A night under threat of fire

As American Jews engaged on behalf of Israel, we frequently hear about the crisis in Sderot. We receive pleas for money from organizations that say they are helping the area’s residents protect themselves and their homes from the seemingly never-ending barrage of rockets from Gaza.

Since the rockets began raining down on the region in late 2000, fewer than a dozen people have been killed and fewer than 100 have been wounded. Because of these seemingly insignificant numbers, Sderot earns only brief mentions in mainstream Western media, compared with the more photogenic Palestinians in Gaza whose suffering is exploited by the media-savvy Hamas.

Reporter’s NotebookSo when the United Jewish Communities gathered together a handful of Jewish journalists from across the United States for a fact-finding mission to Sderot earlier this month, it gave us all the opportunity to see what daily life is really like in Sderot, rather than just the rare snapshot we get on cable news.

In four days we met with dozens of people in almost every age group from Sderot and Ashkelon: schoolchildren who have never known life without rockets; elderly people who have lived through Israel’s major wars and now live under the kassam threat; and families and young adults who have to think about their financial well-being in addition to their physical safety.

The deputy mayor of Ashkelon, Levi Shafran, told us that the rockets don’t cause a lot of material damage but they strike massive psychological blows because the people of the region do not see Israel shooting back.

“The people on the street want retaliation,” he says.

While in Ashkelon, we visited the Chutzot Mall, which was hit by an Iranian-made Grad missile just last month. That event received wide media coverage but what none of us knew was that the missile had hit a medical clinic in the mall.

In Sderot, we saw homes that had been hit by kassams. On some, we noticed fresh coats of plaster and paint that didn’t quite match the rest of the building. Others, like the home of David Tourgemond, which sustained a direct hit in March that left a gaping hole in his roof and his living room in ruins, still bore the physical scars.

When I first received the itinerary, one item in particular caught my eye: the overnight in the area. I knew that – more than the guided tours and the arranged interviews – would give me the opportunity to witness first hand what it is like to live in the area.

Kibbutz Nachal Oz sits less than half a mile from the Gaza border. From the kibbutz’s perimeter, residents can clearly see Gaza’s border fence and the villages where Palestinians who used to work in the kibbutz live. Benny Sela, head of the kibbutz’s security, says he remembered Palestinian children coming to Nahal Oz for a celebration just 10 years ago. He and his wife, Leora, are to be my hosts for the night.

I begin to ask them questions but before I get too far, Benny asks if I want to see Gaza. We get into the kibbutz’s security jeep and he drives us to Nachal Oz’s fence. We are about 250 meters away from Gaza, he says. Beyond the kibbutz’s fence is an open field and a road, which Benny says is used by the army, and beyond that is another fence. He points to some lights in the distance. That, he says, is Gaza.

We get out and stare at the night sky for a few minutes before two young female soldiers walk by. They are here for a 10-day rotation to guard the kibbutz. Benny remembers that two years ago during Chanukah, some Palestinians tried to cut through the border fence. Nobody has ever tried to cut through the kibbutz’s fence, though, he says. The army is constantly patrolling the open area between Nachal Oz and Gaza.

“It’s not easy to live a life like this, but it’s our home,” Leora says later. “You cannot give up on home.”

When we return, Benny and Leora take me to visit their daughter, Ronny, and her husband, Beri, who have lived on the other side of the kibbutz for four years.

“It’s not easy,” Ronny says. “Sometimes you hear some bombs next to you, but you get used to it. You live your life.”

Like the Selas, the idea of leaving Nachal Oz does not cross the younger couple’s minds. Instead, they look toward the Israeli government for salvation, but all agree that the government is unwilling to do all that it can to stop the rockets.

“They are trying but just not enough,” Beri says. “The government is scared to do something because of the Second Lebanon War. Our prime minister … his hands are tied. He is afraid.”

Beri, who works in border security, proposes a solution rooted in economics rather than military. He wants to see Israel cut back on the electricity and other supplies it provides Gaza on a daily basis. “Israel is doing too much to give them food and everything,” he says. “They are so dependent on us. We’re giving them everything and we’re getting back all the time terror and rockets.”

His in-laws agree.

“It’s not equal, the relationship,” Leora says.

“They pay us with rockets,” Benny says. “Just close the border. If they want fuel and electricity they can get it from Egypt.”

Despite the hardships and violence inflicted on them from Gaza, the Selas are slow to endorse military action as a solution. Benny just wants to see the government make a decision – any decision. But as the mother of a soldier, Leora is hesitant to put other soldiers’ lives at risk, even to save her own.

“It’s not common thinking to say I don’t want the soldiers to get inside,” she says. “I don’t think another soldier should die, even for me. Why do they have to die for us?”

As Hamas continues to fortify itself in preparation of an Israel assault, military analysts agree that a ground operation in Gaza would result in heavy Israeli casualties. For Leora, this is unacceptable.

“I never thought this would be the solution,” she says. “I always have to think about myself as a mother. How I would be able to live a life when, because I live here, one of the sons of another mother died? I wouldn’t be able to look at this mother in the face and say it is for me.”

I ask if she feels she’s getting the same consideration from the rest of Israel.

“You can go to Ashdod or Beer Sheva and it’s like in a different country,” Leora says.

“Sometimes you can sit in a café in Tel Aviv and hear them talk politics like they’re in the middle of the area, in the middle of the bombing. Sometimes they should remember that they’re not living here.”

Beri agrees. “They know people are suffering but they don’t fear [the rockets themselves].”

The people of Tel Aviv can help Sderot economically just by giving up a few hours a month, Leora says. She would like to see stores in other parts of the country close down on Fridays as a show of solidarity to encourage people to go do their pre-weekend shopping in Sderot.

“The people in Sderot need people from Tel Aviv and from a lot of areas in Israel,” she says. “It would give to the people living there hope. Even the people from Sderot prefer to do shopping in Netivot. If we do shopping I prefer to do it in Sderot.”

As we walk back to the Selas’ home, Benny points out craters left by kassam rockets. Back home, Benny shows me his safe room. One would never know what it was just by looking at it. With a bed and Benny’s computer and desk, it looks like a home office/guestroom.

They rarely use it, he says. The Selas and their 12-year-old son Alon sleep upstairs. Their three other children do not live at home anymore. Their oldest daughter lives on another part of the kibbutz, while their 20-year-old son is serving in the army, and their 18-year-old daughter is supposed to go into the army next year. For this night, Alon has been moved to a spare bed downstairs and the Selas have offered me his room upstairs. Or, Leora says, I can sleep in the safe room if I would feel more comfortable. I decide to take Alon’s room, wondering if it is a mistake.

The night passes without any alarms. A colleague on the mission who went for an early morning walk tells me that he heard the sounds of gunfire in the distance. That is common, Benny says.

Thursday night, after we have been gone just one day, a kassam lands at another nearby kibbutz, Nir Oz, killing one person and wounding two others.

During our visit we spoke with people who have been affected; we saw houses and schools that have been hit and reinforced; and we empathized with the people we met, but it is hard to say if we really understood them. Because of the relative quiet during our short visit, it was as if we were reporting from inside a bubble. We witnessed the consequences but not the causes.

I hear about the strike on Nir Oz that Friday morning while eating breakfast in Tel Aviv with a colleague from UJC. It is not mentioned on BBC, and nobody I speak to on the streets knows anything about it. The Tel Aviv Gay Pride parade is scheduled for that day and thousands of people turn out to watch. Hundreds more lie out on the beaches, without worrying that they might have to find shelter within a few seconds. Although security guards remain at many restaurants, the general feeling among this city’s residents seems to be that the threat of suicide bombers has largely passed.

As Leora says, being in Tel Aviv really is like being in a different country.

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