rocket smoke 248.88.
(photo credit: AP)
At 10 a.m. on Sunday, 12 hours after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced a unilateral cease-fire, a military vehicle full of soldiers passed this reporter on the road to Sderot. They all waved.
"It's over! We're going back home!" one of them said with a big grin. I smiled and waved back.
"I'm glad you're all okay," I said. I didn't want to ruin their high spirits.
Back in Sderot, the wave of optimism that started late Saturday night had already faded. At close to 9 a.m., a "Color Red" siren was heard and six Kassam rockets struck the area, taking the residents back to a routine that had become familiar over the past eight years.
Rachel Ben-Yaish, the owner of a Sderot clothing store specializing in fancy dresses, sat inside her business and cried. She had opened for the first time in three weeks.
"I opened the store because they said it was over, but nothing is over and I need to have something to pay for my food. I don't ask anything else, just to go to the grocery store with a little bit of pride," she said, wiping away tears. "No one buys this kind of clothing these days. I have stock worth NIS 600,000, and I have no money to buy food."
Ben-Yaish, 66, came to Sderot when she was 10 years old. She grew up there, married and raised her children there.
"Where can I go? I can't start over at my age, and it doesn't seem like the rocket-firing will ever stop," she said.
Kiosk-owner Zion Maimon, meanwhile, has accepted the unstable reality that locals have had to face for so long.
"It's going to be worse. There's no one we can speak to on the other side, and this military operation won't stop the rockets - nothing will, unless Israel takes over Gaza and stays there. I'm willing to go and live there if that would promise the end of the firing of rockets," he said.
"The Americans, the British and the French don't live here. They can keep criticizing us, but they don't know how it feels to live here," he added.
Sarah Sasson, another business owner in Sderot, said the unilateral cease-fire was a bad decision on the government's part.
"This is a trick of the political Left in Israel. They didn't eliminate Hamas completely, like they should have, because they want them to continue firing more rockets on us, and then they'll say that there's no choice but to talk to Hamas," Sasson said.
Faina, a saleswoman at a local deli, laughed bitterly when asked how she felt about the cease-fire.
"We heard about [it] just as we have heard about other cease-fires in the past eight years," she said. "We stopped firing, but they would never stop voluntarily."
Even when Hamas announced on Sunday afternoon that it would accept the cease-fire if the IDF withdrew from the Gaza Strip within a week, the residents had good reason to remain skeptical. A Grad rocket hit a house in Ashdod, and a Kassam fell in the Eshkol region.
"What cease-fire?" Sderot resident Leah Silou asked while waiting for a bus. "My two daughters are taking their matriculation exams now after a month of not being at school. It will never stop. We don't believe them."
Opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu, who arrived for a visit in Sderot a few minutes before Hamas made its announcement, sided with the residents.
"It's not over. It is clear that Hamas is still here, and we have to remove the threat. We must show strength, just as the residents of Sderot have demonstrated strength for the past [several] years," he told journalists while visiting the town's police station.
Meanwhile, the soldiers who exited Gaza on Sunday morning sounded happy, mainly because they had survived the hardest part of the operation.
"They say it's a cease-fire, and our commanders estimate it will take a few more days until we all get out of Gaza," said two Engineering Corps soldiers, one from Yokne'am and another from Modi'in, who had spent two weeks inside the Strip.
"We don't know what it means, but it sure feels good to be back in Israel again," they added.
A group of reservists from an IDF medical unit met in the Kfar Aza CafÃ© after spending the weekend at home.
"The past two weeks were full of hard work for us, but here we are again. I just hope this cease-fire leaves us unemployed for the next few days until all soldiers get out of Gaza and go back home," said one of them, a Jerusalem resident.
"We are all more optimistic, but we don't let it get to us," another said