Page last updated at 15:53 GMT, Monday, 1 September 2008 16:53 UK

Sderot children feel truce relief

By Heather Sharp
BBC News, Sderot

Tal Rubin, 7, on her way to school in Sderot
Tal says some of the children cry as they take cover from rockets
Tal, 7, likes maths, Hebrew and playing hide-and-seek.

She clutches a pink backpack as she clambers into the car for her first day back at school after the summer.

She says she is excited to be going back to school, and says she is not afraid of the qassam rockets.

The crudely made, unguided projectiles fire by Palestinian militants in Gaza have defined normality for much of her life in her hometown Sderot, in southern Israel.

"This is the first year since she was born that she's felt relaxed on 1 September," says her mother, Roha Rubin.

Since June, a truce between the Palestinian militant group Hamas and Israel has brought the number of rockets fired into Israel from Gaza down from more than 50 on some of the worst days, to one every few days.

A smattering of traffic and pedestrians has returned to the town's previously deserted streets, which are punctuated with reinforced concrete bus stops that double as safety bunkers.

'Code Red'

Tal and the other 25 or so children in the second grade class at Hashikmim Primary School know the drill perfectly.

As soon as the "Code Red" siren sounds, they have 15 seconds to rush to a secure classroom or concrete shelter.

Graph showing rocket attacks into Israel from Gaza
"If there isn't enough time, we get under the desks," Tal says. "Some of the children cry."

But Roha says that since the 19 June truce, the children have for the first time in months been able to play outside, ride their bikes and visit friends.

"You can see that they're all more relaxed - they used to ask all the time 'what will happen if there is a qassam?' - now they don't talk about it."

Even so, she says, the tension remains. "The feeling's always in the background. You hear a door slam, you jump," she says.

The rockets have killed 23 people in the past five years. With more than 600 people injured since January 2007, virtually everyone in the town knows someone who has been hurt or had their home damaged.

"It's your friends, it's your neighbours, it's everyone," says Roha.

"I was once parked in town and just as I reversed, a rocket hit exactly where I had been parked. Some people are lucky, some aren't," she says.

Parents' fear

Outside the classroom, Adir, also seven, clings to his father, Michel Danino, until he is eventually persuaded to join the other children.

Michel says Adir and his brother spent much of last year at home.

"They're behind the others. I was afraid they would panic if they were here when there was an attack and that the teachers wouldn't be able to give them enough attention," he said.

Adir Danino, 7, is reassured by his father, Michel
Adir missed a lot of school last year because of the rockets
"We don't want to show the kids we are afraid, because we want them to feel secure. But I'm afraid for them," he says.

Only yesterday, he adds, he thought about following the estimated quarter of the town's 26,000 residents who have moved elsewhere.

He points out marks in the tarmac, a few metres from the school, where a rocket struck last February, hitting 8-year-old Osher Twito, who lost his leg in the incident.

Sderot parents have been pushing the Israeli government to improve the schools' secure areas.

While many do have thick, fortified arched canopies over their roofs, not all parts of the buildings are protected.

Michael looks angrily up at the unreinforced roof over one of the communal areas between the classrooms: "It's like paper," he says.

Fragile truce

Under the Egyptian-brokered truce, Israel agreed to work towards easing the crippling blockade it imposed on Gaza in response to the attacks, in exchange for an end to rocket and mortar fire.

The volume and range of goods entering the Strip has increased slightly, but Gazans have felt little improvement in their daily life.

Children prepare for welcome ceremony at Hashikmim School
Many schools have sections of fortified roof
However, the number of Palestinians dying in Israeli military operations against militants in Gaza has dropped - after 388 were killed in the first half of the year, nearly half of whom were civilians.

The view among most Sderot residents, however, is that it is just a matter of time before the truce breaks down and the rocket fire returns. Many families still sleep together in a single reinforced room in their homes.

As the children gather in an outdoor amphitheatre for a welcome ceremony, a police car siren briefly starts up.

Everyone freezes, glancing towards the concrete bunkers on the other side of the yard.

And even after the distant wail subsides, several children hover anxiously under the protective arch of the edge of the school building, suddenly wary of the open playground in front of them.

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