Gideon Levy / Amid Exploding Rockets, Negev Life Carries On

A visit to the South shows this is no Lebanon War - no cities are abandoned and fatalities are in single digits.

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The row of cypresses stood tall. The clouds that had darkened Gaza's skies throughout the day on Thursday turned darker still. As sunset approached the municipal bulldozer lifted the smashed gravestone of Rosa Winokover, "Our dear mother, grandmother and great-grandmother," who died last year, aged 97. Her eternal rest was disturbed on Thursday when a rocket struck her grave in a cemetery in the Negev.

A police explosives expert stamped down the earth above her grave. "I had seven funerals today and over 100 people were saved [from death]," the director of the community's burial society, Eli Yifrah, said in what was clearly an exaggeration.

The siren sounded a few minutes later. All of us, a cluster of police officers and reporters, lay down on the ground. The headstone of Bat-Tzion Batarashvili protected me. One rocket already hit this cemetery, among whose graves a man checking his mother's headstone for damage circulated Thursday. "Not even a scratch," he proudly reported to his brother on the phone, as if their mother were still alive.

This is no Second Lebanon War, to judge by a visit to southern Israel Thursday. Life carries on somehow, no cities have been abandoned and so far the fatalities are in single digits. "Alert in Kiryat Malakhi, alert in Kiryat Malakhi," the announcer on the local radio station Kol Hadarom thundered. On its "Protected Space" program the radio station played terrible music with frequent interruptions to report on rocket strikes.

A Chinese tile-layer installed tiles at Sderot's desolate Amir school, protected by its new, iron-reinforced roof. Two workers from the Caucasus were building a protective wall in the yard, Igor Medeyev and Oleg Aronov. Igor immigrated to Israel from Dagestan, Oleg from Grozny, Chechnya. Both have silver and gold teeth.

Igor is relatively moderate, but here's what Oleg had to say: "This isn't a war, this is sentimental. Our state is a little crazy, people talk a lot, we need action. Muslims are not people. Muslims need to die. Better a crazy dog than a Muslim."

Oleg goes on to explain in his broken Hebrew that if Russian soldiers were sent into Gaza they would take care of things in three or four days. "They know what war is." Igor is slightly taken aback by his friend's comments and explains that Oleg is still hung-over from New Year's Eve.

A street in Sderot, Monday, 5 P.M., direct hit. Miriam Ezra and her Filipina aide were evacuated beforehand. Now their home is being guarded by Gregory Malikhov, also from Chechnya, who works for the Koah Otzma ("power force") private security firm. Ezra's son Avi conducts a tour of the ruined house for journalists. On Thursday, he moved his elderly, disabled mother to a Netanya hotel. The tomatoes are still in their basket, a box of 12 Shabbat candles lies under the debris and there is a wheelchair borrowed from the Yad Sarah charity in the yard, covered with dust.

"The population in Gaza decided how its future will look. It voted for Hamas," Avi says. "It's like Bosnia, eight years of missiles. If one rocket falls after the end of the operation, the operation will have been a failure."

Brothers Rami and Fat'hi Nawaja, construction workers from the Bedouin town of Rahat, walk past the house quickly. Their thoughts on the war? No, all they're thinking about is pouring foundations, they have drying concrete waiting for them and must hurry. "I can't talk to you about that," one says. Jetstreams streak the sky and someone jokes, "Ours or theirs?"

Another home on the same street, another direct hit, Tuesday. There's a "For Sale" sign on the half-destroyed house. A bearded guard from Koah Otzma, this time a new immigrant from Mexico, guards the ruins.

Kobi Harush, the city's handsome and media-savvy security officer, steps out of a huge SUV. For years he was Ariel Sharon's driver, now he recalls how the three of us once rode in Sharon's non-reinforced Volvo to Gaza for a tour of the alleyways. Sharon tried to convince me that Israel must not withdraw from the Gaza Strip. Once upon a time in the east. A poster of Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is plastered on the wall of the damaged home. Among the debris is a booklet from the Bratslav Hasidim, "Patience Pays." A man wearing a kippa yells at me from a passing pickup truck, "You must go to Gaza."

A Qassam rocket strikes the road in front of us, between Kibbutz Miflasim and Sderot. Smoke rises from it. From the observation post across from homes in the Saja'iyya neighborhood and the Jabalya refugee camp I call a Gazan friend: His wife is about to give birth and he has no idea where to take her. Gaza's hospitals are full to bursting.

Towels hang on a line at an eighth-floor penthouse in Ashdod, with a sea view. It took a direct hit Thursday afternoon. "Where are they taking us?" a man with a bag of clothing asks in desperation.

Two burial society vehicles leave the cemetery. A rocket hit bloc 3, between rows 45 and 57.