Israeli Life: Putting Up a Good Front
Sderot has been hit by 6,000 Qassam rockets since 2000, but many residents are staying, refusing to be chased from their homes.
In January 2005, 17-year-old Ella Abukassis was walking home from a Bnei Akiva youth movement meeting with her 9-year-old brother, Tamir, in the town of Sderot, about a mile and a half from Gaza.
Suddenly, they heard a siren and then the signal warning of an oncoming Qassam rocket attack—the recorded voice of a woman repeating “Color Red, Color Red,” which meant they had 15 seconds to find cover. Ella pulled her brother to the ground and covered him with her body. The Qassam exploded next to them. Tamir received shrapnel wounds; Ella was killed.
The Abukassis family stayed in Sderot after Ella’s death. They did not even take a temporary reprieve in May 2007 when, after a six- month cease-fire, over a dozen Qassams fell almost every day and most residents fled.
“We are not leaving,” commented Yonatan Abukassis, Ella’s father, in an article on the Committee for a Secure Sderot Web site. “We must confront the reality. It is the government’s responsibility to take care of the Qassams. We must continue to live our lives.”
Sderot, the development town of 20,000 in the western Negev, has become associated with Qassams—primitive, nonguided artillery rockets that Palestinians from Gaza have showered on surrounding areas.
For israelis, the rocket has also come to symbolize the issue of national survival. “How long can people be expected to bear the barrage of rockets?” asks Adi Venkert, a film student at local Sapir College. “On the other hand, can we let the Qassams chase us from Sderot?”
“When the Palestinians began shelling…we thought it was a trivial matter,” says Shira Shechter, a social worker for at-risk youth. “As long as they landed in open fields and no one was hurt, I laughed at the pathetic show of Palestinian force in comparison to Israel’s modern Army.”
But the rockets—most fall in the morning when children go to school—have steadily increased in quality and quantity. Six thousand have fallen since 2000; 10 people have died and 3,600 have been treated for trauma. “Initially, when no one was killed, people felt they were living a miracle,” says Sylvia Zaeton, a psychologist who works in Sderot. “They felt somehow protected. But there was a sharp change of attitude in 2003 when two people were killed: a grandfather and his granddaughter [on the way] to nursery school.”
“When I’m outside, I’m always looking for a place to run if the Color Red warning is heard,” says Shechter. “I’m always making calculations about which [protected] area is closer than another.”
“The psychological effect is disastrous,” says Zaeton. “Even when the Qassams are on the other side of Sderot, the piercing sirens are nerve-racking. People don’t sleep for fear that they won’t hear the siren.”
The Israel Center for Treatment of Psychotrauma, which provides clinical crisis and grief services, discovered that 30 percent of the 2- to 3-year-olds screened in Sderot daycare centers suffer serious trauma. “They have regressed in language development,” says Donny Brom, director of the center. “Many have gone back to bedwetting.”
“Parents face constant dilemmas,” says Gali Basodi, who works for the New Israel Fund. She cuddles her 2-month-old son while her older son and daughter, both elementary school age, quietly eat lunch. “I have to weigh every move, for at any moment a Qassam can fall. I can’t just put the baby down when I go to the bathroom. I must make sure he’s in a crib that’s not near a window.
“Yet we allow the children to ride their bikes and go to the pool,” she adds. “They just must know what to do if there’s a Color Red alert…. My daughter was down the block. The alert went off…. She used her head and went to the house nearest her.”
The people of sderot have never had it easy. Jews from Kurdistan, Persia and Morocco settled there in 1951 as part of the program to populate Israel’s periphery. In the 1990s, Russian immigrants moved in, followed by Ethiopians, which doubled the population to 24,000. But 4,000 people have left in the last year because of the rockets.
“Before the Qassams it was a wonderful place to live,” says Shechter. “The people are warm and welcoming. There’s a rich mixture of traditions… The Qassams, however, have sharpened problems. The youth feel abandoned, see no future in Sderot.” Like many development towns, Sderot has high unemployment and high school dropout rates. And Zaeton perceives increasing anger toward both local and national government. Residents believe government money is not going to reinforcing roofs and building shelters.
“Everyone feels the local government is corrupt,” says Yoni Hen, a taxi driver.
After his daughter’s death, officials visited Abukassis and promised that the Army would do something about the Qassams. But, two years later, Abukassis has witnessed the death and maiming of friends because of continuing rocket attacks. “Qassams are still falling,” he says, sitting in a shelter with his family during one attack. “Nothing has changed. The government has not kept its promise to Ella.”
But Ella’s spirit is being kept alive. The Abukassis family and the Sderot municipality have built an educational center for Bnei Akiva in her memory; a large picture of Ella is displayed in the building.
Support from outside the town is helping ease some of the hardship. On Fridays, Israelis from throughout the country come in busloads to buy groceries in Sderot to help the storeowners. And the response of Jews from all over the world has been overwhelming. A Hadassah mission visited in January to express solidarity, and the organization has donated money to the town. “In particular,” says Yossi Cohen, Sderot spokesman, “[Hadassah] funded psychological aid for residents in trauma.” Groups have also come to the Mercaz Ha-Hesed (Charity Center) to pack food boxes for the needy. The first thing they are told is to take cover at a western wall of a building if there is a Color Red alert. And yet they continue to come.
“Many residents who had been financially on the edge were thrown under the poverty line by the Qassams,” says Shechter. “The center had a soup kitchen serving 200 hot meals weekly, but it had to be closed because of the security situation. Now they send out 500 food packages to homes weekly.”
During the shelling in May, residents were invited to kibbutzim, and Russian millionaire and philanthropist Arkady Gaydamak sponsored vacations in Eilat for hundreds. The Jewish Agency and the Ministry of Defense also relocated families for a reprieve.
The United Jewish Communities Emergency Fund and other Israeli philanthropists have also provided half-scholarships to many Sapir College students to encourage them to stay at the school.
Perhaps the most impressive work is that of Lev Echad (One Heart), a crisis-aid organization mostly composed of teenagers and young adults. Lev Echad was founded by 26-year-old Elya Tzur as a response to the Gaza Disengagement. It helped people in the north last year during the Second Lebanon War, bringing food, drugs and toys to shelters and assisting the elderly left in their homes. This year it turned its attention to Sderot.
“One hundred and fifty of us came in May,” says Tzur. “We saw that the most important thing was to raise morale…. We marched through the city… singing and dancing, trying to dissipate fear. Young people acted as babysitters so people could go to work. They [helped] old people whose aides had disappeared. We also enlisted… social workers and economists to work with local administration, who didn’t have enough people to meet emergency needs.
“Now,” she says, “we’re trying to encourage people not only to come and buy groceries, but…to use Sderot technicians and mechanics, order from their carpenters and craftsmen. We believe in the Jewish people and believe we must show solidarity.” The Israel Defense Forces Home Front Command, responsible for the civilian population of the country in case of war, was put in temporary charge of Sderot in May.
“We tried to bring a sense of security,” says Lt. Col. Ofer Ben Shushan. “Our soldiers went door to door. They reached 95 percent of households, sat with people, explained where they should go in…an alert. They listened to problems and brought them to the attention of municipal agencies.”
Yet there is little Home Front can do. “There are over 1,000 families that have no secure rooms or secure areas they can reach within 15 seconds,” says Ben Shushan.
The most emotional issue is fortifying the schools. Home Front suggested a temporary solution—half of each school building must be protected against Qassams and children in unprotected classrooms be within 15 seconds of a protected area. But the Sderot Parents Association brought the issue to the High Court of Justice (equivalent to the United States Supreme Court). In May, it ruled that all elementary and nursery schools must be entirely protected. By early September, however, the government had still not transferred funds for fortifying the buildings.
Having half a school fortified is insufficient, according to Aryeh Maimon, director of the AMIT network of religious schools. In a class of 30, for example, it is hard to assure that each child will get to safety in 15 seconds.
At the same time, he acknowledges, it is not practical to fortify the other half. The cost would be prohibitive, and the Palestinians are constantly sending stronger Qassams, making current safe areas outdated.
There has been pressure to build fortified schools, which is less expensive than patching up existing ones. The government recently announced it will build 16 completely fortified schools in Sderot and the towns that wrap around Gaza by next year.
The Parents Association has welcomed the decision. “But what are the children going to do in the meantime?” asks Maimon. “There are not enough schools in nearby towns to absorb [our] 5,000 schoolchildren. And is it safe to have them on the roads in [scores] of school buses?”
In a late August meeting with Minister of Education Yuli Tamir, the Parents Association agreed on the conditions for starting the school year: Fifty street shelters were to be set up near bus stops, and the number of buses increased so no child has to stay at a stop for a protracted period of time.
The association also insisted that construction on six fully reinforced schools begin immediately, and that those who wish to study outside Sderot be allowed to do so on an individual basis.
Sapir College, on the edge of town, has also been hit and has moved many classes to other towns. “Fifty percent of the buildings are not sufficiently secure,” according to college spokesman Simon Tamir.
“We give [$2.3 million] in scholarships for students to work in social services in Sderot, and 2,000 students rent apartments there,” says Alon Gayer, dean of Sapir, explaining that his students share the town’s fate.
“We can’t abandon Sderot,” says Tamir. “It would hurt the city economically. Even more so, it is important to continue one’s routine in times of emergency…. Students must do their course work, and staff must live up to its responsibilities.”
Many feel the Gaza Disengagement was a mistake and the area should be reconquered. “But we can’t put the whole Israeli Army into Gaza,” says one Army official off the record. “We have other fronts to worry about.”
Ron Ben Yishai, military correspondent for the daily Yedioth Ahronoth, believes the best option for the IDF is to continue limited incursions into Gaza. “But most important,” he adds, “all homes and public buildings must be fortified with prefabricated cement [and] plastic sheeting designed to absorb explosions.”
For Ben Yishai, this serves a military as well as civilian purpose. “An exodus will only create an incentive for Hamas and Islamic Jihad to shell other towns,” he says.
There are signs that the central government is becoming sensitive to the town’s needs. The Knesset recently passed a law recognizing 43 towns near Gaza as frontline areas deserving special discounts in income and property taxes, aid to small businesses and subsidies for child care.
Perhaps the most hopeful note was made by Yoni Hen, who was married six months ago. “I’ve bought a home here, and plan to live here,” he says. “It has a secure room, but hopefully, we won’t have to use it.”