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A feast of lights under gloom of rockets
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09:15, December 24, 2008

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Geut Argon sat on the toilet lid, shivering, her hands covering her face. Her elder sister Ruth and another few people who also rushed into the small bathroom stood beside and waited nervously.

After seconds of anxious quiet, Ruth went out and said it was Okay now. As people walked out of the makeshift shelter and started talking about why the rocket-attack alarm sounded after the explosion, Geut put down her hands and revealed a pale and tense face. She stayed there for another moment before returning to the hall of her coffee bar.

"It was a Qassam rocket, not very far from here," said Yoni Tsaroya, a local resident in this southern Israeli town, agreeing with others in the cafe that this was the first rocket attack they heard in the day, the second day of Hanukkah, or the Feast of Lights, an eight-day traditional Jewish festival.

During the past month, the small town and the vicinal area, located just several kilometers away from the northern part of the Gaza Strip, have been subject to almost daily rains of rockets and mortar shells fired by Palestinian militants. A week ago, a rocket narrowly missed a supermarket and landed in the parking lot.

Life always goes back to normal quickly, but the continuous barrage, which has haunted local residents for eight years, is rubbing more salt into their wounds, and blasting away the already scanty festival atmosphere.

It is particularly true to Geut, a mother of two, who is still trying to recover from the terrible incident in January when a rocket made a direct hit on her house, knocking her into a temporary coma and injuring her head and knee. Her younger son, 5,and another child, 10, who were playing in the house then, were shocked and screamed, and fortunately sustained no physical injury.

"During the holidays, there used to be some shows on the square, and I could have brought my boys to watch some movies. But now, I dare not take them out, and nobody comes out in the night," said Geut, adding that the only reminder of the ongoing feast is that she and her family are still lighting up festival candles as the tradition goes.

Business has also been bleak since clashes resumed between the Israeli army and Gazan militants in early November, noted the 34-year-old shopkeeper, while recalling that it was slightly better during the relatively quiet five months when both sides generally honored an Egypt-brokered truce deal.

Yet what worries her much more is the welfare of her children. "When I took them to other places, the first question they usually asked was, 'Is there also an alarm here?' Every time they hear a siren, even a police siren, the boys feel tense and nervous," said the mother.

When asked why she does not move away from the volatile area, she said that she was born here and grew up here, and "this is my home." Yet looking out of the window, she added that she really does not want her boys to live in such an environment any longer, where they are exposed to danger even on their way to school.

"The government must do something to end this terrible situation," said the rocket-attack victim. "I understand that it is difficult, because of course we can send the army into Gaza, but the enemy is not an army. But I think the government can find a solution. And they must."

Her stance mirrors that of Tsaroya and many others, who said that eight years of incessant firings have driven all the local residents crazy. Recent studies showed that almost every Sderot resident has at least one relative who was injured in rocket attacks, and that the psychological impact is alarming.

Over years, said Geut, the bedroom on the second floor of her house was rarely used, because she thought it was just too dangerous to sleep or even stay there, and that her family has spent innumerable nights in the small shelter room on the ground floor. Yet building more shelter rooms is not a solution, whose presence just reminds one of the prevalent threats, she added.

Meanwhile, these specially-built rooms obviously cannot protect anybody at any time. Tsaroya, a handicapped man whose mobility depends on two walking sticks, said that he just does not have enough time to take shelter.

This year, residents of Sderot and neighboring areas are planning a new way to make their voice heard - a possible boycott of the Feb. 10 general election, said the 41-year-old man.

"If they want us to vote, they must make concrete moves toward a final solution to this situation, whether by negotiations or by war. Only promises are not enough," he said.

Latest signs that Israel and Hamas may renew the Gaza truce could not cheer up Geut and others, who said that Palestinian militants more than often violated the deal and that local residents just could not afford to loosen their alert. With southern Israel pounded by at least six rockets on Tuesday, they admitted that they do not know whether their efforts will make a difference and for how long this kind of exhausting life will continue.

Yet as long as the ongoing festival is concerned, Geut said she plans to take her two children to Tel Aviv on Sunday to watch a show, in order to let the boys enjoy at least part of the supposedly happy holidays.


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