ISRAELIS love their music, but in the tiny town of Sderot, many drivers cruise with the radio off, their seatbelts unbuckled and their windows wound down.
This, explained Mr Noam Bedein, a journalist and director of the Sderot Media Centre, enables them to hear rocket warning sirens and helps them bail out of their cars quickly and dash into one of about 100 bomb shelters around town.
Sderot – just over 1km from the Palestinian- controlled Gaza Strip – is one of several towns in southern Israel that have been attacked with homemade Qassam rockets fired by militant Palestinian group Hamas. When the sirens go off, the residents of Sderot have 15 seconds to take cover before impact.
For the past eight years, as many as 10,000 of the deadly projectiles have landed on streets, in homes and schools, said Mr Bedein, who runs tours that offer visitors the Israeli perspective of the conflict.
Some 10 residents have been killed and thousands injured during these attacks – numbers that pale in comparison to the hundreds of Palestinians killed in the crossfire between Israeli forces and Hamas militants over the same period.
“The hardest thing is to explain (the disparity) to people who compare the number of civilians who were killed in Gaza and in Israel, and what we are experiencing on the other side of the fence,” said Mr Bedein, 27. Walk every 50m and there will be a bomb shelter at a bus stop or a playground. Some homes and schools also have safe rooms or bunkers to shield them from rockets.
But some shelters do not offer enough protection.
Tapping on the wall of one at a bus stop, Mr Bedein said some walls are less than 40cm thick – the minimum required to stop the homemade rockets from penetrating.
“Every time a Qassam rocket hits, it’s a miracle nobody gets killed,” he said, referring to the situation as a “Russian roulette reality”.
Israelis whom Weekend Xtra spoke to pointed out that international media reports tend to focus on the Palestinian suffering – but say little about the plight of Israelis living under the shadow of Hamas rocket attacks.
Schools sometimes have to be closed for weeks, disrupting curricula and exams while some residents have become so jumpy that they mistake vehicle revs for sirens.
Living in fear
In Ashkelon, another town near the Gaza Strip that has also come under rocket attacks, schools that do not have bunkers have been told to spread children out in their respective classrooms, rather than gathering in one place, so as to minimise the number of casualties.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is also common, especially among children, and some need psychiatric help.
“If a person here doesn’t die from a Qassam rocket, he is going to die from fear,” said Ms Segal Peretz, who was walking Tohar, her rosy-cheeked two-year-old, to a playground in Sderot where Weekend Xtra met her.
Some residents have been known to die from heart attacks during the rocket attacks, said Ms Peretz, 33.
Weekend Xtra was in Israel this week with humanitarian aid organisation Mercy Relief, which was overseeing the delivery of household items to Palestinian refugees in Gaza. Items donated from Singaporeans, such as floor mats, mugs and cooking pots, will be delivered into the conflict zone within two weeks.
At the Sderot police station, hundreds of rockets – some dented by impact – sit on racks in a car park, and Mr Bedein regularly takes visitors there to view the rusted projectiles.
Mr Bedein, like many Israelis, accuses Hamas of using water pipes, given by international donors to rebuild Gaza, to make the rockets.
Other components used to make rockets include fertiliser and sugar, also provided by the donors as part of their humanitarian relief supplies to the area, he said.
The rockets are allegedly fired from inside schools, hospitals and mosques in Gaza – making it difficult for Israeli troops to respond without provoking an international backlash.
Hamas militants – who claim that their rocket attacks are in response to Israeli occupation of Palestinian land – use Google Maps to locate, and later attack, targets in Sderot. They then monitor news channels to see if people have been killed.
Some residents have been known to die from heart attacks during the rocket attacks.
The town of Ashkelon has been attacked by Hamas rockets with longer range.
“In Sderot, they are designed to scare and make noise. In Ashkelon, the military rockets fired at us are designed to destroy,” said Mr John Daly, director of the English Speakers Association of Ashkelon.
In this middle-class seaside town, residents have 30 seconds after a siren to hide from the Grad rockets, which have a longer range of 20km.
The first attack, which took place last year, claimed one life – an Arab worker. The Hamas projectiles, because of their crude nature, could not be countered with Patriot-type missiles that were used against Saddam Hussien’s Scud rockets during the first Gulf War in the early 1990s.
It doesn’t make sense to “use a milliondollar missile to shoot down a $20 rocket”, said Mr Daly.
Israelis living in the affected towns are reluctant to blame their government – which is currently testing the advanced Iron Dome anti-rocket system – for not protecting them enough.
“It’s not totally up to (the government),” said Ms Peretz of Sderot. “No matter what the government does, it’s not enough to make us feel 100 per cent secure.”
Residents interviewed also do not think that moving out is an option – despite real estate prices in some parts of towns like Sderot plunging 50 per cent.
For veterinary nurse Dalia Cohen – who hid in a toilet in an Ashkelon clinic during one of the rocket attacks a few months ago – such a move would be tantamount to letting Hamas win. “That’s what they want – that we run,” said the mother of two young daughters angrily.
But her anger seemed to be directed only at Hamas, and not Palestinians in general. Most Israelis agree that the rocket attacks would stop only when a political solution to the long-running conflict is reached.
As to the plight of the Palestinians, Ms Peretz told Weekend Xtra that “it hurts” her too whenever she hears about Palestinian civilians killed by Israeli bombardments. “I do not want to see things end up in bloodshed,” she said. “This is politics. Why do civilians have to pay the price?”