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August 23, 2007

Shabbat in Sderot beneath a canopy of Qassams

http://www.jewishjournal.com/world/article/shabbat_in_sderot_beneath_a_canopy_of_qassams_20070824

Marcell Bar-On and her son, Gabi, live on Kibbutz Nir-Am, between the Gaza Strip and Sderot.Photos by Jonathan Levine, courtesy United Jewish Communities

Marcell Bar-On and her son, Gabi, live on Kibbutz Nir-Am, between the Gaza Strip and Sderot.Photos by Jonathan Levine, courtesy United Jewish Communities

Moments before we met, Mayan Bar-On bolted for the center of her family's home on Kibbutz Nir-Am along the Gaza border.

Away from the windows, away from the doors, in a hallway underneath a red-tile roof that couldn't withstand a Qassam strike, she and her 9-year-old brother, Gabi, huddled and waited for the boom.

Now, though, the 12-year-old girl is partaking in a more peaceful ritual. She lights the Shabbat candles and prays

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam. Asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu l'hadlik ner shel Shabbat.
"Shabbat Shalom," her father, Uzi, says.

Everyone shares the sentiment and begins to pass the dinner plates, knowing that at any moment, with only a few seconds warning from a public intercom, they may have to drop everything and again -- again and again -- take cover.

Six seconds: That's all the time residents of Kibbutz Nir-Am have to react. Six seconds: Less time than it took to read this paragraph ... Boom! And after they hear the boom, they know it's safe to return to life, at least for now.

This is fast becoming tradition on the frontier of Israeli society. Between the rocket-launching Gaza fields of Beit Hanoun and the primary target town of Sderot, Nir-Am has been constantly under fire for the past six years. More than 6,000 Qassam rockets have been launched at Israeli cities and villages since September 2001, and hundreds have landed in this community of about 350.

It's difficult to imagine the effect of this terror on daily life. It's even more challenging to comprehend why a sensible person would stay here. But for the Bar-Ons and thousands of other families, living under a canopy of Qassams is simply their life station.

"You never get used to it, but you learn to live with it, you learn to compensate, you learn to do things: Teach the children what to do when this happens, keep them as close as possible to some kind of shelter that they can run to. But it's a nightmare," says Marcell Bar-On, Mayan's mother. "You are really torn between trying to keep your children safe and getting them out of a situation which is terrible and being in a place where your home is and where your heart is and where everything is."

It takes about an hour and a quarter to drive the 90 kilometers from Jerusalem to Sderot. It's a relatively short journey, but the two communities' realities are worlds apart.

In Jerusalem, the economy is booming and the population is soaring. In Sderot, 370 of 450 small businesses have closed shop during the past 18 months, and even some of the most stalwart residents have lost faith; those who could leave, for the most part have.

In Jerusalem the last terrorist attack was in early 2004. In the Sderot region, it likely was within the past few minutes.

Even the northern border with Lebanon, the site of last summer's war with Hezbollah, appears way ahead of its southern sibling in the return to terror-free normalcy. Travel to Metula, west of the Golan Heights and within sniper distance of Klea, and you see comfortable suburban homes and picturesque farmlands.

"You can see the parched hillsides. That is the most lasting reminder of what was here last summer," Jacob Dallal, spokesman for the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), told a group of American Jewish journalists brought to the region this month to see how donations to the United Jewish Communities (UJC), through local federations, have helped rebuild the region through small-business loans, counseling centers and after-school programs.

But to the south, the region of the western Negev that includes Sderot and surrounding kibbutzim and moshavim, where $6.5 million in donations from the UJC's Israel Emergency Campaign have been similarly allotted, the bombardment continues.

And that is the big difference between recovery in the north and the south. Cities like Nahariya and Haifa and Kiryat Shmona were given a reprieve from military conflict after last summer's month of intense attacks. The war ended, even if no one believes it's over for good, or even for long.

Around Sderot, by contrast, the threat continues to crest, with no break in site. ::::::::::::::::::::::::::

As an agent of death, Qassam rockets are a bad selection. Since 2001, those fired from Gaza have killed 11 people. That's only about one death per 550 rockets. But as a tool of terror, the homemade missles, packed with 1 to 5 kilograms of gunpowder and with a range of 10 to 12 kilometers, are very effective.

The emotional toll piles up when children are forced to think about where they can hide from incoming rocket fire each time they go outside; just waiting for the bus seems like a game of Russian roulette; and going to work means spending eight hours wondering if that morning was the last time you will have seen your kids.

The Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma found that about 11 percent of adults and 16 percent of toddlers in Sderot have full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder. Another study reported that as many as 33 percent of children between ages 2 and 6 show symptoms of PTSD.

It should be no surprise then that one of the most popular places in town is the city's trauma center, an unreinforced one-story building with a handful of beds and blast walls protecting the front door. Here the distressed come to calm down after a Qassam has rattled the house next door or shaken the ground under their feet or simply frayed their nerves to a frenzy.

"Once you have experienced a rocket landing nearby, you are absolutely sure that when the next siren goes off, that rocket is headed directly for you, even if it is aimed a few kilometers away," said Noam Bedein, a 25-year-old college student who lives in Sderot and is director of the Sderot Information Center of the Western Negev, which has heightened awareness on its Web site, www.sderotmedia.com.

More than 2,000 trauma cases were opened just in the past 12 months. Some patients stay at the trauma center only long enough to get a cold drink and some comforting conversation; others need medication and a few days' attention.
Sderot residents live in fear

"You can't give people what they really need: security," said Aharon Polat (pictured), a social worker at the center. "You can be a great psychologist or you can be a great social worker, but if you speak with someone and one minute later there is an alarm for a Qassam, he doesn't breathe well. It comes again and again and again, and it is very difficult to make people learn to live with it. What can I say to them? 'Don't worry?'" "It can hurt everyone every hour," he continued. "When there is one or two days without a Qassam, people feel much, much better. You can see they are happy. They are almost normal. But then a Qassam comes again, and it breaks them. It's very hard to live with this. You can't stop thinking something will happen to you or your child."

Polat lives just outside of Sderot on Kibbutz Karmia, where he is raising his two children. He said he takes some comfort in the mundane. But it is a pragmatic sense of peace, not an idealistic one.

"When I breathe, I enjoy breathing, and when I eat, I enjoy eating, and when I run, I enjoy running. I enjoy life for whatever I can. I try to hold life together," he said. "I have a problem with sorrow and a problem with pain and with angriness and with what will be of this country -- will Israel continue to exist in 20 years? Will they be free? -- but I can function." ::::::::::::::::::::::::::

Less than a mile from what was once the refugee community of Gaza, Sderot took shape in the early 1950s as a tent city for new Israelis. Its name means "broadways" in Hebrew, a fitting selection for an outpost in the western Negev that continues to be a point of entry for immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union. (The influx of Russian speakers doubled the city's population during the '90s to a total of about 24,000; the tally has ranged from 10,000 to 20,000 since the escalation of attacks in May.)

Far from ever being a metropolis, Sderot was an outpost of pre-1967 Zionism, a settlement of Jews within the Green Line that stood as a citadel against Egypt. Following the unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005, when the settlements were razed and the Israeli army left, Sderot's role in defending Jewish statehood returned.

"There is no more Jewish act than living in Sderot," said Los Angeles Councilman Jack Weiss, who visited last summer. "They are truly on the front lines of our entire people. Sure, people want to move out of the range of the missiles, but all that will prove is that the existence of the State of Israel and the existence of the Jewish people is just a function of range. So the simple defiant act of staying there is so awesome and so impressive."

"Sderot" has become a catchphrase for the region under fire in the western Negev. Due west of Sderot, just before you reach Beit Hanoun, lies Kibbutz Nir-Am.

Asher and Rachel Bar-On moved to this former patch of sand and hardscrabble desert -- now fecund with citrus groves and sunflowers and wheat fields -- in 1943. They came by way of northern Israel after fleeing Eastern Europe at the start of World War II, and the Bar-Ons were among the founding families of the kibbutz, the oldest in this region.

Twelve years later, Rachel gave birth to Uzi, whom she named for a doctor who helped when the kibbutz was getting shelled during the War of Independence. Back then, the border with Gaza was an open field, and as a child, Uzi tended cattle out in the pasture. There he befriended a young Palestinian shepherd with whom he still speaks almost daily. (Until the outbreak of the second intifada, Uzi and his family traveled regularly into Gaza to see friends and eat seafood. No longer.)

Today, Uzi is the logistics manager at Michsaf, a tableware manufacturer run by Nir-Am residents. He, Marcell, Mayan and Gabi live in a four-bedroom stucco house with yellow walls and a red roof; two older daughters, Kelly, 21, and Dana, 20, live in separate housing on the kibbutz.

The Bar-On's front door leads into what used to be the veranda, but, thanks to the addition of two mostly windowed walls, is now the living room. The ceiling is rich cherry oak and the floor smooth brick. This is where Mayan and Gabi sit on plump, blue leather couches and watch Nickelodeon, and from where they run when they hear the "color red" warning of an incoming rocket -- "tveza adom."

"If we're sitting in here with the air-conditioning on and the windows closed and the TV on, we can't hear the siren. What does it matter if we can hear it or not?" Marcell asks, growing exasperated. "What can we do? We're going to go where there are not windows, but we are still not protected."

For that reason, when the rocket attacks are heavy, like they were for the last two weeks of May, when 293 rockets were launched from Gaza after a six-month cease-fire broke down, the Bar-Ons often sleep on the concrete floor of a communal bomb shelter about 50 meters from their house.

"I like this one because it is underground," Marcell says, walking down the stairs in the dark. "It's something extra. It's really, really safe."

"Ooh, it smells terrible," she says, before flipping the light switch and revealing a red picnic bench, tile floor and wine cellar décor. About 15 feet by 20 feet, the room is stuffed with upwards of a dozen people on busy nights. Fortunately, the previous few weeks have been "quiet." Marcell uses that term several times and usually follows it with a grimace, as if the Sderot region has been experiencing the calm before the storm.

Quiet, anyway, doesn't mean silent. It still means three to four Qassams coming their direction each day.

Last month, Uzi and Marcell saw one of the rockets fly above them as they swam in the pool after dinner.

"We knew that Gabi was playing soccer and that Mayan was in bed. We were totally helpless in the middle of the pool, and we saw this bomb fly right over our heads," Marcell recalls. "We jumped out of the pool to see where Gabi was, to see if he was still alive."

He was. But the rocket tore off a room in an elderly couple's home. That direct hit followed the Qassam that landed on the kibbutz restaurant, Fauna, and burned the structure to the foundation, which followed the bomb that tore through one of the dorms rented to students at Sapir College. Amazingly, each time, no one was hurt.

"We have," Marcell adds, "so many stories like that ...." ::::::::::::::::::::::::::

The political sentiment in Sderot is easy to gauge. As you approach the area, just read the wooden signs with painted red Hebrew messages that appear on the side of the highway:

"We are staying here because we are connected to the soil. But shortly we will be buried inside. Thank you, Olmert."

In a meeting with journalists last month in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's Jerusalem office, before which the group was told that Olmert's comments were on the record but couldn't be quoted, the prime minister said the attacks from Gaza, which seem even more problematic since Hamas' forceful expulsion of Fatah government officials in June, require continuous and meticulous intervention but not a comprehensive military response.

A major operation, Olmert said, would not entirely end the attacks, and he believes it would come at too great a cost to Israel. He declined to comment on future plans for dealing with Gaza.

In May, this paper reported that most military experts believe that only a major ground operation would eradicate the threat. But they echoed Olmert's sentiment. It would cause, they said, significant "Israeli military casualties, Palestinian humanitarian suffering, [negative] international opinion and economic losses."

"Everything is waiting," IDF Reserve Brig. Gen. Shalom Harari said at Sapir College before a tour of the Gaza border. "Now, you ask me, what will decide about the timing of such an operation? That is what is called the 'strategic Qassam.'"

"The Qassam that will fall on a synagogue in Sderot and kill 10," said Harari, a senior research fellow at the Middle East Media Research Institute. "Or the Qassam that will fall on a kindergarten and kill, I hope not, God hopes not, 10 children. Or the Qassam that will fall here and kill 10 students. That will be the igniting point."

There are countless stories of near-massacres that could have been such a catalyst -- the gasoline tanker that left the station moments before a rocket blew a crater in the driveway, the Qassam that flew through the roof of a synagogue office while congregants were in the sanctuary on Shabbat, the bomb that fell on the playground of Gabi's school the day all the parents kept their kids home in protest.

The gas station attack captured by surveillance video

For now, the Israel Defense Forces have been instructed to target Hamas and Islamic Jihad members who are orchestrating or participating in the Qassam attacks. This past Monday, an Israeli jet fired a missile at a car in the Gaza Strip that was carrying six Hamas operatives involved in rocket launches hours before. All were killed. On Tuesday, three more were killed in a separate airstrike.

"Once you target the head of that area and the head of that zone, the organization is damaged and it limits their ability to carry out the terrorist activities against Israel in the future," IDF Maj. Avital Leibovitch said shortly after the Monday mission.

But many in the western Negev say the government could be doing a lot more. Ari Shavit, a columnist for the liberal newspaper Ha'aretz, lamented in late May that denizens of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and the rest of Israel's core had forgotten Sderot.

"Suddenly, the feeling is that perhaps it has really happened: Perhaps Sderot has been broken," Shavit wrote. "But Sderot has still not been broken. If the rocket attacks cease, most people will return. Without security, without hope, without happiness -- a depressing return to no choice.

"So the basic fact remains: Sderot 2007 is a city that seems cursed. A frontier city with no home front. A frontier city with no aura of heroism. A frontier city that the government should protect, but isn't protecting. A frontier city that the nation should be standing behind, but is not. A frontier city abandoned by the center of the country."

But Sderot has not been forgotten. Thanks to people like Bedein, who keeps the region's story in the news; to Israeli philanthropists like Arcadi Gaydamak, who gives freely to whatever the need is in the region, and to American Jews, who indirectly support Sderot through donations to the UJC's Israel Emergency Campaign and other programs.

UJC, through programs administered by JAFI and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, has reinforced buildings, provided trauma counseling, financed summer camps outside the Qassam range for the region's 8,200 children ages 6 to 17 and supported a senior center where elderly residents attend daily continuing education courses in a large bomb shelter furnished as a classroom.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles earmarked $20,000 for new equipment for a youth center computer room. And after matching funds with Temple Isaiah, The Federation sent $35,000 for the Etgarim program for at-risk teens. "For us and all of those who love the State of Israel, it is essential that we get the things we need so people don't leave Sderot," said Shimon Peretz, the city's director-general. "If we leave, Sderot will be the first to fall, and following Sderot will be Ashdod and Ashkelon." ::::::::::::::::::::::::::

Smaller than a walk-in closet, the white bomb shelter with the blue door trim is stocked with two small beanbag chairs, a flannel blanket, a pillow and a pink-and-blue "My Own Beauty Vanity."

Immediately outside the portable shelter stands a netless soccer goal. This patch of browning grass rimmed by houses is the only place children are allowed to play soccer now, the larger field fenced off because it was too far from emergency cover.

"It's a sh--ty life," Marcell says. "That's not the way it's supposed to be. But it's life."

Everybody struggles differently with the reality.

Dana struggled to sleep, lost 20 pounds and developed low blood iron after a Qassam landed a few meters away while she was lying out by the kibbutz pool.

When Kelly was in the army last year, she didn't want to come home on the weekends and started sleeping under her bed when she got out.

And Gabi, for two weeks this summer, woke up most nights sprinting for the center of the house. Marcell found him there one morning about 2 a.m., curled into a ball with a sheet over his head.

"Gabi," she asked, "what are you doing?"

"There was a tzeva adom. There was a tzeva adom."

There hadn't been, but such fears are fomented by an existence so precarious that people are afraid to close their eyes lest they slumber through a rocket warning. Showers and sex also are problematic: No one wants emergency workers discovering their bruised bodies naked in the bathroom or cleaved to a lover. And under such circumstances, who's going to hear the alarm?

"One day, I walked into the shower and I heard 'tzeva adom,'" says Sigal Yisrael, a teacher at Gabi's school, Shaar HaNegev Elementary. "I had to decide real fast to go out or to stay in. I just covered myself with a towel and looked down at my legs to make sure they were shaved." ::::::::::::::::::::::::::

Why then does anyone stay in Sderot?

Like many in this area, the Bar-Ons have tried leaving. They skipped from kibbutz to kibbutz, even fled to Marcell's native South Africa for a few months. But, at the end of the day, they're stuck in the area like most everyone else here.

Property values have tanked for homeowners -- who would want to buy a home in an area where predictability has become so unpredictable? And for those on the kibbutzim, homeownership is a misnomer. As members of a cooperative community, families like the Bar-Ons "own" their house as long as they remain part of the kibbutz. But the title is not truly theirs, and if they were to leave, they would receive a payout from the kibbutz and have little equity to start over.

"I used to watch the news during the Bosnian War, and I'd see these guys running to work with briefcases, trying to avoid the snipers," Marcell says. "I used to think, 'How can people allow themselves to live like that?' And now I'm doing the same thing, and I understand: It's a lack of choice."

Music video dedicated to the children of Sderot
To help those living in Sderot, you can donate to:

o The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles (323) 761-8200

o The Jewish Agency for Israel (866) 247-9304, ext. 4908

o American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (212) 687-6200

o Chabad Sderot Relief Fund

o Connections Israel

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