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In Israel town where you have 15 seconds to dive

Sderot (Israel), Dec. 25: Whenever Kobi Harush wants to clear his head, he walks up a small hill on the edge of town and looks into the open. A bending road just below separates the vast expanse of green and brown far away, dotted with a few tall trees and a line of barely visible white posts that are part of a fence that runs along.

Beyond the fence is the Gaza Strip, at places barely 1.5km away from Sderot which has over the years borne the brunt of a series of rocket attacks from the Palestinian neighbourhood.

Kobi is chief of security for the town’s 24,000 people, who have grudgingly embraced a life dictated by air-raid sirens that give them exactly 15 seconds to get to the nearest shelter from wherever they are. If you are at the bus stop, you go inside — there’s a strongroom built into it; if it is night, you wake up the children and rush to the safe room that is a compulsory appendage to every house; if you are in the toilet, tough luck, you must get to the safe room. All within 15 seconds.

Kobi doesn’t talk much, choosing only to explain his role to countless wide-eyed visitors who dare to troop in during better times. “I am a coordinator for the municipality (of Sderot) with the army.”

That means he is the man who must ensure the safety of every resident during rocket attacks. The latest barrage was unleashed by Hamas, the Palestinian movement that controls Gaza, over seven days in November. In all, defence ministry sources claim that 1,529 rockets were fired into Israel from Gaza between the 8th and 21st of last month. Of these, 90 were meant for Sderot, the others landing in nearby southern Israel areas.

Fortunately, Lt Col Moti Numan of the Israeli Defence Forces fills in, no one was injured this time and damage to property was minimal — thanks largely to Operation Pillar of Defence, the deployment of an indigenous, highly sophisticated air defence system through which rockets fired into Israel were intercepted mid-air and destroyed.

Developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, Iron Dome uses a combination of high-end physics, mathematics and electronics to blip out rockets from the sky before they can threaten civilian targets.

It’s a missile system, explains Joseph Horowitz, business development and marketing director at Rafael, designed to intercept and destroy short-range rockets and artillery shells fired from distances of 4km to 7km. In the last escalation, at least 400 rockets, from the garage-assembled Qassams to the more sophisticated Grads, were intercepted. Of these, Numan adds, 85 were destroyed before they could land in Sderot.

This success, if you are willing to label it thus, has been a very recent phenomenon. Years of such attacks have had their toll on the people of the town. Children learn early to be responsible. Playtime is monitored strictly, that too at venues near home, keeping the 15-second threshold in mind.

“In our time, schools did not have shelters,” recalls Meut, sipping a cup of post-lunch Turkish coffee at Tova’le, one of the more popular restaurants in town. “Those days, we would get annoyed with our parents for keeping us indoors. The schools did not have shelters, so we couldn’t go during the attacks. But, now that I am a mother, I have the same worries about my little boy too.”

Several studies have documented the emotional distress among the town’s residents. Nearly half of Sderot’s middle schoolers surveyed by local researchers have showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

According to a report published in Haaretz, Israel’s oldest daily with a circulation of over 72,000, 43.5 per cent of 154 seventh and eighth graders between 12 and 13 displayed clinical symptoms of PTSD, based on data collected from a school in 2007-08 when 15 people from the town were either killed or wounded in rocket attacks.

This year, if the Iron Dome system has attracted universal praise, it is not without reason. For, not only has it saved lives, it has also prevented a further escalation in tension. For several days during the conflict, the international community kept fearing the worst — that the Israeli army would go into Gaza with tanks.

That did not happen. “The political situation, had there been more casualties and more damage done, would have been greatly different,” an Israeli defence engineer told Fox News last month. “The lives being saved were not only those of Israeli citizens and soldiers, but of Palestinians in Gaza who would have tended to suffer had there been an incursion.”

But Israel did mount an air offensive against Hamas, terming it “effective deterrence”. As many as 150 Palestinians, unfortunately many of them civilians, were killed. Hundreds were injured. Five Israelis were killed.

At the hill in Sderot, Kobi is getting ready for another round of visitors. He is the man in demand. It’s been like that ever since a certain US senator by the name of Barak Obama visited the town a little over five years ago. They were at the hill too. Later, just before becoming US President, Obama wrote to Kobi thanking him for having driven him around town.

Since then, Sderot’s residents have christened the town’s most famous watchout point Kobi Hill.