Rockets launched from the nearby Gaza Strip fall here almost daily. These Qassams are crude devices that hardly ever kill people, although they have, and hardly ever wound anyone, although recently a boy lost part of a leg. They hit with unpredictable regularity, taking a roof here, a piece of a wall there and demolishing the peace of mind of every resident. Bit by bit, Sderot is going crazy.
The next Middle East war may start over Sderot. To many Israelis, the daily rain of Qassam rockets is reason enough to go back into Gaza and eradicate the rocket-makers, the rocket launchers and the entire Hamas leadership that now runs Gaza. The call for action superficially makes a certain amount of sense. But memory rebukes: Didn't Israel just pull out of Gaza?
Yes, it did. It withdrew most of its military and all of its settlements and turned the wretched area, populated by 1.2 million mostly poor Palestinian refugees, over to the moderate Palestinian Authority. Then the PA lost an election to Hamas and the militants have been in charge ever since, permitting the incessant rocketing of Sderot and its environs. The Qassams are lofted over the high border wall, and whether they hit a school or a hospital or a cat basking in the sun is of no concern to Hamas.
In Europe and elsewhere, where activists are just plain dizzy from their own moral virtue, Israel is denounced for inflicting suffering on Gaza. But the protesters say nothing about the Qassams raining from the sky -- sometimes as many as 40 a day. The adjectives for the Qassams are innocuous: crude, inaccurate. Yes, but they have killed 13 in the past seven years, and they make life here almost unbearable. The bus stops have been converted to bomb shelters, and a tarpaulin of steel has been thrown over a school to protect it. Question a resident and you will not get bluster. "I'm scared," says Anatoly Ahurov, 25, formerly of the former Soviet Union.
Behind police headquarters, the casings of hundreds of spent Qassams are stacked like cordwood before a Vermont winter. Three landed within two hours of my hitting town. One forced me into a shelter. I was safe, protected by a cement ceiling and the law of averages. Still, my heart got a three-latte jolt. I would not want to live here.
Actually, almost no one wants to live here anymore. But many of the residents are poor, distant immigrants from Morocco or more recent ones from the former Soviet Union. The value of their homes has plummeted. Many want to sell. No one wants to buy. So they stay. So they wait.
The residents suffer in other ways as well. Many have psychological ailments or the physical ailments brought on by the psychological ones -- heart trouble, for instance, or hysteria or sudden fits of violence. When I mentioned this later to a resident of Haifa, he nodded. This veteran of a war that took one of his eyes said that for all he had seen in combat, he has yet to recover from the rocketing of Haifa during the 2006 war with Hezbollah. When the battlefield is your house, there is no going home.
Sderot represents the metastasized insanity of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle -- rockets sent to kill anyone, it doesn't matter whom. The tempting solution is to respond in kind. But this has been done. In Gaza. In Lebanon. Now the northern border is -- fingers crossed -- quiet. Some sort of deal, arrangement, accommodation, understanding has been reached with Hezbollah. Maybe nothing more than a wink. Maybe just a breathing spell.
Something like this has to be done with Hamas as well. Israel has the armed might to maul Hamas. But inevitably, the rockets will return, sooner or later reaching Ashkelon, the major port not all that far away. (Nothing in Israel is all that far away.) Gaza is a pitiless trap.
Israelis don't trust Hamas, and why should they? It wishes Israel nothing but death. But some accommodation has to be reached. There are ways. Any agreement, though, would undercut Israel's moderate Palestinian ally, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah organization. Israel could do nothing, but nothing is demeaning, dangerous -- and, anyway, nothing is not what Israel does.
Sderot is a town, real enough and in pain. But it is also a metaphor. Its residents are trapped. So is Israel. Sooner or later, if nothing is done, a rocket will hit kids on the playground or mothers strolling the street, and Israel will have to respond -- another nasty, little war. That much is clear. This too: Absolutely nothing else is.
By Richard Cohen