Page last updated at 11:30 GMT, Thursday, 15 January 2009

Sderot longs for end to rockets

By Heather Sharp
BBC News, Sderot

Sderot Taxi driver Eli Atiya
Taxi driver Eli Atiya says business has picked up in recent days

There are almost as many pedestrians as journalists in the centre of the southern Israeli town of Sderot.

Taxi driver Eli Atiya, 35, says business has been terrible for most of the 19 days of Israel's operation in Gaza, but has recently picked up a little.

Schools have reopened and locals have begun venturing further from the concrete shelters which protect them from the Palestinian rockets and mortars that have plagued the town in recent years.

As the Israeli military has pounded Gaza, the daily barrage fired into Israel has been reduced, but not stopped.

"If the Qassams keep coming, it was all for nothing," says Mr Atiya.

When the operation began, about 10 rockets a day fell on the small town, but for the past week the total has been two or three.

None of the four people killed by rockets in the past three weeks have been in Sderot, but three people in the town have been injured and about 100 Qassams have caused serious damage.

Similar views

Sderot's population is about 20,000, although no-one is sure exactly how many have left to escape the rockets. Those remaining are partly traumatised, partly resigned.

Most have similar views.

They welcomed the military operation and they had waited eight years for successive governments to act decisively against the rocket fire.

They want the Israeli military to fight on until the rockets stop completely.

Sderot accountant Shaula Hoffy
Shaula Hoffy says the fighting in Gaza is not just for Sderot

They feel sorry for Palestinian civilians who are suffering, but say Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, is largely to blame for putting them in the firing line.

Accountant Shaula Hoffy, 54, is typical when she says it is "not yet" time for Israel to halt its operation.

"As long as Hamas are still firing rockets, they have not been weakened," she says as she waits for a haircut.

"The war is not just for Sderot. If we don't stop them now, they are going to send rockets to Tel Aviv. We have to deter them. It is not just about us in Sderot."

She says her three grandchildren, aged eight, seven and three, have been "really scared" in their home in Ashkelon, a coastal city repeatedly targeted as Hamas's rocket range has increased.

For the past three weeks she has left home "as little as possible".

"What I need to do, I do - and a haircut is very important," she says, adding with black humour: "I want to die pretty."

'Matter of luck'

In the hairdressers, most people have a Qassam story to tell.

Photography student David Rinkevich says the homes of his parents, brother and grandmother have all had near-misses.

"It's just a matter of luck no-one has been hurt," he says.

George Mtaev, 23, one of the two barbers, says his car was hit three weeks ago - "a total loss."

Factory manager Israel Harary, 44, says a rocket plunged into his 20-year-old daughter's room a month ago.

She was physically unharmed but suffered vomiting, fever and panic attacks from the shock, he said.

He has mixed feelings about the military operation. When he heard the first explosions echoing across the few kilometres from Gaza, he climbed on to his roof and began taking pictures on his mobile phone.

"I felt very glad because it had been eight years and the government had done nothing," he said.

But, as the Israeli news channels scrabbled to react, he tuned in to the Arabic satellite station al-Jazeera, and saw graphic footage of the injured and dead.

"It was very hard to see," he says. "Now there are 1,000 people dead - children, women - I don't feel sorry about Hamas, but I feel very, very sorry about the children."

"I don't know what is going to be left of Gaza. I think Israel is building another Palestinian generation to hate us. And we are building one to hate them."

Sadness and anger

A short drive away, on a leafy street of well-kept villas, lives Nomika Zion, who describes herself as a "lonely voice".

She is one of a small number of pro-peace left-wingers living within the range of the rockets, opposed to a war being fought in their name that is backed by much of Israel's population.

She speaks with sadness and anger about the effect of the rocket fire on the population.

Nomika Zion, from Sderot
Nomika Zion has sought to build ties with Palestinians in Gaza

But she goes on to explain that her group, named "Another Voice" urges a solution via dialogue and meets weekly to hold telephone conversations with Gazans.

"We wanted to see human beings, not just demons," she says.

Now she says she is torn in three directions - between her own community suffering from the rockets, the soldiers who are sons and husbands of friends, and the Palestinians in Gaza that she also describes as "friends".

"There is a catastrophe there. It is a bloodbath. We hear from them terrible, terrible stories."

But on a small hill towards the edge of town there is little sign of such concerns among the visiting Jerusalemites and off-duty policemen looking towards Gaza for plumes of smoke from Israeli bombing.

Ofer Mizrahi, 37, a reservist from north of Tel Aviv who has been helping paramedics in the area, says he feels "very bad" as talk of a ceasefire grows.

"Now I realise the mission will not be completed, I feel very sad," he said.

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