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These have been good times for Sderot. Those who had left are returning, family relatives are visiting and for Sukkot many Israelis dropped by for a visit, some of them for the first time in their lives.

The southern town preened and spruced up with purple ribbons and blue, white and pink sukkah booths. Pedestrians thronged to the food festival on Menachem Begin Road. The faces of the candidates running for local elections appeared on every billboard and on countless flyers, reflecting one of Israel's most heated, confrontational mayoral campaigns.

On the eve of Yom Kippur a local newspaper published an ad featuring the headshots of Ahlama Peretz, who is running for mayor, and her husband Amir Peretz, the former Labor leader and defense minister, superimposed on dogs' bodies. Peretz's campaign accused her rival, David Buskila, of being behind the ad. He denied the accusation.

"I've been contacted by teachers and mothers who said even children were appalled by the flyers. It's especially grave on Yom Kippur eve. It brought an ill spirit to Sderot," Peretz said.

Five candidates are running for Sderot mayor. Peretz enjoys the support of both Labor and the Likud, while Buskila is backed by Kadima. Alon Davidi, Sasson Sara and Yihia Elazara head independent lists.

"All the parties see Sderot as a strategic target, as it is in the headlines," explains Buskila, while Sara says Sderot has become a springboard for national politics.

The Israel Broadcasting Authority's Erev Hadash television program held a televised debate between the two leading candidates, Peretz and Buskila, as though they were running for the post of prime minister.

Buskila served as mayor for two terms in the 1990s, following a stint as the town's treasurer. "Despite my experience it was difficult to run the municipality," he says, in a barb directed at rivals Davidi and Peretz, who are running for mayor for the first time.

Davidi, 34, is known mainly for setting up the Committee for Sderot's Security some two years ago. Many believe he established this political NGO, which organized protests against the Qassam volleys and initiated various projects, as part of his mayoral campaign.

"He took advantage of the security situation in the last two years to propel himself to the mayor's seat," says Peretz. Davidi, who ran for the Knesset on the National Union Party's list and served as former housing minister Effi Eitam's aide, moved to Sderot some 12 years ago.

"All the petitions and protests his committee came out with were centered one person, himself," says Sara.

Haaretz found out that the Committee for Sderot's Security was not registered by the NGO registrar and that the projects it carried out were part of Davidi's campaign and financed by the Ofek Hadash NGO, which Davidi also established.

"The Committee for Sderot's Security and Ofek Hadash are the same organization. Its media name is the Committee for Sderot's Security and that appears on our logo," Davidi says. His people insist that the NGO is supervised by the NGO registrar.

"This is how I finance my campaign," Davidi says, showing a bank guarantee for NIS 150,000 signed by his mother. "People have been asked to testify that I bribed them and I have a recording in which people are trying to persuade someone to testify. I won't go there. I'm bringing a different kind of politics to Sderot," he says.