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Israeli border town residents demand protection from attacks

SDEROT, Israel—Rosie Iluz said she and her young daughters spent their days sealed indoors in this Israeli border town, prisoners of the near-daily rocket attacks launched by Palestinian militants in the nearby Gaza Strip.

On Tuesday morning, Iluz declared that she'd had enough. She sent Or, 6, and Sappir, 4, to preschool for the first time in two weeks, then marched with 300 other frustrated residents of this middle-class hamlet to within sight of the barbed-wire fence that separates Israel from the predominantly Palestinian Gaza Strip.

Under the watchful eyes of dozens of Israeli police officers, they chanted and shook their fists at the Palestinian border town of Beit Hanoun a mile away. They declared to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whose ranch is near Sderot, that they'll no longer tolerate being the most convenient target in Israel for Palestinian militants.

This month alone, 18 Qassam rocket attacks have been reported on Sderot. The crude, handmade missiles have killed three children and a grandfather here and wounded dozens more since June. The attacks are linked to a proposed withdrawal of Israeli soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip starting next summer—for which Palestinian militants credit their attacks, and Israel is fighting to dispel the impression of retreat under fire.

The Israeli military started a warning system for the town in October: a scant 10- to 15-second notice, announced by an air siren and the Hebrew words "shachar adom"—red dawn—booming over loudspeakers.

The system barely gives residents time to take cover in a doorway or under a table before the missiles strike, said Iluz, 26. She narrowly escaped serious injury four months ago when a rocket landed at the supermarket where she worked, shattering glass and exploding cans on the shelves.

"My children and I, we live in constant fear. They don't go out to play. We keep the house totally closed off," with all windows shuttered, Iluz said.

"President Bush, because of threats to Americans, went to Afghanistan, and we can't even go next door to our homes to defend ourselves," complained Haim Kuznitz, 49, a local businessman and radio personality.

"We want to live here in peace, to live in an Israeli city like any other citizen," said Meir Shushan, 38.

Sharon and his Cabinet still are weighing how far to go militarily to protect Sderot. To date, Israeli forces generally have been limited to blowing up suspected missile workshops and firing on militants who launch the rockets from farmland near Beit Hanoun and other Palestinian border communities. Several recent military operations targeting neighborhoods where the militants live failed to stop rocket launches for more than a day or two.

New Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas traveled to Gaza on Tuesday to meet with militant leaders and pressure them to end such attacks. His efforts were greeted with a suicide bomb at an Israeli checkpoint near the coastal strip's largest Jewish settlement block, killing one member of Shin Bet, the Israeli domestic-intelligence service, and wounding three others, as well as five Israeli soldiers. The bomber detonated the explosives while he was being searched.

Abbas "doesn't need a grace period. Do everything you can to stop the Qassams," Sharon was heard telling Israeli army personnel Tuesday on state-run Israel Radio. The attacks can't continue, he added. "If we get too used to a situation where they are firing rockets at us, then it will be much more difficult to deal with in the future," he said.

A Sharon spokesman urged Sderot residents to be patient, saying the government's proposed pullout of troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip beginning next summer will go a long way toward ending the violence, much as the withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon in 2000 quelled Lebanese rocket attacks on the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona. Since then that town has had only two rocket attacks and no deaths or injuries, down from 4,000 attacks during the previous 32 years that killed 22 people, spokesman Doron Shnapper said.

Sderot attacks skyrocketed from four in 2001 to 232 in 2004, according to the Israeli military. A missile critically wounded a teenage girl and her brother over the weekend.

"This country has had security problems in the past 56 years," Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin said Monday night. "We've faced more serious problems than in Sderot. We'll find a solution. Meanwhile, it requires the people of Sderot to show resilience."

In Sderot, opinions vary widely on how to stop the attacks. Many advocate a military clampdown on the Gaza Strip. Others, such as politician Amram Mitzna, said force should take a back seat to negotiations with the Palestinians.

"It seems to me the most important thing for the residents of Sderot is that they feel the Israeli public is with them. I don't think they are being ignored by the government, but the government is not brave enough to see there is no military solution," Mitzna said. He was the Labor Party prime ministerial candidate who in the 2003 elections pledged to withdraw from Gaza but was trounced by Sharon, who ridiculed the idea at the time.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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