Israeli town copes with return of near daily rockets

In Sderot, Purim holiday fun masks stresses of rocket attacks from Gaza militants.

Ilene Prusher/The Christian Science Monitor
Daily challenge: Chana Melul's children play in Sderot, Israel, near a newly-built shelter for protection from the nearly-constant rocket fire from Gaza. The children are dressed in costumes to celebrate Purim, the holiday when Jews celebrate being saved from destruction in ancient Persia.

The very hour Chana Melul returned to Sderot with her three young boys, whom she'd taken on vacation up north to escape the front lines, the rockets were back.

Minutes after they set down their suitcases, a Qassam rocket launched from nearby Gaza landed about 50 yards from their apartment building. It crashed into a storage shed and blew apart the sidewalk that leads to the community center around the corner. The center includes a rocket-resistant theater, recently built to give kids and grownups living here a little stress-free entertainment.

But for Ms. Melul, a single mother, the disquiet never really goes away.

"It's always right here," she says, pointing to her head.

Melul could move elsewhere in the country, but to do so, she says, would defeat the purpose of why she moved back here just over six years ago: the support of family and the community in which she grew up. She moved away as an adult, studied special education, and then moved back when she was pregnant with the twins.

"I needed some help when they were born, and my sister was here. Rents are cheaper here, so it was just much more feasible. And apart from the problem, well, a really big problem," she says, as if to correct herself, "it's a great place to live."

That problem: Nearly two months after Israel and Hamas each declared unilateral cease-fires, they have yet to come to an official truce. The two sides communicate with the help of Egyptian negotiators, who expressed disappointment when the talks broke off last month after Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert, made it clear that he would not agree to a cease-fire that did not include the release of Sgt. Gilad Shalit, held by Hamas since June 2006.

In the meantime, the violent volleys continue. Several times a week, Israel strikes at smuggling tunnels and the Palestinian militants in Gaza it says are responsible for launching rockets. Hamas and other groups such as Islamic Jihad send several rockets and short-range missiles into Israel on an almost daily basis.

Constant threats

For Melul, like other residents in this border town, the challenges pepper the day. The trip to and from school is the most unsettling, as most of the Israelis who have been killed by rockets – 28 in the past eight years – were in an unprotected area. Four years ago, Melul had just left Sderot's shopping center when a rocket slammed into the parking lot, killing 4-year-old Afik Ohayon, a schoolmate of her son, Timor.

"It's scary. Well, when we go in the car it is, because when there's a 'Code Red,' there's nowhere to hide," says Timor, using the term for incoming rockets. It was intended as a less alarming alternative to the wailing sirens that are used when deadlier Katyusha rockets are launched from Lebanon and which Israelis remember from the 1991 Gulf War when Saddam Hussein launched Scud missiles at Israel.

Today Timor, aged 8, won't let his mother leave them home alone for even a few minutes: He's afraid the "Code Red" will sound and he won't be able to corral his younger twin brothers into the shelter in time. Timor has been having nightmares, Melul explains. The two younger boys, Dvir and Naveh, who are 6, started exhibiting other unusual behaviors and ticks, and are now in therapy for childhood posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

A recent study by NATAL, the Israel Trauma Center for Victims of War and Terror, found that 28.4 percent of people in Sderot suffered from symptoms associated with PTSD, compared with 5.2 percent in Ofakim, a town in southern Israel which has a similar socioeconomic profile but is not under rocket fire. Overall levels of anxiety and depression were nearly two to three times as high in Sderot, and children here are five times as likely to have sleep difficulties. Nearly 1 in 5 has behavioral problems.

"It affects every moment of your daily life in some way," Melul says. She points to the bicycles in the hallway, noting that her kids, like their schoolmates, don't take much interest in going out to ride. "The more you're out and about, the more you're at risk."

About a week ago, a Grad missile hit the Ashkelon school where Melul works. The courtyard where her students play took a direct hit. Fortunately, it happened to be a Saturday.

There have been other close calls. About two years ago, a rocket hit her sister's living room. "Everything was broken. You couldn't recognize a thing," she says. They repaired the damage quickly with the help of government support.

Geographically, her closest neighbors are in northern Gaza, where houses have suffered destruction in the recent war that simply can't be compared to the damages done here by Qassam rockets. But that, Melul believes, is the result of the Palestinians' behavior in continually seeking war with Israel, continuing to fire rockets even after Israel pulled out of Gaza in August 2005.

"I thought maybe giving up Gaza, with all of those beautiful greenhouses, was a price we should pay for peace," she says. "But now everyone who supported the disengagement is sorry they did. We lived here by our sword for 60 years, and we said it's enough, we want to live in peace, so we left Gaza."

She doesn't see logic in the argument that Hamas is fighting for Israel to open the border crossings. "Why doesn't Egypt open the border? You have your brothers on the other side – let them supply you with what you need," she argues.

Nor does Melul put much hope in a cease-fire, because she thinks that Hamas will use it as a period of time to regroup and to smuggle in more weapons.

Abnormal becomes normal

Despite the ever-present rocket threat, there has a been a kind of normalization of the abnormal in war-weary Sderot. In school, the boys have learned "The Code Red Song," a kind of nursery rhyme designed to get kids to recognize what to do when the rocket signal sounds – and how to shake off the stress later.

Living in Sderot also means living with the windows open, winter or summer, rain or shine – in order to hear warnings. Sometimes the rockets avoid detection, and fall with no warning at all.

But if there's anytime to try to forget all of that, it's now, during Purim, the holiday when Jews celebrate being saved from destruction in ancient Persia, now Iran. Among their holiday outings this week, Melul will take the kids to check out Sderot's new rocket proof recreation area. The $5 million project, unveiled Tuesday, will serve as a playground, an area for senior citizens, and as a disco at night.

Part of the fun involves dressing up in costume and eating sweets. Timor is decked in a red ninja-like suit as Inuyasha, an action-hero from a Japanese animation series.

"He saves people," Timor explains. Naveh is dressed as a hasid, complete with a furry hat. Dvir is a court jester.

Melul has a booklet of all the exciting Purim events, most of them of run by volunteers from elsewhere trying to raise the spirits of Sderot.

But she hasn't told the kids what's on – a kind of preventive parenting tailored for life in a war zone. If the situation heats up again, and the missiles start coming not by singles but by the dozen, they just might be staying home. "This way," she says, "if some things get canceled, they won't be disappointed."

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