For Israelis in the western Negev, each day is ‘Russian Roulette’

When the tzeva adom, red alert, screams its siren as Yasmine Parda eats out in Ashkelon at her favorite restaurant, she waits and hopes for the best—no rocket shelters are reachable by foot within the siren’s reported 15-second warning interval.

“We sit in the restaurant and wait,” said the 27-year-old secretary as she stopped for a few moments along Yig’al Alon Street in Sderot on Aug. 14, the morning after a five-day ceasefire between Israel and Hamas was announced.

Paya Amirov, Parda’s friend, described her life as a game of “Russian Roulette”—she can’t know whether the next minute, hour, or day will be quiet or chaotic, with the ever-present possibility of needing to drop everything and run from scorching metal and shrapnel that falls from the sky shortly after being fired from the neighboring Gaza Strip.

Michal Tweeto, who lives on Moshav Tkuma, a community next to Gaza, with her husband and three children, brought two of her kids—Tova, 5, and Avraham, 3—to a massive indoor playground and community center in Sderot so they could enjoy some respite for the day. In recent weeks, the kids have barely been able to leave the house. And even during this ceasefire, there’s no guarantee of safety.

“My kids are afraid. That’s the biggest problem for me,” Tweeto said. “I’m more afraid from the trauma than from the rockets.”

At the $5 million, 21,000-square-foot facility, which was built by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) in 2009, recreation rooms and play areas double as bomb shelters, giving parents like Tweeto the peace of mind that they enjoyed before 2001, when rocket fire from neighboring Gaza became a regular occurrence.

Located in an old warehouse on the eastern edge of Sderot, the facility has basketball courts, a café, computers and a small movie theater. On a recent visit, the happy screams of children playing rang through the air as parents sat at tables and socialized with each other.

This $5 million, 21,000 square foot indoor rec center in Sderot was built by the Jewish National Fund in 2009 as a response to rocket fire.

Just one mile away from the indoor playground, another stark reminder of life here, particularly for children, is made apparent by a large structure on an outdoor playground on Ha-Rakefet Street. Artfully built into the playground, the structure looks like a large friendly snake with a hollowed out interior play area.

This snake-like structure on an outdoor playground doubles as a bomb shelter.

Approaching it, though, a sign on it reads in Hebrew: “When the tzeva adom sounds, you have to enter under my protection beyond the orange line.”

This sign at an outdoor Sderot playground tells children to enter the inside of what is a playful looking snake if they hear the “red alert” siren.

Moshe and Linor Barsheshet, Netivot residents who came for the day to the indoor JNF playground with their two children, Haddas and Yonatan, left home for Beit Shemesh during the war and returned during the first cease fire two weeks ago.

Government officials asked residents in the south to return home, expecting that the cease-fire would hold—Hamas broke it on the morning of Aug. 8, firing a volley of rockets over the border and further shattering the confidence of many locals.

“It’s impossible to leave the house,” Moshe said.

Arnold Rosenblum, who came to Israel five years ago from Russia, recently moved to Sderot to enroll at Sapir College. Walking in the downtown shopping area, Rosenblum, 23, sat down for a few minutes to speak with a reporter.

“What can I say?” Rosenblum said, asked how the rockets and sirens have impacted his life. “We are getting used to this. First time is very hard and you really think maybe you should leave Sderot.”

After that initial shock, though, he said, the regular interruptions just become normal. “I say like this: if I made a choice to live here, no Hamas, no someone else can make me change my choice.”

During parts July and August, when classes at Sapir were cancelled due to the war in Gaza, Rosenblum worked at a plastics factory in town. He said that, during work, if the siren rang, people would have 13 seconds to find the nearest bomb shelter—he said that by the time the red alert goes off, two seconds have already been shaved off from the 15.

When he is home during the siren, he said his two and three-year-old nephews and nieces panic amidst the rush to get to a shelter.

“Everyone is screaming. Everyone is crying,” Rosenblum said, adding glumly when asked about the current lull in fighting: “It’s very sad.”

Hesitant to offer his opinion on the war and on the government’s decision, for now, to halt its operation, Rosenblum instead offered some dark humor:

“[Russian President Vladimir] Putin asks God, ‘What do you think? When is it going to be the end of terrorism in Chechnya?”

“Not in your [presidential] term,” God said.

“[Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu asks God,” said Rosenblum. “‘What do you think? When is it going to be quiet in Gaza?’”

“God said, ‘Not in my term.’”

What a dying business in Sderot looks like, even during cease-fire

In a narrow alleyway just next to Begin Square in the center of this Israeli city, shops, cafes and bakeries are so tightly packed together that with every few steps brings a new business.

These merchants have, for years, been accustomed to the inhospitable reality of life in Sderot. By virtue of its proximity to Gaza (Begin Square is two miles from the border), normal daily activities are routinely interrupted by a screeching siren that gives residents a 10 to 15 second warning to shelter themselves from a rocket that was fired seconds earlier from within the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

Those interruptions, which have made life here grim, have made doing business here nearly impossible for many shopkeepers. On Thursday, even as the city was enjoying its fourth day of calm—with a new cease fire possibly ensuring an additional five—the sight of gray metal shutters in front of nearly every shop in this alleyway was a stark reminder that this city’s store owners know better than to think that temporary quiet will soon bring customers back.

“I can’t continue like this. It’s hard,” said Moshe Yifrach, 21, who helps manage his family’s image and photography store, “Agfa Image Center.” He was one of the few shopkeepers who decided to remain open into the mid-afternoon and was the only person in the store. But, with little or no business up to that point on Thursday, his decision to keep the lights on may not have particularly mattered.

The Yifrachs produce photographs, create albums and assist with images for passports, weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs. Behind the counter on shelves sat rows of albums and frames in varying colors

Moshe Yifrach helps his father run the family's Sderot store. He said sales have dropped 70 percent this summer.

When life in Sderot is relatively normal, Yifrach said that his family serves between 50 to 70 customers and earns about 3,000 to 4,000 thousand Shekels per day. This summer, though, during Israel’s most recent battle with Hamas, in which nearly 3,000 rockets have fallen in and around Israeli cities, he said sales have dropped by about 70 percent and customers have come in at a trickling pace.

Some residents here left amidst the chaos for some respite in towns further north and many simply no longer feel confident in venturing into the city. Tourism, meanwhile, has plummeted, with most visitors coming from abroad on solidarity missions, not nearly enough to compensate for the many Israelis who no longer travel south for a few pleasurable days in the country’s southern desert region.

The family has two other stores, in Jerusalem and Kiryat Gat, so Yifrach said he, his parents and 11 siblings could get by without their Sderot store.

“We have other places, so we have it easier than others,” Yifrach said. “But the ones that have only here and nowhere else, it’s very hard.”

Even during the height of the war in July and early August, Yifrach’s father kept the store open. When a red alert siren blared, whoever was in the shop would shelter in the doorway or underneath the awning that encloses the alley outside—the nearest shelter is more than 15 seconds from the store, not enough time for him or any customers to safely reach before the Qassam makes impact.

While a cease-fire that produces calm for an extended period would likely improve business for the Yifrachs if residents and tourists begin to return, he sees no long-term relief for his family’s business.

Agfa Image Center

Yifrach, like so many Israelis, particularly in the south, wants the government to order the military to destroy Hamas and end the rocket attacks. That step appears increasingly unlikely, though, following the complete removal of ground troops on Aug. 5 and the moderate progress of truce negotiations in Cairo.

“There’s no solution,” Yifrach said. “If you want to have a cease fire, so for a year it will be fine and everything will be good. [But] slowly, slowly [Hamas] will advance.” He predicts that the terrorist group will use the calm to improve its rocket arsenal to create Sderot-like situations as far north as Tel Aviv and Haifa.

That, Yifrach said, is one reason he sees no point in moving further north. “I don’t think that in the north it’s much better because there too you have Hezbollah,” he said. The quasi-governmental Lebanese terrorist organization has tens of thousands of missiles and rockets and has the capability to reach Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city. In Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah, approximately 15 Haifa residents were killed in missile and rocket attacks.

“I will stay in the south. This is my house and here I’m going to stay,” Yifrach said briskly.

Asked, though, how much longer his family’s store can survive in Sderot under current conditions, he responded, “Half a year, no more.”

Israel will continue to target attackers, Netanyahu tells Blair

Israel will continue to attack the groups that fire rockets on her citizens, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu's statement Monday morning during a meeting with Mideast Quartet envoy Tony Blair came after Israeli airstrikes targeted what the Israel Defense Forces described as “launching squads” in two locations in the northern Gaza Strip. Two Palestinian men were killed in the strikes. Hamas' military wing claimed one as a fighter and Islamic Jihad claimed the other as a fighter in its militia, according to the Palestinian Maan news agency. At least two others were reported injured.

The IDF said the attacks were in response to mortar shell fire at a routine IDF patrol on the border with northern Gaza, near the Israeli kibbutz of Nir Am.

“We've got Hamas, supported by Iran, firing rockets at us. They’ve fired again. We're not going to let anyone arm themselves and fire rockets on us and think that they can do this with impunity,” Netanyahu said. “They're not going to get away with it. We attacked them before, we attacked them after and we're going to prevent them from arming themselves. This is our policy.”

Also Monday, five Kassam rockets were fired at the Shaar Hanegev Regional Council, with no injuries or damage reported, according to Ynet.

Since the beginning of this year, more than 500 rockets fired from the Gaza Strip hit Israel, including over 50 during October alone, according to the IDF.

Egypt brokering cease-fire between Israel and Palestinians

As rockets continued to fall on southern Israel, Egypt reportedly was working to broker a cease-fire between Israel and Palestinian terror groups in Gaza.

There was little information reported about Thursday’s cease-fire talks, which are aimed at stopping the terror groups’ rocket attacks on southern Israel and retaliatory strikes by Israel.

Elementary schools, in session until the end of the month, were closed in Ashkelon on Thursday after two rockets were fired at the southern city early that morning. One was intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system.

Several mortars and Kassam rockets also were fired at Israel on Thursday.

Hamas’ armed wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigade, claimed responsibility for firing eight rockets at Israel before midnight on Wednesday, according to the Palestinian Ma’an news service.

The Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigade said it would cooperate with Egyptian mediation efforts, but only if Israel halts its retaliatory airstrikes on Gaza.

Hamas also said it would not disassemble its launchers and is ready to “defend and attack,” according to Ma’an.

At least 70 rockets hit southern Israel on Wednesday; 120 have struck Israel since Monday, when the cross-border attacks began.

Latest rocket barrages from Gaza mean life ‘does not go on as normal’

The worst Palestinian rocket barrages from the Gaza Strip so far this year saw more than 147 rockets fired into major southern Israeli cities, with the wail of sirens and sudden explosions jolting residents, sometimes several times an hour.

During the period of March 9-11, there were 22 Israeli civilians injured. Authorities in communities in a seven-to-40-kilometer (22-mile) radius from Gaza canceled all schooling on Sunday and Monday due to a lack of sufficient bomb shelters. Closer-in towns reinforced schools and public areas, enabling studies to continue.

The feeling of Gaza rockets is all too familiar for southern Israel. For the 200,000 residents of Be’er Sheva, life “does not go on as normal,” Deputy Mayor Dr. Heftzi Zohar told JointMedia News Service.

While the “queen of the Negev” was not totally closed for business due to the latest rockets, “Most of the time commercial centers are empty, but this is our regular life these days, unfortunately,” Zohar said.

This round of rocket strikes began when an IDF aircraft on March 9 killed Popular Resistance Committee (PRC) chief Zuhair al-Qaissi, along with two other members traveling in his car in Gaza City. The Popular Resistance Committee is a militant group in Gaza aligned with Hamas that was behind the abduction of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who was held captive for more than five years and freed in a prisoner swap for more than 1,000 Palestinians.

The IDF said the group was about to carry out “a combined terror attack on the Israel-Egypt border,” and closed a road that was hit in a similar attack last August in which eight Israelis were killed. 

The army said that thanks to “reinforcement of forces and observation abilities, Route 12 was reopened for traffic during February,” but “that the road is being closed temporarily, in light of situation assessments meant to keep the citizens of Israel safe.”

The pro-Hamas PRC vowed that it would keep carrying out revenge attacks. “We are not committed anymore to the truce with the occupation (Israel). We will teach the occupation a lesson for its ongoing crimes,” PRC spokesman Abu Mujahid told reporters.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said during a visit to an Iron Dome missile defense battery that, “This current round [of hostilities] in the Strip is far from over, and we must remain vigilant and alert in the face of a potential terror attack from the Sinai.”

Barak said in a statement to reporters that Israel would “act against anyone who attempts to send rockets or perpetrate terror attacks. Anyone attempting such an attack will pay the full price.” Israeli Air Force strikes to quell the salvos killed at least 15 Palestinian terrorists since March 9.

While the Iron Dome anti-missile system successfully downed 43 Grad rockets in 52 attempts, residents in Be’er Sheva, coastal Ashkelon and Ashdod faced sleepless nights during the recent round of attacks, punctuated with numerous trips to bomb shelters and fortified structures.

Sara Shomron of the village of Nitzan, halfway between Ashdod and Ashkelon, was forced—along with her children—to seek shelter in their home’s built-in bomb shelter no less than six times on Friday and Saturday. Nitzan’s more than 500 residents are evacuees, pulled out of from Gaza in 2005. Many of them are still living in temporary housing and had to seek shelter in giant sewer pipes set at numerous locations throughout the village, Shomron told JointMedia News Service.

Over the weekend, Shomron said she “was out walking one of our dogs when the siren went off and I quickly made haste to a house that’s under construction and went into its bomb shelter.”

“It was only partially completed but I figured that it was better than doing nothing because many people would not welcome the dog, and it wasn’t the time to find out who will and who won’t,” she said.

Shomron said that while she and her children were calm, children of her friends “are afraid to take showers; they’re afraid they’ll be in the shower when the siren goes off… all of a sudden you have teenagers who are wetting their beds.”

In Ashdod, Terri Millstone told JointMedia News Service the city’s shuk (open-air market) of independent vendors could not open Saturday, lamenting that the vendors “do this to help feed their families.”

Authorities are concerned that cities like Ashdod are just another stepping stone for Hamas to reach bigger targets. A senior police official said he was concerned that the salvos may soon be aimed at even more central areas, including Tel Aviv.

“The question now is, are they planning to launch them deep into Israeli territory or not?” the official told Maariv. “We are preparing for all scenarios, and three of our fronts are on full alert: Tel Aviv, Central Israel, and Jerusalem. The cities of Bat Yam, Holon, Rishon LeZion, Ness Ziona, Rehovot, and Beit Shemesh are also being prepared,” he added. 

U.S. State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland said Saturday that the U.S is “deeply concerned by the renewal of violence in southern Israel,” adding that her country condemned “in the strongest terms the rocket fire from Gaza by terrorists into southern Israel in recent days, which has dramatically and dangerously escalated in the past day. We call on those responsible to take immediate action to stop these cowardly acts.”

Gaza Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said on Sunday in Cairo that Egypt is “working around the clock” with Palestinian factions, in talks which he claimed are aimed at halting attacks against Israel. However, Islamic Jihad said it was not involved in the truce discussions. “Should the Israeli aggression continue and there will be more victims—there will be no room for talks on a ceasefire,” said the group’s spokesman, Daud Shihab.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Sunday said Israel is still bracing for a terror attack along the Egyptian border. “We are still on alert for a terror attack from there, and I have ordered the closure of the road along the Egyptian border,” he said at the opening of his weekly cabinet session.

“The Iron Dome system has proven itself very well, and we will, of course, see to its expansion in the months and years ahead,” Netanyahu said.

Kassam from Gaza injures woman, IDF responds

Israel’s Air Force bombed two targets in Gaza after a Kassam rocket fired from Gaza struck southern Israel and injured a woman.

The Israeli aircraft struck what it called a terror activity site in northern Gaza and a smuggling tunnel in southern Gaza in an early Tuesday morning raid, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

The raid was in response to a Kassam rocket fired from Gaza at southern Israel on Monday, which injured a 50-year-old resident of Hof Ashkelon. Several others were treated for shock.

The IDF “will continue to respond with determination to any attempt to use terror against the citizens of Israel,” said a statement from the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit.

Israel, Gaza terrorists enter cease-fire

Israel and terrorist groups in Gaza reportedly agreed to a cease-fire.

The agreement came late Sunday night and was followed by a Kassam rocket fired on Ashkelon and ten mortar shells that hit southern Israel. Israel did not respond to the rockets, showing that the cease-fire was holding, according to reports.

The agreement came hours after government ministers ordered the army “to continue to act against those responsible for terrorism.”

The cease-fire came after a weekend in which more than 120 rockets were fired at Israel, including one that struck a school bus seriously injuring a teen, and in which Israeli retaliatory strikes on terrorism sites killed 19 Gaza Palestinians.

“We will judge the other side over the next few days. The extent to which Hamas controls the other militant groups will affect the way we choose to act,” a senior Israeli official told Reuters.

A senior Palestinian source quoted in the international Arabic newspaper Al-Sharq al-Aswat said that Egypt is working to seal the current unwritten cease-fire and asked the United Nations envoy to the Middle East Robert Serry to help in negotiations

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Monday decried the ceasefire, telling Israel Radio that “Hamas is fighting a war of attrition against us. We won’t come to terms with a situation in which they decide when there’s quiet and when the area heats up.”

He accused Hamas of taking advantage of the recent months of relative quiet to smuggle in more and farther-reaching rockets.

Israeli military strikes on Gaza began April 7 after Hamas fired an anti-tank rocket at a school bus, critically injuring a teenage boy and the bus driver.

Eyeless in Gaza

First I saw a young protester telling a CNN reporter in Trafalgar Square, “Every single day, as soon as we turn on the TV, we see children there die in the hospitals, adults dying, children dying on the floor. Why, why, why? Why do children have to die? Why do innocent children have to die on the floor? Why?”

And I thought, She’s right, those children in Gaza are innocent, every human life is precious, civilians aren’t combatants. Doesn’t everyone deserve basic human rights like food and water and life itself?

But then I thought, Where was she when 80 or 90 Hamas rockets a day were raining down on Israel? Where were all the television cameras when innocent children in Ashkelon and Sderot were being maimed and killed?

But then I saw pictures of massive devastation in Gaza on the front pages of the newspapers, and I thought, What good does it do if Israel appears to act like its enemies?

But then I heard Shimon Peres tell George Stephanopoulos that Hamas “did things which are unprecedented in the history even of terror. They made mosques into headquarters. They put bombs in the kindergartens, in their own homes. They are hiding in hospitals.” Where were all the people of Gaza rising up in outrage when Hamas used them as human shields?

Then I heard Palestinian negotiator Hannan Ashwari say that Gaza was a secondary issue, that the real imperative was to reach a lasting political agreement, not a temporary military outcome, and I thought, She’s right, there will be no peace and security for Israel unless a viable two-state solution is reached.

” alt=’Complete Gaza Coverage’ title=’Complete Gaza Coverage’ vspace = 8 hspace = 8 border = 0 align = left>But then I read a blog by Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg recounting his interview with Nizzar Rayyan, the Hamas leader who was killed by Israeli bombs last week. “This is what he said when I asked him if he could envision a 50-year hudna (or cease-fire) with Israel: ‘The only reason to have a hudna is to prepare yourself for the final battle. We don’t need 50 years to prepare ourselves for the final battle with Israel.’ There is no chance, he said, that true Islam would ever allow a Jewish state to survive in the Muslim Middle East.

‘Israel is an impossibility. It is an offense against God… You [Jews] are murderers of the prophets and you have closed your ears to the Messenger of Allah…. Jews tried to kill the Prophet, peace be unto him. All throughout history, you have stood in opposition to the word of God.'”

And I thought, How can you negotiate with people who reject your nation’s right to exist, and whose version of religion calls you a murderous race? If someone claimed that the best way for America to deal with Bin Laden is to reach a political agreement with al-Qaeda, I’d say that they’re nuts, that there can be no negotiation or accommodation with people lusting for a final battle to rid your people from the earth.

But then I heard an Arab diplomat railing against Israel’s continuing tolerance of illegal settlements, and I thought, As long as Knesset coalition governments are dependent on ultra-Orthodox parties who have no respect for the law, how can anyone expect Arab moderates to gain enough political power for Israel to negotiate with them, when Israeli moderates can’t muster that clout either?

Then I reminded myself that the people of Gaza overwhelmingly voted for Hamas in a democratic election, and I thought, What good is democracy, if it can put terrorists in charge of governments?

But then I read that tens of thousands of Israeli Arabs in the Israeli town of Sakhnin had rallied against Israel’s Gaza offensive, and I thought, What Middle East nation except Israel would ensure that anti-government protesters had the right to hold such a demonstration?

And then I remembered reading that former Israeli army chief Moshe Yaalon warned Israelis not to delude themselves about Israel’s Arab population, that Israeli Arabs — a fifth of Israel — constitute a potential fifth column.

Then I saw a Teleseker Institute poll saying that 95 percent of Israeli Jews support Operation Cast Lead against Hamas. But then I saw a Rasmussen poll saying that while 44 percent of Americans think Israel should have taken military action against the Palestinians, 41 percent say it should have tried to find a diplomatic solution — essentially a tie, within the poll’s margin of error. And I wondered, How long does diplomacy have to keep failing, how many bombs have to keep dropping, before self-defense finally trumps talk?

I wish I didn’t believe that the events now unfolding in the Middle East are too complicated for unalloyed outrage. I wish the arguments of only one side rang wholly true to me. I am the first to accuse myself of paralyzing moral generosity — the fatal empathy that terrorists prey on. But ambivalence is not the same as moral equivalence, and holy war, no matter who is waging it, makes my flesh crawl.

In Milton’s poem “Samson Agonistes,” Samson — blinded, in chains — cries out, “Promise was that I/ Should Israel from Philistian yoke deliver;/ Ask for this great deliverer now, and find him/ Eyeless in Gaza at the mill with slaves.” But when Samson shows the strength to shun Delilah, God restores his power, enabling him to pull down the temple and kill the Philistines, though along with himself.

What makes “Samson Agonistes” a tragedy is the self-destruction that victory entails. I passionately assert Israel’s right to exist in peace with its neighbors and within secure borders. But I can’t help fearing that its military success in Gaza, should it come, will also entail a tragic cost.

Marty Kaplan holds the Norman Lear chair at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. His column appears here weekly; the views he expresses are his own. Reach him at

Quiet ends in Sderot as rocket attacks resume

SDEROT, ISRAEL (JTA) –Elior Levy was trying to get some rest Monday night.

Living in Sderot, the working-class town on the front line of Israel’s battle with rockets from Gaza, Levy is no stranger to having his sleep interrupted by middle-of-the-night Qassam salvos. Usually a Code Red alert gives residents a 15-second warning to find shelter, but at 5 o’clock Tuesday morning, Levy heard a big crash — and this time there was no warning.

Fortunately, the rocket was not close and caused little damage. So Levy, 17, said he took a sip of water and went back to sleep. Some, particularly the town’s younger children, do not return to slumber so easily.

Residents of the hard-hit Mem-Shalosh neighborhood, on the city’s south side, had been sleeping better the last six months, due to the cease-fire with Hamas.

Until about two weeks ago, that is, when the Israeli army blew up a tunnel that Hamas was building. The army believes the tunnel was to carry out another kidnapping operation of the kind that captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who is still missing.

Since the army operation, the region has been hit by a daily barrage of rockets — about a dozen Monday, more than 30 the day before. Sixty have fallen on Sderot alone so far this month, according to the town’s security officer. The situation essentially is returning to what it had been for much of the past eight years.

The residents of Sderot aren’t happy, but they’re also not surprised.

“We knew it would happen,” said Hadas Nir, who lives in nearby Kibbutz Yad Mordechai and attends Sapir Academy. That’s just what life is like in this area, she said.

“We wake in the morning with Qassams,” Nir said, “and we go to bed at night with Qassams.”

The situation is frightening, but she will deal with it.

“I don’t feel I want to leave the area,” she said. “We have to stay here.”

Rotem Yagel agreed. “If we leave, it is a prize for them,” he said, referring to the Hamas terrorists.

Yagel, 28, originally from Beersheba, is living in the Ayalim student village at Yahini, a moshav a few miles south of Sderot. It is a volunteer work-study program run by the Jewish Agency for Israel that also aims to populate the Negev and Galilee regions.

Itay Avinathan, his roommate in one of the caravans erected by the student volunteers, is staying put, too, even though he said the security risk “is always there.” Avinathan, 24, of Haifa said he wouldn’t have changed his mind about joining the program this fall, even if he had known the rocket fire would resume.

But it is the effect of the rockets on the area’s young children that concerns most people. That is why many of the aid programs for Sderot, funded by the Israel Emergency Campaign of the United Jewish Communities (UJC), are aimed at the youth.

Children like Tal Schneior, a 10-year-old with two sisters and a cat, “likes living in Sderot,” she said in Hebrew, “but there are too many Qassams and Code Reds.”

Others are not taking the situation with such equanimity. A 16-year-old named Ligmor told a visiting group of UJC leaders Tuesday about a close friend whose house was once struck by a rocket. Now every time a Code Red goes off at school, the friend cries inconsolably until her father reassures her by phone that everyone in the family is fine.

David Bouskila, who was elected Sderot’s mayor last week, frets that every child born in the town during the past eight years “doesn’t know any other life than this reality.”

During the past six months of relative quiet, “everything starts to be so nice,” he said. But now that calm has been shattered.

Bouskila, who takes office Dec. 2, is critical of how the government, headed by his own Kadima Party, is handling the situation.

“In the case of security, we have no government in Israel,” he said.

The government has initiated a program to fortify houses in Sderot, beginning with one-story structures. There are 1,048 of them, and just 200 have been completed, Bouskila said, adding that he expects the entire project will be completed in two to three years.

Meanwhile, a host of social services, funded partly by businesses and partly by U.S. federation dollars, have sprung up to make the best of a difficult situation. For example, some 5,000 children in Sderot take part in the Jewish Agency’s Enrichment Fund programs, which provide extracurricular activities during the school day. Parents in Sderot want to see their children return safely home immediately after school, so activities after school are not an option.

There is also the Net@ program, a unique partnership with Cisco, a U.S. company, and Tapuach, an Israeli computer firm, to train promising high school students to be computer network technicians. Upon completion of the rigorous and competitive program, they receive certification from Cisco that makes them marketable for high-tech jobs.

The residents of Sderot deeply appreciate the support — both moral and financial — that they receive from outsiders. But they do not want to be pitied or thought of as impoverished.

“We are not a city of poor people,” Bouskila told the visiting UJC delegation that had come from the group’s General Assembly taking place this week in Jerusalem. “We are a proud people that live in terrible stress.”

Kassams land near mayor of Sderot’s house; Interfaith fellowship group denies missionary ties

Qassam Lands Near Sderot Mayor’s Home

A Qassam rocket fired from the Gaza Strip landed in a residential neighborhood of Sderot.

The rocket landed Sunday not far from the home of Mayor Eli Moyal, Ynet reported, and started a fire that was extinguished quickly by firefighters. No injuries were reported.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered all Israel-Gaza border crossings closed Monday in response to the attack.

An Egyptian-mediated cease-fire between Israel and the terrorist Hamas-run Gaza Strip has been breached by rocket attacks more than 36 times in the past three months.

“Everything is all right at home,” Moyal told Ynet. “The problem here is not a personal one but a political one. People are under the impression that there is a cease-fire, but a few dozen rockets have been fired at Israel since the truce went into effect.

“During the months of the cease-fire the Palestinian groups have armed themselves with thousands of more rockets.”

Eckstein Denies Group’s Money Used to Missionize

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein denied a report suggesting that some money raised by his interfaith group was used to missionize Jews.

The Israeli daily Ma’ariv reported Monday that Eckstein’s organization, the Chicago-based International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, gave $10,000 in 2007 to an evangelical group in Jerusalem that proselytizes Israeli Jews. It also reported that the fellowship sent money to a Protestant group in Massachusetts that Ma’ariv called “a controversial Christian cult.”

Eckstein, the fellowship’s founder and president who has raised tens of millions of dollars for Israel from American evangelicals, insisted the story misrepresented the facts. He said the report was simply a continuation of a smear campaign against him and the information was fed to the newspaper by a source with an axe to grind.

Eckstein said the fellowship used the Jerusalem group, King of Kings, to pass $10,000 to a church in Bethlehem to help provide humanitarian aid to local Christians before Christmas.

“We were informed last year about the dwindling Christian community in Bethlehem, which has been persecuted by the radical Muslims there to the point that most of them have left. And the Protestant church there and the people there needed funds for basic needs — food, clothing, medicine, heating fuel,” he said. “We didn’t hesitate to respond with a modest gift — at least for us. The only place that could deliver that was this group, King of Kings.”

As to the gift to the Massachusetts group, the Community of Christ in Orleans, Eckstein said it was a $750 donation by the fellowship to the group’s choir after canceling on an event there.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Hamas celebrates one year in office

Cease-fire with Hamas appears imminent

JERUSALEM (JTA)—A six-month cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, due to go into effect Thursday, could help create conditions for wider peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians.

But there are two huge potential stumbling blocks: Israeli generals doubt whether the “tahadiyeh,” or truce, will hold and the chances that Hamas and the more moderate Fatah, which controls the West Bank, will work in tandem for a wider peace deal are remote.

When Hamas violently took control of the Gaza Strip a year ago, Israeli and American leaders saw a window of opportunity for peacemaking with the relatively moderate Fatah leaders.

The idea was that with Hamas out of the way, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas finally could negotiate the two-state deal Israel and the Palestinians have been trying to close ever since the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords.

A year later, the situation is more complicated.

Abbas hasn’t had the authority or power to deliver on a deal that would include only the West Bank, let alone a full-fledged peace-abiding Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

After some 2,000 Kassam rockets and mortar shells blasting Israel’s southern towns, it has become clear that as long as Hamas controls Gaza, it can scuttle any deal by rocketing Israeli civilians.

Egypt announced Tuesday that the cease-fire deal it has been brokering between Israel and Hamas would go into effect Thursday morning. Israeli forces will stop initiating attacks in Gaza and Hamas will ensure an end to cross-border shelling from the territory, Egyptian mediators said.

Hamas confirmed the truce schedule. Israel said only that it was sending a senior defense official, Amos Gilad, to Cairo for a new round of talks.

Israeli officials had said earlier a truce was imminent and that in addition to a suspension of hostilities, it would involve easing a blockade on Gaza.

But Israel has demanded progress in talks on the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, a soldier held hostage by Hamas, for Gaza’s border crossing with Egypt to open.

For weeks, Egypt has been mediating a temporary lull in hostilities between Israel and Hamas. In a breakthrough a few days ago, both sides agreed to make major concessions. Hamas dropped its insistence on linkage between a cease-fire in Gaza and one in the West Bank, and Israel gave up its demand for Shalit’s release as part of an initial cease-fire deal.

Hamas’ compromise on the West Bank, where Israel insists on freedom of action against radical militants, constitutes a major retreat. The implication is that Hamas does not speak for the Palestinian people as a whole but only for Gaza.

Israel agreed to decouple the cease-fire and Shalit’s release on the understanding that immediately after the lull takes hold, the parties will begin intensive negotiations through Egypt on a prisoner exchange.

Although neither recognizes the other, Israel and Hamas for their own reasons have agreed to stop shooting after a year of relentless hostilities. Both sides have much to gain from the cease-fire.

Over the past few months, Hamas and other militant groups have been taking a pounding from the Israel Defense Forces, losing an average of four members a day. That pounding continued Tuesday, even as the cease-fire was announced.
Moreover, without a cease-fire, Hamas leaders know they face the prospect of a major Israeli ground incursion that could deal a crushing blow to their military infrastructure.

They also hope that if the lull holds, Israel will lift its economic blockade and open border crossing points, including the Rafah crossing into Egypt.
For Israel, a cease-fire would enable it to avoid the inevitable casualties of a major ground operation, ensure quiet for civilians in the Gaza perimeter who have been under constant rocket attack for more than seven years and create conditions for Shalit’s release.

Hamas attacks in recent weeks have become more intense after the militiamen received Iranian 120mm mortars, which are more accurate, more deadly and have a longer range than the homemade Kassam rockets they had been using.

Israel, however, does have some major concerns.

Israelis are worried that Hamas will use the lull to bring in heavy weapons, build bunkers, move up forces and lay mines close to the border fence. In short, Hamas will be able to make major strides toward what the Israelis call the “Hezbollization of Gaza”—the creation of a military infrastructure similar to that of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon.

They are worried as well that the Egyptians, even with special new American equipment for locating tunnels, will not prevent large-scale weapons’ smuggling into Gaza during the lull. Moreover, the Israelis are not sure that Hamas can be trusted, once the military pressure is off, to make a deal on Shalit.

The Israeli Cabinet, because of the cease-fire’s potential downside, has been divided. Defense Minister Ehud Barak resisted pressure from Kadima Party leaders—including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his would-be successors, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz—to launch a major ground attack. But the real threat of a ground action may have been a factor in Hamas’ decision to support the cease-fire.

If the cease-fire does hold, it could help create the conditions for an agreement between Israel and the more moderate West Bank leadership.

The answer to Abbas’ perceived weakness has been what the parties are calling a “shelf agreement”—Israel and the moderate Palestinians, with American help, are trying to reach a deal on Israeli-Palestinian peace that remains “on the shelf” until conditions are ripe for its implementation.

This suits Israel because it shows the international community how far the Jewish state is prepared to go for a peace deal without actually having to make any concessions. And it suits the Palestinians, who intend to pocket whatever concessions Israel makes on paper as a point of departure for further gains if and when implementation becomes possible.

The more moderate West Bank Palestinians have been pressing for Israel to start putting down on paper the agreed elements of a peace agreement. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s recent visit to Israel, her sixth since the Annapolis peace conference last November, was intended to help this process.

With the December target date set by President Bush for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement only six months away, the U.S. administration is urging both sides to make quicker progress. Rice seems to be rapidly approaching the point where she will prepare to start exerting pressure on both sides. This week she was highly critical of new Israeli construction projects in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

On the face of it, the cease-fire with Hamas and the new urgency on the moderate Palestinian track could pave the way for a wider Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

But Fatah and Hamas are locked in a mortal struggle for control of the Palestinian movement. The chances of them getting together and presenting the united front that would make a wider peace deal possible are remote.

In Sderot

I don’t make a habit of putting myself in harm’s way. I buckle up, I don’t smoke, I’ve started on Lipitor and wherever there’s a town that’s being pounded by randomly fired rockets and mortars each day, I stay away.

But I couldn’t stay away from Sderot.

We’ve been running stories about this town in southern Israel for many years. In March 2001, Hamas terrorists in Gaza launched their first crude, deadly, homemade rocket, called a Qassam, into Israel. It landed on a cowshed on Kibbutz Nahal Oz, between the Gaza border and Sderot.

Since then, some 7,000 rockets and mortars have struck the region. They have killed 16 people and wounded hundreds more. Some days no rockets fall, others several dozens rain from the skies. A siren, which Israelis call a “red alert,” precedes each attack. That gives residents 15 to 30 seconds to run for shelter.

The attacks have abolished normal life for the 20,000 residents of Sderot and the thousands who live nearby. About one-third to one-half of the population has moved out of Qassam range. The people who remain are tethered to their homes, either because they can’t afford to leave, or because they, or their parents, refuse to give in.

I wanted to see for myself what life is like there, in a battle zone that is both active and actively overlooked — even within its own country.

United Jewish Communities (UJC), which funds programs to help alleviate some of the problems residents face in Sderot, offered to fly me over with a bunch of other journalists to take a look. I swallowed and said sure. I told my family I would wear my tennis shoes and sprint for the bomb shelter, no matter whom I had to push aside to get there first. I was kind of joking, of course. But I did pack my Lipitor.

Is there a way to stop rockets and avoid a Gaza fight?

Sderot is a city in the south of Israel, very close to the Gaza Strip. In the year 2007, it has been hit by 1,000 Qassam rockets and 1,200 mortar shells launched by the Palestinians.

Life in Sderot has become hell, but Israel finds it very difficult to defend it, because the people who launch the Qassams are hiding among civilians. Slowly but surely, however, Israeli patience is running out.

Is there a way to stop this ongoing terrorist attack on Sderot without entering Gaza with great force in an incursion that would most probably cost the lives of many Palestinians and Israelis?

Ernest, a reader from Florida, believes there is. He proposes to deploy Qassams and Katyushas in Sderot aimed at Gaza and operated acoustically: When the Palestinian Qassam hits Sderot, the blast will automatically trigger the launching of an Israeli Qassam or Katyusha on the heads of the people in Gaza who had been harassing Sderot. All that without an Israeli finger involved in the process.

I bounced the idea with some experts. A lawyer well versed in the laws of war called it “creative.” One law professor thought it fitted the principle of self-defense. A professor of philosophy, on the other hand, objected strongly: “What if our Qassam, even if technically launched by the Palestinians, hits a kindergarten in Gaza?”

I was left without a solution.

Then, I received an invitation to a conference at Hebrew University titled, “Democracy Fighting Terror With One Hand Tied Behind Its Back: Why, When and How Must This Hand Be Untied.” Bingo! Never mind the long title: This was exactly what I needed.

The speakers were professor Aharon Barak, former president of the Israeli Supreme Court, and professor Richard Posner, former chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit. No wonder that the huge hall at the Mount Scopus campus was packed with an anxious crowd.

However, when Efraim Halevy, former head of the Mossad, took to the podium to moderate the event, four young female students started heckling loudly. Obviously, they were not happy with the way Israel was fighting terror. I could hear them yelling something about the abuse of human rights.

There and then, the weakness of democracy was exposed. One thousand people, who had gathered solemnly to listen to the speakers, were taken hostage by four people who insisted on their right to protest. This collision of rights lingered for a while, until the four students were kicked out by the security guards, with the cheers of the relieved crowd. The lesson was that in a democracy, sometimes even the majority has its rights.

Finally, former Chief Justice Barak started speaking. The much respected judge was the one who had coined the phrase that in the battle against terrorism, democracy was fighting “with one hand tied behind its back.” In other words, in the rush to combat the terrorists effectively, human and civil rights should still be respected. The audience responded with a roaring applause.

Then Judge Posner gave his American point of view. He said that in times of grave danger, human and civil rights might temporarily recede. He reminded us that during the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln — the greatest American president, in his words — unconstitutionally suspended habeas corpus, because he believed that saving the union was more important than protecting a specific right. When the crisis was over, the rights were re-established. Posner received the same volume of hand-clapping.

A limbo again.

As I left the auditorium, a friend told me about a psychologist sent to comfort the people of Sderot, who had been traumatized by the relentless shelling of their city. A mother of six told him that whenever the alarm went off, the people under attack had exactly 50 seconds to rush to the shelters before the Qassam rockets hit their target.

“Yet in that period of time” she said, “I can only carry two of them to safety. What about the remaining four?”

I pray that no Qassam rocket hits a kindergarten in Sderot and, God forbid, kills several children. All debate will then stop, and the tanks will start rolling.

In the meantime, keep trying, Ernest. And if anybody else has more creative ideas about how Israel should act, short of entering Gaza and stopping the terrorists by force, please let me know.

Uri Dromi is director general of Mishkenot Sha’ananim, a conference center in Jerusalem. He can be reached at

Sderot stories