Living at Gaza's edge grows perilous, again

The Israeli town Sderot has been hit by dozens of Palestinian rockets over the past week.

Ask any kid in this sleepy town near the Gaza Strip what scares them the most, and they're likely to say shachar adom. When the garbled Hebrew words meaning red dawn come over Sderot's public address system, there are about 15 seconds to take cover before makeshift rockets fired by Palestinian militants touch down.

"The children are frightened. There are big kids wetting their beds. Others are taking relaxation pills," says Sima Hadad, a mother of three who kept her children home from school and demonstrated against the Israeli government on Tuesday. Like Ms. Hadad, many here say the Israeli government hasn't responded forcefully enough to the uptick of Palestinian rocket fire since eight Gazans were killed on a beach last Friday.

Since then, this blue collar community of 24,000 has absorbed dozens of salvos as the flare-up between Israel and Hamas grew into near daily attacks from both sides.

And while the number of victims from the crude rockets here is dwarfed by the tally on the Palestinian side, 11 Palestinians were killed in an Israeli attack Tuesday, the trauma felt by Sderot and nearby Israeli communities is beginning to recast the policy of unilateral withdrawal. At stake could be the fate of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's plan for a sweeping pullback in the West Bank.

"The disengagement has blown up in the face of residents of Sderot," says Alon Davidi, a Sderot resident who embarked on a hunger strike this week to pressure the government to respond harshly to the rocket attacks. "Every unilateral step will ultimately return as a boomerang without anyone to take responsibility except for ourselves. Today, the world is telling us: You disengaged. Don't come with complaints."

When Israel left Gaza in September, it thought that redeploying along an internationally recognized border would earn it more leeway in responding to the cross-border rocket salvos.

But after the killing of the eight Palestinian beachgoers invited a wave of international reproach, Israel is realizing that the international community will tolerate significantly less force against the Palestinians than initially expected. That has raised questions in Sderot about what an effective policy of deterrence should look like after Israel hands over land to the Palestinians.

"We need to hit them until they raise the white flag and say, 'We're ready for whatever you want,'" says Hava Gad, a mother of three who is also a hunger striker.

Some say this means air attacks razing Palestinian villages used by rocket launchers. Others have suggested a ground assault. But analysts say there is no perfect answer to the Kassam rockets.

"As clichéd as it sounds, there's no military solution. You can have some short-term gains, you can destroy some workshops, you can round up people shooting rockets," says Yossi Alpher, the editor of online journal on Middle East Affairs. "You can reoccupy the northern Gaza Strip, and instead you'll have the military casualties. It would put a lot of things on ice, like the disengagement plan and [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's] political plan. You wouldn't be able to stay that long either; you'd be under serious international pressure from the United States and Europe to withdraw."

It's a debate that has revealed some unexpected divisions among Israeli politicians.

The leading proponent for moderation has been Sderot favorite son and newly minted defense minister, Amir Peretz. Earlier in the week, he turned down a military plan to launch what would have been the first major offensive in Gaza since the pullout.

The bid to give the fighting a chance to subside has turned many neighbors into bitter critics, and the hunger strikers have hunkered down in a tent next to Mr. Peretz's house with signs like "Conquer Gaza."

Supporting Sderot residents' demand for a more punishing response has been Amram Mitzna, a dovish former general. Mr. Mitzna, a supporter of evacuating settlements in the West Bank, said the pullbacks must be accompanied by an effective deterrent, like Israel's response to Hizbullah attacks after its withdrawal from southern Lebanon six years ago. "We leave the territory [up] until the last centimeter, and you don't dare fire," says Mr. Mitzna. "If you dare, we will use all the means so you will stop."

Less than a mile from Gaza, Sderot residents can easily make out the bucolic fields and houses of Beit Hanoun, the Palestinian village used by rocket launchers as cover. Sderot Mayor Eli Moyal told reporters that since April 2001, some 3,000 rockets have been fired from Gaza into southern Israel, most of them at Sderot, killing five residents. The attacks have ravaged the Sderot's economy – and even started a small exodus. More would leave if they could afford it.

In recent months, the town has been averaging 80 rockets a month, an uptick from before the disengagement. Standing in front of a montage of pictures of the Kassam victims in the Sderot municipality's conference room, Mr. Moyal posed cradling a big piece of piping with four fins attached, a finish of green paint, and "Qassam 2" stenciled on the side. "This fell next to my house," he said. "We are suffering on a daily basis. The life in Sderot is not normal."

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