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Two Mideast Towns Trapped in Conflict

February 25, 2003

ISRAEL-GAZA BORDER (AP) _ Two neighboring border towns _ one Palestinian and one Israeli _ are separated by culture and language, but united in conflict.

In the bleak town of Sderot, working-class Israelis have stoically added rocket attacks to their list of hardships. Less than a mile away, and separated from Sderot by an electrified fence, residents of Beit Hanoun have in recent days paid a hefty price, in lives and physical destruction, for militants’ use of their Gaza Strip town to fire those rockets.

``We don’t like the things that are happening to them, and we don’t like the things that are happening to us,″ said Saededdine Ahmad, 32, a resident of Beit Hanoun. But he believed Israel is bent on making Palestinians suffer: ``Whether there are Qassam rockets fired or not, this would have still happened.″

The Israeli military intensified operations in Gaza 10 days ago after a bomb blew up an Israeli tank, killing the four-man crew. Since then, at least 33 Palestinians and an Israeli soldier have been killed, including six Palestinians shot dead by Israeli troops in fighting in Beit Hanoun on Sunday.

Israel says it has to stop Palestinians from launching Qassam rockets at nearby Sderot. The Palestinians say Israel must leave the Strip, where 7,000 Jewish settlers live amid 1.2 million Palestinians, as well as the West Bank, both territories it occupied in the 1967 war.

During the latest 29 months of fighting, dozens of the homemade rockets have been fired at the town. The rocket attacks have caused little damage and no serious injuries, but have been considered a major provocation by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has promised to restore Israelis’ sense of security.

Although Sderot is close to the northeast corner of the Gaza Strip, most people here never saw their community as a border town, even after Beit Hanoun was transferred to Palestinian Authority control nine years ago. But in the past two years reality has changed dramatically.

``I heard a bang, I turned around, and there it was in the car park,″ said Sasson Sara, 50, a grocery store owner, yards away from where a rocket landed on Sunday. ``If someone had passed by then, they would have been killed.″

The unguided, simple rockets carry a warhead with about 12 pounds of explosives and have a range of about 3 miles, the army said.

The rocket attacks have had more serious consequences for the 22,000 people of Beit Hanoun, a crumbling town of laborers and farmers edged by orange groves that is one of the less impoverished in the battered seaside strip.

Troops have demolished several houses and damaged others. But perhaps the most debilitating action was Sunday’s destruction of several bridges and overpasses on the main road linking Beit Hanoun to Gaza City, which is the source of jobs and sustenance for many in the town.

Ambulances, buses and cars can barely traverse the shattered concrete, preventing students from getting to school and the sick from getting medical care.

Youssef Ashour, a 53-year-old Beit Hanoun resident, saw his house damaged when his neighbor’s house was demolished Sunday by Israeli troops because he was accused of being a militant.

Without a steady job, Ashour doesn’t know how he’ll be able to rebuild.

``It’s really not accomplishing anything for us,″ he said of the rocket attacks. But he said residents were powerless to keep militants out. ``They come in the middle of the night and they fire the (rockets). I wish both sides would stop the fire.″

In Sderot, Rozi Kadosh, 31, says her 7-year-old daughter has three rocket drills a week at school, in which students are rushed to basements and made to lie down and cover their heads. ``It’s a terrible feeling,″ she said.

Sderot, population 20,000, was established about 50 years ago to house an influx of immigrants from North Africa, and has recently taken in Russian-speaking immigrants as well.

Outside a center of low-rise stucco apartment blocks has grown a small industrial area that has been hard hit by Israel’s economic slowdown.

A small, leaking tent has been set up next to the front gate of Reshef Technologies, a company that supplies the Defense Ministry. The company fired its 41 employees Sunday. Security guards fired tear gas through the fence at enraged employees, causing one woman to be hospitalized.

``Our fear is unemployment, not any Qassam rocket,″ said Tirza Erez, 53, a former Reshef employee.

The instability has battered Sderot’s economy, but the damage has been greater in Beit Hanoun. Many of its men are farmers. Many used to work in Israel. And without the overpasses connecting the town to Gaza City, said deputy mayor Sofian Hamid, ``we can’t live a normal life.″

On Sunday, Sharon’s Cabinet declared Sderot a frontline community _ a status which gives it special tax breaks. But even with the special status, there is still anger.

``There’s one solution,″ said Sara, the grocery store owner. ``Go there, tell them on loudspeakers that for every Qassam rocket that comes from Beit Hanoun, four rows of trees will be uprooted. Don’t let them mess with our lives.″

But Daniella Buchbut, a 50-year-old who lost a brother to rocket fire from Lebanon in northern Israel nine years ago, says Israel must give in. The Palestinians, she said, ``are also miserable. They need a state, a place. What we deserve, they do also.″

Until that happens, said their Beit Hanoun neighbor Zuweidi Zuweidi, Israelis should expect more of the same.

In the tradition of blaming the other that has typified both sides in a century of conflict, he said the rockets were not the cause of his miseries, but rather the response.

``They have taken everything from us,″ he said.

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