Rocket-battered Israeli border town enjoying calm

SDEROT, Israel — Six months after Israel ended its bruising offensive against Gaza Strip militants, the people of this rocket-scarred border town are enjoying their calmest stretch in recent memory.

The rocket attacks that made life unbearable have all but stopped. Playgrounds are filled with children on summer vacation, stores are bustling and the town’s public swimming pool is open for the first time in five years.

“People are out more. There is movement. There is a different atmosphere,” said Avigail Hazan, a 42-year-old storekeeper. “It was worth going through the war for this. It’s fun now; I’m calm.”

“Life before the war – it wasn’t life,” agreed the town’s deputy mayor, Rafik Agaronov. “Now, thank God, there is quiet. Hopefully it will stay like this forever. If our children are calm, we are calm.”

Israel’s anger and frustration over the incessant rocket fire on this working-class town less than a mile from Gaza’s border was the loudly proclaimed reason for its invasion of Gaza. The fact that the attacks have all but ended has improved the atmosphere and set the stage for possible talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

The U.S. has sent a parade of envoys to the region this month to explore the prospects. Those efforts have focused on bringing Israel together with Hamas’ bitter rival, the moderate West Bank government of President Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas, which took control of Gaza from Abbas’ forces two years ago, remains internationally isolated.

Hamas has not ruled out firing more rockets, but the militants seem to no longer be targeting Israel.

A Hamas spokesman, Abu Obeida, insisted Wednesday the militant group has not changed its policy regarding rocket attacks and called them one of the legitimate “tools of the resistance.”

Still, rocket fire has dropped dramatically since the Gaza offensive ended in January, with some 220 rockets fired on southern Israel, according to the army. The last rocket attack on Sderot was May 19.

That compares to 7,865 rockets and mortars fired on southern Israel since Israel withdrew from Gaza in September 2005, according to the military. At least 4,000 of those hit Sderot, making life miserable and increasingly dangerous. Eight people were killed and hundreds were wounded. The economy was paralyzed and nearly everyone was traumatized by the frequent wail of sirens and explosions.

The heavy rocket fire brought life in Sderot to a virtual standstill as hundreds fled to get out of range. Those who stayed behind kept close to home and to their fortified shelters.

Israel’s massive air and ground assault, which began last December, killed more than 1,100 Palestinians, wounded thousands more and caused massive destruction.

Despite a backlash of international criticism and war crimes allegations, Israel says the assault achieved its primary goal of stopping the rocket fire. Israeli officials believe the offensive proved to be a powerful deterrent, though they also say Gaza’s Hamas rulers are using the lull to rearm.

Eager to win international acceptance, Hamas may now be showing restraint to gain favor with the outside world. The head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, Yuval Diskin, said this month that Hamas was “giving more attention to diplomatic efforts to end its isolation.”

Israel has also dramatically scaled back its military activities, though the stifling economic blockade it has maintained since the fighting ended has prevented Gaza from rebuilding.

With renewed fighting always a possibility, the residents of Sderot are enjoying the calm as long as it lasts.

Perhaps the most visible change in town is the reopening of the Olympic-size pool, providing a welcome place to cool off from the sweltering Israeli summer. In recent years, the rocket attacks made the pool too dangerous to enter.

“The kids missed this, they needed this,” said Zion Peretz, the pool manager, as campers jumped into the water behind him. “It’s given us a joy for life again.”

But not everyone has been able to erase old memories that quickly.

Experts have warned of long-lasting psychological damage inflicted on Sderot’s 24,000 residents, particularly children, who suffer from exceptionally high rates of anxiety and bed-wetting compared to other Israeli children, according to local psychologists.

Yaeli Biton says she is still under psychological care and takes daily anxiety medication.

“I hear a car screech, a refrigerator door slam, the air conditioner make noise, and I panic,” said the 50-year-old Biton. “It’s been like this for eight years. The feeling doesn’t go away in one day.”

Many in Sderot said they believe the current calm won’t last, and that Hamas was using the tranquil period to prepare for another round of fighting. That looming possibility is evident in the barricaded shelters scattered throughout town. Even the pool has a safe room for bathers to scamper to in case of emergency.

Still, residents say they can’t remember a better time for their hard-hit town. On cooler evenings, it’s not unusual to see people drinking a beer with their neighbors outside their homes, or playing backgammon or chess in the park.

Dina Keinan, who owns a bike store, said her sales have increased in recent months.

“People didn’t buy bicycles because they were afraid to ride them for long periods,” she said. “It’s different now.”

Atara Orenbouch, a 37-year-old mother of six, said life in Sderot was “almost a normal life.” Her children can now walk around freely like all other Israeli children.

“At least they have a chance to have a little bit of a normal childhood,” she said. “(But) in the back of my mind, I am sure we will have a bad awakening.”

“We just assume that we will go back to the rockets, but in the meanwhile we are happy.”

© 2009 The Associated Press