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.
The lull in rocket fire only emphasizes the town's arresting normality -- it's a place that's interchangeable with much of the rest of the country, and clearly factored into its future plans and development. It isn't a fringe frontier community, but an integrated part of the cramped coastal plane where the vast majority of the Israeli population lives.
How much longer can the normalcy endure? Sderot is too close to Gaza to be protected by the Iron Dome, the missile interceptor system that picked off 85 percent of the mid and long-range rockets aimed at populated areas inside of Israel during November's flare-up. Many in Sderot feel that Israel should have continued the Gaza operation, instead of settling for a ceasefire agreement that, among other concessions, doubled the distance that Gazan vessels could travel from shore from three to six miles, and opened Egypt's Rafah crossing for trade in building materials.
Bar Kiassi, another Sderot resident, is still grateful for such an unprecedented break in rocket fire. "Anything that makes the death around here lower is a success," she told me." Still, she added, people in Sderot are hardly convinced the cessation in rocket fire can last. "They think it's just another month until it starts again."
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The Erez Crossing, which is a five-minute drive from the outskirts of Sderot, is similarly tranquil. Erez is the only border post equipped for foot traffic between Israel and Gaza, and it gets very little of it: just 200-300 total crossings a day, many of them for international government, NGO or UN employees, or Gazans cleared for medical treatment inside of Israel. (The Kerem Shalom crossing, near the Egyptian border, is a bit busier: The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) says that over 57,000 truckloads of food aid and construction materials crossed into Gaza from Israel in 2012.)
Today, Palestinian traffic at Erez is handled through coordination between the IDF border command and a Palestinian Authority-appointed commission that communicates with Gaza's Hamas-run government. Neither Israel nor Gaza's government recognizes the other's legitimacy, but the current, clumsy arrangement, in which the PA serves as a go-between for the coordination of basic, day-to-day border control issues, at least allows for aid workers, international bureaucrats, and ambulances to cross.
It's obvious that few intended it to be this way. The Erez crossing consists of a small military base, a sleepy, concrete-enclosed collection of single-storey rectangular buildings, and pillboxes that one suspects are empty. In any event, the base itself is dwarfed by a massive arrival hall built out of the same kind of polished Judean sandstone as Jerusalem's government ministry buildings, or Ben Gurion international airport. The building has a smooth, undulating roof that seems to mimic the gentle waves that lap the area's nearby Mediterranean beaches; in its front exterior, the sandstone frames a welcoming glass curtain wall that runs the entire height of the building. Behind the terminal, a wide, canopied aluminum walkway disappears into the concrete barrier separating Gaza and Israel. The terminal looks more like an airport than a border crossing, and the building is almost entirely empty.
A country doesn't invest in this kind of project if it expects the area beyond it to be the domain of Iranian and al Qaeda-allied terrorists. The Erez terminal, a $35 million project carried out in the run-up to the August 2005 withdrawal of Israeli civilians and military forces from the Gaza Strip, was built during -- and for -- a time when both the Israeli and Palestinian leadership expected a radically open flow of people and goods between Israel and Gaza.
And why not? There's fertile agricultural land on both sides of the border; the port of Gaza could even serve as a competitor with the one in Ashdod, with Israeli and Palestinian authorities collecting duties on products bound for either side of the crossing. After all, if you're a farmer at say, Netiv HaAsara, a Californian-looking agricultural commune whose tile-roofed houses hug the ribbon-like security barrier in the hills overlooking Erez, it's much easier to route your goods through the border facility -- which is literally across the street from you -- than to drive them up the coast.
But the Erez Crossing is now a hulking testament to the failure of that vision. Eight years ago, it was reasonable to expect that thousands of people would cross the border between Gaza and Israel every day. Now, two months without government-supported rocket fire specifically aimed at civilian areas is something of an astonishment, as well as a reminder of just how far expectations of normalcy have drifted along Israel's southwestern frontier.