Shellshocked by More Than Just Rockets

Kobi Haroush, an Israeli security officer at the Sderot police station, examines a pile of homemade Palestinian Qassam rockets that landed in the area over the past year.
Kobi Haroush, an Israeli security officer at the Sderot police station, examines a pile of homemade Palestinian Qassam rockets that landed in the area over the past year. (By Tsafrir Abayov -- Associated Press)
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 24, 2006

SDEROT, Israel -- In the central market of this southern Israeli city, many shops are shuttered. The locksmiths, hardware stores and non-kosher delis have their lights on, but there are few, if any, customers inside. A woman sitting in front of her empty beauty salon utters a one-word epithet to describe life in Sderot, where she has lived for more than five decades.

A city of 22,000 on the western edge of the parched Negev region, Sderot is best known as the bull's eye for Palestinian rocket launchers. The Israeli military reports 17 crude rockets, known generically as Qassams, have been fired into Sderot so far this month from the nearby Gaza Strip. Many more have landed in the empty fields that surround the city.

But the rocket fire, while a frightening phenomenon that has Sderot's leadership at sharp odds with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, only partly explains the empty market and the despairing view held by many of its residents.

Like most of Israel's peripheral cities, this one is struggling with the effects of changing demographics and economic reforms that have made many Israelis richer and even more of them poorer. The rockets have transformed into public protest long-held feelings of neglect that arose with this immigrant city's founding in the 1950s.

"These Qassams," said Adriana Katz, a psychiatrist with a blaze of close-cropped red hair who runs the community mental-health clinic here, "are falling on a population that already has problems."

The northern Gaza Strip begins not three miles west of here, and the white surveillance blimp that hovers over its border is visible from the city's high ground. A few miles to the southwest sits an artillery battery used frequently in recent months to keep Palestinian rocket launchers from firing on the city.

Since June 9, Palestinian gunmen have fired more then 120 rockets toward Israel. Made in Gaza machine shops, they range in length from 2 1/2 to 6 1/2 feet. Fired from a tripod, they travel between two and six miles, depending on the size of their engine and warhead.

Some of the missiles failed to reach beyond Gaza's border, while many more landed harmlessly in empty fields. But in this month alone, a house, a religious school and a college campus have been damaged by missile strikes, and an elderly man from Sderot was gravely injured by Qassam shrapnel. Before Israel evacuated troops and settlers from Gaza in September, Qassams killed five people from Sderot -- four of them children -- though no fatalities have been reported since. Katz, the psychiatrist, said she sees a handful of new cases each week related to anxiety caused by Qassam fire.

While the recent surge in rocket fire has prompted protest in this city, the disparity between the number of rockets fired and the actual damage done led Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres this week to declare "Qassams, shmassams," dismissing Sderot residents as hysterics whose protest only motivates Palestinian gunmen to continue their barrage.

Eli Moyal, now in his second term as Sderot's mayor, responded by declaring Peres "persona non grata" in the city. He called on Olmert to fire the Nobel peace laureate and former Labor Party prime minister, even though he had already demanded Olmert's resignation a day earlier. Moyal also has declared that Defense Minister Amir Peretz is no longer welcome in Sderot, his home town.

"They have brought us no solutions," said Moyal, 56, a hawkish Likud Party member who sports a hefty stainless-steel watch on each wrist. "If you don't have solutions, you should quit and allow someone who does do the job."

Moyal runs a city that was first populated by Moroccan immigrants like him. When large numbers of North African Jews immigrated to the young Jewish state in the 1950s, the government placed them in slapdash cities in the hinterlands and, in the eyes of many, forgot about them.

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