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Rockets give way to calm in Israeli town

SDEROT, Israel — Six months after Israel ended its bruising offensive against Gaza Strip militants, the people of this rocket-scarred border town are enjoying their calmest stretch in recent memory.

The rocket attacks that made life unbearable have all but stopped. Playgrounds are filled with children on summer vacation, stores are bustling and the town's public swimming pool is open for the first time in five years.

"People are out more. There is movement. There is a different atmosphere," said Avigail Hazan, a 42-year-old storekeeper. "It was worth going through the war for this."

"Life before the war — it wasn't life," agreed the town's deputy mayor, Rafik Agaronov. "Now, thank God, there is quiet. Hopefully it will stay like this forever."

Israel's anger and frustration over the incessant rocket fire on this working-class town less than a mile from Gaza's border was the loudly proclaimed reason for its invasion of Gaza. The fact that the attacks have all but ended has improved the atmosphere and set the stage for possible talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

The United States has sent a parade of envoys to the region this month to explore the prospects. Those efforts have focused on bringing Israel together with Hamas' bitter rival, the moderate West Bank government of President Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas, which took control of Gaza from Abbas' forces two years ago, remains internationally isolated.

Hamas has not ruled out firing more rockets, but the militants seem to no longer be targeting Israel.

A Hamas spokesman, Abu Obeida, insisted Wednesday the group has not changed its policy regarding rocket attacks and called them one of the legitimate "tools of the resistance."

Still, rocket fire has dropped dramatically since the Gaza offensive ended in January, with some 220 rockets fired on southern Israel, according to the army. The last rocket attack on Sderot was May 19.

That compares to 7,865 rockets and mortars fired on southern Israel since Israel withdrew from Gaza in September 2005, according to the military. At least 4,000 of those hit Sderot, making life miserable and increasingly dangerous. Eight people were killed and hundreds were wounded. The economy was paralyzed and nearly everyone was traumatized.

The heavy rocket fire brought life in Sderot to a virtual standstill as hundreds fled to get out of range. Those who stayed behind kept close to home and to their fortified shelters.

Israel's air and ground assault, which began last December, killed more than 1,100 Palestinians, wounded thousands more and caused massive destruction.

Despite a backlash of international criticism and war crimes allegations, Israel says the assault achieved its primary goal of stopping the rocket fire. Israeli officials believe the offensive proved to be a powerful deterrent, though they also say Gaza's Hamas rulers are using the lull to rearm.

Experts have warned of long-lasting psychological damage inflicted on Sderot's 24,000 residents, particularly children, who suffer from exceptionally high rates of anxiety and bed-wetting compared to other Israeli children, according to local psychologists.

Yaeli Biton says she is still under psychological care and takes daily anxiety medication.

"I hear a car screech, a refrigerator door slam, the air conditioner make noise, and I panic," said the 50-year-old Biton. "It's been like this for eight years."

Many in Sderot said they believe the calm won't last. Even the pool has a safe room for bathers to scamper to in case of emergency.

Still, residents say they can't remember a better time.

Atara Orenbouch, a 37-year-old mother of six, said life in Sderot is "almost a normal life." Her children walk around freely.

"At least they have a chance to have a little bit of a normal childhood," she said. "(But) in the back of my mind, I am sure we will have a bad awakening."

Rockets give way to calm in Israeli town 07/29/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 29, 2009 10:50pm]
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