As rockets from nearby Gaza rain down on southern Israel, the residents of Sderot are hoping the spiralling confrontation with Hamas will be the last, even if the Palestinian enclave has to be reoccupied.
In this town close to the Gaza border, living under the ever-present threat of rocket fire has become all too familiar, with sirens announcing incoming missiles several times an hour.
To create a semblance of normality, the majority of people go about their daily lives in protected spaces, with a huge children’s play areas designed entirely to withstand rocket attacks.
In the ball pool, the hubbub of happy youngsters virtually drowns out the noise of the sirens.
“It’s the bubble of Sderot, where the children come to think about other things, to enjoy themselves like any other child in the world and forget about what’s going on,” says Yedidia Harush, one of the monitors there.
Three soldiers from the army’s “educational unit” tasked with looking after civilians, kick a ball around with the kids.
As some in the south deal with the stress of relentless rocket warnings by sheltering behind concrete blast walls, others seem to respond by confronting it.
In Yad Mordechai, just a few kilometres from the Palestinian territory, a cafe has become the rallying point for “rocket hunters,” people who rush out and point their cameras to the sky every time the red alert is sounded.
They hope to catch a Palestinian rocket being intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system.
When the loudspeakers blare out the latest warning, no one in the cafe bothers to run for shelter, while every explosion in the sky is greeted with spontaneous applause.
– ‘Finishing the job’ –
The cafe and its car park serve as a gathering point for army reservists, sent to the southern front after the cabinet called up 40,000 of them in preparation for a possible ground assault.
“I was happy when they called me; this time I really feel that we will do the job, not like during Operation Pillar of Defence in 2012,” says Haim, 35, a reservist in a fighting unit.
“If we have to re-enter (Gaza) and even if we have to stay two months or more, we will do it,” he adds, as his comrades start to arrive in the car park.
During Operation Pillar of Defence, an eight-day campaign to stamp out Gaza rocket fire, 177 Palestinians and six Israelis were killed in cross-border air strikes and rocket attacks.
Other Israelis are already dreaming of a return to the Palestinian enclave, which was occupied and peppered with Jewish settlements until 2005, when the late prime minister Ariel Sharon pulled them and the army out in a highly controversial and emotional operation.
The Haddad family used to live in Gush Katif, a Jewish settlement in Gaza, but were relocated along with hundreds of others to Nitzan, a prefabricated village near the southern city of Ashkelon.
Their nostalgia for their former home and their anger at being evacuated is strengthened by every time a fresh cycle of violence erupts with the Palestinians.
“To my great regret, when we left Gaza we gave (the Palestinians) the possibility of living in peace, and today? We see Qassam rockets and hear sirens all the way to Jerusalem,” says Oded Haddad bitterly, referring to the rockets fired by Hamas.
He still dreams of returning one day to what remains of his home in Gaza. But in the meantime, Haddad has made a reserve home with his four young children inside the huge concrete pipe outside their house in Nitza where they shelter from the rockets.