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Israeli towns enjoy post-conflict calm

Israeli boys shelter during a rocket attack on the Gaza border in December 2008
The trauma of rocket fire has become much less frequent for Sderot residents since the Israeli Gaza operation

By Tim Franks
BBC News, Sderot

On the edge of Sderot there is an unusual sight.

A digger is scooping mounds of reddy-brown earth. Men with nails in the corners of their mouths are hammering planks of wood.

More than 40 smart new villas are being built on this site, and across the town, 1,400 new homes have received planning permission.

A building site in Sderot
New buildings are under construction and house prices are rising in Sderot

It is unusual because there was a time when missiles were coming in from Gaza and the property market in Sderot was sinking ever further into the mire.

According to the Israeli army, 10,365 missiles were fired over the border between 2002 and the end of January 2009.

Now, according to the town's mayor, David Buskali, of the thousands of people who left Sderot in recent years more than half have returned.

"There are now zero houses empty," he says standing by the construction site.

Mr Buskali says that there are many cases of prices going up 40 or 50%, and, for some houses, prices have doubled.

Family return

The change of mood reached Limor Afflalo.

To the extent that those rockets virtually ceased makes the war, retrospectively, into a success
David Landau

Mrs Afflalo, her husband and their two children, left town and moved north two-and-a-half years ago.

Their house had been damaged in a missile strike.

In July this year she and her husband Avi decided the family should return to their home on a quiet tree-lined street in Sderot.

Mrs Afflalo is now trying to rebuild her business as a beauty therapist, working out of a small room in her house.

It is very difficult she says, because she has had no clients for two years.

Nor does she feel entirely safe, although far fewer missiles have been fired from Gaza since the end of the war; the Israeli army puts the number at 248, by 16 December.

Limor Afflalo
Mrs Afflalo has struggled to rebuild her business

"Although we have quiet there is always a cloud around your head," she says speaking in her neat front garden.

"In the next 10 minutes, you could hear again the Colour Red alarm."

Colour Red is the system, across southern Israel, which gives 15 to 30 seconds warning of incoming missiles.

So why has she returned? Mrs Afflalo sighs.

"Because it's very cruel to take your family away and close your business and throw it all away."

During the war it was striking that even as you headed away from Sderot and into the rest of Israel -where the missiles could not reach- how solid support was for the offensive.

One opinion poll suggested that nine out of 10 Jewish Israelis supported the war.

'Grisly cloud'

A year on, one of Israel's most astute political observers, the writer David Landau, says he imagines that opinion has not shifted that much.

He is careful to add a caveat, though.

"People are deeply disturbed by the high number of civilian casualties," he says.

GAZA CONFLICT CASUALTIES
Total Palestinian deaths:
1,409 (PCHR)
1,387 (B'Tselem)
1,166 (Israeli military)
Palestinian children killed:
326 (under 17, PCHR)
252 (under 16, B'tselem)
89 (under 16, Israeli military)
Palestinian civilians killed:
916* (PCHR)
773* (B'tselem)
295 plus 162 unknown (Israeli military)
Israelis killed:
3 civilians
10 security forces (includes 4 by friendly fire)
*Figs exclude about 250 Hamas police officers

PCHR=Palestinian Human Rights Centre, B'Tselem=Israeli human rights group

Human rights groups says about 1,400 Palestinians died, of which more than half were civilians. Israel says 1,166 died, of which a quarter were civilians.

Israel has faced heavy international criticism and allegations of war crimes.

The reason Israelis feel that this was a war which had to be fought was not just because of the need for there to be "quiet" in the south, Mr Landau argues.

Most people - including then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert - believe that in the end, a resolution to the conflict with the Palestinians will involve a return, more or less, to the borders of 1967 before Israel was the occupying power in Gaza and the West Bank.

He believes Hamas was challenging and undermining the border between Israelis and the Palestinians by firing rockets from Gaza into southern Israel.

"To the extent that those rockets virtually ceased makes the war, retrospectively, into a success," he says.

Mr Landau is keen to call this "a silver lining to a grisly cloud".

And he "condemns, with all my being" the continuing Israeli blockade of Gaza, which amounts to "collective punishment", he says.

Playing pleasure

Just across the border from Gaza, the pupils at the Amit Elementary School are enjoying the relative quiet.

Children play in a school playground in Sderot
Children have returned to open-air playgrounds as rocket fire has reduced

Clad in their red sweat-shirts, they tear out of their classes for their morning break.

The children appear not to be thinking twice about the pleasures of playing outside in the December sunshine, where once their teachers would have been much more cautious.

But there is a bigger question: How far is the fundamental conflict between Israel and Hamas closer to being resolved?

And on that, people in Sderot say that there has been no real movement. This, they say, is just a pause.



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