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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)

In the last decade, Sderot has filled with immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia. While strengthening Israel's Jewish majority, the arrivals have struggled with language, cultural assimilation and a stumbling economy. Unemployment and alcoholism run high here.

The government has spent millions of dollars in Sderot over the past two years to reinforce public buildings against rocket attack, and this week the Israeli cabinet proposed a new package of educational, cultural and security programs.

"This is losing the war," said Moyal, who said he intended to walk the roughly 40 miles to Jerusalem beginning Sunday to highlight his city's plight. "We should not be protecting ourselves from terrorism but fighting it."

Sderot's social stresses are exacerbated by the falling rockets, signaled on the streets by a loudspeaker system that blares the words "red dawn" when a launch is detected. Many say the system does more harm than good, providing only a few seconds' warning when it sounds at all.

"We hope one falls directly on the municipal building," said Arieh Cohen, 48, an angry man who keeps vigil outside Moyal's window near a painting of a Qassam pointed at City Hall.

It is Brig. Gen. Aviv Kochavi's job to reduce the rocket fire, if not end it. The task is particularly challenging for the commander of Israel's Gaza Division, based in a dusty lot about 15 miles south of here, because he must perform it without large numbers of ground troops.

Since Israel evacuated its Gaza settlements last September, the Israeli military has fired more than 11,000 artillery shells into Gaza, mostly toward open areas that serve as launch sites. But the Palestinian rocket teams also operate from crowded neighborhoods populated with civilians who have suffered severely from Israeli military strikes in recent weeks.

"The Qassam problem is in large part the result of our success in closing up the border with Gaza," Kochavi said. "So the terrorists now try to bypass the border by other means."

Although Kochavi describes the Qassam attacks so far as "non-lethal," he said he feared that Palestinian rocket-making capabilities would improve. Most of the rockets now pack very little explosive, like the one that landed on the roof of a hilltop high school yeshiva here and left a hole the size of a beach ball.

Avi Suleimani, 18, was sitting in his classroom praying when he heard the alarm and then a boom. "We thought it had landed far away from us," Suleimani said. "But one of the students opened the door and saw it had landed in the classroom next door." The classroom was empty.

In Sderot's marketplace, Levana Azran, 58, shook her head as she read one of Israel's garish tabloid newspapers outside her empty beauty salon. She arrived from Morocco at age 6 and has lived here ever since.

A week ago, she said, she was walking along the street after dark when the missile-warning system sounded. Bewildered, she sat on the sidewalk and "screamed like a little girl. I didn't know what else to do." The rocket landed far away.

But Azran said the city is suffering in other ways, too. The economy has been crumbling for some time, and public money is being spent in ways that she said seem only to help the mayor's friends in the construction business.

"Qassams may have added to these problems," Azran said, "but it is not all the Qassams."

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