It’s not that the rockets stopped falling, but Bouskila was out of town, traveling around the United States last week on a thank you tour of American Jewish organizations that have sent money to help his beleaguered city.
As soon as Bouskila returned home, however, he was dodging rockets again.
In the middle of a basketball trophy ceremony Sunday night, the city’s alarm system sounded, warning of incoming rockets and sending the players and Bouskila scurrying for cover.
“The whole world thinks there is a cease-fire,” Bouskila told JTA a few days earlier, during his visit to New York. “But, practically, there isn’t.”
While things have quieted down somewhat in Sderot since the conclusion of Israel’s 22-day operation in Gaza, two to three rockets a day still fall in the town of 23,000. More than 8,000 rockets have landed in Sderot since 2001, according to city officials.
The city has undergone dramatic change since Bouskila’s first stint as mayor, from 1989 to 1998. He was re-elected last November as Eli Moyal, dogged by corruption probes in his final year or two in office, departed the mayoralty.
During Bouskila’s decade-long absence, Sderot saw 10 people killed in rocket attacks from Gaza and some 5,000 residents report symptoms of trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder. Millions of dollars in government and philanthropic investment arrived to help the residents cope with the attacks.
Critics have slammed the government for being too slow in sending aid, and then sending too little of it.
Bouskila, too, says the Israeli government can do more — like paying to fix city property damaged by Kassam rockets, helping build neighborhood parks with rocket shelters and paying for additional psychologists to work at Sderot schools — but he also lauded several key measures that Jerusalem has taken to help his city:
• Construction of some 1,480 reinforced rooms, outfitting approximately a third of Sderot’s single-story homes with rocket-proof units, at a cost of $75 million.
• Beginning the next phase of protection, outfitting some 3,300 multistory homes and apartment buildings with sheltered rooms, at a cost of $150 million.
• Starting to build 12 new schools in southwestern Israel, five of them in Sderot at a cost of $18 million, that are 100 percent protected against rockets and feature the latest technology for use in the classroom.
In tandem with government investment, Sderot also has received millions of dollars from Diaspora Jews and some pro-Israel Christians, helping pay for additional rocket shelters, recreational activities outside the conflict zone for its children, protected playgrounds, extended school days, trauma treatment and the like.
“For every issue you encounter in day-to-day life in Sderot, there has been an organization that has helped,” said Bouskila, whose soft-spoken manner belies his tough-guy appearance.
Bouskila was born and raised in Sderot. His home was hit twice by Kassam rockets. But he refuses to leave.
“We have no choice,” he said. “We don’t have the privilege or ability to leave Sderot. We flee Sderot today, and tomorrow the rockets hit Ashkelon or Ashdod. To flee would mean leaving the only state we have.”
An estimated 6,000 residents have left the town since it became a locus for Palestinian rocket fire eight years ago, but some have returned as the rockets have reached their new places of residence farther afield from Gaza, Bouskila noted.
Ultimately, the town’s destiny lies in the hands of decision-makers in Jerusalem — and, perhaps, those of rocket crews in Gaza — not simply the Sderot mayor’s office. Bouskila says his job is to help the residents of his city any way he can.
That’s why, Bouskila says, after years of living under Palestinian rocket fire and after a 10-year hiatus from the mayoralty, he’s back.