June 1, 2007
Rina Castelnuovo for The New York Times Children crowd into a shelter, too small for adults, during a night rocket attack by Palestinians on Sderot, an Israeli working-class border town.
The New York Times Sderot has become a regular target of Palestinian-fired missiles
By ISABEL KERSHNER
SDEROT — Kobi Cohen was 2 years old when a Qassam rocket fired by Palestinians from the Gaza Strip exploded 50 yards from him. Now 5, a skinny boy with an impish face, Kobi still shows signs of trauma. He had some therapy at the time, said his mother, Hanna Cohen, but she is not sure how effective it was.
“Even today he gets very angry about every little thing, and he shakes,” Mrs. Cohen said.
Another of her six children, Maayan, a shy girl of 10, panicked a few months ago when a rocket attack caught her outside the house. Her mother had sent her across the road to invite a lonely neighbor to hear the Sabbath blessing over wine.
Then the “red alert” sounded over the citywide public address system — the recorded voice of a woman calmly but urgently repeating “Color red, color red,” the code for an incoming rocket, which is inevitably followed by a whistle and a terrifying boom.
Maayan sat on the grass screaming and could not move, her mother said. An ambulance was called, and the crew calmed her down.
After seven years of rocket fire, sometimes sporadic and sometimes intense, Sderot has turned into a city of fear. A working-class town whose outer limits lie less than a mile and a half from Gaza’s border, Sderot is the bull’s-eye for the relatively crude Qassams, whose warheads are stuffed with shrapnel.
With each attack, more of its 24,000 residents are added to the list of those treated for “charada,” or severe anxiety or alarm in Hebrew.
Two weeks ago Palestinian militant factions, including Hamas, sharply stepped up the rocket fire from across the border, ending a tenuous six-month cease-fire. About 270 Qassam rockets have been launched at Israel since then, according to the Israeli Army, many landing in or around Sderot.
Israel has responded by pounding Hamas military compounds and outposts in Gaza and attacking groups it believes to be rocket-launching cells, mainly from the air.
Ahmed Youssef, a senior Hamas official, recently described the homemade projectiles as fireworks, apparently because no more than two Israelis have been killed in the recent siege: a man and a woman, both in their 30s.
But psychologists and mental health workers here describe a population that has become paralyzed by the terror of the last red alert and the dread of the next one. The residents never become inured to the fear induced by each new attack or the randomness of the threat, the mental health specialists say.
“It’s trauma upon trauma upon trauma,” said Tami Sagi, director of psychological services in Sderot. “I don’t think enough research has been done to show the effect of such fear over such a long period of time.” v Young Kobi’s restlessness was compounded by the closing of his kindergarten by officials. He is also suffering from a bad toothache, but Mrs. Cohen has been waiting for the current round of hostilities to calm before taking him to the dentist.
“What if a red alert goes off in the middle?” she said, her features tight with tension. “And what am I supposed to do with the other children while I’m stuck there for two or three hours?”
Even taking a shower is stressful, Sderot’s residents say. Rockets can strike anywhere, anytime, and with the water running, people cannot hear the alert and take shelter.
Although they live in a comfortable two-story house, the Cohens, like most families here, spend the nights like refugees. They spread mattresses on the floor of the living room every evening, afraid to sleep in the upstairs bedrooms in case a rocket comes smashing through the roof. Some of the Cohen children have taken to sleeping with friends in a bomb shelter across the road.
Everyone knows what happened Saturday evening, when a rocket destroyed the children’s bedroom of an apartment nearby. The family, luckily, was out of town.
The police and ambulance crews in Sderot are prepared to rush to the scene when a rocket strikes. “People are shaking,” said Yuri Malol, a volunteer paramedic with the ambulance service. “They can’t move. They are crying, sweating and in a state of shock. It affects everybody — young, old, men, women, children. There is no age for it.”
While those with wounds are taken to a hospital, those suffering from charada are taken to the city trauma center, a neat, low building next to police headquarters. There, half a dozen beds are waiting, along with civilian medical workers and a team of soldiers from the medical corps.
Dr. Adriana Katz is the city’s chief psychiatrist and runs the clinic. For many patients, she said, a glass of water and some kind words are enough to help them get over the immediate anxiety and reassure them that their reactions are normal. Some need sedation; a few require long-term treatment.
The aim, she said, is to prevent post-traumatic stress syndrome, a potentially chronic condition that can cripple lives. “But we can’t talk of post-trauma yet,” Dr. Katz said. “There is no ‘post.’ It’s all the time. The ‘post’ isn’t even on the horizon.”
In the current siege, many schools have closed. Some that are equipped with fortified roofs and bomb shelters reopened Tuesday. At the Gil Elementary School, 49 pupils turned up, out of 200. The principal, Etti Azran, said she knew the location of every absent pupil. Seventy-six were out of town, and the rest were at home, their parents too scared to bring them, she said.
Several thousand residents have left town temporarily, and a few who had the means have gone for good.
The Cohens, who have put everything they have earned into their home, do not have the means. Shimon, the father, does agricultural work “in carrots and garlic” in a nearby kibbutz. Hanna earns the minimum wage escorting children on buses to school, and she cleans offices for extra cash.
Shimon was born here and swears he will never leave. As a kind of statement, he said, he has just invested $7,000 in renovations for the house. “I won’t let Hamas dance on the rooftops because I’ve run away,” he said, sitting out on the porch with the family as the evening drew in. Hanna and the children would readily move out, but they know that nobody would buy the house.
At 8:40 p.m. the red alert suddenly sounded across the city. Kobi and some of the girls were already in the bomb shelter across the road. Everyone else darted inside. The eldest boy, Haim, 16, hid in the downstairs bathroom.
Hanna crouched on the floor in the middle of the front room, trembling, her arms wrapped around her head. Shimon took up position near the window, waiting to hear the boom. Their youngest child, 2-year-old Adi, stood by the back wall in her pink pajamas, silent and wide-eyed.
The rocket landed with a thud. This time it was far away.