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The empty streets of Israel's Sderot

Sderot, a town in southern Israel under regular rocket bombardment from Hamas and Islamic Jihad since 2000, braced itself Tuesday as Israel escalated attacks on Gaza
Local residents gather on hilltops outside Sderot to watch rockets either land in Gaza or explode overhead (MEE/Andrea DiCenzo)

SDEROT, Israel - Chen Elmaliah can still remember when she saw her first Qassam rocket. She was 14 and stood in front of a window, where she was looking down at the Gaza Strip. Her father was walking in the field in front of the house, doing some chores. Suddenly, she saw something flying through the air. It approached really fast. And then there was a loud sound. Windows were trembling and the ground was shaking. At the exact spot where her father was standing a few seconds before, there was a thick cloud of smoke. 

"I really thought he was dead. Never in my life I have ever been so scared. Never,'' Elhamliah, now 23, told Middle East Eye on Tuesday.

Her father survived the attack, but Chen's life would never be the same again. To this day, the city of Sderot, located in Southern Israel, is attacked daily with rockets.

Since Tuesday, dozens of rockets from Gaza were fired into the city. No one was killed in the attacks, but daily routines have drastically changed as Code Red siren alerts went off almost every 15 minutes and civilians headed for shelters, Chen said.

"We even slept in the safe room tonight and my exams were cancelled today and tomorrow. This is not a good way of living. I want to go to school, get my degree and go to work. I want a normal life,'' the Israeli student added. 

Once the alarm system, installed by the Israeli government, goes off, the people of Sderot have 15 seconds to reach a shelter or a concrete bus stop before the alarm ends. Like many people in Sderot, Chen plans her trips carefully considering the location of bus stops in case of an alarm. If she cannot reach the bus stop in time, she runs to the shelter of the nearest resident who she may not even know.

"It's not easy to live here. Not a day goes by that I don't think about what might happen to us. I think the Palestinians in Gaza feel the same way. They are poor, cannot get out of the area and are living under the rule of radicals,'' Chen whispers, adding that she sympathises with the Palestinian civilians across the border, because they suffer too. 

Empty Sderot streets

On Tuesday, Sderot's streets are empty, even thought it's in the middle of the day. On one of the children's playgrounds, there is a giant colourful snake made out of concrete. On some days, it's not just a toy, but also functions as a shelter during rockets attacks. When alarms go off, children run into the snake and gather behind the red line inside of it. On Tuesday, however, there is nobody on the playground. 

"The other day I heard two kids talking about why snails have little houses on top of them. Because then they can hide from the missiles, they said to each other,'' she laughed. 

Around the corner from the playground, a factory was hit by a missile a few days ago. The factory caught fire immediately. The area around it still smell likes chemicals and burned plastic. 

Chen looks at the factory with a frowning glance. Asked if she wants to move to another city, she said she prefers staying here. The people are friendly, her friends and family live here and the costs of living is lower than in other parts of the country. 

Her boyfriend is from the city of Tel Aviv, nicknamed "the bubble". Chen says he never dares to sleep in her house in Sderot. He finds it highly uncomfortable to sit in a safe room with her parents in the middle of the night. 

"Sometimes, on one of those days when we are being attacked a lot, I'm afraid to take a shower. What if the alarm goes off and I have to get out immediately, half naked? I don't want my parents to see me like that,'' Chen admits. 

Non-stop alarms 

Since Israeli forces launched Operation Brother's Keeper on 12 June while searching for the three Israeli teenagers who had disappeared, a military source said Palestinians have launched more than 200 rockets at Israel from Gaza. As part of the operation, more than 600 Palestinians were arrested and six killed.

On Tuesday, Israel bombarded the Gaza Strip in strikes that Palestinian officials said killed at least 15 people, stepping up what threatens to become a long-term offensive against Islamist group Hamas after scores of rockets hit Israeli towns. 

In Sderot, which lies 0.62 miles from the Gaza Strip and town of Beit Hanoun, the alarm went off non-stop on Tuesday, but according to Anat Ben-Ami this is 'business as usual'. There were no reports of deaths from rockets fired out of Gaza.

Since the beginning of the Second Intifada in October 2000, the city has been under constant rocket fire from Qassam rockets launched by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. 

The population lives in constant fear, especially now, said Anat, who works as a therapist and for the Sderot Media Center. The recent events have only reinforced this feeling. Despite the imperfect aim of these homemade projectiles, the missiles have caused deaths and injuries, as well as significant damage to homes and property, psychological distress and emigration from the city. 

"Ninety-four percent of our children are suffering from post-traumatic stress. The other day, the son of my friend said he needed to see a doctor because his legs were shaking all the time. This is not normal. This is the terrible reality we live in,'' Anat, who lives in Sderot since 2009, told MEE.

Her 12-year-old daughter keeps a suitcase filled with deodorant, skin cream and snacks near her bed at all times. When the alarm goes off and they have to enter the bomb shelter again, she takes the suitcase with her. On other days, she brings her daughter to safer areas, where she spends the night. 

"My daughter does not understand why we are being attacked all the time. This is a residential area with normal people," she explained. "We want peace."

A few years ago, when her daughter was still a little girl, Anat got wounded after a missile landed near her home. She could not stop crying. Not because of the pain, but because her daughter had to witness that. 

'The war never ended'

The first inhabitants of Sderot, which now houses around 21,000 inhabitants, were Jews from the South-East of Turkey. This was followed by Kurds, Moroccans, Persians, and immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Palestinian refugees and Arab Muslims also live in the city, although they are a minority. 

"I have no problems with Arabs. They even built our house,'' Chen said. 

Sderot residents said they hope that the Israeli government and Hamas will stop attacking each other and they believe Egypt can play a key role in the negotiations. However, most of the civilians fear that things will only escalate more in the upcoming days. 

"The war never ended," a civilian who wants to remain anonymous said to Middle East Eye. 

Chen's friends already got a call to serve in the army again and she thinks she will get one, too. The situation that she is in right now reminds her of the past, when Israel and Hamas were bombing and striking each other on a daily basis. On Tuesday, some people took to rooftops to watch for Israeli aircraft and rockets streaking toward Israel. 

"A few hours ago I was looking at Gaza and I saw buildings exploding again. Then the alarm went off and I had to run to the shelter. It feels like a deja vu, and it will probably not be the last one,'' she concluded.

MEE travelled to Sderot to talk to residents about life during the Gaza assault: