It will take more than two months without rocket fire for this Israeli border town to return to normalcy.
SDEROT, ISRAEL -- For over a decade, the Israeli city of Sderot, a 20,000-resident sprawl jutting from the upper edge of the Gaza border to the outer fringes of the Negev desert, was subject to a consistent barrage of rocket fire from Palestinian militant groups, most prominently Hamas, a US and EU-designated terrorist organization. The attacks reached their crescendo late last year. During the eight days of Operation Pillar of Defense in November of 2012, Israel experienced the worst rash of rocket attacks in the country's history, as 250 projectiles were fired into Israeli territory each day -- nearly twice the daily barrage during the 2006 Lebanon war. In the last 13 years, 5,000 rockets and mortars have been fired at Sderot alone.
And then, for the first time since the early days of the last decade, the rocket fire stopped. Not stopped in the sense that the frequency of attacks on the town had been reduced -- even during official cease-fires, of which there have been four in the last six years, the town withstood occasional fire. Rather, for the first time, they have been totally stopped. December of 2012 was the first month since 2004 that there had been no rocket fire on Israel from the Gaza Strip. The official statistics aren't out yet, but January of 2013 will almost certainly be the second.
Last week, I visited Sderot with a group of national security policy professionals on a trip organized by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington, DC-based think tank. In global and even domestic media, Sderot is treated as a rugged outpost, a distant and isolated place made unique by its precarious location and anxious daily routine. This is warranted, in some respects. As Noam Bedein of the Sderot Information Center explained, the "ongoing rocket reality" would, for instance, convince residents to plan their driving routes in order to avoid places where they had witnessed or just barely avoided a rocket attack before. Itzik Horn, an Argentinean immigrant to Israel who lives in a nearby kibbutz, and who also works for the Center, summed up the challenges of living in Sderot succinctly: "You need to live a normal life, when all around you, it's not normal."
The city offers tangible evidence of the stresses of living under rocket fire, and of having to be no more than 30 seconds from a bombproof area (the upper reaches of the typical alarm-to-impact warning period) at all times. There are concrete-protected stairwells leading to underground bomb shelters at every bus stop, and the city's chipping, socialist-era apartment blocks all have freshly coated bomb-resistant additions slapped onto their sides.
It's been two months since the last "code red" in Sderot -- Bedein told me that the city's alarms haven't sounded since the hours after the ceasefire that concluded Operation Pillar of Defense in November. The low, rectangular, entrances to the city's bomb shelters, spaced little more than a few hundred meters apart on Sderot's central road, still testify to just how unusual the present situation is, and how little residents expect it to last. "The quieter it gets, the more people expect the next rocket," Bedein told me. "You always have the threat in the back of your mind."
But Sderot is not a rugged outpost, and the town itself is hardly unique. Sderot has the same placid, apartment-lined streets, creaking palm trees and austere war memorials as virtually any other town in Israel -- the city feels little different from Afula, Nazrat Illit, or the numerous other, detectably less prosperous-than-average communities that burgeoned during the immigration waves of the 1960s and '70s.
The parking lot of the Sderot police station contains shelves of exploded rockets recovered from attacks on the city, headless, concrete-stuffed metal tubes whose warped, rusting fins and peeling, contorted bodies evoke the angle and speed of impact. But from the courtyard, you can see the sign for the nearby Supersol grocery store. Gazing at the Ace Hardware just off the city's central street, which is lined with the same decorated, cage-like metal recycling containers one would see on street corners in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, it is simply inconceivable that a terrorist-controlled enclave begins less than a mile away. A new train station is rising on the edge of town; from the highway leading to Sderot, one can easily see the skyline of Gaza City -- as well as a surveillance blimp operated by Israel's intelligence services -- hovering behind a railroad line that is currently under construction. Sderot itself is barely a 30-minute drive from Tel Aviv.