About 150 adults and kids turned out for the dedication a couple of weeks ago of Sderot's Afik Park, named for Afik Zahavi-Ohayon, the four-year-old boy who, in June 2004, became the first person in the town killed by a Kassam rocket. On the night of the dedication, the noise from all the kids climbing on the jungle gym was so loud that at times the people giving speeches had to raise their voices to be heard.
Things have changed in Sderot. A year ago, which local mother or father would have dared bring their kids out at night to play for a couple of hours in the park?
Things have changed, but not altogether. At the edge of the crowd, Olga Hanukayev, a mother of three, said, "Nobody in the city is calm. Everybody's just waiting for something to go wrong."
In the nearly 10 months since Operation Cast Lead, life hasn't been totally quiet in Sderot, but it's been relatively quiet - quiet, certainly, in comparison with the seven previous years when several thousand Kassams fell in the city. Fewer than 100 have landed here since the war's end, with two rockets destroying houses and all the others landing in open fields, said municipal spokeswoman Sima Gal.
No one has been wounded.
"Except from shock," Gal added, noting that on the day before the start of the school year, a "Code Red" alarm sounded through the streets - and about 500 people turned up at the local trauma center.
The 24,000 residents of Sderot have come out of their bomb shelters, but slowly, hesitantly. And with each Code Red, which can occur weeks apart, the old, Pavlovian fear in the gut gets triggered and everyone runs for the shelters. Psychologically, it's back to square one.
Behind the counter of the lottery parlor in the center of town, Bruria Dadon, who's run the place with her husband for 25 years, had nothing optimistic to say about this new period of relative quiet. "Business hasn't picked up at all; people don't have money," she said.
As for her state of mind, it hasn't gotten better either. "I've stopped going out; I have no peace of mind. I can't go out in the street for long. Nobody's calm here. I get stomach pains. There's a tension inside us."
A man buying a lottery ticket agreed. "I never used to smoke, now I smoke two packs a day," he said.
Another customer, Ya'acov Hanukayev, a dreadlocked photography student at nearby Sapir College, didn't like what he was hearing. This was all a display of miskenut, of victimhood, and he was sick of it. "My state of mind has definitely improved now that the Kassams have stopped. But on TV they show people in Sderot crying all the time, asking for charity. It's not good," he said.
"He's right. I agree 100 percent," said a woman customer.
In the face of this, Dadon retreated, saying she wasn't pleading miskenut, just making the point that people in town were still suffering psychologically, that even though there were a whole lot fewer Kassams, they still hadn't gotten over the years of incessant rocketing.
Hanukayev replied: "I know people are still suffering, we're never going to get over this completely, but when we cry and complain, this tells the terrorists that their rockets are having an effect, and it's just inviting more."
After the customers got their lottery tickets and left, Dadon told me her house had been damaged by rockets or shrapnel three times, while her sister's house had been destroyed. While she was talking about the hard times her family had endured, her cellphone rang. It was her husband calling about some practical matter. After a few words, she started weeping.
"I cry over every little thing," she said, composing herself. "My husband's coming soon. He'll be mad at me if he finds out I've been crying again."
Dadon's sister has returned to Sderot after failing to find work in Ashdod. Her brother has returned from Netivot after realizing that his professional prospects were better in town. I asked her if she, too, would like to leave.
"At our age, my husband and I can't leave," she shrugged. "This is our livelihood. At our age, what else will we do?"
LAST YEAR about 200 families moved out of Sderot, joining the hundreds of families who'd preceded them in the years when the Kassams were pouring down, said Gal. "The families who left are those who had the [economic] opportunity to leave," she said, confirming the sad notion that Sderot lost the "strongest" of its population to the Kassams. Very few have returned, and they're not expected to, said Gal. Once they've found work and housing and gotten their kids squared away at school outside Sderot, they're gone for good.
One or two new businesses have opened since the war, but there hasn't been any burst of economic growth, any major investments or job creation. In fact, said Ma'or Moravia, editor of the local paper Din V'heshbon, "When we had the Kassams, money was coming in from outside, either from charitable donations or from the 'solidarity convoys' of shoppers from Tel Aviv. Now that the Kassams have basically stopped, that money's dried up."
But there are very visible signs of improvement - for one, the shouk is pretty crowded with shoppers. "It's much better now. People go out of their houses; they're not always looking around for the nearest bomb shelter like they were before," said Yosef Cohen, a long-time vegetable vendor.
Yet the change in the security picture hasn't sunk in with a lot of people here. A young mother buying socks with her daughter said she doesn't feel any safer. She still keeps an eye out for the nearest bomb shelter; she still hurries home as quickly as possible. But when I asked her if she would have taken her little girl shopping in the shouk a year ago, she replied, "God forbid."
Another vendor, Vladimir Ledesky, said the relative security hadn't improved his business at all. "Nobody has any money; nobody comes to shop," he said. Ledesky complained about the water leaking into his house from the security room that's still under construction. "The government promises to finish the security rooms, but they don't do anything. It's a big problem," he said.
I asked his wife, Tatiana, if she thought business had improved since the rocketing went down. "Sure," she said, pointing to the crowds, "now there are more people shoppingâ€¦" "Business is al hapanim, dead," interjected Vladimir.
"Al hapanim," agreed Tatiana without missing a beat.
AT NIGHTS in the center of town, there are groups of men sitting at the fast-food joints - something you didn't see last year. A couple of locals, however, said these are not Sderot residents, but rather Negev Beduin and foreign workers employed on the ubiquitous construction crews that are building security rooms onto the older homes.
At Pizza Roma, the counterman said, "The scare is over," adding that he's got customers every night. Asked if they were locals or construction workers from outside, he replied, "Half and half."
From the looks of it, Sderot has to be the bomb shelter capital of the world. Every street is dotted with these concrete huts: The bus shelters have them, the shouk has them and now the cranes and bulldozers are all over town making good on the government's promise to put a security room in every Sderot home. We saw one crane lifting a stack of three security rooms and attaching them to the side of a three-story apartment building.
The one business that is picking up in town because of the new (relative) security is real estate. Prices started going up three months ago and now they're about 20% higher than they were last year, said Ya'acov Levy of the Bayit Vagan real-estate agency. "After the war, people were waiting to see if the quiet would hold, and after about six months without Kassams, the demand for real estate started going up," he said.
A four-room apartment here that sold for NIS 220,000 a year ago sells for NIS 300,000 today, he said; in Sderot, the cost of living is very low and that keeps a lot of people here.
Another good economic indicator - again, from the real-estate market - came a couple of months ago when a tender for 40 half-dunam plots, each priced at $50,000, drew 130 bidders. Two years ago, these same 40 plots attracted a total of three bidders, causing the tender to be canceled, said Gal.
But the real-estate market here is made up mostly of locals selling to locals, or locals renting to Sapir College students. Sderot is still not attracting many out-of-towners who want to come live here, said Levy.
The town, after all, was known as a backwater even before the Kassams; once the Kassams began in earnest, it became a ghost town. "Like in those Westerns, with the tumbleweeds blowing through the empty streets," said Moravia.
Now, as it begins to come back from the years of terror, there is still a feeling of inertia in Sderot. It's still a fairly poor, old, small town where there's not much to do, a place where young people with ambition plan to leave.
A local merchant said she would move out if she could get a good price for her house. "I could get a good price, in cash, from one of the mashtapim [the Gazan collaborators whom the Shin Bet moved to Israel after the 2005 disengagement]. But my neighbors tell me, 'Don't you dare sell to the mashtapim.'"
One resident who gave as optimistic a picture of Sderot as possible asked me afterward where I was from, and when I told him the US, he asked, only half-jokingly, "Can you get me a green card?"
Now that the rockets have slowed, a lot of people who moved out in recent years are in limbo about coming back. Natali and Ya'acov Sinai and their four children were all born in Sderot, and for the last two and a half years they've been living in a rented apartment in Moshav Nehora outside Ashkelon.
"We're thinking about moving back, but I've got a lot of hesitations," said Natali, 40, a teacher in Ashkelon who used to teach in Sderot until the exodus of families led to a cutback in her hours. Her husband still runs his used-car lot in town.
"Our parents are here and they're getting old. Our friends are here. We have very deep connections to the town," she said.
But her kids don't want to go back. "They have very bad memories," said Sinai.
The worst one is from the incident that drove them out of their home. "It was 7:45 in the morning, I was walking my two youngest to school. The Code Red sounded and we stood there, holding onto one another, one shielding the other, like one mass of flesh. The Kassam landed about 20 meters away. We were in such a state. But still I took them to school, and when I dropped them off, all I could think about was that I was leaving them in danger.
"That was the straw that broke the camel's back. We started looking around for a place to live, and a few months later we moved out."
Sinai is "divided" now over whether to return. "I know the situation has improved, and that has an influence. But if something happens tomorrow, God forbid, then that's going to have an influence, too."
If Sinai is looking for encouragement to come home, she probably won't get a lot of it from her old neighbors. However peaceful life in Sderot may be now, the residents' view of the future is heavily clouded by the recent past.
"This is the calm before the storm," said Moravia. "Everybody knows it's going to start up again. It's just a question of when."
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