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Friday, October 15, 2004

The Panic Gift Shop

SDEROT, Israel -- At the Panic gift shop, the checkout counter chatter is dominated by Qassams, the crude rockets that Palestinians frequently fire at this ragged industrial town of nearly 20,000 two miles from Gaza's northeast corner.

"We're strong, and no one will break us," Rahel Swissa, 50, a customer with short, bleached-blond hair, declared on a recent afternoon.

Olga Ameroz shows the shrapnel burn suffered by her daughter Eleanor, 4, after a Palestinian rocket landed near a kindergarten in Sderot this summer. The family has since left the town.

"Oh, come on, sweetie," retorted Tzippi Aderi, 46, her baby-blue fingernails clacking against the cash register. "I'm scared. A door slams and my kids jump."

Swissa quickly dropped the bravado. "My kids don't even want to come visit me," she confessed. "Another son just moved away."

In the past four years, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have fired more than 325 Qassam rockets at Jewish settlements within the strip and at Israeli towns on its periphery, according to Shin Bet, the Israeli intelligence agency. Few of the wildly inaccurate rockets have ever hit anyone or anything other than fields, empty lots or back yards. Most of the casualties associated with Qassam strikes have been patients treated for shock. But in the last 3 1/2 months, four Israelis have been killed, all of them in Sderot.

A little over two weeks ago, Israel launched its largest military operation in more than 2 1/2 years in an effort to stop the rocket attacks. Since the offensive began on Sept. 28, the fourth anniversary of the start of the current Palestinian uprising, Palestinians have launched nine Qassams toward Sderot. One killed two children.

"How much can the army really do to prevent them from firing?" Marco Mark, 43, a city employee, said on a recent afternoon as he finished his lunch at Burger Ranch, an Israeli fast-food restaurant. "The Palestinians will just fire from another place. We're living here in fear without any security."

This week, military commanders recommended ending the Gaza operations, according to Israeli news accounts, and on Thursday Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered a pullout from a northern refugee camp after indications that the offensive would be widened. So far, 108 Palestinians -- at least 29 of them children and teenagers -- have been killed, including five on Wednesday, the Palestinian Health Ministry reported.

The Israeli Home Front Command on Wednesday began using a radar-based alarm system that is designed to detect rocket launches and gives Sderot residents a 20-second warning before one lands. As a Qassam lunged toward the city Wednesday morning, loudspeakers blared: "Red Dawn! Red Dawn!" The projectile fell in a field outside town, according to a military spokeswoman.

Before the warning system was installed, many residents scoffed at it, predicting it would create more panic than the rockets themselves. "It's only going to make people more afraid," Aderi, the cashier, had said. "People will run from one place to another. Where are they going to hide?"

But after Wednesday's attack, Yehuda Ben Maman, a municipal security officer, declared in an interview: "The warning system is a success. For example, in three schools in Sderot, the students who were in the courtyards were able to run inside of the building when they heard the warning.

"There was a bit of panic here and there," he conceded, "because it was the first time that the system was activated. There were also a few places in which people reported that they didn't hear the warning or understand what was being broadcast."

While suicide bombs have been a primary weapon of Palestinian guerrillas in the West Bank throughout the uprising against Israeli occupation, Qassam rockets are the weapon of choice in the Gaza Strip, which is enclosed by electronic fences, surveillance cameras and Israeli military patrols. Manufactured in garages and apartments, the crude rockets range from three to six feet long and pack between nine and 20 pounds of explosives. They are launched from collapsible tripods.

"Even when no one is hurt, there's fear," said Aderi, a mother of four. "It's psychological. One fell here in the parking lot a few months ago. My daughter was hysterical."

Some residents said the Qassam attacks have forced them to change their daily routines. "We try to be out as little as possible," Aderi said. "We're no safer at home, but at least I know my husband and kids are with me."

The attacks prompted Olga Ameroz, 34, and her five youngsters to leave town. "My children were terrified," Ameroz said during a recent visit to check on relatives. She raised the blouse of her 4-year-old daughter to expose a welt left by shrapnel from a rocket that landed near the child's kindergarten 3 1/2 months ago. "We moved. Even now, they hear a door slam and think, 'Qassam.' "

Scared or not, many Sderot residents say they cannot afford to leave. They split their anger between the Palestinian guerrillas and what they describe as their own government's neglect of a city that ranks fifth among Israel's 210 municipalities in the percentage of residents on welfare and fourth in the percentage receiving unemployment compensation.

Nearly two of every five residents are immigrants who were settled here by the government since 1990 after they arrived from former Soviet republics or Africa.

"I can't even think about leaving," said Swissa as she walked out of the Panic gift shop with a tiny yellow bag of purchases. "Who's going to buy my house? If I sell, I'd lose money."