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Sderot Residents Escape Rockets, Find Temporary Refuge at Army Camp

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Driven from their homes by Kassam rockets, Eimvet Yitao and her colleagues from a Sderot day care center gather under the shade of a sprawling tree at an army center swapping stories of their fears.

But they talk, too, of their relief at the respite from uncertainty. “I’m very stressed out,” said Yitao, 30, who is eight months pregnant. “I would shout out to my children not to go outside but it was hard for them to listen. Here they are at least free to roam about.”

Yitao, who immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia as a girl, looks to the wide plaza lined by park benches with a view of an azure blue Mediterranean Sea. Just down the hill is a swimming pool. A poster board at the entrance to the dining hall lists the day’s activities, including a magician for the children, a Shavuot ceremony staged by a local school and a backgammon tournament.

The defense ministry brought some 650 Sderot residents to Olga Village, a hotel complex usually reserved for soldiers on break from combat duty.

“We try to help in every way, even small ways like providing baby bottles, laundry, diapers, toothpaste,” said Lt. Col. Ramy Ben-Haim, the army officer in charge of the evacuees at the complex. “Whatever they did not bring from home we try to give them.”

Ben-Haim also detailed plans for the upcoming days, including a festive Shavuot meal and a dance party for the evacuees.

“These people have been through a lot,” he said. “They deserve at least this.”

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was reluctant to evacuate even a small number of residents, saying it was bad for Israel’s image, but he found himself under increasing pressure to do so by residents.

Some say the pressure intensified after the Russian-Israeli billionaire Arcady Gaydamak picked up the costs to bus residents to the southern cities of Eilat and Beersheba. Several thousands reportedly have fled.

Sderot, a southern Israeli town that borde! rs Gaza, has been the target of thousands of rocket attacks by Palestinian militants over the past six years. The rocket fire has intensified in recent weeks, claiming at least one life, injuring several residents and destroying homes. More than 100 rockets reportedly have been fired into southern Israel in the past week. On Monday a woman was killed by rocket fire.

“Since I gave birth to my first child seven years ago Kassam rockets have been falling,” Yitao said. “I always wonder what will be, how my children might be affected. If we move it would be a victory for the other side, but if we stay will it lead to problems for the kids and their development?”

The other women describe how their children have regressed: Teenagers awake from nightmares shouting out warnings of imagined attacks; others are terrified to stay home alone and cling to their mothers.

“There is no place where a Kassam has not fallen,” said Hanni Butbul, 36, a manager of the day care center. “There is no adult nor child who has not seen with his or her own eyes where one has fallen.”

Life in Sderot, Butbul says, is one of “frustration and fear.”

Many of the arrivals to Olga Village say it is their first time leaving Sderot while the city was under attack. Schools have shut down, as have many businesses. Some residents feel the government has forgotten them, and to some degree other Israelis have, too.

Some say they are angry that there have been no wide-scale Israeli reprisal attacks into Gaza, despite the onslaught of rocket attacks. This week, however, the air force was striking back, launching targeted raids on leading Hamas figures that have led to their deaths as well as civilian casualties.

Some believe Sderot has been neglected because it’s a working-class town and about half its residents are immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia. Many of the others are native-born, the descendants of immigrants from North Africa.

Social workers, ps! ychologi sts and volunteers from SELAH-Israel Crisis Management Center, have been conducting home visits in Sderot to assist immigrants who have not been able to leave.

The organization, the only nationwide volunteer network to support new immigrants hit by crises, has been helping a range of cases — from immigrants who need emergency funds because the bank has cut them off to those who need psychological counseling.

“Some of the people are housebound, some too scared to leave,” said Ruth Bar-On, the founder and director of SELAH. “Others stay for idealistic reasons or work obligations, including those who work with the elderly.”

Immigrants with little social support are especially vulnerable in times of crisis, she said.

“We feel it is absolutely essential to think of the long term in situations like this. Just as in Kiryat Shemona, it shattered the very fine balance and equilibrium that vulnerable populations depend on,” Bar-On said, referring to the northern residents affected by last summer’s rocket attacks by Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Sophia Aminov, 44, an immigrant from the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan, was in Kfar Olga on Monday taking in the sea view and pushing her toddler son in a stroller.

“How long can we suffer?” she asked. “It’s not about to end anytime soon. We will go back after a couple of days, but what happens when we return and the rockets continue to fall?”

David Magmoni, a fellow Sderot resident who like Aminov is unemployed, did not hide his anger.

“This is a failure by the government, which is interested more in its corrupt affairs than anything else,” said Magmoni, 55. “I feel they don’t care about the people who live in Sderot. They don’t take responsibility for us.”

Dan Margalit, a veteran Israeli journalist and commentator, wrote Monday in the Israeli daily Ma’ariv that the residents of Sderot had seen a vital promise broken — the promise that after the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from ! Gaza, th eir lives and homes would be protected.

“For the time being we have broken our vow,” Margalit wrote. “The march of the uprooted from Sderot to central Israel is the yellow star of Zionism. It is not your disgrace, but ours.”

Although Defense Minister Amir Peretz is from Sderot, its residents aren’t putting much faith in him. They have seen Peretz sidelined by Olmert, and officially chastised for his inexperience and poor decision-making during the Second Lebanon War.

Peretz, however, did manage to have the situation in Sderot declared a “special home front situation” on Sunday. Conferring this status on the town presumably helps to compensate those whose property and businesses have been damaged or impaired because of the continued attacks.

Meanwhile, the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization of the North American federation system, announced Monday that it was donating $8 million in emergency relief to residents of Sderot and the surrounding area. The money will be funneled into projects organized by its local Israeli partners, including the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Israel.

On Sunday, Operation LifeShield, a nongovernmental organization, donated a 42-ton rocket-proof shelter to Sderot. This shelter and others bomb shelters being donated by the group are transportable and can be placed in public spaces during times of attack or war.

Sderot Mayor Eli Moyal said in a statement that it was “a viable solution that has come at such a critical time for Sderot.”

The lack of properly maintained public bomb shelters and reinforced rooms in private residences in Sderot has been a major problem. There is pressure on the government to help better fortify the town.

Yitao is hoping for quiet when her baby is born.

“As I told a friend,” she said, “I hope there will be quiet soon so I can have a bris without Kassams falling.”

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