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Hamas rockets rain on Israeli towns

Only three civilian fatalities to date, but a climate of fear pervades Israel's southern communities.

By Correspondent / January 7, 2009

RELIEF EFFORTS: An Israeli volunteer helps clean up a home in Sderot, Israel, after a Hamas rocket attack on Monday.

Bernat Armangue/AP

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Nitzan, Israel

When the residents of this neighborhood of prefab bungalows were evacuated by Israel from the Gaza Strip 3-1/2 years ago, they thought they were leaving lives of daily shelling by Palestinian militants behind.

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But after Israel initiated its onslaught against Hamas on Dec. 27, this community of 3,000 former Gaza settlers just 15 miles from the border again finds itself in a war zone.

"There's been three years of calm, and suddenly you go back to the same situation," says Michal Nachmani, a former resident of the Gaza settlement of Neve Dekalim. "We don't have any way to protect our kids."

Just like the half million residents of southern Israel in the reach of Hamas's Katyusha rockets, the former settlers are adjusting to a new reality of intermittent warning sirens and a desperate scramble for cover. Schools have been canceled, businesses have pared back operations, and emergency workers have been put on a permanent state of alert.

More than 30 rockets were fired by Hamas on Monday. One of the rockets struck a large outdoor market that was closed at the time in the town of Sderot. Another rocket hit a kindergarten in Ashdod, Israel. The kindergarten was closed at the time. An Israeli toddler suffered minor injuries when a rocket hit Gedera, Israel, Tuesday.

On the other side of the border, two United Nation schools housing hundreds of refugees were hit by Israeli fire in Gaza City Tuesday. Palestinian medics said at least 34 people died – many of them children.

In Sderot, Israel, soldiers and municipal workers sit clustered at desks and tables in a bombproof underground operations room. They make phone calls and check the latest news online. Upstairs in another protected room, computer screens show the radar tracking where incoming rockets are likely to hit. When the civil defense sirens wail, Israelis have only a few seconds to find cover.

A warning at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday caught Nitzan resident Leora Wechsler with her young children still sleeping and no possibility to reach a shelter in time. "I was in the middle of the morning prayers, so I prayed a little harder," says Mrs. Wechsler, who heads a reactivated emergency social services network that was disbanded after the Gaza evacuation.

With three civilian fatalities in hundreds of rocket salvos since Dec. 27, the damage in Israel is less physical than psychological. The current attacks are reminiscent of the Hezbollah missiles during the 2006 war with Lebanon that strained the mettle of residents of northern Israel.

Psychologists and trauma counselors from around the country have been dispatched to Israel's southern communities. Among them are people like Ruvie Rogel, deputy director of the Community Stress Prevention Center in Kiryat Shemona, in northern Israel. His organization is putting to use its experience in Kiryat Shemona, which for years suffered rocket attacks from Lebanon.

He and his staff are counseling parents of young children and those whose sons are among the soldiers now fighting in Gaza. "Usually we have the education system as a stabilizing force," he says, "but now that it has been shut down parents are at home with the kids and it's very difficult for them to go to work and leave the kids at home alone."

Ironically, many former Israeli settlers say they now feel more anxious about attacks than when they lived inside Gaza, surrounded by nearly 1.5 million Palestinians. Some attribute it to becoming accustomed to life away from the front lines. Others say it's the loss of an ideological fortitude after being evacuated to a community inside Israel.

A third reason is that the plaster-walled homes lack the safe rooms that are standard for new residences in Israel. Their temporary homes were hastily thrown up in August 2005 until permanent homes could be built. And there are no bomb shelters in the neighborhood.

Five days after the start of the war, the Israeli military plunked down giant cement sewage ducts in Nitzan's cul-de-sacs as shelters from shrapnel. "But If there's a direct hit, there's nothing more to discuss," says Lior Kalfa, a former Gaza settler leader. On Tuesday morning, a team of soldiers were digging up the dunes on the outskirts of Nitzan and filling bags of sand to protect the homes of disabled who can't reach shelters. "It's not complete protection, but it's better than nothing," says one soldier.

• Reporter Dina Kraft in Sderot contributed to this report.

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