some families took the mothers and the children and went to spend some time in - with families out of Ashkelon. It's Thursday. And Fridays and Saturdays, nobody works, so a lot of people took advantage of that and are taking the weekend out of Ashkelon.
RAZ: What do you do when you hear the sirens going off?
Ms. ARIELY: I think people kind of got used to the sound of the siren. We know what to do. Where I work, we don't have a shelter area, so we just run to the stairway, and everybody's crowded there waiting for the siren to be over.
RAZ: And have you heard any sirens today?
Ms. ARIELY: We had seven times, seven sirens. And after each siren, you hear the boom of a Qassam or a Grad falling. And you just try to see if it's near you or far from you.
RAZ: The missile that killed a civilian in your city, in Ashkelon, earlier this week, it struck right next to the building where you work. Is that right?
Ms. ARIELY: God, that was the worst - I think that was the worst experience I had since everything started. It was a hundred meters away from our building. We heard the siren. We ran to where we always ran. And we waited to hear the boom. Only this time it sounded like it was on our heads. And then we ran upstairs back to - there is a big porch where you can see the city. Then we saw the smoke coming from the next building. And it was horrible. It was really - that was the place where one person got killed and a few people were injured. It was just so close to us and so loud. It was very scary.
RAZ: Now, of course, you have the option to leave Ashkelon.
Ms. ARIELY: Yes.
RAZ: To temporarily move to another part of the country. Why don't you just get out of town for a few days or weeks until the fighting calms down?
Ms. ARIELY: I think that if you don't have to be here, it's OK for you to go. I feel that I belong here. I need to update my colleagues and my friends all over the world, just tell them exactly what's happening on real time.
RAZ: Sigal, considering what you've experienced over the past week, have you thought about Israel's attack on Gaza and whether it's changed your mind on whether that's a good thing or a bad thing?
Ms. ARIELY: Well, living in Ashkelon you realize that this has to happen to put an end to all the violence and all the attacks we're getting from the Hamas every other day. And this is, I believe, now the only way to do it because there's nobody to talk to. Unless we put an end to the fact that they have all these weapons, we'll never have a normal life in Ashkelon. We're too close to them, and we need to live normal life like any other citizens all over the world.
RAZ: But haven't the attacks carried out by Israel increased the number of rockets that are coming into Israel from Gaza now?
Ms. ARIELY: Of course, we knew that it was going to happen that if we attack Hamas, the reaction will be what it is now. And after we suffer for a while, we'll go back to peace and have a normal life.
RAZ: And ultimately you think that that will work?
Ms. ARIELY: Yes, I have to believe in that.
RAZ: Yeah. Sigal Ariely joined us on the phone from her home in Ashkelon, Israel. Sigal, thanks very much.
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Israeli Official Issues Warning As Airstrikes Continue
hide captionAt top, a column of smoke and debris rises as the Israeli air force strikes Palestinian targets Thursday in the northern Gaza Strip. The second photo shows return rocket fire from the same area in northern Gaza, launched just seconds later to the north of Israel.
Photos by David P. Gilkey/NPR
At top, a column of smoke and debris rises as the Israeli air force strikes Palestinian targets Thursday in the northern Gaza Strip. The second photo shows return rocket fire from the same area in northern Gaza, launched just seconds later to the north of Israel.
hide captionResidents of Sderot and visitors from nearby towns gather on a hilltop in southern Israel overlooking Gaza to catch a glimpse of Israeli warplanes dropping bombs in the distance Thursday. Sderot was also under fire from incoming Qassam rockets fired from Gaza during the day.
David P. Gilkey/NPR
Residents of Sderot and visitors from nearby towns gather on a hilltop in southern Israel overlooking Gaza to catch a glimpse of Israeli warplanes dropping bombs in the distance Thursday. Sderot was also under fire from incoming Qassam rockets fired from Gaza during the day.
Israeli fighter jets pounded Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip for a sixth day Thursday, and Palestinian doctors say the death toll in the territory now tops 400. One airstrike Thursday killed Nizar Rayan, the most senior Hamas leader to die since the Israeli offensive began Saturday.
Meanwhile, rocket fire continued to rain down on towns in southern Israel, and a senior Israeli Cabinet minister warned that the conflict is far from over.
Not long after word of Rayan's death, warning sirens sounded throughout Israeli communities within rocket range of Gaza: More barrages were on the way. In Ashkelon, people abandoned their cars in the street and fled for cover.
Rockets also hit Ashdod and Beersheba again. Both cities are about 25 miles from Gaza. No one was seriously wounded in the latest rocket attacks.
Inside Gaza, the fire from the air proved far more deadly. At least 17 Palestinians were killed Thursday, according to a senior medical official in Gaza, and 92 were wounded.
Rayan was an important figure in Hamas' political and military wings. A professor of Islamic law and an imam, or Islamic preacher, Rayan openly advocated renewing suicide bomb attacks against Israel. He was in his house in north Gaza's Jabalia refugee camp when the bombs struck.
The Israeli military said in a statement that the house was used as a weapons storage site and Hamas communications center. In addition to Rayan, the airstrike killed at least 11 others, including several of his children and two of his four wives. The airstrike also wounded civilians in the densely packed neighborhood.
Rami Abu Safeya lives in the Jabalia refugee camp near Rayan's house. Reached by telephone, he said, "We laid down on the floor, glass and windows broke all around us. The explosions continued, and then 10 people in my house ran away. Many people in the neighborhood were injured."
Israeli Official: 'It Will Take Time'
Back in Ashkelon on Thursday, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon said the operation against Hamas is far from over.
"This is not going to be an easy one. Therefore, we have to be very patient — very patient and very determined. And it will take time," Ramon said.
Israeli leaders have said from the start that the goal of the punishing air and naval bombardments is to create "a new security reality" in the south and end Hamas rocket fire — not to overthrow the Islamist group or re-occupy Gaza.
But on Thursday, Ramon argued that regime change in Gaza should be the wider goal of the operation. Ramon said ideally the moderate Palestinian Authority leadership led by Mahmoud Abbas — which now controls only the West Bank — should be returned to power in Gaza.
"Even to create a Palestinian state is impossible because the Hamas is dominating Gaza. It's impossible. And if the Hamas will continue to dominate Gaza, it will be impossible to continue the Annapolis process. Any peace process will be almost be impossible to reach. And that's exactly what the Hamas wants," Ramon said.
Conflicting Visions Among Israeli Leaders
But hardly anyone believes Israel can realistically uproot Hamas's deep support among Gaza's 1.5 million residents and impose a new, more moderate Palestinian leadership in the territory. Indeed, a senior Israeli official said later that Ramon was expressing his personal opinion and not government policy. The official said "regime change is not the operation's goal. We have no illusions about that. The goal is to bring about a new quiet in the south."
That stated goal could give Hamas leverage in any cease-fire talks. Hamas leaders have said they want an end to Israel's stifling economic blockade of Gaza in exchange for a new, informal truce.
The conflicting visions among Israeli leaders of what Gaza might look like when the shooting stops is reminiscent of the 2006 Lebanon war. Then, Israeli officials seemed frequently at odds over the goals and day-after scenarios of a conflict that many Israelis say marked a profound failure of leadership.