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Page last updated at 23:42 GMT, Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Shockwaves as rockets hit Beersheba

By Quil Lawrence
BBC News, Beersheba

Amit Reingold
Reingold said he had been preparing since the 2006 war in Lebanon

The rockets that landed on the Negev desert city of Beersheba sent shockwaves across Israel - not for the damage they caused but for the mere fact that Hamas could reach that far - more than 46 km (28 miles) from the Gaza Strip.

With the cities of Ashdod, Ashkelon and Beersheba now within the proven range of missiles from Gaza, as much as 10% of Israel's population is under threat.

But the rocket attacks did not surprise everyone.

"We expected it," said Amit Reingold, standing in a small underground control room where half a dozen young Israeli women sat answering calls from citizens to the city's emergency hotline.

"(We) prepared in the last two years since the second Lebanon war," said Mr Reingold, who is the deputy manager of the hotline. "We took all the conclusions and applied them to Beersheba."

Barrel-sized hole

Preparations included the construction of 263 public shelters, the telephone hotline and education for city residents on what to do when sirens warned of an incoming rocket.

Bombed kindergarten in Beesheba, Israel, 31 December 2008
One missile left a barrel-sized hole in the concrete ceiling of a classroom

The sirens failed to sound however, during the first barrage of rockets that hit Beersheba late on Tuesday night.

One of the missiles hit an empty kindergarten only a few hundred metres from City Hall, leaving a ragged barrel-sized hole in the concrete ceiling of a classroom.

On Wednesday, another rocket hit a high school, also empty because schools, the university and most businesses in Beersheba remained closed because of the attacks.

"Just look," said Eyal Khuzut, 36, gesturing to the near deserted streets. "No one wants to live like this."

Mr Khuzut was just opening his grocery store at noon instead of the normal seven o'clock, and few customers appeared willing to venture out of their homes.

'Strong army'

Heavy cloud cover across Israel and Gaza may have given those launching the rockets some visual cover from Israeli warplanes.

Map

But there were still significant air-strikes, including one on a mosque that Israel claims was being used as a storage facility for rockets.

In turn, Hamas and Islamic Jihad fighters launched at least 20 projectiles at Israel.

Despite the new threat in Beersheba, Mr Khuzut seemed confident that the attack on Gaza was being well-managed by the government.

"The Israeli army is strong and if they decide to hit them, Gaza going to disappear," said Mr Khuzut.

He agreed with the Israeli cabinet's decision to reject a French proposal of a 48-hour truce.

"If we stop even for 24 hours they're going to bring more weapons and bombs," he said.

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