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Another massive rocket barrage comes crashing down on Israeli terrified border town

Another massive barrage of rockets came crashing down on this terrified border town, threatening to provoke a massive Israeli ground offensive in Gaza 20 months after Israeli troops withdrew from the coastal strip.

The attack came a day after the rockets injured five residents, including a mother and her children. Several homes have been destroyed along with any remnant of a sense of security. More than 20 rockets were fired on Sderot Wednesday, injuring two people, including a woman who was seriously wounded after suffering a direct hit on her home.

Since 2001, more than 4,500 Qassam rockets have landed in Sderot, killing seven residents and injuring dozens more, Sderot mayor Eli Moyal said. Real estate prices have dropped 60 percent, commerce has collapsed and a recent poll showed that about half of the working class town's residents would leave if they could.

Hamas's decision to fire more than two dozen rockets at Sderot in the past two days appears to be an attempt to draw Israel into escalating Palestinian infighting as a way of uniting warring factions. More than 41 Palestinians have died since Sunday in an upsurge of violence between the rival Hamas and Fatah movements.

Israel, however, has vowed not to play into Hamas's hands, despite a fresh Israeli airstrike in southern Gaza Wednesday that killed four people.

The main toll of the daily attacks on Sderot has been psychological, with experts warning of long-lasting damage inflicted to its 24,00 residents.

"The anxiety level with the kids is unimaginable," said Tami Sagie, the head of psychological services in Sderot. "We have a whole generation that was born into the Qassams, children whose first word is 'boom."'

Sagie spoke of teenagers wetting their beds in the middle of the night when rockets hit. Others regularly sleep with their parents, or find it difficult to concentrate, she said.

It's not just the children. Noam Amram, 62, said he has been seeing a therapist since a rocket landed next to him four months ago. "I still haven't gotten over it. Every noise I hear, I shudder. I can't sleep. I live in fear," he said.

Unlike suicide bombings - where there is a sudden, one-time shock - Sagie said the constant barrage of rockets has made it particularly tough for the residents of Sderot.

"It is one trauma after another," she said. "They have lost faith and are beginning to believe that no one can help them."

Most of the anger is aimed at the government. Graffiti painted across town bear messages such as: "You should be ashamed of yourself, you have forgotten us in war. Signed, the children of Sderot."

Individuals and nonprofit groups have eased some of the suffering by bussing Sderot children to camps and getaways. An American group is about to donate a transportable bomb shelter, the first of its kind, to Sderot.

Dozens of Sderot residents on Wednesday crammed into busses, provided by a prominent Russian-Israeli billionaire, seeking refuge from the battered city. The Sderot municipality said it would facilitate the evacuation of those who sought it.

But what most people here want is for Israel to strike back hard at the Palestinian rocket launchers who pummel the town on a nearly daily basis.

A poll conducted last week by the "Maagar Mohot" institute found that 87 percent of Sderot residents favor a harsh retaliation, and that 47 percent were considering leaving. The survey was conducted among 336 residents and had a 5 percent margin of error.

Sderot's most famous resident, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, received no special treatment from his neighbors. The survey found that 70 percent of residents said he should resign his post.

Most of the rockets on Sderot have come from the nearby Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, just 2 kilometers (1.5 miles) away.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is under increasing pressure to launch an operation in Gaza to restore Israeli deterrence after the country's inconclusive war in Lebanon last summer and his own flagging credentials as a leader. An inquiry commission into the Lebanon war severely criticized Olmert for his handling of the war, and he now finds himself fighting for his political survival.

Security officials said the army favors an immediate, large-scale ground offensive in Gaza while the Shin Bet security service favors a more measured response. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the policy is still in the making.

Moyal, Sderot's mayor, was skeptical the government could do anything to help his residents.

"No country in the world would allow one of its cities to be bombed for six years straight," he said.

Israel killed hundreds of militants in Gaza last year after the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier by Hamas-linked militants. Shortly after the troops left, the rocket fire resumed.

Some predict Olmert would think twice before launching another major offensive in Gaza. Still, a catastrophe in Sderot would almost certainly spark the government into action.

"I guess they are waiting for blood, and they are waiting for a lot of blood, one dead is not enough. I guess they need some 20-30 dead kids in a kindergarten for the country to be shocked," Moyal said.

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