By Douglas Hamilton
SDEROT, Israel, Oct 22 (Reuters) - Israeli warplanes hit targets in Gaza before dawn on Thursday after a rocket was fired into Israel from the enclave controlled by the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas.
The exchange was what passes for normal here in the south, nine months after the three-week Gaza war ended with ceasefire orders on both sides, but no mutually agreed truce.
Israel’s military says more than 260 rockets or mortar rounds have hit Israeli territory since then, the vast majority landing in open ground. Its air force has retaliated with dozens of air strikes, mostly aimed at Gaza’s smuggling tunnels into Egypt.
"This is not resolved," says Noam Bedein who runs a media centre in Sderot, a provincial town close to the Gaza Strip border and often in the firing line for rockets for a decade and particularly since Israel withdrew from the enclave in 2005.
Bedein was among a handful of Israelis who went to Geneva in July to testify to the United Nations investigation into alleged war crimes in the Dec 27-Jan 18 Gaza conflict, launched when Israel ordered its Operation Cast Lead to suppress rocket fire.
Israel refused to cooperate officially with the inquiry led by South African judge Richard Goldstone, saying it was biased from the outset. The report concluded that there was evidence of war crimes by both sides but comes down most heavily on Israel.
"This is the humanisation of terrorism," said Bedein, a former Israeli army sergeant who believes Hamas is winning the "media war" for world opinion while firing rockets from urban areas and deliberately putting Palestinian civilians at risk.
There have been no rocket casualties in Israel since the hot phase of the conflict ended. Not physically, that is. But the low-level war inflicts a psychological toll, say residents.
An army spokeswoman said there had been 60 rocket attacks in the past three months. If Israel’s early warning system spots them heading close to Sderot, the town’s emergency siren sounds and residents have 15 seconds to run for cover.
"There was an alarm on Sunday morning, and on Thursday last week, and two the week before," said Hava Gat. That is nothing like the intensity of fire reached last December, but the 44-year-old mother of three says she is back on tranquilisers.
"We’re waiting. It could start all over again," she says.
"AS LONG AS OCCUPATION CONTINUES"
A short distance to the west, under Israeli blockade, Gaza Palestinians working in tunnels to smuggle goods from Egypt are also nervous. Their workplace is dangerous enough, and Israeli bombs have made it deadly on several occasions since the truce.
There were no reports of casualties from the two Israeli air strikes on Thursday on tunnels along the Gaza border with Egypt and what Israel said was a weapons depot further north in the coastal territory.
Abu Ubaida of the Hamas armed wing Izz el-Deen Al-Qassam Brigades had no comment on the Israeli figures for rocket attacks. But he said they should come as no surprise.
"Certainly since the Zionist enemy continues its attacks against our people in Gaza they should prepare themselves for responses," he said.
Unlike Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement, Hamas does not recognise Israel’s right to exist and refuses to talk about a permanent peace — if and when stalled peace talks resume.
"Our expectation is this calm will not last long because the occupation of our land continues," Abu Ubaida said. "The Zionist aggression continues in all forms, especially the unjust blockade, and Israeli airstrikes and other attacks ..."
Hamas has not claimed any rocket strikes at Israel since the ceasefire in mid-January, but other factions such as Islamic Jihad, the Popular Resistance Committees and smaller pro-Al Qaeda factions have claimed several such attacks.
There are also frequent exchanges of gunfire on the heavily-patrolled Gaza-Israel border, where a tank sped across a ploughed field on Thursday sending up clouds of brown dust.
In Sderot, a town with sidewalk bomb shelters, Bedein said residents were still jumpy, "driving with the windows down, the radio off and the seatbelt unbuckled" in case the rocket siren goes off and they have to run for cover.
"I’m embarrassed to say it, but Goldstone fell asleep when I was making my presentation to his panel in Geneva," he said.
The Gaza Palestinian death toll was more than 1,400 according to a Palestinian human rights group, and about 1,000 according to Israel which says 13 Israeli lives were lost.
"The Qassam Brigades do not accept our right to live here as Jews," Bedein said. "Their aim is to reclaim all of the land and they say they will keep this up until the last citizen of Sderot leaves and it becomes a ghost town." (Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza)