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Sderot

The cost of idealism

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If I get wounded, will you leave? Why are you waiting for that to happen?”

When Nitai Schreiber’s 18-year-old daughter Sheked asked him why he was waiting for her to get hurt before he moved the family away, he could tell her only that the fear of the rockets is greater than the actual danger.

“This is the dilemma of the parent and the caregiver,” Schreiber said through a translator during an interview in Sderot’s community center earlier this month. “[The children] understand their parents are idealists. Their issue is, ‘Why do we have to suffer for your values?'”

Schreiber and his wife Leora came to Sderot 21 years ago to set up an urban kibbutz, with its focus on social services rather than agriculture. They came to help a town populated largely by immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Arab countries. Now, as executive director of the Gvanim Association for Education & Community Involvement, Nitai Schreiber focuses on what he calls social entrepreneurship. The center has 300 employees and 40 community projects, half of which are in Sderot. As a self-described idealist, Schreiber believes he must stay in Sderot to keep the community strong while it is under fire from the nearby Gaza Strip.

Sheked and her twin sister, Nitzan, graduated from high school last month. Their graduation party was interrupted by the red alert siren, signaling residents that they had 15 seconds to find shelter from incoming rockets. They will soon join the army and have told their parents that they want to be stationed on a base where they will not have to go home on weekends.

“They feel in the army they’re safe,” Schreiber said. “It’s an ongoing trauma that just gets stronger.”

Palestinians have fired more than 7,000 rockets and mortars at Sderot and neighboring areas since October 2000. On a “quiet day,” only two to four rockets and six to 14 mortars are launched.

A truce between Israel and Hamas was set to go into effect yesterday, according to an announcement from Egyptian mediators earlier this week. Under the terms of the ceasefire, which was scheduled to begin at 6 a.m. Thursday, Israel would stop its operations in Gaza and Hamas would halt its shelling of Israeli communities.

This is not the first ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, though, and it is unlikely to be the last. For the people of Sderot it may bring a short respite, but after living under fire for eight years, they have grown disillusioned with the government’s efforts to protect them.

Figures vary, but municipal officials estimate that between 25 percent and 50 percent of the 25,000 people who lived in the region have left. Those who remain do so for ideological reasons or because they are financially unable to leave.

Some residents, like Schreiber, told this newspaper of their resolve and their idealistic vision of themselves as Israel’s front line. If they left, they said, the rockets would move to Ashkelon, and from there, to Tel Aviv.

But as strong as their determination and feelings of duty are, they also feel that their country has forgotten them. The government, they say, does nothing to permanently stop the rockets because it does not want to risk mass casualties among the young soldiers with a ground operation in Gaza.

The government and what it is – or isn’t – doing is a contentious point for the people of the region. Some – especially younger people who have recently finished their studies – want to stay but cannot because there are few economic opportunities for them here. The government has created tax cuts, but that has not made it easier for young entrepreneurs looking to start new businesses.

The United Jewish Communities and its partners in Israel, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Joint Distribution Committee, say that they are doing what they can to better the lives of the people of the Western Negev. More than $26 million dollars has been allocated through UJC’s Israel Emergency Campaign to create therapy programs, provide economic aid, and reinforce buildings. Still, when that seemingly ever-present siren goes off, “everybody has emotional scars,” Schreiber said.

What about the children?

UJC’s Israel Emergency Campaign was originally created to aid Israelis in the North affected by the Second Lebanon War. With more than 4,000 rockets falling on Sderot since the Gaza disengagement, UJC shifted its focus to include Israel’s peripheral region.

According to studies, Israelis living near Gaza have shown signs of post-traumatic stress disorder; increased anxiety at school; increased violent tendencies; and declining confidence in their communities, particularly among youth.

At the Alon Madaiim elementary school in Sderot, the Joint Distribution Committee has created a program called “Havens of Calm” to help the almost 300 children in the school cope.

Children take time out from their studies each day to go to a room for different group therapy programs, including yoga and pet therapy. Beth Raise, who leads the pet therapy sessions, explained that by building a mouse city out of toilet paper rolls, the children feel like they are giving something to the animals. The maze of paper rolls, she said, represents safety.

“To protect others gives them a feeling of strength,” she said.

Eight-year-old Vicky Chernak hates the sound of the siren because “it is always there.” When the red alert sounds, she runs to a safe room in her home, afraid of what the siren means. Still, she has not known life outside of Sderot except on short visits and wants to stay in her home.

For fun, she’ll visit her grandmother or watch TV. She is not allowed to play outside.

Asked if she knows who is shooting the rockets at Sderot, she says, “They want our country. They are called Palestinians.”

Vitolda Nahshonov is a 15-year-old volunteer with JDC’s AMEN Youth Volunteer Program, which provides opportunities for Sderot’s teenagers to help their community.

“It’s not something new for us, we’ve grown up with it,” she said of the rockets. “It’s not the solution to leave Sderot.”

Hen Ohayom is another volunteer. But while she does what she can for the community now, she knows that she cannot stay. Almost two years ago, a kassam fell on her home early in the morning, waking Hen, her parents, and her brother. It was six months before the damage was repaired but the emotional scars remained, Hen said.

“I want to leave Sderot,” she said. “I don’t want my kids to grow up here with kassam rockets.”

Vitolda agreed that it is hard to imagine raising her own children here. “I want to stay but…. When I’m grown up with kids, I don’t want them to have this experience.”

Adam Hazan, a 24-year-old volunteer who runs one of the Havens of Calm programs in the school, said leaving Sderot isn’t the answer.

“We didn’t choose this situation, this situation chose us,” he said. “It’s the wrong solution to have people move from Sderot. We can’t run every time. We need to stop and think about how we can live in our country in quiet.”

Fadi Msamra lives “between two worlds.” As a Bedouin, he feels pity for the Palestinians living in Gaza. To him, they are his brethren, although he knows that they see him as an Israeli first and an Arab second. He is a first-year student at Sapir College in Sderot, studying social work and living with the almost daily rocket attacks from Gaza. In May, a kassam landed on the college’s campus, killing one student.

“After I came [to Sapir], I knew I wanted to live in Sderot,” Msamra said. “I wanted to live under the situation. I wanted to understand.”

His understanding of the situation is that it is the result of what he calls “a political game.” Before Hamas forced Fatah out of Gaza last year, Israel and the West had decided to back Fatah and provided it with weaponry that then fell into the hands of Hamas, while the people of Gaza are caught in the middle.

“Now they’re under another occupation – a dark regime,” he said.

Msamra sees the solution in regime change on both sides. The United States must extricate itself from the region and allow the Israelis and Palestinians to reach peace on their own, he said.

“The most painful thing for me is children,” he said. The rocket attacks “will be the only things they remember from their childhood. On the other side, children remember tanks and soldiers. In the future, children remember only war and hatred.”

It is important to steer the children in the right direction now so they can make better choices when they grow up, he said.

“This conflict creates a new generation,” he said. “It can be taken to peace or to war. It’s a matter of choice.”

The economic reality

Idealism alone isn’t enough to keep people living within range of the kassams. They need to be able to support themselves and their families, too. According to David Baker, a spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office, Israel has invested 1.8 billion shekels in the area since 2003 to provide economic incentives and tax breaks for the region. More than 1 billion shekels of that amount have gone toward fortifying homes, schools, and bus stations.

Despite the tax breaks, businesses ultimately rely on people. And if half the town has evacuated while the remaining half has stayed because it cannot afford to leave, then business is going to suffer.

Seeking to alleviate pressures on entrepreneurs, the Jewish Agency distributes about 200 business loans a year through eight separate funds. Some people, like Ofer and Sharon Katani, have taken advantage of these loans to start their new businesses.

The Katanis, who live on a moshav close to Gaza, received their loan of 200,000 shekels from the Ness Fund, which has $1,250,000 from the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey and the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. They decided to start a frozen spice business last year and needed the loan to buy equipment for their factory.

Ofer Katani worked in construction for 10 years until he was forced to leave the field last year because he could not find enough workers on account of the rockets. His wife was teaching English, but with one daughter in fifth grade, another about to turn 5, and a now-2-month-old son, they needed a new source of income.

Their herbs are all grown on the moshav by their neighbors, except the garlic, which they grow themselves. While the moshav is within range of Gaza’s rockets, their factory is in Netivot, about 40 minutes away. The Ness loan paid for a machine that fills the plastic cartridges. It can fill each of 20 cubes in 14 trays in one minute, which has allowed the Katanis to begin selling their product across Israel and to start to break into the international market.

Many businesses around Sderot have shuttered, but the Katanis don’t see closing as a way of escaping the situation.

“You cannot close your business in one day and just leave,” Sharon Katani said. “To give up and leave the area is not the solution. Two years ago it was in the North with Lebanon and now in the South.”

For 27-year-old Tomer Ronen, the economy, not the rockets, is forcing him to leave.

“All the people that are able are leaving,” he said. “My friends don’t see a future. I don’t want to [leave] but I don’t have any other options. Life is too beautiful to waste.”

In two months Ronen will finish his degree in technology marketing at Sapir College. After that, he plans to leave the area to start a new business. He had been trying to start a new Internet café/lounge with some friends two months ago when a kassam hit the house next to his parents’ home.

He had been in a business meeting at the time but his mother, Rochel, was home when the impact next door shattered the windows of their home.

“We are only 50,000 people. We don’t affect elections or economics. The government doesn’t want to know the situation, doesn’t want to face the situation, because it might affect Israeli economics. That’s the feeling we get. We and the Palestinian people are victims of economics.”

Ronen sees only two solutions: war and the total destruction of the enemy, or diplomacy.

“For the government, it’s easier not to choose,” he said. “Limbo is comfortable for all sides except the citizens.”

Ronen, who is a lieutenant in the army reserves, said he would fight if called up. But he and the friends with whom he served no longer have the same idealism about the army that they once did.

“We all served in combat units, all had to fight Arabs,” he said. “We were willing to give our lives…. Now in this situation the IDF doesn’t defend our houses. We lost our faith in the army.”

The decision to leave is not one Ronen made lightly.

“I love this place. I was born here. To leave this place, home, it’s a huge dilemma for me,” he said. “It’s not a good place to live, to raise a family. We wake up in the morning to the sounds of the alert. We don’t see any solution by our leaders.

The government response

News of the ceasefire broke on Tuesday, just a few hours after a spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office told this paper that Israel would be unwavering in seeking an end to rocket fire.

“The government of Israel stresses that these attacks cannot – and will not – continue,” said David Baker. “The IDF is taking robust measures to halt these rocket attacks and the government stands fully behind its armed forces towards this endeavor.”

Addressing a group of journalists in Ashkelon earlier this month, Brig. Gen. Res. Shalom Harari said that the “calming” that Hamas is asking for is more vague and flexible than a real ceasefire. Nor do the Egyptian proposals include an end to Hamas’ smuggling across the Philadelphi Corridor on the Egypt/Gaza border or resolution of the Gilad Shalit hostage situation.

Israel knows that Hamas is building up its forces in Gaza, particularly with snipers and explosives, in preparation for an Israeli invasion, Harari said. The government is carefully weighing the cost in lives of a possible invasion of Gaza versus the casualties Sderot is suffering from the rockets, he said.

Because of the relatively low number of casualties caused by the rockets, Israel needs a “casus belli” on the scale of 2001’s Passover bombing to justify an invasion of Gaza, Harari said. When the country launched Operation Defensive Shield in 2001, it was in response to the bombing of a seder at the Park Hotel in Netanya that killed 40 people. Because of that operation, the general said, the west bank became a success story in the war on terror.

“We need this,” he said. “Today the world doesn’t understand pre-emptive activity.”

For now, he said, Israel is employing a “policy of containment” with the blockade of Gaza, which is reportedly going to be eased as a condition of the ceasefire.

Responding to allegations from Sderot that the government feels it can continue to absorb the rockets, Baker said the IDF is “taking continuous measures to prevent rocket fire on Israeli towns in the western Negev. These measures include wide-ranging security-related measures and diplomatic efforts to bring about a cessation of these attacks.”

Addressing the necessity of a mega-attack before the IDF can carry out a broad operation, Baker said that even the small number of casualties in Sderot is reason enough to warrant IDF action.

“Israel will not tolerate any attack – any number of attacks,” he said. “Israel is working for a total cessation of attacks. No number whatsoever is tolerable.”

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