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In Israel, embattled Sderot comes back to life after rocket barrages of Gaza war

Sderot, Israel, was practically a ghost town a year ago, as daily rocket attacks from Gaza drove residents away. Today, it's rebuilding and its residents are looking toward 2010 with some hope.

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"There's no optimism here," says hair-cutter George Mataev. "The government doesn't give citizens here any sense of security. What the [Israeli] army did in Gaza a year ago was just temporary, and as soon as we make prisoner exchange deal over Gilad Shalit, the rockets will probably start again."

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David Bouskila, the mayor of Sderot, certainly hopes that's not true. He gushes about how much the city has bounced back to life in the year after the war. In an interview in his office, where he has a lamp whose base is an expired Qassam rocket, he points out that there are still one or two rockets launched per month at Sderot, despite the cease-fire. (Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs says 127 rockets and 70 mortar shells have been fired into Israel since the cease-fire that went into effect on Jan. 18.)

"We're trying to renovate not just homes and buildings that were damaged, but to help people get back to normal as well," Mr. Bouskila says. "About 7,000 residents here are suffering from post-traumatic stress, and it's not so easy for all of us to live not knowing what might happen tomorrow. I think people here are starting to believe that the problem with Gaza can be solved, but it must be a political solution, not a military solution."

While Sderot repairs and rebuilds, however, nearby Gazans have seen scant progress in their own reconstruction, despite the international donor community pledging approximately $5.2 billion in aid following the war. One of the main barriers to major rebuilding projects is the lack of cement and steel, which Israel has barred from entering Gaza through its borders. That is a decision that Bouskila defends.

"If you bring them cement and iron, they will produce Qassams, and we will find ourselves helping our enemies to destroy us," he says. "No one in Sderot enjoys the suffering of people in Gaza. But no one can guarantee us that any cement or iron we give them won't become the next Qassam. I think our national leaders know what's best from the security side, and my job is to take care of the quality of life of my people."

On Thursday, several hundred local activists, residents and rocket attack victims attended a "Sderot Rally for Hope." They marched to a lookout point over Gaza, and released white balloons with attached messages of hope, written by local 4th- and 5th-graders to children in Gaza.

"It's a symbolic gesture, but it's a sign that there are people here who definitely want to live in peace with our neighbors," says Anav Silverman, a spokeswoman for the Sderot Media Center and one of the organizers of the event. "Dec. 31 being the last day of 2009, we think it's a great way to open the new year and a new decade: with hope."

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