Sderot fears calm is too fragile to last
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Sderot fears calm is too fragile to last

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Sderot has been the target of thousands of kassam rockets fired from the Gaza Strip. Since the end of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in January, quiet has mostly returned to the small town but its residents are waiting for the rockets to begin again.

Ruth Edry lives in the Sderot neighborhood known as M3. It is the part of the town closest to the Gaza Strip. A short walk down her street leads to an overlook with a view into Gaza – too far away to see clearly with the naked eye, but close enough to allow only 30 seconds warning to Edry and others in Sderot of kassam rockets.

The streets of Sderot are quiet now. The rockets and mortars lobbed from Gaza for nine years have mostly stopped since Israel’s Operation Cast Lead ended in January, as Hamas has largely held to an informal ceasefire.

Reporter’s NotebookRather than rejoicing in the break from the more than 8,000 rockets that have hit their town since 2000, the people of Sderot fearfully wait for the attacks to renew, sure that this is only the calm before the storm.

“It’s worse for me than when there was one kassam a day,” Edry said through a translator in her home. “You never know when it’s going to come.”

Edry has lived in Sderot all of her 40 years and remembers when the rockets first began to fall, close to the same time her third child, Shilat, was born. There was no tzeva adom – red alert siren – then to provide the short but vital warning, nor shelters to run toward.

Only in recent years have the town’s buildings been reinforced. Many schools, bus stops, and synagogues have reinforced roofs. A playground near the town’s Jewish community center has a long tunnel shaped and painted like a snake, for children to play in. Paid for by the Legacy Heritage Fund, it is reinforced to act as a shelter in case of an attack. And earlier this year Israel’s government finally began allocating money to Sderot’s residents to build safe rooms in their homes, although a debate still rages between the state and the people about the thickness of the walls – the government is building walls 30 centimeters thick, but the people want 60-centimeter-thick walls. The walls of Edry’s safe room are 30 centimeters thick, which she said is not enough.

A request for comment from the Israeli government had not been answered by press time.

For four years Edry’s three children dared not venture to their home’s second floor for fear a rocket might crash through the roof. At night, the family huddled in the living room. The children still do not sleep upstairs.

“This quiet is misleading,” said Moshe Ben Chamo, another lifelong Sderot resident, through a translator. “The other side is stocking up on missiles and rockets.”

For 10 years, Ben Chamo was a bus driver in the small town. On Dec. 31, 2008, he went to visit his parents when a kassam struck the house next door. Shrapnel penetrated Ben Chamo’s jaw and some still remains, because doctors worry about artery damage if they try to remove it.

Ben Chamo’s 17-year-old daughter, Shir, was at home when he was injured. She heard the piercing sound of the tzeva adom and immediately called her father to make sure he was safe. He said he was fine and with his father. Shortly after she hung up, another tzeva adom sounded. She called her father back but Ben Chamo did not answer. Shir’s mother said he was likely hiding and not to worry.

A few minutes later, a family friend called frantically asking about Moshe, saying he had just been on TV, bleeding in an ambulance.

“It’s life,” Shir said. “When there are kassams you need to be in a safe place, but then it’s normal life.”

After being disabled, Ben Chamo was fired from his job. He survived with help from the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Fund for Victims of Terror .

Last month, his father, Shimon Ben Chamo, opened Café 26, an Italian restaurant and the first new business in Sderot in many years. Moshe Ben Chamo went back to work.

“We want to keep on living our lives and show that in times of hardship and in good times, we’re here,” he said while showcasing the new restaurant, scheduled to have its grand opening that night.

In a year, Shir will join the army. She wants to be in the navy, she said. She likes the uniforms. Some teenagers from Sderot look forward to their army service as a means to leave behind the tzeva adoms and the need to know the location of the closest shelter. Shir looks forward to leaving home, but only for a new experience, not to escape.

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Moshe Ben Chamo with his son Dov, 12, and daughter Shir, 17. Ben Chamo’s father Shimon recently opened an Italian restaurant in Sderot called Café 26.

“This is my place,” Shir said. “My family, my friends [are here]. This is home for me.”

Still, when she eventually has a family of her own, Shir wants to raise her children somewhere with more opportunities than in Sderot, which has struggled economically for many years.

“We’ll survive,” Ben Chamo said. “We’ll be strong and we’ll live our lives.”

Like Ben Chamo, Edry also expects the rocket fire will begin again. Outside her home hangs the exploded shell of a kassam rocket she picked up while at a community protest at nearby Sapir College. As the group gathered to demand the government provide reinforcements in their homes, the tzeva adom sounded and a rocket struck the campus.

“Three, four years of quiet, then I’ll start believing it,” she said.

The noise of a passing bus reminds Edry of the whistle of a rocket nearing its target, while the sound of the tzeva adom plays in her head.

It took Edry several years before she would see a therapist, who diagnosed her with post traumatic stress disorder, a common condition among some 80 percent of Sderot’s families, according to Ohad Drory, a social worker with the Jewish Agency for Israel.

For more than a year Drory has worked for JAFI’s Victims of Terror fund, created in 2002 and redirected in 2008 to help those living in rocket range of Gaza.

The Victims of Terror fund is supplied by United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization of the North American federation system. Within UJC allocations, funding has mostly come from the 2006 Israel emergency campaign, set up in response to the Second Lebanon War and then refocused on Sderot. The IEC raised $290 million, of which UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey contributed $6 million.

The money is for terror victims’ immediate needs, such as paying for temporary housing, clothes, and repairs. But not all the scars in Sderot are physical.

“There is no blood, there is nothing you can show that you are actually injured,” Drory said. “Everybody here suffers from trauma. Everybody.”

In the early days of the fund, it sometimes took months for victims of rocket attacks to receive payouts because the government had to recognize them first as victims of terrorism.

“A lot of civilians in Sderot and areas surrounding Gaza become victims of terror but they are not typical victims of terror because they just live their lives and in a second their houses got hit and then they need to take control of their lives again,” Drory said. “These people couldn’t go back to work, couldn’t function at home, in any way. Even emotionally you’re blocked. You can’t show emotion to your children, to your wife. [PTSD is] a very, very hard disease. For those people, the kassam hits their houses and people say you’re OK, but for them the clock is stopped.”

JAFI’s SOS fund has been providing more immediate response to victims. Within 48 hours of a rocket strike the organization provides a check of up to $1,000. Since the start of Cast Lead JAFI has disbursed more than $90,000. Perhaps more important than the money to repair physical damage, JAFI has been helping with the emotional damage.

“When someone gets a direct hit in his house, he starts from zero,” Drory said. “It’s only the beginning of a long fight – against the government, social security, and against himself to recover from a mental trauma. Because we’ve been in this situation a lot of times we can give them the map to get through as easily as possible.”

Accessing government funds requires cutting through some red tape, however. Edry’s husband, Ronen, drives a taxi in Sderot and in 2006, a kassam landed two meters away from the cab. The Edrys ended up having to split the repair costs with the government. The government should do more, Edry said. She wants to see her taxes cut and help with her high mortgage – taken out several years ago to pay for the second floor addition, which she no longer uses.

Despite the argument over the structure of the safe rooms, their mere existence has been a boon to the psyche of Sderot’s residents, Drory said.

“It gives the people the feeling that somebody cares, somebody is doing something for them,” he said. “If you sit in a war zone for eight years and they don’t even give you protection in your own home, you don’t feel anybody cares.”

Missions from the United States frequently came to Sderot in recent years. These visits demonstrated that the outside world had not forgotten about Sderot, Drory said.

“The citizens in Sderot can feel it – there is support from all over the world, not only in Israel,” he said.

Since the unofficial ceasefire took hold, though, and because of the world’s economic slowdown, funds have been harder to come by for JAFI. This has meant fewer services for the region, including a reduction in scholarships, respites, and summer camps.

Although UJA-NNJ’s Partnership 2000 sister city is Nahariya – which sustained heavy damage from Hezbollah rockets during the Second Lebanon War – the federation has played a role in Sderot since the end of the 2006 war. Most recently, a gift from UJA-NNJ helped complete a second-floor addition to Sderot’s Jewish community center, which included a reinforced roof. The federation has also helped build quiet rooms in Sderot’s schools, where children can go during school days for counseling and therapy.

“Because Nahariya went through katyusha missiles [during the Second Lebanon War] and we know how they felt, we feel a connection with Sderot,” said Ofer Lichtig, UJA-NNJ’s community representative in Israel. “We understand how they feel as well.”

Israeli media reported this month that the Iron Dome anti-missile system is closer to completion. Some, like Edry, doubt the system’s ability to completely eliminate the threat, but government sources hope it will target and destroy incoming rockets. The government estimates the project will be operational in 2010.

Defense may not be enough, though.

“Hamas is not going to stop,” Edry said. “We gave back all the settlements and Gush Katif and see what they’re doing.”
Edry’s sister Penina was among those evacuated from the Gush Katif settlement bloc in 2005 and now lives in Sderot.

“She left her house and now gets missiles,” Edry said.

“The people of Sderot want peace,” Ben Chamo said. “We all want to live normal lives. The other side is not giving us the opportunity to live in peace.”

Ben Chamo describes himself and his family as patriots. They will stay in Sderot to show Hamas that it cannot force them out. Ben Chamo fully expects another round of fighting and that next time, the IDF will strike a more devastating blow to Hamas. Israel, he insisted, has to be strong in its negotiations with the Palestinians.

“Peace is what I want but I’m not willing to give up land,” Ben Chamo said. “Israel has to resist because we have nothing else.”

Those left in Sderot can be divided into two categories: those who refuse to leave because of the rockets, like Ben Chamo, and those who cannot.

Edry, whose 16-year-old daughter Chen won’t leave the house anymore, said that she and her family were ready to leave Sderot and the rockets, but couldn’t. For what she would get for selling her two-floor home, she would only be able to buy a one-bedroom apartment elsewhere in Israel.

Earlier this month, a kassam and two mortars landed in the Negev, outside of Sderot, in one day. The tzeva adom did not sound in Sderot, but the incident was a reminder of the fragile calm.

“If there is one bomb they put on the fence and a few soldiers get killed and Israel attacks with air force in Gaza, then the kassams will come again,” Drory said. “You don’t need much to get this area on fire again. One mistake.”

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