Islamic militants in Gaza have fired over 4,000 rockets at communities in southern Israel since former prime minister Ariel Sharon pulled the army and the settlers out of the coastal strip in August 2005. Fifteen people have been killed by the rockets. The relatively low death toll has to do with the makeshift nature of the rockets fired from Gaza, although in recent months militants have begun using more sophisticated Grad rockets which have a longer range and a heavier payload.
But the damage wreaked by the rockets is not just physical. The wailing sound of the siren that gives the residents a short warning when a rocket is incoming has become an integral part of daily life. Bus stops have been transformed into reinforced concrete structures where residents, caught outside when the siren sounds, can take shelter.
Parents in Sderot talk about how their children, traumatized by the rockets, wet their beds at night. How a door slamming shut makes them jump. Some talk of family members who are too scared to come and visit. Hundreds of people have been treated for post-traumatic stress disorder.
An Egyptian-mediated ceasefire proposal now on the table between Israel and Hamas includes an end to the rocket fire. But few residents in Sderot, largely disillusioned with the country's political leadership who they say have failed to protect them, believe any respite from the rockets will endure. Many talk about leaving and rebuilding their lives in an area where the rockets cannot reach them and their children.
Close to a third -- 7,000 out of an original population of 25,000 -- already have. Many of those who remain do not have the means to leave. "There is no way that I would be able to sell my house," says Edri. "Who would buy here now? It wouldn't even be worth half of what I paid for it."
The rockets have all but destroyed local business. "Hamas has succeeded in disrupting our lives," says Haim Ohana, sitting behind his desk in the travel agency he runs in the town. "Who in Sderot is able to think about travelling abroad and leaving their children back home? No one."
Tzipi Edri's shop is empty. "We make on average 50 shekels (15 dollars) a day," says the 50-year-old Edri (no relation of Ruti), who helps her daughter-in-law run a women's clothing store in the town's small commercial center called Excite.
Two months ago, a rocket landed a few metres from the entrance to the shop, causing extensive damage. There are still grey pockmarks on the white walls of the shop where the shrapnel gouged out pieces of plaster. The Excite sign above the shop entrance is riddled with holes from the blast. "If I had been in the shop when the rocket struck," says Edri, "I wouldn't be standing here now. I'd either be in intensive care or in the cemetery."
Like many residents, Edri is furious with the government for not taking harsher retaliatory measures in a bid to halt the rocket attacks. Hundreds of Palestinians have been killed in Israeli military incursions into Gaza aimed at stopping the rocket fire, but the government has so far baulked at launching a prolonged, wide-scale offensive deep inside the strip.
"For every Qassam (rocket) that is fired, we should blow up the house of those who gave the terrorists cover," says Edri. "I don't care who is inside. Then they'll learn not to give them cover. We're expected to be restrained when they fire rockets. The world only sees the Palestinian side. What about our children, who don't sleep at night, who wet their beds, who need psychological treatment.
"The Jewish people are too compassionate," she adds. "How would the U.S. react if its citizens were being fired on? I'll tell you how: They'd go in and wipe out those who were doing the firing.
"I believe Hamas more than I believe my own government. Our government talks tough, but when it comes to acting they do nothing. Hamas says it is going to fire rockets and they fire rockets. They are true to their word. Our government isn't."
Sasson Sara, who runs a small kiosk on the town's main street, wants the government to give the order to target the Hamas leadership for assassination, in the way it did several years ago when the Islamic movement's spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, as well as several other senior leaders, were targeted and killed by the Israeli military.
"Haniyeh says we Jews are here temporarily," growls Sara, referring to Ismail Haniyeh, who heads the Hamas government in Gaza. "If he's right, then we should cut a deal with (U.S. President) George Bush, pack up and go and live in the Nevada desert. But if we think this is our home, then the Prime Minister has to give a very clear order: 'I want the head of Haniyeh.' If he does, I can assure you it will happen. But our leaders are weak."
Not everyone in Sderot believes there is a military solution to the rocket fire. A few blocks from Ruti Edri's home, a crowd is still milling around a house that was hit an hour earlier by a rocket. No one was home when the rocket struck, but it has drilled a hole in the roof, causing extensive damage to the interior of the house.
Haim, who teaches at the local high school, is inspecting the damage. Ultimately, he says, Israelis and Palestinians will have to sit down and negotiate an end to the conflict. "There are two nations here and each has a right to a state," he says. "But the extremists on both sides don't want this dream of two states for two peoples. Our extremists believe that Greater Israel belongs to the Jewish people. But they are playing into the hands of Hamas who also want one state here -- but run by them."
Haim is not in favour of a large-scale incursion into Gaza, because he believes many Israeli soldiers will lose their lives. But, he says, the thinking in the military is that this is the only way to curb Hamas. "In the end there will be a massive operation in Gaza. I don't want it. It will be very costly. But it will happen."
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Albion Monitor May
22, 2008 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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