Generally, going to Sderot, ever since the first rocket fell there in October 2001, is a trip out of one’s comfort zone, to a town filled with immigrants new and old, who all are forced to live their lives within a 15-second sprint from a shelter.

The mayors come and go, the museum of twisted and rusty metal rockets grows. The frustration mounts. What good is it, residents often wonder, being a citizen of the strongest military power in the Middle East when one of the poorest, most wretched enclaves — a slim strip of territory packed mostly with Palestinian refugees — is able to use us as their punching bag?

On Thursday, though, amid a campaign that has seen 550 rockets fired on Israel, targeting Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and 1,100 air force strikes against Gaza — one every four-and-a-half minutes — the town felt different: calm, experienced, free of (some of) the usual frustration.

“Look what they have done to my city,” said Mayor Alon Davidi. He was standing on a hilltop from which Gaza was plainly visible 800 meters away, an Apache helicopter circling along the horizon; in the other direction was Sderot, a pleasant town of bleached buildings and bougainvillea that one resident called “the bomb-shelter capital of the world.”

Davidi, with his back to Gaza, said, “You are standing at the front of the wall against evil.”

Nonetheless, he said, the city had grown to 24,000 residents; there are no places available to rent.

One of the many dozen bus stops in Sderot that serve as bomb shelters (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)

One of the many dozen bus stops in Sderot that serve as bomb shelters (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/Times of Israel)

Marcel Jolodenco, a high school Spanish teacher who moved to Israel from Argentina more than 20 years ago, said he came because he wanted to live somewhere small and quiet, preferably warm. Rather than speak too much of his own ordeals — the city has been hit with 8,600 rockets and mortars over the past 10 years — he served up anecdotes as advice.

His 24-year-old son had been on the basketball court many years ago when the female voice announced “Color Red,” incoming fire. The boys jogged over to the nearby concrete shelter and felt the rocket land right in the middle of the court. “You learn the hard way. Listening to Home Front Command instructions saves your life,” he said.

The 22,000-square-foot Sderot Playground, built in an old factory and fortified with metal and concrete, has a climbing wall, a basketball court, a boxing ring, a food stand, a clown, and, on Wednesdays, a therapy room where psychologists come and meet with parents and children. “The JNF built this to allow kids to be kids again,” said Yedidya Harush, a former resident of Atzmona in the Gaza Strip and a representative of the Jewish National Fund in Israel.

A protected playground in Sderot (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/Times of Israel)

A protected playground in Sderot (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/Times of Israel)

Nearby, Kogan Baruch, the owner of Denber Paints, offered a tour of his factory, which was set on fire by a rocket two weeks ago. He described the residents of Sderot as “used to suffering” and, despite some uncommon praise for PA President Mahmoud Abbas, said of the people of Gaza, “I don’t have any feelings for them.” He called the current Hamas leadership a “group of bandits” and said, “I hope this time our government finishes it off once and for all.”

This sentiment was seconded by the mayor and by a host of visiting dignitaries. MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli (Jewish Home) said, “As far as I’m concerned — for sure,” when asked if Israel should reoccupy and even resettle the Gaza Strip.

Ex-general Uzi Dayan said it was “strategically unimportant” what group succeeded Hamas, if it was removed from power. Instead, he said, the crucial factor was that Hamas and, if necessary, its replacement, understood the price of attacking Israel.

Dov Trachtman, a film student at nearby Sapir College, said he remembers his first Qassam rocket, at age 10. Most of his life has been punctuated by them. But he also knows that his parents, immigrants from Moldova and the Ukraine, used to go to Gaza every weekend. He was raised on some of the stories. “I don’t know what should happen during this operation,” he said. “That’s not my profession. I’d just like some peace and quiet.”