More Sderot Reflections

February 28, 2016

Written by Honey Kessler Amado

Today we went to Sderot, Moshav Netiv Ha’Asarah, and Kibbutz Dorot in Sha’ar HaNegev. Each has its own story; each is familiar from the news.

I have wanted to visit Sderot for quite some time. Sderot, a small city of approximately 25,000 people, is situated along Israel’s border with Gaza and suffers frequent attacks by missiles and mortars. I have wanted to come to show support for them.

Sderot was founded in the early 1950’s. It is an agricultural community and lived peacefully with its Arab neighbors for about 50 years. Fifteen years ago, at around the time of the Second Intifada, it became the site of increasing missile attacks from Gaza. Finally protesting to the government about their lack of protection, the government funded the building of safe rooms (bomb shelters) in each existing apartment and home and mandated that each new building have a safe room. Concrete, square bunkers are seen everywhere, adjacent to homes and apartment buildings, at playgrounds, in schools, even at the bus stops, so that people can get to safety within the 15 seconds between launch and landing of a missile. Fifteen seconds. As I sit writing, in the calm and safety of my Jerusalem hotel room, I pause and count out 15 seconds, listening in the quiet night to the soft voices floating up from the hotel courtyard below. It is a brief moment, my fifteen seconds of counting. And I try to imagine the noise of the siren, the frantic running to the safe room, the yelling to family members to move quickly. Running by myself. Or running to pick up a child from one room as I called to another to hurry to safety. And, I think, what if I had a disabled spouse or child or parent, running to help them, and to get a little child. Fifteen seconds.

It is impossible to imagine. I saw a documentary that captured one of those fifteen seconds: Rock from the Hot Zone, the popular rock groups that began in Sderot. Music is an emotional outlet, and people are aware of the psychological suffering that is endured here and in the surrounding areas, such as in Moshav Netiv Ha’Asarah. A psychologist in the film said that the suffering here cannot be called “post-traumatic stress” because there is no “post.”

Our day was uneventful. Our guide, Organia, explained that the missile attacks began in 2001, with a few hundred missiles that year, and by 2014, approximately 1,000 missiles a year were being launched against Sderot. (That’s an average of three per day.) This number of missiles was untenable, and Israel launched Operation Protective Edge in July 2014. (Almost exactly 8 years from the date that Gilad Shalit had been kidnaped from within Israel, along the Gaza border.)

We saw a number of the missiles: homemade kassams, which were filled with sugar, fertilizer, metal pieces for human injury, and explosives. One kassam had the words “Pray to Allah” on it. Another, “Al Quds,” the Arabic word for Jerusalem. We saw many more missiles, not homemade, some very long, almost the height of an adult man. And we saw a piece of a missile from the Iron Dome. The Iron Dome is able to track the “heat stamp” of a missile and immediately project both the source of the launch and where it will land. If it will land in an empty field, it will be ignored. If it will land near a city (Sderot, Ashkelon, Ashdod) or the Moshav Netiv Ha’Asarah, it will be intercepted. The offensive missile is intercepted in the air. (Each defensive missile launched by the Iron Dome costs approximately $20,000! The cost of this defense is paid by the Israeli government.)

The Iron Dome was critical during Operation Protective Edge, and continues to be critical. But now, in addition to missile attacks, there are mortar attacks. Mortars are like very large bullets and are not vulnerable to the Iron Dome. Unlike the large missiles, mortars do not leave a heat stamp because they are not internally propelled; and, because they fly much shorter ranges, there is virtually no response time from the point of detection. Mortars are hard to see, currently impossible to catch, and there is no warning that they are coming. Thus, though they do less damage than a missile, they are more dangerous.

Organia told the story of Donna, her daughter’s childhood friend. When Donna returned home from the university one afternoon, her boyfriend greeted her and motioned for her to come into the house quickly because there had been several mortar attacks. As she ran from the driveway to the house, a mortar landed next to her, killing her instantly. She was 22 years old.

We Jews cope with life with humor. Indeed, the name of our Patriarch Isaac – Yitzhak, the child of the Akedah (the binding of Isaac), surely a traumatizing event – means ‘laughter’. Today we heard two jokes, one from Organia and one from Raz Schmulovich, our guide in Netiv Ha’Asarah, the moshav along the border of Gaza which deals with many of the same attacks and issues as Sderot. Both are gallows humor. From Organia: when God was dividing the land among the nations of the world, the nations complained to God that Israel was being given the most beautiful land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And God responded, “Wait ‘til you see the neighbors I give her!”

And from Raz, with a variation on the old adage, “if it doesn’t kill you, it will make you stronger,” he said, “If it kills you, it will make your mother stronger.” The mothers of Israel are strong enough. The fathers of Israel have fought in enough wars and operations. The children of Israel have shed enough tears.

As have the children of Abraham. Since Operation Protective Edge ended in summer 2014, Israel has rebuilt every home damaged during the conflict. In Gaza, not one home has been rebuilt. Not a house, not a school, not a shop, not a hospital, not a community has been constructed. Only tunnels. Supplies intended to rebuild Gaza have been commandeered by Hamas to build and rebuild the tunnels. In the past decade, Hamas has spent $1.25 billion building tunnels. This sum could have built 20 schools, 2 shopping malls, 1 hospital, and 3 living areas! It is difficult to imagine a good faith argument in support of this spending. Perhaps some Arab countries are losing interest in investing in Gaza; Qatar pledged $5 billion to Gaza but has yet to pay the pledge.

In this beautiful homeland, placed in a troubled neighborhood, the number of people who hold visions of peace or are working towards peaceful co-existence with Palestinians is inspirational. In Sderot, which for fifteen years has suffered from continuing missile and mortar attacks, Organia lamented that a generation of Israeli and Palestinian children, deprived of the opportunities for friendly interactions as they had before the Second Intifada, are growing up not knowing each other and, worse, with enmity towards each other.   In Moshav Netiv Ha’Asarah, Raz said they built homes and not a military base here as a message to the Palestinians in Gaza that victory for both will be co-existence, with both peoples staying in the area as friendly neighbors. And the work at the Arava Institute (for example), where Jewish Israelis, Arab Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, and Diaspora Jews come together to study ecology, agriculture, and the use of renewal resources in the Arava valley along the Jordanian border (perhaps a site for our next 2.0 trip), furthers the idea that, if we are not to have a gilded piece of paper with a signed peace agreement, perhaps we can have a peace which grows up organically from the cooperative work of the peoples themselves, fatigued of conflict and political impasse.

In the end, the visit to Sderot and Netiv Ha’Asarah was uplifting. These people are brave to live on the border of Gaza, with a commitment to remaining here, to not be bullied, and, whatever their anger and anguish over frequent attacks, to not succumb to hatred. The scenery in this area, the Sha’ar HaNegev, is seductively beautiful. May this beautiful place soon hear the shouts of joy and celebrations of peace and know war no more.

May it be God’s will.          רצון יהי כן ~ Ken Yehi Ratzon

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