GAN YAVNEH, Israel — Three F16s arc through the blue sky like khaki darts, their swept wings tipping south toward Gaza.
The fighter planes, which take off from the Israeli Air Force base on the edge of this town 12 miles south of Tel Aviv, thunder forward with Israel's deadly answer to the Hamas-launched rockets that have landed here.
In the 16th straight day of fighting, the death toll on the Palestinian side has reached about 1,100, including hundreds of civilians, according to medical personnel and UN officials. Ten Israeli soldiers and four civilians have been killed since the start of the offensive.
The Israeli offensive comes in response to rocket attacks by Hamas that have gradually moved north beyond the small Israeli towns on the Gaza border to the port cities of Ashkelon and Ashdod, and as far as Gan Yavneh, a town of 18,000 people, most of whom make a short daily commute to jobs in Tel Aviv.
"If our army doesn't reach its objectives in Gaza," says the town’s mayor, Dror Aharon, "the rockets will go on until they reach Tel Aviv and soon all of the country is under threat."
Hamas fired thousands of rockets from Gaza in the last five years, but Israeli officials often hesitated in their response because the targets were peripheral, blue-collar towns.
Eventually the army was forced into action by a new Hamas onslaught when a shaky ceasefire ended in December. But in turn Hamas rolled out longer-range missiles which now have 1 million of Israel's 6 million citizens running for bomb shelters.
More than a dozen rockets struck Israel Sunday, including several which fell in the major Negev city of Beersheva. The number is far reduced from the 60 in one day with which Hamas assaulted southern Israel after it declared the ceasefire at an end. The Israeli army says it killed the commander of Hamas's rocket program, Amir Mansi, in Gaza Saturday, as he was preparing to launch another missile.
"Israel is approaching the targets it has set for itself," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said, updating ministers at Sunday's cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. "But more patience, determination and courage are needed for us to achieve those goals in a way that will change the security reality in the south, and for our citizens to feel long-term security and stability."
Government officials in Jerusalem say that if current diplomatic efforts led by French and Egyptian mediators don't bring a ceasefire agreement in the next several days, Israel would be forced to commence a new phase of its operation in Gaza — sending ground troops further into the Strip.
Even as their army strikes back against Hamas, the impact on life for those Israelis under threat is severe. For two weeks, schools have been closed. On Sunday, schools partially reopened, but remained on high alert.
Talk radio blares everywhere, so that people will hear the alerts for incoming missiles. Everyone looks up when a woman's slightly inhuman monotone drone breaks into radio broadcasts with a coded warning for an emergency: "Color Red in Ashdod, Color Red in Ashdod."
The closer to Gaza, the less time there is to take cover. In Gan Yavneh, which is 24 miles from Gaza, residents have 45 seconds to reach a lower floor away from windows, because the rockets typically penetrate only the upper story of a building and the blast might spray shattered glass. In Sderot, within sight of the Gaza border fence, there's only 15 seconds warning.
The residents of Gan Yavneh took cover Saturday afternoon, when a missile struck an empty lot next to a soccer field in the center of town. It was a modified Soviet BM-21 Grad which can carry 55 pounds of explosives. It landed further from Gaza than any other missile — and closer to Tel Aviv. Army sappers dug its twisted gray metal out of the ground and carted it away.
But the sappers can't take away the fear.
"I'm afraid. There's no shame in being afraid of something like this," said Ariel Heller, an advisor to the mayor of Yavneh, the next town north of Gan Yavneh, which is essentially part of the central Israeli conurbation around Tel Aviv.
Along the corridor from the mayor's office, the army's Home Front Command has set up a situation room. On the wall hangs a detailed 8-feet-square aerial photo of Yavneh. A young conscript played with her ponytail on the green camp-bed against the opposite wall.
Yavneh is of considerable historical significance to Jews. After the ruin of the second Jewish Temple, Rabbi Yochanan Ben-Zakai set up the Great Sanhedrin, the Jewish court that ruled on religious and political questions, in Yavneh. Jewish learning was thus preserved despite the loss of Jerusalem.
The Palestinians who lived in the area where Yavneh now stands before Israel's foundation in 1948 fled to Gaza. They founded a refugee camp and called it Yibneh, the Arab name for the village.
On a visit six years ago to Yibneh, which is near the Egyptian border in the southern Gaza Strip, I met a man whose leg had been taken off by shrapnel from an Israeli tank. The Israeli operation had been intended to cut the tunnels under the border by which weapons were smuggled into Gaza.
That smuggling continued apace under Hamas rule and, during the current battles, Yibneh has been pummeled by Israeli bombs. From Yibneh to Yavneh, the violence, which has its deadly epicenter in the Gaza Strip, is gradually leeching outward.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the death toll on Jan. 16.
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