Fear in Israel's 'ghost city'

Al Jazeera finds Palestinian rocket attacks are forcing residents in Sderot to flee.

    As part of Al Jazeera's 1967 anniversary coverage, Rob Winder visits the southern Israeli town of Sderot, where rocket attacks by Palestinian fighters from Gaza have brought the town close to collapse.

    History does not mean a lot in the Israeli town of Sderot.

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    The 40th anniversary of the 1967 war means little to people who live in fear caused by a conflict very much alive and well.
    Despite a relative lull in recent days, the town and its surrounding area continue to be hit by rockets fired by Palestinian fighters in Gaza, just three kilometres away.

    Two people have been killed by the missiles in the past two weeks and up to half of Sderot's 24,000-strong population are believed to have fled.

    The damage and deaths caused by the rockets compared to those carried out in Gaza by Israel are minimal, but the fear that grips the town is palpable.

    Eli Moyal, the town's mayor, thinks there is a "good chance" that the city will be abandoned, a move that would be a massive victory for Palestinian armed groups.

    "It's a ghost city," he says.

    "Only 25 per cent of students are coming to schools. Thirty per cent of employees are not coming to work.

    "There is a good chance that the city will fall."

    Saving lives

    The mayor's description seemed accurate on the morning Al Jazeera visited Sderot.

    The rockets are crude
    yet effective [Rob Winder]


    An Israeli army balloon carrying cameras pointed at Gaza loomed above the city and military planes circled overhead.

    A rocket alarm had sounded minutes before we arrived and tree-lined streets were deserted on what should have been a busy Friday morning.

    Hava Gad, a 41-year-old mother of three, was still shaken from hearing the alarm when we arrived at her home.

    "The alarm is very scary and it's very hard on the feelings to hear it all the time, but it helps as it can save a life."

    It can sound up to 20 times a day, she says.

    Gad describes a silent town puncuated only by the wail of alarms and the rockets which make a sound "like a monster".

    Driving through the town, she tells us we are not allowed to wear seatbelts in case we have to run to a shelter or turn the radio up too loud in case it drowns out the alarm.

    Gad's family are desperate for her to leave, but she says she will not give in to violence and is determined to stay.

    Running for cover

    Others would like to go, but most people in Sderot are not wealthy and are tied to their jobs.

    Ella, a 31-year-old single parent, works in a shoe shop in the town centre.

    "The rockets can come at any time of the day or night," she says. "If my son hears a rocket land, he wets himself because he's so scared


     I've thought about leaving, but its hard to leave my job and my mother is also here."

    "The people who are doing this deserve a big punishment. We need to kill them - without hesitation"

    Eli Moyal, mayor of Sderot

    The rockets themselves, on display in a yard at the back of the local police station, look amateurish compared to the sophisticated missiles used in air raids by the Israeli army in Gaza.

    They are made from lamp-posts sealed up and filled with explosives, police say.

    Some of are painted green and others yellow. Police say the green were fired by Hamas's military wing and the yellow by the Al-Quds Brigades, a group linked to Islamic Jihad.

    While we are there, police get warning on thier radios of another rocket attack, and we run for cover inside the station.

    The rocket does not hit Sderot, however, and lands elsewhere.

    Local anger

    Alongside the feelings of fear in Sderot are ones of anger and even defiance.

    Despite the soldiers on the streets and the aircraft in the sky, few people believe the government is doing enough to protect them.

    "No one cares about us. We are the black sheep of the country," says Gad.

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    "The politicians come here and have pictures taken and then go away but nothing changes," says Sofia, the manager of the same shoe-shop that Ella works in.

    Gad and others have been involved in recent demonstrations calling on the authorities to do more to help them.

    Dozens of people have protested against the visits of politicians such as Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister.

    They have burned tyres in the streets and blocked motorways near the city. In addition, soldiers from Sderot are refusing to serve in the army unless more is done to protect the town.

    Calling for punishment

    The protests "don't help", says the mayor, but do add to a picture of a town buckling under pressure.

    Two people have been killed
    in as many weeks by rockets [AFP]

    Nationalist settlers from the West Bank and other supporters also regularly visit the town to chant and hold protests, and souvenier hunters roam the streets looking for pieces of rockets.

    Guards are employed to watch houses that have been hit by rockets for fear that they may be looted.

    And no one is paying their taxes, says Moyal, although he adds: "I can't sue them - it would be crazy."

    Despite this, residents of Sderot, including the mayor, are calling for more Israeli military attacks on Gaza to stop the rocket firing.

    On the same day Al Jazeera visited Sderot, two Palestinian children were shot dead and a third wounded by the Israeli army near the border with Gaza who said they were acting suspiciously.

    Later on the same day, the military also killed Fadi Abu Mustafa, a field commander from the Al-Quds Brigades in Khan Younis, in an air strike.

    Moyal, who is rumoured to be considering entering national politics, says of the fighters:

    "The people who are doing this deserve a big punishment.

    We need to kill them. Without hesitation."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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