When the siren wails, Lotan, 8, pulls the blanket over her head.

Sderot braces for intensified rocket attacks after cease-fire ends.

Lotan Vanunu 248.88 (photo credit: Tovah Lazaroff)
Lotan Vanunu 248.88
(photo credit: Tovah Lazaroff)
Startled by the warning siren that woke her up early Thursday morning, Lotan Vanunu, 8, instinctively did the only thing she could think of to protect herself - she pulled the blanket over her head. Now, in the late afternoon, as she played in the clothing store where her mother, Avigail Hazan, works on the edge of a Sderot shopping mall, Lotan smiled sheepishly and reflected on that illogical gesture. With her tight blue jeans and stylish black cowboy boots, Lotan is, of course, old enough to know that the blanket would have done nothing to help her had a rocket landed nearby. "But it made me feel slightly safer anyway," she said. "And there is no place really to go because there is no safe room in the house. Her principal strategy to avoid the Gazan rockets that have been hitting her city for most of her life is simply to stay away from home as much as possible and stick close to Hazan. "I feel better when I'm with my mother," she said, and added, "And I'm never home alone. Never." She shook her head and arms for emphasis. "Sometimes in the afternoon I play at a friend's home, or a cousin's house," she said. But it's best in the store because there is a safe room. Although the cease-fire that began in June does not officially end until Friday, Kassams have been falling in Sderot with some regularity for over a month. When one hit the parking lot of the nearby Victory Supermarket late Wednesday afternoon, Lotan left her cousin's house to join Hazan at the store, even though it was closer to the landing site. As her mother helped a teen customer try on a sweater for a party on Thursday afternoon, Lotan looked through the adult clothing and marked out outfits that she liked, even though they were way too big. "This vest would be very nice with these pants," she said as she matched two blue items. Hazan, a divorced mother of three, dismissed the significance of the cease-fire - as do most people in Sderot. Still, said Hazan, leaning across the counter, "I am afraid - no, I'm terrified - that it will get much worse after tomorrow. I'm trying not to think about it." Seven years of rocket attacks have changed her life. She closed the small day care she ran because it was held in a space that was not protected against rockets. Then she tried to sell her home and leave the city. "But who wants to buy a house here?" she asked. She left anyway with her children and rented an apartment in Ashdod. "But I couldn't afford to pay for both homes, so we moved back," she said. When the rockets first started to fall, she never imagined that the situation would continue for years. "I still remember when I did not want to travel to Tel Aviv because I was afraid of a terrorist attack. Now I'm afraid to take my daughter to school," she said. Angry at the government for its failure to protect her, she pulled her older son, now 22, out of the army when he was only halfway through his three years of service. "I didn't let my 18-year old join," she said. "Why should I send my sons to the army to defend a country that doesn't defend us?" Now, the only thing to do is wait for the rockets. "And the tension is increasing," she said. "We raise our eyes to God and wait for a miracle. There is no choice, there is nowhere to go." This lack of choice explains why, across the mall, in the parking lot where Wednesday's missile heavily damaged a dozen cars, it was impossible to find a spot on Thursday. Shoppers streamed in and out of the store, which is not protected against the rockets. "Of course I was afraid to come," said a store employee, Einat Yifrach, 29. Yifrach, who wore a white service coat and had her blond hair pulled back in a pony tail, was not at work Wednesday when the rocket struck and lightly wounded three people. But she was lightly injured in two previous rocket attacks. Still, in spite of her fear of another incoming missile, she sat by the store's glass door - repaired since Wednesday - and calmly answered customers' questions. In between pricing groceries, she set out two demands from the government: Build safe rooms in homes - her own home has none - and stop the rockets. It was puzzling, she said, that neither the government nor the international community seemed to understand how much the people of Sderot were suffering. "Everyone feels sorry for the Palestinians, but what about us?" Like Hazan, she too fears the danger could dramatically increase with the end of the cease-fire. If it got really bad, she said, she planned to flee the city with her four-month-old baby to her in-laws, who live out of rocket range. "But eventually I would have to come back to work," she reflected. "How else would I support myself?"