Sderot Under Fire

Jan. 12, 2007

Sderot's residents suffer through rocket fire
As they wait for Israel to solve Gaza problem


By URIEL HEILMAN
SDEROT, ISRAEL— When a Palestinian Qassam rocket landed on Limor Boadana's house several weeks ago in this dusty desert town, her family faced an acute dilemma.

Should she and her husband and their two kids wait for Israeli government compensation to begin rebuilding their shattered home, whose roof was destroyed during the attack, or should they start rebuilding immediately, at their own expense, before the winter rains ruined what remained of the house?

The Boadanas opted for the latter course, even though, Limor says, they can ill afford to pay for the repairs.

"If tomorrow it rains, who will pay me to cover the costs of water damage?" she bemoaned one recent sunny December day standing outside the wreck of her home. "The government will only pay for the direct damage from the Qassam. But if we wait till the government sends the check, the rain will ruin what's left. Now I'm paying out of my own pocket. We'd be much better off if the government were more helpful."

Inside, the house lies in tatters. The roof over the living room is gone, and the kitchen is covered by rubble and broken glass. The impact of the rocket shook all the tiles from the bathroom, and most of the house's furniture was damaged beyond repair.

Boadana tells of how the rocket came in the middle of the night. Had the family not been sleeping on mattresses in the concrete-reinforced room, they all could have been killed.

Boadana is one of thousands of Sderot residents whose lives have been disrupted or destroyed during the five-plus years of persistent Palestinian rocket fire from the nearby Gaza Strip, just two miles away.

Between those killed or wounded by the thousands of rocket strikes here to those traumatized by the constant air raid sirens, Sderot has become a city scarred by war.

"Any backfire from a car brings hundreds of telephone calls asking where the rocket has landed," Eli Moyal, Sderot's mayor, said during a recent meeting in his office with a delegation of New York officials. "I call my son 10 times an hour when he goes out on Friday night just to make sure he's okay."

Liad Rosenberg, who works at a local a trauma center that opened last July, says the longer the rocket fire persists, the more Sderot's residents become traumatized.

"People have not become desensitized to the Qassams," she said. "On the contrary, people's traumatic reactions to the rockets are on the rise."

Unlike many structures in the city that have built special reinforcements over their roofs to protect from direct hits by the Qassams, the trauma center remains unprotected. That means that when the air raid sirens sound, people must flee for the safety of a real shelter.

"We're living in an unsustainable situation here," Rosenberg said.

Despite the incessant rocket fire, Moyal says Sderot's residents are committed to staying.

"There was a miracle that happened here: Nobody left. We stayed for one reason: We are not considering running away. It's unacceptable for us. If we run to Ashkelon, then the rockets will eventually follow us there. If we run to Ashdod, the rockets will come there. Then the rockets will reach Tel Aviv. We have a small and tiny state here."

"Leaving means losing," he said. "The terrorists want us to leave."

"Because it's been six years, nobody pays attention to us anymore," says Dr. Ruthie Eitan, head of overseas programs at Sapir College, just down the road from Sderot. More than 100 rockets have fallen over the last five years on the college campus, where 7,000 students study. Still, Eitan says, almost nobody has left the school.

"Zionism is a word we hardly use in Israel anymore; it's anachronistic. But Zionism still exists here," Eitan said. "We are at the periphery of Israel. People in Tel Aviv don't think about us. But we have not forgotten. We are living on the edge all the time. We are stressed all the time."

The rocket attacks began in April 2001 but accelerated after Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in August 2005. Since then, more than 1,500 Qassams have landed in Sderot, according to Moyal.

Thousands of others have landed elsewhere in the 10 miles or so around Gaza, including agricultural fields, small towns and kibbutzim, and the southern part of the coastal metropolis of Ashkelon, home to some 120,000 people.

Israeli reaction to the rocket fire has alternated between military reprisals to no response, depending on the political climate and leadership.

In early 2006, when rocket fire from Gaza climbed to nearly 150 strikes per month, Israel Defense Forces artillery batteries responded by pummeling the rocket crews in Gaza with incessant fire, and the military occasionally sent in attack helicopters to carry out precision air strikes. The IDF argued that its operations made it more difficult for Palestinian terrorists to carry out their attacks, but many others argued that Israel's actions antagonized the enemy, provoking the ongoing rocket fire.

Residents of Israel's southern coast also complained as much about the noise from the IDF artillery barrages as they did about the Qassams themselves.

With little success at staunching the rocket fire, the IDF eventually shifted its strategy after errant Israeli artillery shells resulted in heavy Palestinian civilian casualties, inviting international condemnation of Israel.

By the end of 2006, a policy of restraint had taken hold, with Israeli officials seeking to give an unofficial ceasefire a chance. But the rocket fire at Israel's southern town and cities has continued, and Sderot's mayor complains that the IDF's reactions never have been harsh enough.

"The Israeli government didn't properly take care of this problem," Moyal said. "How can a state let a town with a civilian population get rockets for six years?"

"The Israeli reaction is restraint," Moyal laments. Instead, he says, the Israeli military should hit back-hard.

"You can make them pay a price so they understand it's not worth it for them to shoot. And you can make them pay only though military means. As long as they don't pay a price they will continue shooting."