A pregnant Israeli missionary who had returned to her country to give birth died in the arms of a neighbour yesterday (Thursday), surrounded by the debris to which a Hamas rocket had reduced her home.
Friends of Mirah Sharf, 26, said she and her unborn child had struggled for life in the moments after the explosion that devastated her apartment on the fourth storey of a modest residential building in the town of Kiryat Malachi, 20 miles north of the Gaza Strip.
Manny Israel, a volunteer paramedic, had battled to keep Sharf breathing after the early-morning attack - a retaliatory rocket barrage that followed Israel's air strike on Gaza the day before - only to lose the fight just as the ambulance arrived.
"I came across on my scooter as soon as I heard the blast," he said. "I ran to the top of the building, pushing my way past the injured as they were coming out.
"I found her alive and alone. She had a pulse and I tried to keep her going but unfortunately, just as the medics arrived, she did not make it."
It was impossible to identify the spot where Sharf had died, such was the damage to her building. Her husband, who had taken their children to the relative safety of the stairwell, was being sheltered by members of their religious society, Nachlas Har Chabad.
The couple had returned to Israel from a religious mission to India for Sharf to give birth and timed their trip in order to attend a ceremony commemorating two colleagues who were killed in the Mumbai attacks in 2008.
Kiryat Malachi, a town of 20,000, had ranked among the fortunate few in southern Israel, having never suffered a rocket strike before. But yesterday, Sharf was among three who died. Next door, the bodies of Aharon Smagda, 49, a father of three, and Itzik Amselam, 24, were found.
White-suited medics emerged clutching plastic bags after collecting each piece of the human remains. Six other people were injured, including two infants, one of eight months old.
Matthew Gould, the British ambassador to Israel, visited the site himself and described it as "desperately upsetting". "We talk about civilian casualties, but to go and see for oneself, to see a family destroyed - it puts a very different perspective on matters," he said. "My message is that I stand with these people. The situation is intolerable".
With no school and all the factories shut, Kiryat Malachi's inhabitants loitered in the open spaces. Boys preparing for the inevitable call-up to join the Israel Defence Forces were defiant. "We are not afraid. We want to have a go at Hamas until they are crushed," said Avi Jacob Tziko, 16. "It is time the terrorists were put in the toilet."
Israel has drilled one million people in the south in a safety routine once the warning sirens sound. Different towns afford different windows for taking cover, depending on their proximity to Gaza.
In Kiryat Malachi and Beersheva, the capital of the Negev, you have 45 seconds after the siren sounds. In the coastal town of Ashqelon, there is a 30-second margin. In the front line town of Sderot, nearest to Gaza of them all, there is a virtually meaningless 15-second interval.
When the wail goes, people abandon their cars and run. Others throw themselves to the ground. "The injuries are mostly to the skull - so lie flat against the kerb and cover up your head," said one civil defence volunteer as The Daily Telegraph sought shelter after the siren wailed.
"This morning there were three sirens and maybe 10 rockets," said Paz Azaran, 17, a resident of Ashqelon. "I have not known a time when there were no rockets. If there is a siren in the night or day you have to run. The booms and bangs are scary."
Adina Azaran, her mother, said the increased rocket fire of recent days - Israel's government estimated that 245 missiles were fired in the previous 48 hours - was a price worth paying if the military offensive in Gaza succeeded in restoring "calm".
"The people of the south [of Israel] might be suffering because of a lot of rockets, but something is being done to protect us," she said.