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Truce brings quiet to Gaza, Israel

After many years of conflict, people on both sides remain deeply skeptical, but some are hopeful.

June 20, 2008|Joel Greenberg | Chicago Tribune

KIBBUTZ NIR-AM, ISRAEL — For Batya Ibo, it came down to a simple, everyday act.

"Today I wasn't afraid to take out the garbage," she said. "The most trivial thing. But before, leaving the house was a tactical decision: yes code red, no code red."

Code red, the alert for incoming rockets, was not sounded here Thursday or in other Israeli towns and farming communities bordering the Gaza Strip. The first day of a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas passed here quietly, without the crash of rockets and mortar rounds that had terrified residents for years

Nir-Am is a lush kibbutz across the highway from Sderot, the border town that has borne the brunt of the rocket attacks from Gaza. Over lunch in the communal dining room, Ibo pointed out the window to places where rockets had fallen, recounting times when she had to dash for cover.

It will take awhile, she said, for the imprint of those days to wear off.

"The anxiety drips into your veins, the thought that your life is in danger and it's all a matter of luck," she said. "I used to tell friends that when I went out, I wasn't sure I would return."

In the first hours of the cease-fire, Ibo and others said, they found it hard to believe that the days of fear were really behind them and that the concrete blast shelters on the streets might become obsolete.

The skepticism ran deep in Sderot, where years of battering by rockets, despite previous lulls and truce announcements, seemed to have snuffed out the ability to imagine a different reality.

"It's hard to believe in this quiet. There were cease-fires in the past and they didn't hold," said Orit Yamin, sitting in the shade of her son's watermelon stand. "In the meantime, Hamas is rearming, and one fine day, without warning, this will blow up in our faces. It will come back to us like a boomerang, big time."

Yet the calm was palpable Thursday, a day after about 40 rockets rained down on Sderot and surrounding areas, repeatedly setting off alarms.

All was quiet at the local ambulance station, which on days of intense rocket fire can be a caldron of frantic activity.

"Very good," said Haim Ben-Shimol, the station manager, doing paperwork at his desk. "Thank God."

Down the street, Sappir Swissa, 18, said she didn't think it would stay quiet for long.

"The day isn't over yet," she said. "Wait until the evening."

But night fell without rockets and without Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip.

Since Hamas seized control of Gaza a year ago, more than 400 Palestinians, militants and civilians have died in Israeli raids and airstrikes, which often hit targets in crowded city streets. Palestinian rocket and mortar attacks have killed 14 people in Israel since 2004.

If the calm holds, Israel is to start gradually easing its blockade of Gaza, allowing in larger shipments of supplies and building materials.

Bader Shanti, an accountant in Gaza who was married eight months ago, said he hoped to finally finish work on an extension of the family home. "I hope the cease-fire lasts, the border crossings reopen and the situation improves," he said.

As in Israel, there were skeptics. Khader Mohammad, a teacher, said he had no faith that the Israelis would keep their part of the deal.

"The Jews are unfaithful to their promises," he said. "I rely on God, not the border crossings."

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