Living in Rocket-Plagued Sderot Is 'Russian Roulette,' Israeli Says

Julie Stahl | Jerusalem Bureau Chief | Friday, January 18, 2008

Living in Rocket-Plagued Sderot Is 'Russian Roulette,' Israeli Says

Sderot, Israel ( - Living in the southern Israeli community of Sderot -hit daily by Palestinian rocket fire from the Gaza Strip - is like playing Russian roulette, a resident of the town said on Thursday.

"Every time you feel like one day it's going to fall on your house," said Shlomi Argon, 37, a father of two. "It's like Russian roulette."

Aragon's house was hit by a Kassam rocket on Tuesday that crashed into his son's bedroom while his wife Geut and a neighbor child were in the room. His four-year-old son had just left the room for the bathroom when the rocket hit, spraying his wife and five-year-old Lior Ben-Shimol with shrapnel.

Since an Israeli military operation that left 19 Palestinians - mostly Hamas gunmen - dead on Tuesday, 180 rockets and mortars have been launched at Israeli communities, many of them landing in Sderot, the army said.

About 3,000 residents have already left Sderot, a working class development town of 23,000. The town has endured 1,000 rocket attacks in the last five years. Many residents stay because they cannot afford to leave.

But standing in the rocket-damaged room in his home with a clear view of the sky through the shattered roof, Argon told a small group of journalists that although he had the possibility to move elsewhere, he would not leave the town in which he grew up despite the attack on his home.

Before Israel uprooted 21 Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip and withdrew its army unilaterally in the summer of 2005, the Israeli government said there would be quiet if Israel pulled out of the area called Gush Katif, Argon said.

Now they want Sderot, and next it will be the Israeli coastal cities of Ashkelon and Ashdod, he said. "They don't like us because we are Jewish. This is the problem."

Oddly enough, Aragon said he has a lot of Palestinian friends living in the Gaza Strip, with whom he speaks by telephone everyday.

They are sorry about what is happening, Argon said. They want the situation to return to how it was before Hamas and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah faction took over the Gaza Strip, he said. The Palestinians had a "good life" before Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed the Oslo Accords (in 1994), he said.

(Before Oslo, at least tens of thousands of Palestinians crossed the border into Israel for work each day. Now the border is virtually closed, and unemployment in the Gaza Strip is soaring.)

In Sderot, the "Red Dawn" early warning system is supposed to give residents a maximum of 15 seconds to take cover when a rocket is fired. But it doesn't always work. Argon said his wife had heard the warning siren at the same time the rocket crashed into their home.

Just before midday on Thursday, the alarm failed to sound before a boom signaled that a another rocket had fallen in Sderot a few streets away, sending one resident - an evacuee from Gush Katif - into hysteria.

Her neighbor, Aline, 61, finished mopping the floor in the woman's house after she was taken to the hospital in shock when the Kassam rocket crashed into the road behind her home.

Aline said she's thankful that all her children are grown. "You send your child out in the morning, and you don't know if he'll return in the evening," Aline told Cybercast News Service .

Nevertheless, Aline said, she wouldn't leave the town that has been her home for 40 years.

"No one is going to drive me from my home. Hamas is not going to drive me from my home," she said. "Where would I go at my age?"

Existential threat

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on Thursday that Israel had no desire to kill Gaza residents but could not tolerate the rocket fire on its citizens. He pledged to fight Palestinian terrorist groups including Islamic Jihad and Hamas "without compromise, without concessions and without mercy."

But residents of the town said they held out little hope that the situation would change.

Experts also say more action is needed.

Standing in a position looking toward the Gaza Strip, Reserve Brig. Gen. Tzvika Foghel told journalists that having to justify its actions to the Western world is preventing Israel from taking the military action necessary to stop the rocket attacks.

Palestinian terrorists began a war of attrition the moment Israel left the Gaza Strip in August 2005. Since then, Hamas grew up politically, established itself as a uniformed army instead of a guerrilla group (with the help of Hizballah and Iran many say) and took over the Gaza Strip (in a bloody battle) last June, Foghel said.

Foghel, who commands all firing units in the south, said that the army is currently pursuing two objectives in the Gaza Strip: Keep Palestinian terrorists as far away from the border fence with Israel as possible, where there are some 10 tunnels through which Palestinian terrorists are aiming to reach Israeli communities; and try to push terrorists far enough away from Israel where they will be forced to launch rockets from within Palestinian population centers.

When they shoot from civilian areas, there is a certain amount of pressure from the Palestinian civilians to stop the firing, he said.

In two separate air raids, the Israeli Air Force killed an Islamic Jihad militant (and reportedly his wife) and targeted a rocket launching squad on Thursday.

But if Israel really wants to win this war, Foghel said, Israel must regain control of the Philadelphia route - the narrow 12.5-kilometer (7.5 mile) border area between the Gaza Strip and Egypt - thereby cutting off the "oxygen supply" to Hamas.

Israeli officials say that Hamas and other terrorist organizations have smuggled in tons of weapons, ammunition and explosives through tunnels and across the border since Israel left the Philadelphia corridor as a result of a deal brokered by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2005.

(A European team was supposed to monitor the border crossing area, but they were powerless to stop any illegal action and eventually fled when violence broke out there.)

Israel will also have to inflict heavy casualties on the terrorist organizations every day in order to be affective, Foghel said.

Once the terrorist organizations understand that they will have to pay for each kassam rocket they launch, Israel can try again to be "good neighbors," he said. "That's the point we have to try to reach."

Foghel said that having to justify its actions to the West is keeping Israel from taking military action, but he said that Israel is clever and strong enough to stop the rocket fire.

The army could mount an extended military operation in less than two weeks if the political establishment would decide to do so, he said. Foghel estimated that such an operation would take six to eight months to complete.

\s4 But if Israel does not take action and allows the military buildup in Gaza to continue for the next few years, he said, Israel will face an existential threat from Gaza similar to that from the Hizballah terrorist organization in Lebanon.

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