The small Israeli city of Sderot sits in the northern Negev, about one kilometer (that's less than two miles) from the edge of the Gaza Strip. Its nearest neighbor is the Arab town of Beit Hanun. More on that in a minute.
Sderot is what used to be (and often still is) called a "development town," an economically depressed frontier community where low housing costs and blue collar job opportunities attract new immigrants who don't have the resources to live in more desirable areas. Its population of roughly 25,000 is made up largely of olim from Morocco, Tunisia, Yemen, Iran, Ethiopia and, more recently, Russia. Amir Peretz, Israel's current Defense Minister and former mayor of Sderot, was born in Morroco and moved there as a young boy when his family made aliyah. The same is true of Eli Moyal, Sderot's current mayor.
Life in Sderot has never been what you'd call easy, but in the last several years, it's gotten a lot harder. In February, 2002, Arab terrorists in Gaza first managed to fire a Qassam rocket into Israel. Less than a month later, two Qassams landed in Sderot. That was the beginning.
It wasn't until June, 2004, that the palestinian Arabs finally succeeded in murdering an Israeli with a Qassam. His name was Afik Zahavi (photo) and he was four years old. Also murdered was Mordechai Yosepov, 49. Afik's mother, Ruth, was badly injured in the attack and lost her leg. They lived in Sderot.
Between that first barrage in March, 2002, and the rocket that killed Afik and Mordechai on June 28, 2004, approximately 70 Kassams fell in Sderot. By the end of that year, there were 92 more, and two more toddlers dead.
And the numbers continue to escalate. Current estimates are that over 3,000 Qassams have now landed in Sderot, about 600 of them since Israel evacuated Gaza last summer. Today's latest.
The outlook for Sderot is bleak. Now the Qassams are arriving at the rate of several a day. Almost two weeks ago, after a rocket hit a child's bed, Mayor Moyal pledged to keep the schools open and to maintain as normal an existence as was humanly possible. But with the rain of potential death continuing to accelerate, he's given that up. The schools will close tomorrow. And Moyal has pledged to send all of the town's children away, someplace a little quieter and a little safer, for the summer. A number of Sderot inhabitants have gone on a hunger strike to protest the government's apparent impotence in the face of this threat.
As most of the Qassams are being launched from Beit Hanun, Sderot residents, including the mayor, are increasingly calling on the Israeli government to take decisive action against that town. But of course what makes Beit Hanun such an ideal launching spot, in addition to its proximity, is its high density civilian population of human shields.
Meanwhile, Defense Minister Peretz continues to urge restraint, while delivering empty threats to the terrorists that they are, of course, ignoring. At the end of his rope, Moyal had earlier announced that he would be shutting down the city tomorrow, blocking all roads in and out and calling a general strike. That action has now been postponed due to a visit scheduled by Israel's president.
And today, Israel's cabinet addressed the crisis in Sderot during their weekly meeting. Their conclusion:
In light of continued terrorist activity directed against Sderot and the communities near the Gaza Strip, the Government will act to strengthen the residents of Sderot and of the communities near the Gaza Strip and their ability to deal with the special security conditions that have been created in the area. The communities included in this decision are those that were determined by the Cabinet in August and November 2004.
The aid will be given in the fields of education, culture, sport and building reinforcement. Financial assistance will also be provided from Finance Ministry sources. The aid program will be spread over the years 2006-2008 and its goals are as follows - to strengthen the sense of personal security; to strengthen residents' social resilience; to improve the quality-of-life and attractiveness of the area and its potential to draw new residents; and to help younger residents of the region to stay in the region.
Residents of Sderot and its environs have suffered for years from eunending terrorist activity, including the firing of rockets. There has been an escalation in recent weeks; 166 Kassam rockets and mortar rounds have been fired in May and June so far.
It was decided to immediately approve educational and cultural activities for all age brackets during the summer and the autumn holidays, and to establish a staff of directors-general to determine policy for reinforcing educational institutions.
Educational and cultural activities? Sports and, oh yes, building reinforcement? This is a place whose children are about to be evacuated because the mayor feels they can no longer be protected at home. This is a city under siege. 166 Kassam rockets and mortar rounds have been fired in May and June so far. This is a town of 25,000 souls that's on its way to becoming, in the words of its own people, a ghost town. And the government's response is to fund educational and cultural activities. For whom?