SDEROT, Israel — Brightly painted walls surround a mini-soccer field, video games, a climbing wall and play areas. The converted warehouse also has a new thick concrete roof, a half dozen shelters and an alert system to give a 15-second warning of incoming rockets.
The children of Sderot finally have a safe place to play.
The fortified indoor playground got a warm welcome Tuesday when it opened in this southern Israeli town that has been battered by missiles fired from the adjacent Gaza Strip by Palestinian militants.
"It's an amazing thing. Until now, only the house and school were safe," said Pesah Hajbi, a 43-year-old father of three. "It's cold comfort," he added. "If they don't stop firing, at least there is a safe place to play."
Hundreds wounded by rockets
Eight Sderot residents have been killed, hundreds wounded and nearly everyone in the working-class town of 24,000 has been traumatized by the frequent wail of sirens and explosions of the thousands of rockets that have hit over the past eight years.
Dozens of rockets have come down just since Israel's January offensive in Gaza ended. On Tuesday, Israeli aircraft hit a militant rocket squad in northern Gaza, wounding three, just after they fired rockets at Israel.
Now parents in this battered town have a secure place to take their children.
The $5 million center, funded by the Jewish National Fund-U.S., is surrounded by anti-shock wave walls, painted in blue, yellow, green and red. Nearly 2,000 square meters (21,000 square feet) in size, it has room for 500 people.
It is divided into two areas — one for infants and toddlers and the other for children in elementary and high school. It will also be used by seniors during morning hours and can be converted into a disco at night.
Children in costumes celebrating the Jewish holiday of Purim roamed the complex Tuesday, playing in a mock shopping mall for dolls, jumping on an inflatable trampoline and playing foosball and air hockey. One, dressed as Spiderman, excitedly ascended the climbing wall. Teenagers found an outlet for their frustrations, pounding away at hanging punching bags.
"Today, we bring back the childhood to the children of Sderot, and let them feel like other children all over the world," Mayor David Buskila said.
Psychologists will be on the site for intervention with children and families in need, and a medical station will also be available.
'Country's safest building'
Stanley Chesley, president of the Jewish National Fund, said the idea for the rocket-proof playground came during his last visit to Sderot, when he realized the children were holed up in their homes.
He called the new center "the country's safest building."
The sounds of children laughing and yelling drowned out his speech. "We want to hear this kind of noise all the time," he said, smiling.
Devora Biton, 43, said Tuesday's outing was the first time she relaxed enough to let her 4-year-old daughter, Noam, run around and play freely with other kids. Biton said coming to the playground was liberating for her as well.
"It gives a sense of security. Out on the street you are tense all the time and can't let your kids go far," she said. "The house is like a prison. We try to make it nice, but it still feels like a prison."
Even so, she said she had mixed feelings, because the indoor playground is necessary.
"It makes me happy but also sad," she said. "I'm glad the kids will have a place to go, but it means the kids will have to live under a reinforced roof, rather that play outside as they should."
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