Stream of rockets wears on Israeli town

Dwindling population lives in constant fear

Email|Print| Text size + By Aron Heller
Associated Press / January 20, 2008

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 outcome, the unrelenting barrage of missiles is pushing Israel ever closer to an armed showdown with the Hamas hard-liners who rule the Gaza Strip. Recent Israeli fire has killed at least 30 Palestinians, mostly armed militants, but 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 lives 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. 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 family's home, blasting away the windows and filling it with a cloud of smoke. 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 phone survey.

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 Raziel 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. "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 from a settlement in the West Bank - illegitimately built on Arab land.

Hamas 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 October interview, 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 Olmert will be forced to send the army into Gaza.

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.

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 3,500 have departed since rocket fire peaked in mid-2006.

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

"You reach a certain point where you just can't take it anymore," said Ofer Liberman, from Kibbutz Nir Am. "We have a kibbutz that looks like heaven, but several times a day it turns into hell."

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