There's very little traffic on this Sunday between Jerusalem and the battered city. Sunflower fields line the road and then the vast prairies of the Negev; it's difficult to fathom that only a few kilometers away rockets are raining.
We stop for gas and notice a blond woman heading out to the highway.
"Want a tremp [ride]?" my friend, the driver, asks.
"Where are you going?" she responds.
"Sderot," he says.
She shakes her head with an "are you crazy?" look. "I just came from there. I'm not going back."
The entrance to Sderot is crowded with policemen. A sign is posted on a car nearby; it reads, in Arabic: "F--- YOU, HAMAS."
We figure a rocket has just landed at the entrance, but it turns out the police were clearing a protest staged by Sderot residents angry at the government's apparent apathy toward their situation, which Israel Defense Minister Amir Peretz defined that day as "special." Special indeed.
A billboard advertising Shabbat candlelighting times greets us as we enter Sderot. Other billboard ads are peeling off, neglected.
Yet Sderot is not a ghost town, despite the thousands of residents who have already fled the city. People are still waiting at bus stops; the supermarket is open, though few cars are on the roads. I even notice a street cleaner. But the town looks tired. If Sderot had a theme, it would be: "What's gonna be with us?"
"There's always fear. It's always tense. You're always stepped on. What can I say, you hope for the best," says David Alon, a resident of Netivot, a town about 10 miles away. He is in Sderot because he works here every day for Hevra Kadisha, the Jewish burial society. He thinks it's only a matter of time until Netivot comes under fire, as well.
As Alon begins to talk about the 2005 disengagement from Gaza as the cause for Sderot's troubles, we hear on loudspeakers: "Red alert! Red alert!"
Alon shudders and darts away. "Get under there," he says, pointing to the corridor of a building.
"Is it safe?" I ask, noticing that we are exposed.
"It's good enough," he replies.
After only a few seconds, I hear that powerful, heart-shattering boom.
Talk about scary.
But there isn't time to be scared. We immediately get in the car and follow the ambulances to get a view of where the missile fell. People are gathered on pavements, looking out from the balconies, even though this isn't new to them. More than 100 missiles have been fired on Sderot in the past week.
We drive a little too fast, and I wonder if I should put on my seatbelt.
"It's not a good idea," says a local woman who has joined us. "We might have to run out for cover."
The ambulances can't seem to find the site, and they circle around the city, which isn't so big, for about 15 minutes, until all the press and emergency forces converge on a school, which is where the missile landed. Luckily, school was out for the day. There is only minor damage and no injuries, we are told.
Next, we visit a family on a small street with pale yellow apartment buildings. One woman looks out from her porch. A sign reads: "FOR SALE."
"Is it because of the situation?" I ask the 60-something woman, a Sderot resident of 31 years.
She says it's not, but I bet she's lying. She doesn't want to broadcast weakness: "If you're afraid, you have to leave all of Israel. We're not afraid. It's our country....We live here. We get used to it."
Across the street, Malka Tzippora, a 51-year-old single mother of four, is anything but used to the situation.
"I'm paranoid because of my children and grandchildren," she says. "When you call your children and they don't answer, you think the worst."
She apologizes for not offering me any coffee or refreshments, but her house, she says, is in disarray. She's in no mood to clean. Bags with food are on the kitchen counter, dishes are dirty, her 5-year-old grandson keeps nagging her to watch television with him, his shows -- something happy -- but she tells him to go sit down on the sofas.
"You don't have patience for your kids," she explains. "You're short with them because of the anger, pressure. You don't mean it, but it comes from fear."
Her son, who was injured fighting in Lebanon in the 1990s, is sending his family off to England to his wife's family. Moroccan-born Tzippora herself dreams of returning to France, where she lived for 10 years, before moving to Israel.
"They treated me well," she says. "The education for my children was better.
People are polite; they care for each other."
She's angry at the Israeli government for "tying the army's hands," adding: "It hurts that you fight for the country, and they throw you to the dogs." Of Israel's leaders, she says: "A man with a potbelly that always expands can't see under it."
Gabriel Attias, 42, a resident of Sderot, is handicapped from two car accidents. He couldn't help but express his anger to a group of journalists who gathered to watch the installation of a LifeShield bomb shelter (see related story on Page 14) next to a children's nursery. He aimed particular barbs at Peretz, a former mayor of Sderot. "He does nothing."
"What should he do?" someone asks.
"Go into Gaza and bomb them!" Attias responds.
Then he lashes out at the journalists: "And I'm angry at you. You don't go to the sick people at home. You just come and go where you want and look for some noise." Realizing I'm no angel, I offer to visit his wheelchair-bound, sick mother, but she was recently taken to a nursing home in Ashkelon. "When, when, when will there be quiet?" he shouts.
He wants me to tell the world: "We are suffering. Families are destroyed, children are destroyed, homes are destroyed and [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert and Peretz don't do anything. All the money donated to the municipalities, we don't see a cent of it."
A 27-year-old onlooker is more forgiving of the government's seeming inaction, at least in regard to military activity. He doesn't think there is any quick-fix solution, and he's patient, describing his decision to stay in Sderot as a "gamble with fate."
"Gaza is the densest place in the world. You can't just do what you did in Operation Defensive Shield," he says. "You'll take a lot of IDF fatalities."
A 5-year-old girl sits on the lawn with a teddy bear outside her apartment, whose windows had been damaged not long ago by shrapnel from a missile strike across the street. She seems to be the calmest of the people I've spoken with, whether from childish naiveté or repressed uncertainty.
"When there are Qassam rockets, we hide here," she says matter-of-factly but sweetly, pointing to her ground-floor apartment. "We don't have shelters."
"Are you afraid?" I ask.
"We're afraid of the boom," she replies.
By the late afternoon, we've been here for about three hours; as we get ready to leave Sderot, we stop by a local falafel stand empty of customers. They are still functioning, but "business is terrible. People are afraid to go out. We make less of everything," reports Eliran, an 18-year-old worker there. The falafel was still good, though -- fresh.
On our way out, we notice smoke billowing in the skies. Was it a rocket? No, tires have been set aflame by local shopkeepers, one way of protesting their "special situation."
Back in Jerusalem, that boom still rings in my ears. As much as the echo of the man's booming cry: "When? When? When will there be quiet?"
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