Israelis, Palestinians welcome truce but fear more violence

Ashkelon (Israel) (AFP) –


After a weekend of deadly Palestinian fire on the Israeli city of Ashkelon, the underground bunker where public officials studied CCTV and incoming rockets from Gaza was hushed Monday after a tentative ceasefire.

Half-drained coffee cups and unfinished sandwiches still sat on desks, but opposite city hall the car park of a local mall was packed as people went back to business as usual.

Earlier in the day, Palestinian leaders in Gaza announced a ceasefire with Israel, ending a sharp escalation of violence that threatened another war between them.

There was, as in previous truces, no confirmation from the Israeli side but there were no reports of rocket launches or retaliatory Israeli strikes during the day.

Civilians on both side of the Gaza border, just four kilometres (2.5 miles) from Ashkelon's city limits, said they were unhappy with the absence of a long-term solution and feared it would not be long before the bloodletting resumed.

The latest flareup began Saturday with massive rocket fire from blockaded Gaza, drawing waves of Israeli retaliatory strikes that continued throughout Sunday.

At least 25 Palestinians, including at least nine militants, were killed.

Four Israeli civilians were also killed -- two of them in Ashkelon and a third nearby.

Nissim Dadon, a resident of the nearby Israeli town of Sderot, accused Israel's government of being too soft on Hamas.

"We are too nice with them, like suckers," he told AFP.

"We need to make a thorough clean-up there with a firm hand and without mercy, and to be over with this situation once and for all."

In Gaza City, where the funerals of Palestinians killed in Israeli air strikes were taking place, the truce was welcomed.

It coincided with the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when believers fast during daylight hours.

"We are happy that there is a truce agreement but we need peace and calm for all the month of Ramadan," Rami Abu Azzam, 30, told AFP.

"This morning I rushed to the market early to buy all we need for Ramadan out of fear that the airstrikes would start again. We didn?t buy anything in the three days before fasting started."

- 'In seconds' -

Sitting in his blast-proof office, Ashkelon's municipal chief of emergency services and security, Yossi Greenfeld, said the first rocket fired from Gaza into his city was in the year after Israel's 2005 pullout from the Gaza Strip.

The fire intensified, he said, after Islamist movement Hamas seized power in Gaza from the administration of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in 2007.

"People here, in going about their daily lives, take into account the possibility of rocket fire," he told AFP.

"Every resident is aware that he can find himself going from routine to a state of emergency in seconds."

Israel said some 690 rockets were fired from Gaza in total and it hit some 350 militant targets in the strip in retaliation.

The Gaza health ministry said the dead from the Israeli strikes included a 14-month-old baby and a pregnant woman, 37. Israel strongly disputed the claim and said the deaths were due to errant Hamas fire.

The Gazan ministry reported late Sunday that another four-month-old baby was among those killed in Israeli strikes in the northern Gaza Strip. Israel's army had no comment.

"There are many martyrs and injured and dozens of homes destroyed. How will they spend Ramadan?" asked Wafa abu Sayf, 20, from Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza.

On the Israeli side of the border in Sderot, resident Amir Plut said: "We don't want war, where all sides only lose."

"We want peace with the Arabs, who are human beings like us."

Emerging from the Ashkelon bunker, Greenfeld pointed to a patch in the road outside, where a rocket crater from a previous attack had been filled in.

"You see that in many places around the city," he said, then gestured to the walls of neighbouring buildings, pockmarked by shrapnel.

"It's like living in a Wild West town. You need to know how to survive."