Two weeks ago I visited Sderot, joining thousands of Israelis on a solidarity "mission" to the embattled town to visit its residents and patronize its businesses that are on the brink of financial collapse. I wondered about the wisdom of the trip since the planned convergence on Sderot was covered widely by the major news outlets here and our neighbors in Hamastan know a few words of Hebrew. What better day for target practice than when thousands of solidarity shoppers were in town? Nonetheless, visiting Sderot has been something I have felt a need to do for a long time, and the time had come. Without any patronizing intent, it was akin to the mitzvah of bikkur holim, visiting the sick.
After a short drive from Jerusalem, we arrived. The warm wish "Bruchim Ha’ba’im," "May those who arrive be blessed," greeted us, to which I added "and lucky." Nice little town, nothing very impressive or unusual, until we noticed a strange makeshift structure by the road. And another one. And another. Every several hundred meters, there were concrete bunkers painted with childlike pictures. Then my travel companion told me to unbuckle my seatbelt — just in case we needed to visit those bunkers, quickly. Hmmm…
We parked and began walking around. So this was Sderot. Funny how we instinctively kept eyeing places to take cover should the missile alert sound. One friend considered clinging to a tree; I was partial to a concrete cover. We arrived in the center of town, which was not exactly trendy Tel Aviv. This was Sderot — a small, economically troubled town.
We went into a shop and met a man who had lived in Sderot for 55 years. It’s all he knew, from the time he emigrated from North Africa. He built a life in Sderot, and a business. Now, all his children had left, and his wife was begging that they follow. His grandchildren would not even come to visit. And he couldn’t blame them. He heaped scorn upon the government for its abdication of responsibility for the area’s citizens and their well-being. He spoke of the emotional toll the attacks were taking on the people, and confessed that he doesn’t even seek shelter anymore when the alert sounds. He’s resigned to his fate.
I asked someone for directions. "Oh, you’re from Jerusalem," he said. "You had your share a few years ago," a reference to the waves of suicide attacks there. "Now it’s our turn. But it’s enough. The government is useless; what a pathetic leadership. The people of Israel only have each other. Thank you for coming."
In a strange way, I started to feel comfortable in Sderot. But perhaps that was due to the fact that Sderot had already received its morning "dose" of rockets before we arrived and things had calmed down. I guess my blessing about being "lucky" was working.
We saw streams of "tourists" filling the town’s streets. DJs had set up and music was playing loudly. Domestic and international media were everywhere and there was nearly a fairlike atmosphere. It was almost surreal, as if people had forgotten that the red alert could sound any moment.
The somber reality soon reasserted itself. We met up with a young man, Noam Bedein, who was leading a group of students on a tour through the city. Noam was an inspiration, a serious yet compassionate person, who moved to Sderot over a year ago and founded the Sderot Media Center (http://www.sderotmedia.com/) in order to present the human story behind the headlines.
Noam took us to see what happens when a Kassam registers a direct hit on a house. We were not prepared for what awaited us. The destruction is unbelievable. This house was struck while a grandmother, her daughter, and her young granddaughter were at home around the dinner hour. It was a miracle they survived. The house was nearly destroyed, as well as all their personal belongings, because of the shrapnel from the explosion. And this was only one of countless homes destroyed.
Sderot, including the towns and kibbutzim surrounding Gaza, is the only city in a western democracy under daily rocket fire. Its citizens cannot find the most basic physical security in their homes, schools, or places of work. They have 15 seconds to get to a protected space from the time the alert sounds. Yet, in large part, they exude a strength of spirit that defies understanding. Lesser people would have abandoned ship long ago. This is, they repeatedly say, our only home, and they won’t be driven out by the fanatic hatred bred in Gaza. And they don’t mean only Sderot. They mean Israel. The State of Israel, like any state, has a primary duty to protect its citizens. It is failing in this duty, and increasing numbers of Israelis are coming within range of Palestinian missiles. Remember, the areas being targeted are in a part of Israel that both Israeli and international law recognize as the sovereign territory of Israel, and the attacks are being launched from Gaza, an area no longer occupied by Israel following the painful Israeli withdrawal and the destruction of its Jewish communities in ‘005.
The world may pay lip service to the incessant strikes, but it takes Israel to task for attempting to stop them. The world, of course, has found it in their hearts and pocketbooks to pump unprecedented sums of foreign aid into Palestinian coffers. A statistic I like to quote is that the Palestinians have received, on a per capita basis, more aid money than the Europeans under the Marshall Plan after World War II. And still, not one refugee has been resettled, nor have the lives of their people been improved in any meaningful way. Better to buy missiles, rockets, and guns, better to employ militias, and better to educate your children for hate (see, for instance, www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/953971.html, "New Hamas TV show features ‘Jew-eating’ Bugs Bunny lookalike"), than invest even a part of the aid money in building housing, schools, and medical facilities.
Sderot and Gaza are uncomfortable realities for those wedded to the Annapolis process. Hamas openly declares that it "will not stop bombing the Zionist settlement of Sderot until the last of the residents leave." I believe it. I wish the government would as well. There are no easy solutions, but there is no state on the planet that would tolerate attacks such as these on its sovereign territory.
Israel needs to act soon, forcefully, decisively, and with the knowledge that the type of cowardly warfare being waged against it from deep within civilian areas is deserving of unprecedented counterforce despite the fact that extensive collateral damage may result. This is crucial before the country is engulfed by a new wave of madness — not from Iran or Lebanon, but from a few kilometers from our backyard.
The sign leaving Sderot read "Leave in Peace." To which I can only add, may you in Sderot be granted peace.
Daniel Green made aliyah from Canada and lives in Jerusalem, where he practices law.