Heavy pressure from Defense Minister Amir Peretz and President Moshe Katsav late Sunday night convinced Sderot Mayor Eli Moyal to stay plans to launch a blockade of the city, in protest against the constant Kassam barrages that have plagued the southern city.
Also late Sunday night, police arrested a Sderot resident in his 50s under suspicion of attacking Moyal.
According to police reports, the suspect arrived at Moyal's home at around 8:30 p.m. and waited outside the house in order to speak with the mayor, while Moyal was conducting a radio interview. When the alleged attacker's patience had been exhausted, he broke the cellphone on which the mayor was giving the interview and insulted the mayor to his face while punching him and cursing him. Police were called to the scene of the attack and arrested the alleged attacker.
After being cautioned, the suspect was jailed. He will be taken before a magistrate's court Monday morning to extend his remand. Police said late Sunday night that they planned on filing an indictment against the man on charges of assault and threats.
The suspect said the reason for the attack was the mayor's refusal to conduct a personal meeting with the disgruntled citizen. Police said the circumstances behind the assault were unrelated to the Kassam attack on the city.
Earlier on Sunday, Moyal said government inaction in the face of the rocket attacks gave him no choice but to declare the entire town on strike.
Entrances to Sderot were to have been blocked, Moyal said, and only trucks carrying milk, bread and emergency services would have been allowed access. Schools would also be closed, he said, and summer vacation would begin early - and immediately - for the town's children this year.
Moyal said he took the decision to strike early Sunday morning after a Kassam rocket landed near an electricity pylon, setting it on fire, leaving the town blacked out and waking him up.
"My house was shaking, my windows were shattered, the power was knocked out... I decided, enough," Moyal said. "No one from the government even called to ask what was going on here, not the prime minister, not even the defense minister, who slept here and must have heard the explosion," he said, referring to Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who lives in Sderot.
At about 9:30 Sunday evening another Kassam landed in a park. There were no injuries, but one person was treated for shock.
Moyal said with five people killed and more than 600 reported rocket attacks on the town, he'd given the government an ultimatum. "I told the government and the media it would not be business as usual," he said.
"How do I deal with a town in a war situation, a town where every moment someone could be killed, a town where people don't sleep at night, where children are crying at night, where the educational system doesn't function, a town at war?" Moyal pleaded.
Sderot residents would block intersections in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Moyal threatened. "We will burn tires. We will wake up this country... Whoever thinks that this is a local problem doesn't know what they're talking about. Sderot is a national problem because tomorrow it's Ashkelon and tomorrow it's Kfar Saba," he said.
"We will close the town. The whole town will be on strike. We will put tractors and buses at the entrances. Nobody comes in, nobody goes out... We will make this place like an army base," Moyal said, following an emergency council meeting Sunday afternoon.
Under a makeshift canopy in the center of town, meanwhile, local residents sat and continued a week-long hunger strike. "We just want to be able to walk safely down the street," said Yael Tayari, who said she'd had nothing but liquids all week. "We are secondclass citizens."
Weary residents milled around, adding similar comments. One man leaned on a largerthan-life-size cardboard replica of a Kassam at the front of the protest tent.
"The world needs to understand us, they must help us," Tayari pleaded.
The rocket landed at 5:10 a.m. in an otherwise quiet street. Along with setting a pylon on fire and blacking out the town, it also sent shrapnel through the living-room window of the Banner family, the second rocket to do so in less than two weeks.
"I've never seen two Kassam rockets land so close to each other," said Uriel Banner, father of five, pointing to two deep star-shaped grooves in the road, about 10 meters apart. On Sunday, the family was asleep when the town's "Red Dawn" early warning system went into action. Most of the children have already taken to sleeping in the apartment's one security room.
The explosion shattered their newly replaced windows, and shrapnel flew across their living room, hitting the kitchen wall and leaving fresh gouges only centimeters away from similar marks 12 days older.
He had no doubt the rocket fire had affected his children. His eldest daughter can't decide how best to carry her baby sister when she's outside, he said. "If I carry her in my arms, and the warning siren goes off, it'll be easier to run," he reported her saying. "But if I take her in a stroller it'll will be harder to run, it will take a few more seconds" to find shelter. "This is what the children are contemplating."
"I think almost everyone here feels that the government has abandoned us," Banner said. "[Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert was overseas for a week... he doesn't even feel that there's a need to call here like he would call [basketball coach] Pini Gershon after a Maccabi Tel Aviv game."
Moyal said he had no intention of leaving and allowing the Palestinians to feel as if they'd won, but felt the government was providing no other option.
"The government was elected to provide solutions, and if the government tells us there is no solution, it's as if they're telling us to leave town because otherwise we will die pointlessly," he said.
But from the sanctuary of his smoky air-conditioned second-floor office, he conceded one point. "This is a ghost town," he said. "The government doesn't want to admit it. They're ashamed."
Peretz told the cabinet Sunday that since the Gaza beach tragedy, and the incident a few days later when the IDF hit a van carrying missiles and killed 11 Palestinians, Hamas has not openly been involved in the rocket fire on Sderot, although it may still be involved "behind the scenes."
"Hamas is not openly involved, and the cells are those of Islamic Jihad," he said. If Hamas becomes involved again, he warned, Israel would not restrain itself in its reaction as it did at the beginning of last week when dozens of rockets fell on Sderot over a span of two days.
Herb Keinon and Rebecca Anna Stoil contributed to this report.
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