Israeli Town Absorbing Rocket Attacks

Palestinian militants have fired rockets at the southern Israeli town of Sderot for several days, leaving townspeople weary and rattled. The attacks are blamed on the militant Palestinian group Hamas.

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ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:

This is Eric Westervelt in Sderot, the town hardest hit by the rocket fire. In his office, Sderot Mayor Eli Moyal is smoking up a storm, the dark lines under his eyes growing. Like most of his constituents in this city of 22,000, Mayor Moyal isn't sleeping very well these days.

For five-plus years, Sderot has faced rocket fire from Gaza, but never like this. Since early Saturday, nearly 50 Qassam rockets have landed in and around the city, some of them fired by Hamas militants. On Sunday, one hit a school, seriously injuring an employee. The mayor says three other people were injured in separate rocket attacks.

Mayor ELI MOYAL (Mayor of Sderot, Israel): Wherever innocent people killed by rocket, it is war. Wherever you can send your kids to school, it is war. No quote marks, it is a war. So they should react then as a war. That's the problem. The Israeli reaction is very weak, very bad. That's why the people in Israel feel that the Israeli government don't protect them properly.

WESTERVELT: Since 2000, Gaza rocket fire has killed five people in Sderot, three of them under five years of age.

A new study says 15 percent of the children here suffer from severe post-traumatic stress. Israel's Education minister toured the town Monday, and promised to hire more school psychologists and to create more summer camps for Sderot kids outside of town. Mayor Moyal says the central government needs to do much more. They have a choice, he says: watch Sderot become a ghost town, or hit nearby Gaza so hard by land and air that the rocket fire stops.

Mayor MOYAL: If there was a choice that innocent people were killed on this side of the border or the other side, I prefer them die on the other side. For me, it's natural choice. It's natural.

WESTERVELT: Israel's new Defense minister, Amir Peretz, who has a house in Sderot, reportedly overruled his generals and, for now, has ruled out any major air or ground assault into Gaza. The Israeli Air Force continues to strike at rocket-launch cells in Gaza. The artillery fire, however, is on hold while the military concludes its own investigation into whether its fire was responsible for the deaths of seven Palestinians civilians on a Gaza beach Friday.

In Sderot, a dozen fed up residents have launched a hunger strike protest outside the Defense Minister's home. A rocket hit Peretz's neighbor's house a few weeks ago. A weary looking Havad Ghad(ph), a mother of three, says the townspeople here can't take it anymore.

Ms. HAVAD GHAD: (Through Translator) The Qassam fall not far away from my home. All the house was shaking. I felt them and I heard them. We are people; we want to live. We don't want money. We want to sleep. We are tired.

WESTERVELT: Her children, she says, are afraid to go outdoors for very long now. They can't concentrate in school. Every loud sound now makes them jump in fear. Nearby, a big sign reads, Retake Gaza Now.

Hunger striker Aloni Davidi(ph) has moved his kids to safety, and is spending his days protesting outside the Defense minister's house. The only solution, Davidi says, is for Israeli ground forces to go in and establish a buffer zone in the northern part of the Strip Israel pulled its soldiers and settlers out of last summer, after 38 years of occupation.

Mr. ALONI DAVIDI: (Through Translator) The military should create a 10 to 15 kilometer security zone in Gaza. The Qassams will no longer reach us if we're in control of the territory. Because, right now, we are the security zone for the State of Israel - us, our children, our homes.

WESTERVELT: While the Israeli military is holding off launching any large-scale offensive into Gaza, Defense Minister Peretz hinted the army could soon target and kill senior officials in the Hamas-led government, if the rocket fire continues. No one is immune Peretz said, including members of Hamas.

(Soundbite of music)

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

That's NPR's Eric Westervelt reporting from Sderot in Israel.

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