SDEROT, ISRAEL — Every day, the Hamas rocket teams sneak through the fire and fury of Gaza to launching sites such as trucks, rooftops, school courtyards and mosques.
Groups of three to five militants scramble to set up short-range Qassam rockets made in clandestine workshops in the Gaza Strip and longer-range Grads smuggled from Iran. Wary of Israeli jets hunting above the squalid urban maze, the rocket teams aim with the aid of Google Earth and landmarks such as the twin smokestacks of an Israeli power plant. The militants ignite the rockets and run; white smoke trails slash across the sky.
Sirens wail moments later in cities a few miles beyond the border, giving Israelis 30 seconds to take cover.
In this gloomy town dominated by immigrants from the Caucasus and Ethiopia, the Sderot mayor's assistant is among those who bear scars that are the price of proximity to Gaza less than three miles away. Wounded in three rocket strikes in 2007, Yaniv Peretz suffered burns on 40% of his body, nerve damage and hearing loss, and spent seven months in intensive care.
"That was a bad year," Peretz, 29, said in the basement command post at City Hall.
Hamas rockets and their victims are the main reason Israel unleashed its offensive on Gaza in late December. Nineteen days later, the Israeli military onslaught has weakened the eight-year aerial barrage by Hamas. Rocket and mortar shell strikes have dropped from a daily peak of more than 80 to about 20 a day. On Wednesday, no injuries were reported despite at least 16 rocket and mortar shell strikes.
Hamas units that build and fire rockets have suffered severe losses but retain hundreds of rockets in their arsenal, intelligence officials say. The Israeli officials warn that a pipeline used for smuggling arms and components through tunnels from Egypt will resume functioning unless a concerted military or diplomatic solution shuts it down.
And Israeli leaders assert that ending the attacks has become more difficult because Hamas fighters resort to firing from densely populated areas in Gaza, using civilians as a shield against retaliation.
"To surround yourself with innocent people and to launch it from within a city, from within a refugee camp, is not a tactical situation," said Avi Dichter, Israel's minister of public security, during a visit to Sderot on Tuesday. He said Israeli forces "can see the line of the missile in the sky and you know exactly where it comes from. But to respond with artillery to the middle of a refugee camp, I think that everybody understands that it's impossible."
Hamas denies using human shields. Compared with Gaza, where the Palestinian death toll climbed past 1,000 Wednesday, the casualty figures in the Israeli south remain low. There have been 28 fatalities in rocket and mortar attacks since 2001, four of them since the military operation began Dec. 27, according to Michael Lavon- Lotem, an official at a Foreign Ministry media center in Sderot.
But Israeli authorities argue that the Hamas arsenal poses an urgent threat to 1 million people within range. They say worse bloodshed has been averted thanks to high-tech defenses and aggressive civil protection efforts that disrupt normal life. Out of a population of 24,000, a full 3,000 people have left Sderot, which has borne the brunt of the attacks, Lavon-Lotem said.
Ashkelon, a more prosperous city of 122,000 residents about 10 miles from Gaza, recalls Southern California with its coastline, palm trees and single-family homes. But for now the schools are closed. A breeze blows across a silent boardwalk by the dark-blue Mediterranean. No one shops at the glass-walled mall where a rocket hit a children's clinic in May, wounding a mother, her daughter and a doctor who is still undergoing facial surgery.
Israelis find it incredible that Hamas fires at random into civilian areas.
"We are dealing with a mind-set that is totally fanatical," Alan Marcus, Ashkelon's director of strategic planning, said as he sat in an underground command center.
When air raid sirens wailed and a loudspeaker announced an incoming rocket Tuesday afternoon, Marcus went into action.
He projected a computerized image on the wall, a "smart map" detailing the location of residents needing special help -- the elderly, the sick, immigrants who do not speak Hebrew. Police and civil defense personnel chattered into radios and phones, zeroing in on a rocket that had fallen harmlessly in a field -- across the street from a college and a high school.
"That's why the schools have been closed since Hanukkah," Marcus said. "They usually fire during the day. It's more dangerous for them to fire at night; when they light the flame to ignite the rocket it's easier for the air force to detect them."
Marcus has tracked the threat for eight years. At first, Hamas used primitive Qassam rockets made from castoff materials, little more than "flying pipe bombs," he said.