Israeli town under rocket fire at front line of conflict

SDEROT, Israel – Worn down by thousands of rockets fired from the nearby Gaza Strip, an estimated one-seventh of the people of this Israeli town have fled. Many more say they would go if they could. The mayor says life here has become “impossible.”

This is all welcome news to Gaza’s Islamic militants, who say their goal is to turn Sderot into a ghost town. While no one in Israel considers that a realistic scenario, the unrelenting barrage of missiles is pushing Israel ever closer to an armed showdown with the Hamas hard-liners who rule the Gaza Strip. Last week alone, Israeli fire killed at least 30 Palestinians, mostly armed militants, and rocket barrages continued unabated.

The rockets are homemade and inaccurate, especially by comparison with the deadly high-tech weaponry Israel deploys to suppress the attacks. But they have killed 12 people in Sderot and neighboring villages over the past six years, wounded dozens more and caused millions of dollars in damage.

Residents say the worst part of their disrupted life is the constant fear –never knowing where the next rocket will fall. “I am falling apart, it is killing me, it is killing my family,” says Shulamit Sasson, 44.

Her family of seven sleeps side by side on mattresses on their living room floor, to be close to a makeshift bomb shelter. Two of her children are afraid to bathe or even undress lest they be caught unready for an incoming rocket. Her 13-year-old son wets himself each time he hears public loudspeakers blare “tseva adom” – “color red” – meaning a rocket will arrive in less than a minute.

This month a rocket landed next to the Sasson home, blasting away the windows and filling it with a cloud of smoke. Shulamit Sasson said she spent five days in the hospital with trauma.

The Israel Trauma Center for Victims of Terror and War, a nonprofit group that works with Tel Aviv University, says it polled 500 adults in the town of 24,000 in July and found that 91.9 percent had witnessed a rocket landing near them, and 48.4 percent in the closely knit community know someone who was killed. As a result, 28.4 percent of adults over age 18 have severe forms of post-traumatic stress disorder, it said.

“These are not people who are simply feeling bad. In the middle of the night they are woken up by their own thoughts, by their own fears, by the memory of these fears,” said Marc Gelkopf, who conducted the telephone survey. “We’re talking about stressed-out people who are not able to function well in couple relationships. People who are not able to hold down jobs.”

Sasson said that four years ago a rocket landed near her son, Raziel, then 9, inside a schoolyard and sent him into shock. She says she hasn’t worked since and her boy has never recovered.

“My son goes to school, hears a siren, wets his pants and comes home, is that a normal child? A 13-year-old boy that needs me to go into the shower with him – is that a normal boy? I need to stand next to him when he goes to the bathroom – is that a normal child?” she said, her jumpiness evident in her trembling hands. “I cannot be this child’s psychologist, I cannot be his social worker. I am his mother – that’s all I can be.”

The plight of people like Sasson have Israel’s government in a quandary.

Having promised the public that its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 would make Israelis safer, it now faces a Hamas government that is arming itself and vowing never to accept Israel’s existence. Palestinian moderates may accept the existence of a town like Sderot, built for Jewish immigrants in the 1950s within Israel proper, but Islamic radicals view it as no different than a settlement in the West Bank – illegitimately built on Arab land.

Hamas itself is thought to be mostly limiting itself to mortar attacks and allowing smaller militant groups such as Islamic Jihad to fire the Qassam rockets, named after an Islamist preacher of the 1930s. Meanwhile, Israeli air and tank attacks on suspected rocket-firers also claim a price in innocent lives, and risk torpedoing a fragile peace effort promoted by President Bush.

In an interview with The Associated Press last October, an Islamic Jihad commander named Abu Hamza took credit for Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, saying it was Muslim guns that drove the Israelis out, and that he expected the same to happen to Sderot and other southern Israeli towns.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has repeatedly said he is not eager to venture on a risky Gaza operation. But no Israeli government perceived as weak on defense can survive for long, and it is widely assumed among Israelis that sooner or later Olmert will be forced to send the army into Gaza.

The consequences are hard to foresee. Sderot is less than a mile from Gaza, but a full-blown war could result in longer-range Palestinian rockets hitting cities and strategic targets farther away.

On Tuesday Israeli tanks and helicopters raided Gaza, reportedly killing 14 Palestinian fighters and three civilians, and Palestinian gunfire killed a volunteer from Ecuador working in a potato field at a kibbutz.

The battle over Sderot and nearby farm villages is still one of low intensity, but debilitating nonetheless.

“You reach a certain point where you just can’t take it anymore. We have a kibbutz that looks like heaven, but several times a day it turns into hell,” said Ofer Liberman, from Kibbutz Nir Am. “We are always stressed about the next time a siren will sound.”

Liberman, whose 6-year-old daughter is also being treated for trauma, said only one family in the community of 300 has bolted. But he fears more would follow suit. “I can’t tell you how long we can live with this thing,” he says.

In Sderot, the exodus has already begun.

Although City Hall has no precise numbers, Rafi Levi, head of the town’s tax collection office, estimates some 3,500 have departed since rocket fire peaked in mid-2006.

Dahaf, an Israeli polling agency, says a survey of 500 people from the Sderot region poll found 64 percent wishing they could leave. It gave a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.

Real estate offices are filled with “for sale” signs. A visitor walks into a store seeking directions to a real estate office and three merchants jump forward offering to sell their homes on the spot.

Real estate agent Alex Aviram says property values are down by more than 50 percent, making it almost impossible for families to sell up and leave.

Resentment runs high over the slow pace of building shelters and bombproof apartment rooms. Graffiti such as “we are not second-class citizens” is sprayed across bomb shelters. The town’s mayor, Eli Moyal, resigned during a live radio broadcast on Dec. 12, saying the situation was “impossible” and charging the central government with inaction. He reversed his decision a day later.

Tourism in Sderot these days is limited to visiting rocket craters, the police station where some 800 of the most recently fired rockets are on display, and the stone memorial to two toddlers killed by a missile in 2004.

Some Sderot youngsters can’t wait to leave. Outside her graffiti-sprayed, concrete-barricaded school building, Simha Avraham, 17, said she’s taking off as soon as she graduates.

“Even if there is quiet, it is scary. You always know that something will be coming soon,” she said.

Next to her, 18-year-old Keren Abuksis stands quietly. Her older sister, Ayala, was killed by a rocket three years ago.

Ruti Medina, the school’s 60-year-old secretary, said she has nothing left in Sderot.

“I’ve got a year to retirement and then I’m out of here,” she said. “I can’t take it anymore. Everyone here is traumatized.”