For Israel, Sderot Symbolizes Conflict's Toll

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By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 11, 2009

SDEROT, Israel, March 10 -- Sderot, hard by the Gaza Strip and the frequent target of rocket attacks, has become central to Israel's telling of its conflict with the Palestinians. From a hill on the outskirts of town, one can easily see the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, the launching point for many of the rockets and mortar shells that have landed here with nerve-racking regularity in recent years.

Perhaps a quarter of Sderot's population has moved away in recent years. Of the 20,000 or so residents left, anxiety and other signs of post-traumatic stress are widespread.

That's the message of Eli Ovits, communications director for the Israel Project, a nonprofit media group with offices in Jerusalem and Washington. One of the group's staple activities is a helicopter tour to showcase Israel's geography -- the comparatively small space in which the ongoing conflict is confined. These days, Sderot warrants a special stop.

Organizations interested in Israel -- be they religious, social or political in nature -- are adept at telling their story, efficient in seeking out reporters who might be interested and organizing press tours.

But it is not just journalists who pay visits to Sderot. Then-Sen. Barack Obama and his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain, were both here during the presidential campaign; former president Jimmy Carter and former British prime minister Tony Blair have visited as well. In a conflict in which the raw casualty numbers are always much higher on the other side, Sderot has become a favored Israeli emblem of the toll that rocket fire from Gaza exacts even when it does not kill.

Landing at a helicopter pad near the ranch of former prime minister Ariel Sharon, Ovitz took four journalists he was escorting this week first to the edge of town, for a view of Gaza, then to the local police station to see the collection of detonated rockets collected over the years. The casings have been classified by type and put behind a glass display, a sort of mini-museum of the various homemade and military-grade weapons used by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other extremist Palestinian groups.

Thousands of rockets have been fired toward Israel in the past eight years; approximately 20 Israelis inside Israel have died and several hundred have been injured as a result. The recent 22-day Israeli military offensive in Gaza against Hamas claimed more than 1,200 Palestinian lives.

In Sderot, the uncertainty about when and where the next explosion might occur hangs over the town. Homes are renovated to include blast rooms. A warning system -- a woman's voice calling out "Color Red" -- in place of a siren that many found disturbing -- is meant to provide a few seconds for people to seek cover.

For Israelis, "the numbers injured psychologically are much higher" than those wounded by the blast or shrapnel, Ovitz said. "I am sure the children of Gaza are traumatized as well."

On Tuesday, Lone Star Communications, a Jerusalem-based public relations firm, organized an event to showcase a $5 million, rocket-proofed indoor playground and community center built by the Jewish National Fund.

It was a diverse group in the gray Mercedes minibus that Lone Star -- the company was founded by Texas native Charley J. Levine -- had assembled. Conventional news outlets like the Associated Press were joined by a Hungarian radio station, a Web site devoted to Jewish philanthropy and a correspondent from Acts News Network, a Canadian television service that focuses on news of interest to evangelical Christians.

Built with several reinforced rooms, and a broad, brightly colored play area in the middle, the 21,000-square-foot facility is intended as a place where young children can play and teens can gather without their parents needing to hang close and worry.

As a heavily American audience milled around inside the facility -- a group with the Jewish National Fund had traveled here for the opening, and there were a few dozen U.S. students doing a spring break volunteer trip -- the children of Sderot took to the place instinctively, tossing plastic balls at each other and tumbling on an inflatable "moon bounce."

Plans for a merry-go-round were nixed by security officials, who felt it could not be stopped quickly enough for children to get from the main area to one of the hardened rooms in the event of an attack. And the climbing wall had to be shortened so ropes and harnesses would not be needed, because they'd also delay the response to a warning.

But judging from the noises and the screams -- and even the bit of crying that broke out over an air hockey game -- Jewish National Fund officials said they felt confident the center would help bring a bit of normalcy to Sderot.

At least that was the message.

"This is shelter," said JNF tourism director Shahar Hermelin, standing inside the center's small but fortified indoor soccer field. "Nothing Hamas or any of 'our friends' have can penetrate."


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