- The Washington Times - Monday, December 28, 2009

TEL AVIV | When Israel launched a massive offensive in the Gaza Strip a year ago, political leaders said the primary objective was to snuff out cross-border rocket fire against villages in southern Israel.

That military mission has largely been accomplished. Launches of short-range Qassam rockets plummeted 90 percent to a decade low in 2009.

The newfound peace of mind has fueled a surge in demand for homes in a region that people had been fleeing.

Although much of Gaza remains in ruins, renewed interest in real estate in Sderot, the main target of the Qassam rockets, has pushed home values up by as much as a 30 percent.

In the kibbutz, or farming collectives, around Gaza, there is also a resurgence in demand.

Yisrael Gunwerg, a real estate marketing executive for neighborhood projects at two kibbutzes, said sales of new homes have tripled while prices have risen 15 percent.

“The situation today is completely different. It’s a serious turnaround,” he said. “The improved security conditions are one of the main reasons. People feel secure enough” to move to towns near Gaza.

However, that sense of relief belies a long-term trepidation that a new, worse flare-up is only a matter of time. Southern Israel residents are aware of Israeli army intelligence assessments that Hamas is learning the lessons of the war and stocking hundreds of missiles in preparation for another round of fighting.

“We’ve returned to normal,” said Orly Regev, a spokeswoman at Kibbutz Kfar Azza, six miles from Sderot on the border with Gaza. She said that all of the families who left during the war have long since returned.

“But in the background there are fears — the media is always talking about rearming,” she said. “At least there are safe rooms now. We know the calm is fragile.”

Israeli military officials attribute the drop in violenceto the boost in deterrence after the three-and-a-half-week war, which left 13 Israelis and more than 1,400 Palestinians dead.

The number of rockets fired at Sderot has dropped from 3,200 in 2008 to 286 since the end of the war. In the past six months, that has slowed to a relative trickle of 55 missiles.

“In our terms — being used to worrying about rockets every day — it’s been a wonderful year. The sun is shining on us, and there’s optimism,” said Micha Biton, a resident of the border village of Netiv Ha’asarah.

Kids are getting back into their routine, she said. “I hope that the last war, as hard as it was, did something to them. That this whole story is not worth it. And that it will deter them to get out of this cycle.”

The picture is far different across the border.

In Gaza, there’s been very little reconstruction of the thousands of buildings damaged in the operation, in large part because of Israel’s economic blockade of the enclave. While billions of dollars were pledged for Gaza, most of it has not been used.

Tunnel smuggling operations have expanded, and Hamas has tightened its grip on the strip even as Palestinians suffer from the siege.

In Gaza on Sunday, sirens wailed to mark the anniversary of the start of the offensive.

Senior Hamas leader Ahmed Bahar struck a defiant tone, saying the “will of the steadfast and the resistance was victorious” at a ceremony unveiling a war memorial with the names of hundreds of Palestinians killed in the fighting, Agence France-Presse reported.

“The resistance, which defended its land with honor, was not broken,” Mr. Bahar said.

Southern Israelis know the peace may not last.

In the past year in Sderot and the neighboring villages, there’s been a wave of building of shelters and safe rooms. No one has dismantled the concrete shelters next to bus stops aimed at protecting pedestrians from the crudely made rockets.

And even though the daily routines have been resumed, eight years of bombardment have left deep psychological scars. The sound of a plane overhead jogs memories of war and conflict.

Yehudit Barkai, a field worker in Sderot for Natal, part of the Israel Trauma Coalition, said many in Sderot suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Among children, the condition can manifest itself in short attention spans, misbehavior and bed wetting.

Adults have trouble focusing on jobs or domestic chores. The trauma is made more acute because of economic instability in the working-class town.

“This is what comes to the surface after a storm has passed,” she said.

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