Israel Again Closes Border With Gaza

Israel Wednesday again closed the border crossings into the Gaza Strip in retaliation for rocket attacks from Gaza into the southern city of Sderot. Hamas called the move a violation of a truce, but urged Palestinian factions to hold their fire.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Israel today once again closed all the cargo crossings into the Gaza Strip. That came in retaliation for a barrage of rockets from Gaza Tuesday into the southern Israeli town of Sderot. The attack threatened to shatter the already fragile truce between Israel and Hamas less than a week after it started.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the rocket fire. The group said it was a response to an Israeli raid in the West Bank, an area not covered by the truce. Today, Hamas leaders called Israel's border closure a violation. But they urged Palestinian factions to hold their fire. All this has residents of Sderot deeply skeptical that the calm will last. From Sderot, NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Rosa Sevlonof (ph) sits near a fan in the heat waiting for business that never seems to come. She runs a hair and nail salon in a street mall in downtown Sderot. She thought the ceasefire might lead to more customers. It hasn't.

Ms. ROSA SEVLONOF (Sderot Resident): (Through translator) And also, the young people don't come here. It's only the older people who come.

WESTERVELT: People are still afraid, the 71-year-old says, her elbows perched on a plastic table stacked with nail polish. We still have all this mess, she says, of the Gaza Strip only a few miles away. Sevlonof came to Sderot from the former Soviet Republic of Kyrgyzstan 15 years ago. Faced with steady rocket fire from Gaza, she has watched the town's population dwindle. At least 13 percent of Sderot residents have left permanently in the last year according to city hall figures. Sevlonof says she wants to leave too, if she only could.

Ms. SEVLONOF: (Through translator) Of course, I'd like to, but I don't have any money. I have a mortgage here. So I can't leave. That's very difficult, and I don't know what to do.

WESTERVELT: I heard the government was giving money to help small businesses, she says dejectedly, but I haven't seen one shekel. In Sderot, the young and old alike share that disillusionment with their local and national governments.

The homemade Kassam rockets launched by militants from Gaza have rarely been fatal. Four Israelis have been killed by Kassam and mortar fire this year. But the rockets have regularly damaged property and sent waves of fear throughout the city. Students got used to dropping their books and fleeing to protected rooms when the warning sirens went off. Sderot 12th grader Mayan Cohen.

Ms. MAYAN COHEN (Sderot Resident): (Through translator) At first, I thought it was even kind of cool. You had the red alert and ran to the shelter. It was exciting. But then one of the Kassams fell not far from us. Now, when I hear an ambulance siren or loud noise, I get really nervous and tense.

WESTERVELT: This week, Mayan and fellow students were hunkered down in reinforced classroom trailers for final exams. It was a little better than last year, she says, when the city had to bus students to a nearby city out of rocket range to take finals. The mangled fin of a Kassam rests upright on the floor next to the desk of Amit High School vice principal Ilan Abukasis (ph). Perched at the top of the spent rocket is the school's emergency alert receiver used to warn of incoming rockets. Abukasis calls the calm with Hamas an illusion.

Mr. ILAN ABUKASIS (Amit High School Vice Principal): I'm not believing a solution or negotiation with terrorist, with people who say that they want to destroy Israel. They believe that all Palestine, all Eretz Israel is belong to them. We are not believing in this solution.

WESTERVELT: There are very, very few Sderot residents optimistic about the chance for a long-term calm. 70-year-old Hertzel Itzaki (ph) is one of them. He has lived in Sderot for 55 years. I gave this town my best years, my youth, he says. The retired mechanic today runs a small gift shop. Itzaki knows he's in the minority, but says he's full of hope Egyptian-mediated talks with Hamas will lead to a durable truce.

Mr. HERTZEL ITZAKI (Sderot Resident): (Through translator) I believe you should talk to your enemies if there's ever going to be any kind of mutual lasting understanding that's good for both sides.

WESTERVELT: Itzaki's face lights up as he describes a surprise visit last Friday, the second day of the truce. For the first time in years, he says, my daughter and granddaughter came to our house to visit. It felt safer, he says. They even stayed for Shabbat dinner, he adds with a broad green. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Sderot.

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Skepticism as Israel, Hamas Cease-Fire Takes Effect

A truce went into effect Thursday between Israeli forces and Hamas militants who control the Gaza Strip.

The agreement was worked out during months of indirect talks mediated by the Egyptian government. Both sides are, however, already voicing skepticism the truce will hold.

The first day of the Gaza truce meant little to Omran Kheloob. The truce took effect at 6 a.m., about the same time people began lining up with their rundown cars outside the gas station he manages in Gaza City.

"We cannot see anything new, nothing," he says, speaking through a translator. "The situation is the same. Nothing's changed."

But ordinary Gazans hope to see changes soon. If the truce holds, they're eager to see an easing of sanctions and an influx of basic goods that have grown scare and expensive: cooking fuel, some food items, gas and more. Huge swaths of this coastal territory go eight to 10 hours a day without power. Everything from fresh milk to bottled water is in short supply.

Israelis are also deeply skeptical Hamas will keep its word and control militants and the other armed factions that have rained homemade rockets and mortar rounds down on nearby Israeli towns and farms for much of the last year.

On Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the calm is "fragile and likely to be short-lived." He said the Israeli military is preparing for a wider operation should the truce collapse. Hamas' armed wing, the Kassam Brigades, issued a threat Thursday saying it is abiding by the truce but ready to attack and "shake the Zionist entity if it does not abide by the truce."

Abu Yunnis, a fishmonger in Gaza's beach refugee camp, says all that is bluster.

"The people are very tired and exhausted," he says in Arabic. "Our leaders don't want to see us this way."

Both Israel and Hamas had strong reasons to embrace the Egypt-brokered truce: Israel's military attacks were unable to stop the near daily rocket fire from Gaza. In agreeing to the truce, Hamas, for its part, acknowledges the enormous strain sanctions have placed on the group and on the 1.5 million people who live in Gaza.

Mahmoud Zahar, a senior Hamas leader in Gaza, acknowledged those realities, calling the truce a pragmatic move by both sides.

"It's not an optimistic or pessimistic," he says. "You're speaking about a practical agenda: Israelis in urgent need for cease-fire and Palestinians also in urgent need for this cease-fire."

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