May 18, 2007
Residents of Israeli ghost town flee their homes after feeling abandoned by their own government.
By Michael Blum - SDEROT, Israel
In the Israeli town of Sderot, battered by Palestinian rocket fire, residents who have not left their homes to flee the barrages feel neglected and helpless.
Avi Farhan stares at the wreckage inside his home after a rocket fired from the lawless Gaza Strip tore through the roof.
"The government has abandoned us," lamented Farhan, who moved to Sderot after he was transferred from his home when Israel evacuated its settlements inside Gaza in 2005.
"I always said that things would only worsen after we were kicked out of our homes, and here are the results," he said as he picked through the debris.
Palestinian militants have lobbed thousands of the rudimentary projectiles since the start of the intifada in 2000, killing eight civilians inside Israel and wounding many others.
After nearly six months of relative calm between Israel and the Palestinian factions, tensions worsened again this week after the impoverished Palestinian territory plunged into a fresh round of internecine violence.
More than 50 of the home-made projectiles fired from the Gaza Strip have crashed inside Israel since the start of the factional clashes, wounding six civilians, two of them seriously.
Sderot has borne the brunt of the fire and many of its residents, tired and nerve-wrecked by the constant sounds of sirens and explosions, have this week decided to leave the small town only five kilometres (three miles) north of Gaza.
Farhan's landlord, Reuven Elbaz, is one of the few people to walk the streets of what has almost become a ghost town.
"I have lived here for 55 years, where can someone my age go?" he asked those trying to convince him to take some time off outside Sderot.
Hundreds of residents have been bussed out of Sderot to hotels and holiday resorts under the initiative of the government, aid groups and even the Israeli-Russian billionaire Arkady Gaydamak.
The remaining residents take advantage of the presence of the media to vent their anger towards the government and the town's most famous resident, Defence Minister Amir Peretz.
"He doesn't do a thing but talk, he is incapable of taking any action. He should either protect us or quit," said Avi Cohen, packing suitcases before going to take a break in the centre of the country for a few days.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government decided earlier this week to renew air strikes against militant targets in the face of the rocket barrage and has authorised a limited ground operation several hundred metres inside Gaza.
Fifteen Palestinians -- two teenagers and 13 militants of the radical Hamas movement -- have been killed by Israeli strikes since then.
Residents want their government to take stronger steps against Palestinian militants and not stop with the resumption of aerial attacks against targets.
The recent escalation has drawn many politicians and ministers to Sderot. On Thursday night, Olmert and Peretz paid a surprise visit.
Friday saw a visit by opposition leader and former hawkish prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and members of his Likud party. "I have come to express my solidarity," he told a crowd shouting "Bibi to power", using his nickname.
Inside a synagogue devastated by a rocket on Wednesday, Netanyahu said: "The government is not doing what it should do, the army should be ordered to roll into the Gaza Strip."
"The air strikes are not enough, we should engage in a ground operation," former foreign minister Silvan Shalom told the crowd.
Faced with the government's sluggish response to the rocket attacks and providing assistance to Sderot, private and public groups try to fill in the gaps.
One volunteer movement hands out toys and food in the town's poorest areas.
Jewish Agency head Zeev Bielsky visited to hand Sderot Mayor Eli Moyal a 2.5 million dollar (1.5 million euro) check of donations raised for Sderot from Jews in the United States.
For Avi Cohen, such initiative are welcome. However, "what counts is our ability to raise our children in security in Sderot, but no one can guarantee us that," he said.