Rocket-threatened residents of the Negev expressed their dismay at the lack of IDF response to the barrage of rockets fired at Ashkelon, Sderot, and the Gaza vicinity in the past few days. The IDF's restraint, they claim, is due to the presence of US President George W. Bush in Israel.
Following the Grad rocket attack on Ashkelon's commercial center and the numerous rockets fired towards Sderot, the well-conditioned residents expected to hear the sounds of IDF helicopters making their way towards Gaza in retaliation.
"Usually when over three rockets are fired we begin to notice helicopters overhead or IDF presence of some sort, sometimes there is a targeted killing, but today there was silence and this is because US President George Bush is here," one frustrated resident said. "No one wants to disturb him, no one wants to annoy him, and maybe we should have asked him not to come here if this is the price we have to pay."
Mayor of Ashkelon Roni Mahatzri, who witnessed 15 of his residents wounded in the Grad rocket attack on Wednesday, explained the hesitation over Bush's visit. "They are abandoning the south in favor of ceremonies. Because of a ceremony and a president from abroad no one does anything," he said.
"Sadly this is not the first time," he added. "This is how it was when the Annapolis Summit prevented an operation from being carried out, then Bush was here and now he is here again.
"Later they will say that we need to wait for the meeting in Sharm El Sheik to be over, and the south will continue to be abandoned. I think that Bush's visit should have actually provided a reason to act against this firing."
Sderot synagogue damaged by rocket. (Photo: Ze'ev Trachtman)
The rocket hit Ashkelon during a meeting between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Bush, and less than two hours later the two participated in a ceremony in honor of Bush's visit and President Shimon Peres' 'Facing Tomorrow' Conference.
Haim Yellin, head of Eshkol Regional Council, said that he had spoken to Olmert after the funeral of Shuli Katz, a 70-year old woman who was killed by a Qassam rocket on Monday, and the prime minister explained that an IDF operation could not be carried out while the presidential conference was taking place.
"Unfortunately, the presidential conference and Bush's visit are affecting the decision-making process. This isn't the first time. Whenever important personages visit from abroad there are no retaliations and no wars so that it won't appear that they are sponsoring warfare.
"We can't agree to this because something must be done. Let them make war or make peace, but let them do something," he said.
'Bush is the real master'
Yellin and Alon Shuster, head of Shaar HaNegev Regional Council, asked to meet with Bush in order to request that he intervene in favor of the region's welfare. "We understood that he is the real master here, and the man we must turn to on this subject," Yellin said.
The regional council heads have scheduled a meeting in order to attempt to formulate a plan for cooperation between the rocket-stricken towns. Their assumption is that the IDF will refrain from retaliating during the next week as well, because of the peace conference scheduled to be held in Egypt, in which Defense Minister Ehud Barak plans to participate.
Sderot Mayor Eli Moyal claimed that if indeed Bush's visit was the reason for the lack in IDF response to the rocket fire, then "it is a crime that needs to be investigated because a retaliation could have prevented the Grad in Ashkelon and the Qassams in Sderot.
"It's absurd, because they didn't want to do anything to destroy the celebration of the ceremonies, which is ridiculous because the rocket fire disrupted some of the ceremonies, and nothing would have happened if the army had responded."