Israel's South Slips Into a Fragile Calm Following End of Gaza Violence

A return to Israel's south a week after the rockets from Gaza have fallen silent.

There's a new sentry at the gate. Two weeks ago, it was a young soldier with a peach-fuzz beard from Rosh Ha'ayin. A week later, it was a young, clean-shaven soldier from Rishon Letzion. The same tents in the middle of nowhere in the desert, the same blue chemical toilets, the same projector lights, the same missile battery, the same handful of soldiers. Only the photographer Menahem Kahana was no longer there: He already got his dramatic photo, which captured the launch of an Iron Dome missile as soldiers took shelter in a trench.

We returned to the cities of southern Israel a week after the rockets stopped falling. We traveled along the exact same route as two weeks ago, during the missile hits, and stopped at the same places.

Iron Dome - March 12 - AP

There is no red alert. The fleeting dread has been supplanted by the usual distress. Quiet reigns again in Be'er Sheva's Gimmel neighborhood. A very morose quiet. Interior Minister Eli Yishai's entourage has long ago moved on to somewhere else, and with it the assurances that the Holy One, blessed be He, will help the residents.

This neighborhood is home to poor Israelis and to collaborators, who live side by side. Now they've put the locks back on the doors of the neighborhood bomb shelters to prevent drug addicts from using them as shooting galleries. There are barely any cars here, neither parked nor passing through. This morning, the pupils and teachers are in the classrooms of the state-religious Hazon Ovadia school, and the wall of the adjoining child-care center that bore the scars of a Grad missile has already been repaired and repainted. Only the beating hammers of workmen from the Alum Shahar company, who are replacing the damaged windows, bear witness to what happened here only two weeks ago. Shreds of red police tape litter the site.

A private security guard prevents us from entering the school yard. "More reporters?" he asks in amazement, adding, "We're back to routine." He chirps the news of our arrival into his walkie-talkie to the school secretary, who replies with the decisiveness of secretaries: "They can't come just like that, without the authorization of the district education department spokeswoman. They can't come here and camp out at the school. Without authorization, you can't let them in."

Fearful children

There is a racket coming from the direction of the Kahlon family home on nearby Arlosoroff Street. We visited this single-story home two weeks ago. The house is relatively well kept, with hammered copper figures of a butterfly and a lizard mounted on a wall painted a bold red. Sivan Daboul, the daughter of the family, then told Yishai during his fleeting visit to the house that her mother Sonia was back on her psychiatric medication following the Grad missile hit, and even offered proof to the minister: The day after the missile hit, her mother burned the schnitzels.

"Did you feel a presence from above?" the minister had asked her.

Now, as then, Sonia is in her armchair with her daughters Sivan and Meirav at her side. Then, the Grad that hit the nearby school shook the walls of their home and shattered its windows. When the rocket thundered, grandmother Sonia was at home with her youngest child, Efrat, and Sivan was there with her own daughters Sarel and Topaz. They had just sat down to eat.

Only at the start of the week did Efrat return to school, but she would not agree to go alone and called her mother constantly throughout the day to come and take her home. One of the granddaughters, Sarel, "displayed eating disorders," as her mother puts it. "Not a minute goes by that she doesn't ask for a sandwich or a schnitzel. She eats without pause, morning 'til night," says Sivan. "Today I went to school and told the principal that they should ease the atmosphere, and that they shouldn't take Sarel straight back to taking tests because, in fact, this incident happened here at home. As a mother, I suggested that a child should not go back to the ordinary routine of studies when they're in a state of fear and anxiety. The principal agreed with me, but said that she had received instructions from the Education Ministry to go back to the routine," says Sivan.

The health maintenance organization doctor prescribed Sonia Clonex (Clonazepam) for a month. Her daughter Meirav explains, "They give Clonex for the first anxiety attack, and after a month they replace it, if needed, with another medication that you take for the rest of your life." Meirav says that her mother has also suffered from weakness in her legs since the bomb landed, as they say here. Sonia just says, "Sleep is avoiding me."

Meirav and her family live on a disability allowance - the consequence of her epilepsy fits and dementia. She used to manage a chain of clothing stores and also worked in a night club, but since getting sick she has been forbidden from working. Meirav's little sister, Efrat, also has epilepsy, and her mother has an anxiety attack and runs hysterically into the street whenever Efrat begins to convulse.

Meirav is a single mother and says she lives on NIS 3,500 a month. Her ex-husband does not pay child support. Her daughter is gifted but suffers from a serious kidney disease - one kidney does not function at all and the other functions at only 60 percent. She is currently waging a court case against the National Insurance Institute so that her daughter can be recognized as disabled. "When you realize how much runaround they are causing this crippled child it's unbelievable," Meirav says. "I have already won in a few trials, but they will give a person the runaround at obsessive, lunatic levels as if we, the little people, who have to deal with the economy, have the strength to deal with the courts. Next to them you feel like a cockroach. You know that you're right, but you're so small next to them and they exhaust you until you fall apart.

"You should go one time to see the committee that deals with children's matters at National Insurance," she adds. "See how absurd and evil it can be. Eeny, meeny, miny, mo - that's how they decide. They toss a coin for heads or tails. It's simply crazy. What is it my father says? If you get to National Insurance, it's better to shoot yourself in the head."

Meirav's daughter has found a solution to the anxiety she's suffered since the rocket hit: Every day she reads chapters of Psalms. Only today she went to school for the first time.

The air conditioner broke a long time ago and in the winter they heat their home with a small hot-air blower. In the summer they cool themselves with a fan. "My darling, life is beautiful, God is above," says Meirav, nevertheless.

Her sister Sivan is married, but her husband has been shuttered up in his room for years, in a state of deep depression. Even when the red alert sounded, he did not leave his room. Before becoming ill he worked at Coca-Cola. Sivan supports herself from her husband's disability allowance. She says her husband looks like a "walking anorexic." Sleeping by day and awake by night.

Elinor, the daughter of the neighbors across the way, a girl of 17, has also been in a troubled state since the missile hit. This week, she tried to weld shut the lock on the neighborhood bomb shelter, out of fear, they say.

Sleeping like a baby

Classical music is once again flowing through the home of Michael Kurtz, on Mivtza Nahshon Street in Be'er Sheva. He is paralyzed on one side of his body. We visited him two weeks ago as well. At the time he demonstrated how he makes his way to the stairwell in 40 seconds flat, from the moment the missile alarm sounds, pushing his walker in front of him. I wrote then in this newspaper that it took him much longer. It also took the missile longer, he now says in response. Michael has two caregivers who come for several hours every day. One is paid for by National Insurance and the other thanks to his being a Holocaust survivor.

We ask what has happened to him since the quiet resumed. "I have been sleeping like a baby," he says. Rachel, his Brazilian wife, is home now. Two weeks ago, when we heard the alarm sound, she was at work in a shop at the central bus station. She wants to hear Brazilian music. Michael prefers classical music all day long, but he also likes Pink Floyd - and Rachel gives in.

We continue north from here. The streets of Ashdod are bustling with life again. On Rogozin Street, where a Grad fell two weeks ago there is barely a trace of anything amiss. At Marcel Mercier's hair salon, which seemed a complete ruin only a week ago, the Ashdod hairdresser is at work on a blond-dyed head. An advertisement is taped to the display window, which had shattered into tiny fragments: "Wanted: Hairdresser and assistant. Details inside."