ASHKELON, Israel — Sarah Ziski and her two children hovered close to the bomb shelter outside their Ashkelon home, ready to dart inside at the first sound of an air raid siren.
For the last four days, the area around Ziski's home has been the target of frequent rocket attacks by militants in the Palestinian territory of Gaza. Along with about 1 million residents of southern Israel, she's fallen into the range of an extended arsenal of rockets and missiles. Life as they know it, she said, has effectively stopped.
"There is no school, no work. It feels like war to us," she said. "We don't know when it will start and when it will end."
The most recent exchange of violence between Israel and militants in Gaza began Friday, shattering a months-long calm. An Israeli airstrike carried out a "targeted killing" of Zuhair al Qaissi, a senior member of the Popular Resistance Committee, an umbrella group that includes militants from various Palestinian factions.
Israel's military said Qaissi was the mastermind behind cross-border attacks on Israel through its southern border with Egypt and that he was planning an imminent attack. A drone strike hit a car he was traveling in, and he died instantly. Within hours, rocket barrages began hitting southern Israel.
In response, Israel has continued airstrikes on what it says are militant targets, including rocket-launching sites. In four days of Israeli strikes, at least 21 Palestinians have been killed, three of them civilians. Dozens more have been wounded, according to Palestinian medics in Gaza.
Israeli officials said hundreds of rockets had been fired at southern Israel, though the country's missile interceptor system has shot down more than 90 percent of the rockets aimed at Israel.
Israeli officials said Monday that the violence could continue for days, or until they significantly damaged the infrastructure of militant groups in Gaza. They cited intelligence saying Qaissi was planning an imminent attack and said officials "at the highest echelons" had signed off on the killing.
"It was a clear and right decision," said Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces.
But for many Israelis affected by the current round of violence, the decision has raised questions over how high a toll they'll pay.
"I don't know, I trust the army, but was it worth it to kill this one guy? To have all of us in the south suffer and put our lives in danger and have everything sparked up again? I just don't know," Ziski said.
Israel's policy of "targeted killing" for militants in the Palestinian territories has been in place since the early 2000s. Sanctioned at the highest levels of the government and military, it began as a way to eliminate targets that the military felt it couldn't detain or arrest. It's been used most widely in the Gaza Strip, particularly after Israel withdrew from the coastal territory in 2005.
The country first employed the tactic "in instances when Israel could not physically reach the target and apprehend him or her without minimum collateral damage," said Yaakov Katz, a military analyst and the author of "Israel vs. Iran: The Shadow War."
"What started with large-scale bombings has been perfected over the years with the use of surgical, accurate weapons that rarely cause civilian casualties."
Palestinian rights groups, however, claim that civilian casualties occur regularly, including among the children and other family members of those targeted.
In December 2006, Israel's high court rejected a petition by a human rights group that called for ending targeted killings, but it ruled that restrictions and limitations must be placed on the policy and that each instance be evaluated. Since then, however, Israel's military has frozen the policy periodically, most recently from last summer to January.
"We decided to stop the policy for a time to give things a chance to cool down and re-evaluate it," said one Israeli military official in the southern command, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal military decisions. He said the policy was reinstated by IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz "when it became clear that it was needed again."
It continues to be controversial. In a policy paper published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, Steven David wrote that while targeted killing "was in Israel's interest ... no compelling evidence exists that targeted killing has reduced the terrorist threat against Israel."
David added that Palestinian attacks on Israel, and Israeli casualties, increased dramatically in the first half of 2002 after more than a year of targeted killings. In many cases, he wrote, the killing of one militant leader led to others with more aggressive or hard-line views.
Still, Israeli officials said it remained a "tool in the arsenal."
"Some people say the devil you know is better then the devil you don't. But we think there are some devils we can't live with," the military official said. Although Israel feels pressure from human rights groups, it will continue to employ the policy as long as other "Western militaries" use similar tactics, the official said.
Over the weekend, the Euro-Mediterranean Observatory for Human Rights criticized Israel's policy of what it called "assassination of wanted people," calling it a blatant violation of international law and "murder outside the law and without trial." In Gaza, Palestinian officials said they'd like to see an end to the policy before a cease-fire was put into place.
Among Israelis whose lives have been disrupted by Palestinian rocket attacks, the policy stirs conflicting feelings.
"I don't think Israel should stop using the policy if it's effective," said Daniel Ruzus, a shop owner in Ashkelon. "But I also don't really think it is always worth it to start up all this craziness, all this violence, to kill one man they have probably already replaced."
(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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