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In Sderot, Fear, Anger, Resignation Grow As Rocket Attacks Continue

They called it a “day of mourning,” but in downtown Sderot a group of Breslav Chasidim danced around a truck equipped with loudspeakers playing Chasidic music at full volume. The Chasidim came here in solidarity with the people of Sderot, who have been the target of almost daily Kassam rocket attacks from Gaza, and their music came in reaction to the menacing call of “Red Dawn” — the alarm broadcast over the town’s public address system 20 seconds before a rocket falls.

The scene reflected the mood in a town torn between the natural need to get on with life and the painful fact that it’s the prime target for rocket attacks from Gaza.

A development town northwest of Beersheba in the Negev, on the Israeli side of the Gaza border, Sderot has lost seven residents in the past seven months — four in Kassam rocket attacks and three last week in a terrorist attack at the Karni border crossing into Gaza.

Nothing makes Sderot look like a battle scene — until the rockets actually fall. On Monday, a warm, soothing sun embraced the bruised town, tempting residents to take to the streets to enjoy springlike weather. There were babies being pushed in their strollers, people eating hummus in the center of town, people out enjoying life.

It’s hard for an outsider to imagine that just the words “Red Dawn” from the public address system can sent people rushing to the nearest shelter.

But Ella Abuksis, 17, was still in critical condition at a Beersheba hospital as a result of wounds suffered Saturday as she walked downtown with her 10-year-old brother, Tamir. As a Kassam landed nearby, Ella saved her brother by lying on top of him, sparing him from the full force of the blast. She took shrapnel to the head.

“Don’t call it a day of mourning,” pleaded Ella’s father, Jonathan, as he spoke to hundreds who gathered in the city square demanding that the government “do something” to get rid of the Kassam rockets. “Call it a day of prayer for my daughter.”

Mayor Eli Moyal called for the day of mourning. Most businesses were shut down, children did not go to school and giant black flags and pictures of those killed at the Karni crossing were spread across the square.

President Moshe Katsav joined the mourner-protesters in a surprise visit. Legislators from the Likud and National Religious Party were there as well, enjoying the attention of scores of reporters. The reporters themselves were new to town; for years Sderot has gotten little public or media attention.

Most of the rage was directed at Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whose farm is just outside Sderot. But Sharon wasn’t there.

“If I were Sharon, I would have held the weekly Cabinet session in Sderot,” Moyal said.

Of course, Moyal acknowledged, Sharon would not be warmly welcomed.

“So he would suffer the rage of the people,” the mayor said. “So have I. So what? I am sick and tired of being their scapegoat.”

Sharon finally called Moyal on Sunday night and assured him that the army would do its utmost to put an end to the situation.

Moyal was not appeased. He said that if the government could not guarantee residents’ security, “then this is not a country he wanted to live in,” a statement that was widely quoted.

Other residents, too, told the press they were willing to leave town. But Hahlama Peretz, wife of Histadrut Chairman Amir Peretz, who lives in Sderot, said she had no understanding for those who were leaving.

“You don’t leave your home, period,” she said. “What would our parents and grandparents have said if they knew that we were quitting?”

“Believe me, if my wife were not against it, I would have left,” said Hananiya Abuhatzeira, 60, a longtime Sderot resident. “I have everything here, I live in a villa, I own several stores, but I have no interest to stay here. I can’t say whether it is fear or just facing the unknown.”

Abuhatzeira stood in a parking lot next to the town square.

“Look, we are standing here talking, enjoying the sun, and next thing a Kassam rocket may fall and kill us,” he said. “They have sent us psychologists who talk to local youths once a week. At a place like this, people need a psychologist almost every minute.”

Abuhatzeira has three daughters, and all three moved away — though most young people leave the development towns, regardless of the security situation. Two of his daughters live in Tel Aviv, one in Ashkelon.

Sderot was not an attractive place to live even before it became the target of Palestinian rockets. It suffers from chronic unemployment, and many residents carry with them frustrations stemming from the town’s creation, 50 years ago, when new Sephardic immigrants were bused to small towns to help settle Israel’s periphery.

“The neighboring kibbutzim have all taken advantage of us,” said Abuhatzeira, who came to Sderot after immigrating from Morocco in 1955. “I remember the days we used to work as laborers in the fields of the kibbutzim. They did not even pay us — they gave us vegetables and meat in exchange for our work.”

Avraham Hemo of Tel Aviv, a retired senior police officer and the former coach of Israel’s national basketball team, sat at a local fast food restaurant and enjoyed his hummus.

Hemo had gone to Beersheba for a business trip. When his hosts offered to take him out to lunch, he refused, saying he’d rather be in Sderot. His lunch was a show of solidarity with the people of the beleaguered town.

“Look,” he said, sitting at the restaurant over a cup of tea, “I sympathize with the people of Sderot. I feel for them, but between me and you — the panic is slightly out of proportion. Other towns, like Jerusalem for example, have known much more suffering, and people did not threaten to leave.”

Hemo does not believe Sharon will opt for an all-out military operation to stop the rockets, after previous incursions, which earned Israel international opprobrium, failed to do so.

“He will talk tough but he, too, knows that there is very little one can do beyond hoping that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will reach an understanding with Hamas,” Hemo said.

Abuhatzeira agrees that there is not much that can be done.

“There’s no point in an all-out invasion of Gaza,” he said. “I have seen it too many times in the past to know better.”

It’s easy to get the feeling that the desperate people of Sderot feel more rage against the Israeli government — and the Israeli left — than against the Palestinians who launch the rockets. Abuhatzeira, for one, could not forgive Yossi Beilin, chairman of the left-wing Yahad Party, for meeting with Abbas on Monday.

“Rather than going to visit Abu Mazen in Ramallah, they should have come here, to be with us,” he said, using Abbas’ nom de guerre.

As evening fell on Sderot, the president’s motorcade sped north and the visiting legislators left town. Sderot seemed peaceful; it seemed as if the talk about rocket attacks had been about somewhere else, a long time ago.

Two 10-year-olds with strong Russian accents walked past a local movie theater, enjoying the evening.

“I am not afraid, not at all,” Ephraim Safanayev said. “If they sound the Kassam alarm I just keep on walking, unless my mother is with me, and then I have no choice but to go into hiding.”

And the proud and confident little Sderot resident kept on walking, heading toward the dancing Chasidim.

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