As Rockets Fall, Israeli Town Steadfast But Enraged by Gov't Response

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

Sderot, Israel ( - Since terrorists in Gaza unleashed their latest round of rockets against southern Israel, Sderot Mayor Eli Moyal has lost 10 pounds, not slept in days, and upped his daily intake of cigarettes from one to three packs. But, he says, he is resolved to stay.

So are many residents of this town, although many are also furious at the way their government is responding to the crisis.

A 32-year-old woman in the Israeli town adjacent to the Gaza Strip was killed Monday night, and dozens have been injured from the more than 180 Kassam rockets that have fallen in the area over the past week.

Buildings hit over this period include a number of homes, two school classrooms, a synagogue and a restaurant, which burned to the ground.

Sitting in his smoke-filled office, the beleaguered city's 57-year-old mayor said about one-quarter of Sderot's 23,000 residents have moved away temporarily in recent days.

"It's an abnormal situation here," Moyal said. "You can be killed any minute."

Thousands of residents have taken advantage of one of two separate offers of help. The Israeli Defense Ministry and a wealthy businessman provided buses and accommodation for residents who wanted a respite out of harm's way.

A Hamas official in northern Gaza called on Palestinians Monday to launch rockets at "the settlement of Ashkelon," saying that in doing so they would drive the Jews out of that coastal city - five times larger than Sderot - in the same way as they had done to the Jews of the smaller town.

"We will force the settlers to run away from Ashkelon as they have already done in the settlement of Sderot," the official said. "We will continue to fight until the Jews leave all of Palestine."

(The term "settlement" is usually attributed to an Israeli community in disputed territory, but many Palestinians want all of Israel to become part of a future Palestinian state so they describe all Israeli communities as "settlements.")

Hamas' Kassam rockets have already reached the outskirts of Ashkelon, and one landed near the city's industrial zone on Tuesday. Security experts here say Hamas is continually working on developing longer-range rockets.

In Sderot, shops were open, and a few residents were sitting in cafes or shopping for food, although no children could be seen on the streets and the tension was palpable.

Moyal said that if terrorists succeed in destroying Sderot - an Israeli community that in no way could be viewed as a "settlement" - then they would be well on their way towards their goal of destroying the whole country.

If Sderot is evacuated because of the security threat, Hamas will move their sites further north, to Ashkelon and beyond to Ashdod, he said.

"We cannot let that happen. They couldn't break our army. Now they're fighting [to break] our spirit, so we must be strong," Moyal added.

While many residents may be hunkered down in their homes, those Cybercast News Service spoke to said they had no intention of fleeing.

"What's the solution - to run away?" asked long-time resident Yiftach Shalom. During the wars of 1967, 1973 and 1991, Sderot residents hadn't fled, he said. But Shalom also acknowledged that in his 50 years in the city, he had never seen it as quiet as it had been last Saturday.

Shalom lives next door to the location of a siren that is meant to alert residents of the launch of a rocket from the Gaza Strip. The alarm is so loud "it could drive you crazy," he said.

Sitting in an open restaurant with friends, Gaby Malkius, 34, had his arm in a sling, having sustained a shrapnel wound from an incoming Kassam last week. Although he doesn't plan to leave, he said he had sent his three sons away.

Danny Dahan, 32, who runs a family-owned supermarket, said he, his wife and three-year-old twins were staying, despite being in rocket range. Other relatives have gone, however. "They are not fleeing," he said, "just having a little quiet."

Charley Abutbul, 62, has lived in Sderot since 1964 and said he was going nowhere.

"I have four children and 14 grandchildren. Everyone is here. No one is leaving," he said, adding that moving away from the city would be "a shame and a disgrace."

'Reacting like a loser'

Many residents here also feel the way their government is dealing with the situation is itself a disgrace.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visited Sderot Monday evening - for the second time in less than a week - and offered its residents sympathy, but little in the way of solutions.

"I understand the anger, the frustration and the distress," he told them.

"We will continue to reinforce but you certainly know that there is no immediate solution to the Kassams and that there is no absolute solution either," Olmert said.

Moyal, speaking shortly before Olmert's visit, said comments being made by government officials about the situation were the comments of a "loser."

Israel should deliver an ultimatum, he said. It should tell the Palestinians that the very next rocket that falls will bring consequences - and then follow through with action.

For example, the mayor said, Israel should say that if a rocket lands in an open field, Israel will destroy two buildings in Gaza. If one lands in Sderot without causing damage, Israel will destroy six buildings in Gaza.

If someone in Israel is injured, half of a neighborhood's buildings in Gaza will be destroyed. If someone is killed by a rocket, an entire neighborhood's structures will be targeted, and so on.

"Within a few months," Moyal said, "if the rockets won't stop, there will be no Gaza Strip."

Long-time resident Abutbul had a similar solution in mind: Israel should send tanks and warplanes into Gaza and "destroy everything." His anger extended to media organizations, which he said were helping boost the terrorists by reporting on exactly where their rockets land. The terrorists should be kept in the dark, he said.

Dahan said that the government must decide - "If you're not going to attack [the terrorists], at least give us protection."


Last week, Dahan's family had invited guests to the dedication of a Torah scroll - the Torah comprises the first five books of the Old Testament - in memory of his late father.

Because of the security situation, the family didn't expect anyone to show up to the pre-scheduled ceremony, but to his surprise more than 400 people turned out at the synagogue, he said.

The guests left at 11:30 pm. As the family was cleaning up 20 minutes later, the warning siren sounded, and a rocket crashed through the roof of the synagogue. No one was hurt - "a miracle," Dahan said.

"There is almost no place in Sderot where a rocket hasn't fallen," said Shalom, pointing to the nearby location of a previous rocket strike. The Kassam had fallen through the roof of a butcher shop, destroying the interior.

The store had closed one month before the attack, he said - describing that, too, as a miracle.

"Miracles are good," Shalom said. "But what will happen when the miracles end?"

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