Sderot residents resilient amid constant threat of Kassams

The Red Dawn siren that blasted through Sderot around 6 a.m. Thursday didn't set Yoram Peretz racing for safety. Along with his brothers, he had just finished morning prayers, and the alarm didn't give them so much as a moment's pause. "Where would we have run to?" asked Peretz, whose home, like many older ones in Sderot, has no reinforced "security room." What's more, he noted, there's only a 20 second lag from the time the siren sounds until the Kassam falls, making it impossible to get to a shelter in time. Even when word came through that the Kassam had hit near his home, Peretz didn't panic. Nor did it prompt any thought of fleeing the city where he has lived his whole life. And even though another Kassam, on Sunday, plunged through the roof of the Netiv Yeshivati school, Thursday afternoon found the Peretz family doggedly making preparations in a nearby building, as scheduled, for a memorial ceremony for their father, who passed away a month ago. Family members (who are not related to local resident Defense Minister Amir Peretz) were busy filling tables in the hall with fruit, alcohol and pastries. In this city, where the sound of a Kassam shrieking overhead is more common that a thundershower, most residents have learned not to dwell unnecessarily on the potential deadly rain. For many, the rockets launched from the neighboring Gaza Strip have become part of their normal routine. "But our hearts are not quiet," stressed Eli Cohen, a member of the Peretz family by marriage. In the back of his mind, he said, was the fear that a Kassam might fall on the gathering. "We are always waiting to hear the siren," said Cohen, a father of four whose youngest son, Elyasaf, is set to head to the Netiv Yeshivati school next fall. "It goes off when we are sleeping, and it goes off when we are in the middle of praying." Elyasaf, 11, said that when he first heard the school had been hit, he decided that he didn't want to go there next fall, even though no students were hurt. "But that was just the fear talking," he said defiantly. He had calmed down now, he said, and saw no problem with studying there. His uncle, Shimon, who has a 12-year-old son at the school, described the same instinctive reaction in his child, and the same subsequent resilience. It helped that the next day there was a field trip, and the day after four protected concrete classrooms were placed in front of the building. Shimon said he hoped that the government would take the Kassam threat to Sderot more seriously now that Peretz was the defense minister. But his brother-in-law doubted it. Each time there was an attack Israel should launch an air strike, said Cohen, and added that he blamed the US for Israel's failure to respond harshly to the attacks. "I want them to hit back hard," he said. "Why can't Israel do anything without permission from the US?" According to a Home Front Command officer, the government has embarked on a NIS 210 million program to protect Sderot and the peripheral area around Gaza, of which NIS 158m. has already been released. Home Front Command is waiting to receive the remaining NIS 52m., he said. But the money does not meet all the needs. Among the projects that still lack funding is protection for elementary and high schools. Only the area nurseries are receiving protective construction. In the schools it's assumed that the students would have time to reach the shelters before the Kassams fall, he said. Nor does the arrangement allow for all the homes in Sderot to have security rooms. By law, new apartments and homes must have them, but that leaves those in older buildings without immediate protection. Providing such rooms for every one would be a very costly project, the officer said. Sderot residents have mixed feelings regarding the Red Dawn warning system, which was introduced last summer. Some said they liked the advance notice, but others felt it added an element of terror to a bad situation. The Home Front Command officer, however, said there was no doubt that in homes with security rooms, the sirens save lives. Yoram Peretz said that he felt it was good for him to know a Kassam was coming, but it was harmful for his three-year old son, who cried and yelled when he heard it. "He's so scared we've taken him to a psychologist," he said. Standing in his garden behind the school, Shlomo Muhani, 79, dismissed the Kassams with a wave of his hand. "I'm too old to be afraid," he said. "When the Red Dawn siren goes off, I stay in my garden." At a nearby shwarma stand, Yossi Abutbul relaxed behind the counter, smoking a cigarette even as from where he sat, a short distance from the mayor's office, he could see the hole the Kassam left in the school's roof. "We've gotten use to it," he said, blowing smoke in the air. At the toy store behind the school, customers waited by the register. As she wrapped a toy, owner Dina Keinan said she had developed a sense of gallows humor about the whole thing. "It falls where I'm not," she said. On Sunday morning she was still at home when the Kassam fell, and on another occasion when she in the store, one fell near her home. "I take life with humor and I hope it will treat me the same way," she said.