- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 23, 2007

SDEROT, Israel — Buses filled with evacuees are fleeing this tiny city adjacent to the Gaza Strip each day, amid a weeklong barrage of rocket fire from Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad that has given Sderot the feel of a ghost town.

“The city is abandoned, and the citizens are in a crisis,” said municipal spokesman Yossi Cohen, who estimated that about 10,000 locals, or about half the population, are already gone. “They are scared. They want to rest, until the government makes a decision to solve this.”

In seven years of being on the front line of Palestinian missile attacks, Sderot residents have never evacuated until now. But over the past week, they’ve borne the brunt of 180 missiles that have become more precise and deadly.

On Monday, Sderot resident Shirel Friedman was killed when a Qassam rocket hit her parked car in the town’s commercial center — the first Israeli civilian victim in a week of escalating cross-border violence.

Days of frustration then poured out into the streets as residents burned tires and chanted anti-government slogans and “death to Arabs.”

Israeli aircraft yesterday struck camps used by Hamas, and a senior Israeli official suggested that Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas could be a target of retaliation, the Associated Press reported.

“We don’t care if he’s a ringleader, a perpetrator of rocket launching, or if he is one of the political leaders,” Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh told AP, in an apparent reference to Mr. Haniyeh. “No one has immunity.”

The buses continued to leave Sderot yesterday afternoon, just hours ahead of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot. A troupe of clowns set up shop in the city center to entertain the children staying behind.

“People are being evacuated to Jerusalem and Tiberias. They don’t want to stay behind because you can’t celebrate the holiday. You can’t even go out to shop for groceries,” said an 11-year-old boy named David. “We need security. It’s a disgrace.”

The evacuation was well under way last weekend.

“I’ve been here for 50 years, and I don’t ever remember a Sabbath like it — everything was empty — even the synagogues,” said another resident, who gave his name as Shalom. “Now people don’t ask, ‘Where did the rockets fall?’ They ask, ‘Where haven’t the rockets fallen?’ ”

In the past week, elementary schools have been closed and the town fire department has received reinforcements from Tel Aviv to help put out fires from the missiles.

The town has an emergency system that alerts residents to incoming rockets, but because of the short distance from northern Gaza to Sderot, there are only about 20 seconds to find cover.

“I’m sick of running. I feel like a cockroach,” said Chaim Cohen, a waiter at a grill restaurant in the city center. “We wait, and we pray.”

Indeed, many residents said they expect the situation to deteriorate before it gets better. Some said only a diplomatic pact with the Palestinians would solve the problem, while others said they were awaiting a broad military offensive in Gaza against the Islamist group Hamas.

Until the government decides on a plan of action, people will continue to flee the city, according to those who have stayed behind. They also said that the evacuees will eventually be forced to return to confront the rockets again.

“It’s not a solution to flee,” said Oded Talker, a student at a nearby college. “The Arabs are satisfied to see us flee here. That’s exactly what they want.”

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