In Israel's Sderot, a reprieve from rockets, but not fear

Israel's offensive in Gaza largely stopped the Hamas rocket fire. But residents are reluctant to let down their guard.

Tsafrir Abayov/ AP
Braced: Israelis wait at a bus stop that has been reinforced to withstand rockets in Sderot, Israel.

During nearly a decade of intermittent attacks from Gaza, Mivtzah Kadesh Street became infamous in this battered town as a frequent target for rockets as well as a bombed-out backdrop for visits from foreign VIPs expressing solidarity.

Now, eight months after Israel's Gaza offensive to punish Hamas for attacks, Sderot's wrecked homes have been largely rebuilt. But after eight years of being on constant alert for unpredictable rocket attacks, it has not been as easy for Sderot's 19,000 residents to restore their peace of mind.

Yehudit Barkai, a field worker in Sderot for Natal, the Israel Trauma Coalition, compares Sderot's experience with America's.

"9/11 happened once. It was terrible, but it was only once," says Ms. Barkai, who says that many in Sderot suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. "We're talking about eight years."

Sderot's experience is unique even for Israel: No other town here has endured such sustained stress for such a long period of time. Though casualties have been relatively low, the fear of attacks has taken a toll in this town less than three miles from the Gazan border.

"Every small noise can reawaken the fear," says Aliza Amar, a mother of four who last summer hosted then-presidential nominee Barack Obama in her wrecked home. "Anytime a door slams or a car alarm goes off you still hear the 'code red' alert."

"I would leave if I had more money," says Shula Sasson, a mother of five who lives next door and spent a week in the hospital because of mental trauma from the rocket barrages.

Since the last missile hit Sderot in May, there has been only one attempted attack, in which a "code red" alarm was sounded but no rockets hit the town.

But amid Israeli press reports that Hamas is rearming with smuggled weapons, even kids here utter the mantra that it's merely "the calm before the storm." In the town center, the signs of conflict can be seen in the roadside billboards that advertise air conditioners for in-home safe rooms. A cross-border mortar attack last week with no casualties is considered a bad omen.

And so, families that rented flats in neighboring areas to escape the missile barrage have not yet returned. Children do not venture far from home, and adults forgo evening outings.

At the Diyo restaurant, that means owner Haim Cohen has only recovered 30 percent of his business since the war, an offensive he nevertheless supported. "Now that they [Gazans] took a big hit, they'll think 1,000 times before shooting more rockets."

Across the street at Yaffa's hair salon, a group of women listen to the recounting of a recent nightmare in which someone is badly wounded by Qassam rocket shrapnel.

"It was a bad period of helplessness. We're trying to be optimistic and get back to normal," says Levana Sasporta, a grandmother in the salon. "But you can't be complacent. There [is] no [assurance] it won't happen again."

But unlike most residents here, she empathizes with Gazans.

"I don't support killing Arabs," says Mrs. Sasporta, who says her son fought in the Gaza war and was "torn" between the destruction there and the attacks in Israel. "They are God's creation as well."

Related: Why Gaza's moderates are losing hope

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