I don't make a habit of putting myself in harm's way. I buckle up, I don't smoke, I've started on Lipitor and wherever there's a town that's being pounded by randomly fired rockets and mortars each day, I stay away.
Stav Amar (standing) and friends at Sderot Elementary School. Photo by Jonathan Levine
But I couldn't stay away from Sderot.
We've been running stories about this town in southern Israel for many years. In March 2001, Hamas terrorists in Gaza launched their first crude, deadly, homemade rocket, called a Qassam, into Israel. It landed on a cowshed on Kibbutz Nahal Oz, between the Gaza border and Sderot.
Since then, some 7,000 rockets and mortars have struck the region. They have killed 16 people and wounded hundreds more. Some days no rockets fall, others several dozens rain from the skies. A siren, which Israelis call a "red alert," precedes each attack. That gives residents 15 to 30 seconds to run for shelter.
The attacks have abolished normal life for the 20,000 residents of Sderot and the thousands who live nearby. About one-third to one-half of the population has moved out of Qassam range. The people who remain are tethered to their homes, either because they can't afford to leave, or because they, or their parents, refuse to give in.
I wanted to see for myself what life is like there, in a battle zone that is both active and actively overlooked -- even within its own country.
United Jewish Communities (UJC), which funds programs to help alleviate some of the problems residents face in Sderot, offered to fly me over with a bunch of other journalists to take a look. I swallowed and said sure. I told my family I would wear my tennis shoes and sprint for the bomb shelter, no matter whom I had to push aside to get there first. I was kind of joking, of course. But I did pack my Lipitor.
Those who stay in Sderot feel one of three ways, or sometimes all three: They are proud of their decision, they feel bitter about being stuck or they feel abandoned by fellow Israelis and other Jews around the world.
What they don't feel, not for a second, is safe.
"We want peace," Stav Amar, 12, a sixth-grader at Sderot Elementary School, told me. "We want peace, and the rockets won't stop. They just send more and more."
Four and a half months ago, a Qassam crashed into Stav's home. He heard a noise, then he didn't hear a thing for seven hours -- he'd gone deaf temporarily. He was explaining in Hebrew what was so scary about the Qassams when he used a word I didn't know. By way of definition, his friend reached into his pocket and pulled out every boy's favorite plaything -- a bright blue marble. The crudely made Qassam payloads are packed with marbles like these, which tear through flesh on impact.
"There isn't a person who isn't scared of Qassams," Stav said. "But I want to stay. It's my home."
I met Lior Shiman at the local community center. Shiman was driving his cab three months ago when a red alert sounded. He had 30 seconds to decide whether to leave his car for shelter or stay put. He made a run for a nearby apartment building -- "There," he pointed, across the street from where we were sitting. "Right there."
The Qassam exploded, hurling a piece of shrapnel 150 feet into his right eye.
Shiman, permanently blinded in one eye, had his taxi driver's permit revoked. The 33-year-old father of two -- his youngest was born while he was in emergency surgery -- is now unemployed. The house he paid $500,000 for is now worth, maybe, $200,000. He can't afford to move.
Next to Shiman sat his friend David Peres. Peres' 2-year-old son broke his leg racing for a shelter when a red alert sounded while he was at day care. Now the boy screams uncontrollably at the sound of any siren, and he refuses to go to school.
"He wakes up screaming, 'Red alert! Red alert!!'" Peres said. "The truth is, you never know any second where it will hit you."
Peres, like many people I spoke with, said he could leave, but he chooses not to.
"I can go to a safer place," he said, "but I don't think that's the solution. We have one country."
In Sderot, I was struck by how residents refused to unload their wrath on the Palestinians who bombard them.
Tal Lapidot, from nearby Kibbutz Mefarsim, is a striking, composed 16 1⁄2-year-old whose parents, immigrants from Eastern Europe, moved to the area two years ago. Last month, her good friend's father was killed by a mortar as he worked in his garden. He was 47.
I asked her, as I asked everyone I spoke with, who she believes is to blame for her predicament.
"I wake up and see the buildings of Gaza City," she said. "It's a beautiful view, astounding. I don't hate them. I hear about the people who live there, and I don't have a reason to hate them."
Lapidot will spend part of her summer at a camp in Maine that brings Palestinians and Israelis together.
"What I want is to get people to know how we feel," she said.
"I believe there are a lot of them like us," Shiman said, blinded in one eye. "They suffer, too, they have a lot of suffering."
It's astonishing, really. The people who wrote "An eye for an eye," couldn't seem to work up the bloodlust for the people on the other side of the fence.
"They're miserable," an engineering student at Sapir College, site of numerous attacks, told me. "And they know if they stop firing, we'll just ignore their misery."
When President Shimon Peres visited Sderot Elementary School, he asked for questions from the students. "How can you solve the problem," one of Stav's classmates asked the president, "without hurting kids on the other side?"
No, it became clear the residents of Sderot reserve their anger for their government, and for their fellow citizens.
"We're playing Russian Roulette," Dov Cohen told me, "and the people don't seem to understand."
American Jewry has responded -- belatedly, but even so -- by funding a variety of disaster relief and social intervention programs through the UJC, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Moreover, it's not uncommon to see busloads of American Christian and Jewish tourists in Sderot, commiserating with residents, pumping up the beaten-down economy and driving through the now-deserted streets to arrive at the police station to see racks upon racks of salvaged Qassams, hard evidence of battle.
What Dov is referring to are his fellow Israeli Jews.
"We feel alone when we speak about the rest of the country," he said.
Tel Aviv buzzes with a kind of fin de siècle abandon that all but turns its back on what Israelis call "the periphery." Never mind that Sderot is just an hour south by car.
"People there have no idea," Lapidot said. "That city is a different world."
"It's a bubble," said Niva Bencias, 24, a humanities student at Sapir. I point out to her that just that week Israel's top intelligence officer warned that Hamas missiles, which now reach Ashkelon, will soon reach Ashdod, less than a half hour's drive from the packed discos, bars and beaches of Tel Aviv. "The first missile that falls on Tel Aviv," she said, "then no one will stay so quiet."
So what do they want?
On the one hand, the residents understand that IDF soldiers launch regular missions against infiltrators and rocket launchers -- they know many soldiers have been killed.
Signs of Israel's military readiness are everywhere near Gaza -- the military base at Nahal Oz, with its rows of dust-caked tanks and rooms of advanced surveillance equipment, the high-tech spy blimps floating like hard white clouds above the border.
I spent one night at Kibbutz Nahal Oz, less than a kilometer from the border, and my hosts Dov and Ofra Cohen didn't flinch at the sound of IDF gunfire or the way the ground shook when a single rocket landed somewhere in the distance. "Oh, that was one," Dov said as he sipped his morning coffee.
(That was my closest call -- the luck of the draw. A mortar killed a man at the next kibbutz over the day after I left.)
But the Cohens and others believe the occasional engagement isn't enough. "I hope the government decides to go in there and make order, permanent order," Peres said. "For eight years we've had the Qassams. We have to move them back, distance them from us. No state in the world would allow themselves and their children to suffer like this."
"The thing is, we are raising children who will grow up and themselves become leaders, become our country," Shiman added. "We can't let them grow up in fear."
The government has to calculate how many soldiers it would lose in a Gaza invasion, how long it would have to reoccupy the Strip and whether, even then, the quiet would be permanent. Hamas has had time to mine the roads in Gaza City, one general told our group, so that Israeli tanks would blow "10 feet in the air" crossing an intersection.
Meanwhile, Israel's current leadership verges on collapse, and negotiations among the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and the Israelis sputter along, with nary an optimist in sight.
But accepting the alternative -- the status quo -- is clearly untenable, unconscionable.
The people of Sderot would prefer peace and quiet.
But if they can't have that, then they want war and quiet.