The residents of Sderot, who settled in the southern Israeli town over half a century ago, today refer to themselves as “hostages” of a government refusing to keep its pre-Disengagement promises.
Sderot is within Israel’s pre-1967 borders, just outside northern Gaza. For the past six years it has borne the brunt of rocket attacks from the Palestinian Authority-controlled town of Beit Hanoun, across the Gaza border.
Though most residents opposed the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, they all took comfort in the declarations by Israel’s defense and political establishment that any post-Disengagement rockets would be met with a harsh response.
Last Wednesday, on a day of mourning and missiles, residents said they fear for the future of a country that fears civilian casualties in Beit Hanoun more than it does in Sderot.
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Just Another Day
It was a foggy morning in Sderot. The early-warning system sounded, as it does most days, during the time when children are setting off to school and residents are traveling to work.
The system sounded. "Tzeva adom. Tzeva adom. Tzeva adom…"
When first installed, the system sounded the Hebrew words shahar adom, meaning “red dawn,” but parents complained that their children named Shahar were feeling stigmatized at being associated with the dreaded rockets. Now the system broadcasts tzeva adom, meaning “color red.”
The system usually provides the men, women and children of the city with 15 seconds to stop what they are doing and scramble for cover. Shopping carts are left in supermarket aisles, phone conversations interrupted, childrens’ baths abruptly stopped, and prayers are recited alongside the sudden tears of children and adults like.
Bystanders said the alarm only offered about four seconds’ warning Wednesday morning, when the rocket fell straight from the sky. Unlike the arc trajectory of the Katyusha missiles fired at northern Israel this summer, Kassam rockets fall straight down once their fuel propulsion is used up. Northern residents were able to hide from the rockets, behind walls facing Lebanon. For the residents of Sderot, there is nowhere to hide.
Fatima Slutzky, a 57-year-old Muslim woman who immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return with her Jewish husband, was struck by the rocket as she walked toward her job in the city center. She was mutilated by the impact and dead upon arrival at the hospital.
Security guard Maor Peretz, assigned to patrol the neighborhood around Defense Minister Amir Peretz’s home, was lacerated and burned by the explosion and shrapnel. Maor had both his legs amputated, just months ahead of his wedding.
A similar explosion the next day injured a 17-year old boy walking to school.
The rockets are still termed Kassams by the Israeli and global media, though the range, amount of explosive material and shrapnel in the missiles has increased steadily over the past six years, since the first rocket struck the western Negev town. Police District Commander Maj.-Gen. Uri Bar-Lev, a commander of the implementation of the Gaza withdrawal, confirmed to reporters recently that the rockets are indeed steadily improving. But any resident of Sderot can tell you that.
“The explosions keep getting louder and now they put shrapnel and ball bearings into the rockets,” says 16-year-old Almog. He says he runs and hides whenever he hears the alert, but has friends who run to the point of impact each time to survey the damage and help people who may have been wounded.
A BBC reporter stands by the unimpressive crater caused by the lethal explosive projectile. “It was here that the home-made rocket struck an Israeli woman,” he says into the camera.
Down the block, morose security guards patrol the home of Sderot’s most famous resident, former Histadrut union chief and current Defense Minister Amir Peretz.
“Why do you reporters only come to Sderot on days when someone dies!” yells C., one of Peretz’s neighbors, to the reporters milling around. “Come live here, so you can tell the rest of the country what we are living through. You did it in the north last summer.”
C., who declined to offer her real name, was quite upset. “Nobody cares about us anymore,” she says. “People in Tel Aviv assume we must have done something to deserve this.”
Cycle of Violence?
The rockets have been striking Sderot with various degrees of regularity for six years. Prior to the Disengagement, residents were told they were being fired upon due to the "occupation of Gaza." Since the Disengagement, every time one Gaza terror faction wants to complicate another faction’s negotiations with Israel, each time a senior terrorist is eliminated, and most of the time for no reason at all, explosive-laden rockets are fired at Sderot and the agricultural communities surrounding Palestinian Authority-controlled Gaza.
Terror groups always fax various lists of grievances to news agencies, which always publish them. Wednesday’s attack, it was claimed, was “revenge” for the IDF’s accidental firing of a mortar shell at a home in Beit Hanoun days earlier, killing 19 people. The shelling, of course, was in response to the firing of missiles at Ashkelon, Israel’s 13th-largest city, a day earlier.
The BBC reporter recites the words “cycle of violence” for the camera - once, twice, three times. After an interview with a Sderot resident calling for the retaking of Gaza, the reporter points out, “The IDF has indeed been engaged in military action in Gaza for four months and it hasn’t stopped anything.”
C.’s husband mutters, “Gaza must be erased, from Erez to Rafiah – translate that for him.”
“Come on,” says his wife, who has lived in Sderot for 52 years. “My husband is just talking. Everyone likes to talk like that, but we are a country that apologized for hitting the home in Beit Hanoun last week. It seems the military route simply is not an option. We are living under attack, so if negotiations are what this government believes will bring an end to the rockets, then what are they waiting for?”
Y., Peretz’s across-the-street neighbor, is also nervous about having his real name in the press. “Every rocket that falls here is courtesy of Ariel Sharon,” he says. “The fact that he fell sick right after that cursed Disengagement is no coincidence. Now we are left with the Kassams for not opposing it strongly enough.”
Vice-Premier Shimon Peres is the object of particular scorn on the rocket-pocked streets of Sderot. Residents cite his derisive attitude toward the threat they face as proof of the government’s complete abandonment. Last summer’s “Kassams shmassams” statement by Peres has earned him the status of both persona non grata and the most invited dignitary to take up resident in Sderot – “I’d like to see him live here for more than one day,” the owner of a popular falafel joint taunts.
"[We] have to stop being hysterical about the Kassams," Peres told reporters in a June briefing at the Knesset. "We are all fanning the hysteria. What's the big deal? Kiryat Shmonah was shelled for years. What, there were no rockets in Kiryat Shmonah? We have to tell the Palestinians that Kassams, Shmassams, we're staying."
A Kassam rocket fell in Y.’s garden a year ago. “I would leave in a second if I had the money,” he says. “Shimon Peres doesn’t live here. He wouldn’t even visit here without standing near a bomb shelter so he could run underground the second the warning sounds.”
Responding to the growing calls to re-engage Gaza Wednesday, Peres was all over the media dismissing the idea. "We can occupy Gaza, but that would be a cardinal mistake,” he told Army Radio. “Sinking into the Gazan mud will not guarantee an end to the missiles fired at Israeli communities, and then the IDF will serve as a convenient target for hurting soldiers.”
It is for that reason that Land of Israel activists have been drawing up plans to return to Gush Katif and rebuild their former communities. One of the speakers at a meeting of extra-parliamentary activist groups earlier this month urged activists to realize how critical the return to Gaza is. “This is not just a matter of fixing the injustice that was done to the residents of Gaza, but about restoring Israel’s ability to defend itself – to undo the injustice done to the residents of Sderot and Ashkelon as well,” said Boaz HaEtzni.
Military officials confide quietly that without the resettling of Gaza, the IDF’s presence in the area will only be accepted by the Israeli public for as long as it takes to bring a halt to the rocket fire. “Once the rockets cease, the comparisons to Lebanon and Iraq begin - the public forgets what life was like before we returned. Distracted by IDF casualties they will once again ask if it worth the price,” explained an active IDF officer formerly stationed in Gaza.
“The most destructive aspect of the military doctrine that allowed Disengagement," he said, "was the dismissal of the critical nature Jewish settlement plays in making our presence in Judea, Samaria and Gaza an expression of sovereignty in our homeland rather than a temporary military occupation.”
‘Why Don’t We Take to the Streets?’
David Cohen was born in Sderot. He has three children and runs Mamtakei Shir, a convenience store named for his daughter in the center of town.
“The Hareidim [Hareidi-religious Jews], in the name of the sanctity of their city, were willing to set the streets ablaze in order to prevent that parade,” Cohen laments. “But we here, for the very lives of our children, aren’t prepared to lift a finger.”
Asked why he and the group of like-minded individuals having lunch at the falafel stand next to his store don’t take the initiative, Cohen said: “The problem is that there is no leadership and no camaraderie in Sderot. There are no leaders in Israel.”
“We have been turned into front-line settlers against our will. We are the hostages of the state,” he said. “The head of the Shabak (General Security Service) told the Knesset that there is a functional plan to stop the rockets. It is mind-boggling to know that your government is just letting you remain sitting ducks because America dictates that now is not the time to put the plan into effect. They knocked down two towers in America and George Bush erased an entire country – an entire country. And we sit here and shoot at open fields, apologizing when we accidentally hit a house next to the launch-site."
“There are those who say, ‘If we reoccupy Gaza, soldiers will be killed.’ So let soldiers be killed - better them than children. That is what an army is for. That is what war is. Is it better that children be killed? I have three children. One day they will go to the army and risk their lives to defend the Jews of Tel Aviv. But now they go to school in Sderot. We live here. Where are we supposed to go? We are sitting ducks.”
At this point a local customer asks Cohen to extend his credit at the store so he can purchase two cartons of cigarettes on his tab. An argument ensues and Cohen relents. So does the customer, who settles for one carton.
Cohen returns, explaining that the rockets have soured what was once a very simple, but good life, in Sderot. “Life has ceased here. People are powerless. They take out their aggression on each other.”
Cohen has to leave his store in the middle of the day to pick his daughter up after kindergarten. “There are many people here who simply don’t leave their house. I do my best so my wife doesn’t have to leave home. I pick up the groceries, I leave my store to pick up and drop off the kids at school. It’s insane. If the government really has no intention of defending us, then let them give us compensation. Buy my store, buy my house, move us to Ashkelon – but why hold my kids hostage?”
The root of the problem, Cohen explained, is that nobody feels the pain of their fellow Jews anymore:
“The media, which is run by the government, taught us to ignore the plight of the Gaza settlers, first when they absorbed thousands of rockets and then when we expelled them without so much as a thank-you. Now we are the new settlers – without even choosing to be.
“We are being pummeled with rockets and the prime minister is sipping cocktails in Los Angeles with half the government. Channel One came here, asked us what we thought. We told them what needed to be done and that night we turned on the TV and saw the one bleeding-heart quoted and the rest of us cut out. The state runs the media and there is no real democracy.
“We were fooled. They told us Disengagement would bring security, but it was all for money – they knew full well it would be on our backs. We must turn the country upside down – burn it in flames, do even half of what the Hareidim did in Jerusalem. We need to do it, because if Sderot falls, it is all over. I hope it is not too late.”
(Photos: Josh Shamsi, Arutz-7 Photojournalist)