Tuesday, February 26, 2008

`You never get used to it'

Seven years of rocket attacks from Gaza has left an Israeli border town fearful, frustrated

February 25, 2008
Oakland Ross
Middle East Bureau

SDEROT, Israel–Miracles come in very small packages for Eli Moyal, if they come at all.

The lanky, two-term mayor of this rocket-pocked, southern Israeli town glances at his watch and professes to be amazed.

"It's three p.m., and there has been no rocket attack," he says. "It's a miracle."Maybe Moyal has forgotten about the missile that hurtled toward Sderot from the nearby Gaza Strip just 12 hours earlier, setting off the emergency siren – a woman's recorded voice crying "Code Red! Code Red!" – and rousing the townspeople from their sleep, before crashing into an open area, causing no casualties.

Or maybe, after seven years on a target range, it's hard to keep the days or the rockets straight.

"You never get used to it," says Moyal, who has been Sderot's mayor for the past 10 years and was already a veteran in the job in 2001, when Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip began firing homemade rockets toward populated areas in the western Negev region of southern Israel. "Our kids are not riding their bikes any more. They don't play in the parks. You don't see people outside."

Since then, by Moyal's count, about half the 6,000 rockets that have whistled out of Gaza, have crashed in Sderot or its outskirts.

Israel's political and military leaders have yet to hit upon an effective strategy for stopping almost daily salvoes of the inaccurate but nonetheless terrifying and potentially lethal Qassam missiles.

Moyal knows what he wants the government to do, and it does not involve sitting down at the bargaining table to parse out a ceasefire with Hamas, the militant Islamist group that now rules Gaza.

"Kill them," he says. "Make them pay a full price. Destroy their houses, their parliament. Haniyeh should not be alive any more. He should be dead." (Ismail Haniyeh is Hamas's top political official in Gaza.)

Some prominent Israelis are urging the government to launch a military invasion of the territory, aimed at wiping out armed groups there, along with their infrastructure. Moyal does not believe such a course would be effective.

He prefers selective assassination directed at senior officials rather than at the low-level fighters who typically are the targets of Israeli retaliatory attacks now.

Moyal freely admits any stepped-up military response by Israel would inevitably kill innocent civilians, or more than are being killed now, but he says he does not care.

"What do I prefer? Innocent people killed there or here? To me, it's simple."

But it seems Moyal so far has failed to persuade top Israeli politicians – including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defence Minister Ehud Barak – to adopt his advice.

"It's stupidity. They don't have answers. They have lot of promises ... plans for the future."

In December, the mayor grew so frustrated that he resigned his post, only to reconsider after Barak effectively ordered him to go back to the job rather than hand Hamas a propaganda victory.

Still the rockets keep flying.

And, as recently as Saturday, the mayor expressed willingness to meet Hamas, in an interview with Britain's Guardian newspaper, if that meant there would be an end to rocket attacks on Israel.

"I would say to Hamas, let's have a ceasefire, let's stop the rockets for the next 10 years and we will see what happens. If we don't talk, we go deeper and deeper into war."

Part of Moyal's dilemma, and Sderot's too, results from a hard-nosed but paradoxical calculation.

After seven long years, the Gaza rocket attacks have claimed a dozen Israeli lives, two of them last year, and this seems an insufficient number of deaths to spur the Israeli government into either military or political actions that would ensure more people do not die.

So, for Sderot, things can only get better if they get worse. In the meantime, they are bad enough.

The town's economy is crippled, its social life deflated and its population reduced from 24,000 to fewer than 20,000.

More would leave if they could, but most cannot. Homeowners here are prisoners of a collapsing real-estate market. After all, who would buy property in a town hit, on average, by three rockets a day and occasionally by many more?

"It's hard to leave," says Evelyn Azram, owner of Sports Plus, a shoe shop on Hagofer St. near the central market. "But whoever can leave should leave, because there is no solution. I've thought of leaving."

For now, however, she seems fated to stay, along with her husband and their three daughters, 16, 12, and 7.

In November 2006, Azram had to close her business more than a month for repairs after a rocket destroyed a beauty parlour next door.

"There's no life here," she says. "There are no people. Taking your kids to school – that's a few minutes of terror. You pray each morning they arrive safely."

People driving through town keep windows down and radios low to be sure of hearing the emergency siren. They don't buckle up, so they can quickly exit cars and head for the nearest bomb shelter.

They run fast.

Sderot is just 800 metres from Gaza at the closest point. So, this leaves about 15 seconds between the sounding of the siren and that deep, familiar boom.

"They're not a joke," says Azram. "They kill."

No one knows this better than Moyal, the mayor, who will step down when his term expires in August, with little prospect that the rockets will have stopped by then, despite his pleas. "I feel abandoned," he says, "and an idiot."

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