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Jewish Journal

Quiet ends in Sderot as rocket attacks resume

By Mark J. Joffe

November 20, 2008 | 3:07 am

SDEROT, ISRAEL (JTA) --Elior Levy was trying to get some rest Monday night.

Living in Sderot, the working-class town on the front line of Israel's battle with rockets from Gaza, Levy is no stranger to having his sleep interrupted by middle-of-the-night Qassam salvos. Usually a Code Red alert gives residents a 15-second warning to find shelter, but at 5 o'clock Tuesday morning, Levy heard a big crash -- and this time there was no warning.

Fortunately, the rocket was not close and caused little damage. So Levy, 17, said he took a sip of water and went back to sleep. Some, particularly the town's younger children, do not return to slumber so easily.

Residents of the hard-hit Mem-Shalosh neighborhood, on the city's south side, had been sleeping better the last six months, due to the cease-fire with Hamas.

Until about two weeks ago, that is, when the Israeli army blew up a tunnel that Hamas was building. The army believes the tunnel was to carry out another kidnapping operation of the kind that captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who is still missing.

Since the army operation, the region has been hit by a daily barrage of rockets -- about a dozen Monday, more than 30 the day before. Sixty have fallen on Sderot alone so far this month, according to the town's security officer. The situation essentially is returning to what it had been for much of the past eight years.

The residents of Sderot aren't happy, but they're also not surprised.

"We knew it would happen," said Hadas Nir, who lives in nearby Kibbutz Yad Mordechai and attends Sapir Academy. That's just what life is like in this area, she said.

"We wake in the morning with Qassams," Nir said, "and we go to bed at night with Qassams."

The situation is frightening, but she will deal with it.

"I don't feel I want to leave the area," she said. "We have to stay here."

Rotem Yagel agreed. "If we leave, it is a prize for them," he said, referring to the Hamas terrorists.

Yagel, 28, originally from Beersheba, is living in the Ayalim student village at Yahini, a moshav a few miles south of Sderot. It is a volunteer work-study program run by the Jewish Agency for Israel that also aims to populate the Negev and Galilee regions.

Itay Avinathan, his roommate in one of the caravans erected by the student volunteers, is staying put, too, even though he said the security risk "is always there." Avinathan, 24, of Haifa said he wouldn't have changed his mind about joining the program this fall, even if he had known the rocket fire would resume.

But it is the effect of the rockets on the area's young children that concerns most people. That is why many of the aid programs for Sderot, funded by the Israel Emergency Campaign of the United Jewish Communities (UJC), are aimed at the youth.

Children like Tal Schneior, a 10-year-old with two sisters and a cat, "likes living in Sderot," she said in Hebrew, "but there are too many Qassams and Code Reds."

Others are not taking the situation with such equanimity. A 16-year-old named Ligmor told a visiting group of UJC leaders Tuesday about a close friend whose house was once struck by a rocket. Now every time a Code Red goes off at school, the friend cries inconsolably until her father reassures her by phone that everyone in the family is fine.

David Bouskila, who was elected Sderot's mayor last week, frets that every child born in the town during the past eight years "doesn't know any other life than this reality."

During the past six months of relative quiet, "everything starts to be so nice," he said. But now that calm has been shattered.

Bouskila, who takes office Dec. 2, is critical of how the government, headed by his own Kadima Party, is handling the situation.

"In the case of security, we have no government in Israel," he said.

The government has initiated a program to fortify houses in Sderot, beginning with one-story structures. There are 1,048 of them, and just 200 have been completed, Bouskila said, adding that he expects the entire project will be completed in two to three years.

Meanwhile, a host of social services, funded partly by businesses and partly by U.S. federation dollars, have sprung up to make the best of a difficult situation. For example, some 5,000 children in Sderot take part in the Jewish Agency's Enrichment Fund programs, which provide extracurricular activities during the school day. Parents in Sderot want to see their children return safely home immediately after school, so activities after school are not an option.

There is also the Net@ program, a unique partnership with Cisco, a U.S. company, and Tapuach, an Israeli computer firm, to train promising high school students to be computer network technicians. Upon completion of the rigorous and competitive program, they receive certification from Cisco that makes them marketable for high-tech jobs.

The residents of Sderot deeply appreciate the support -- both moral and financial -- that they receive from outsiders. But they do not want to be pitied or thought of as impoverished.

"We are not a city of poor people," Bouskila told the visiting UJC delegation that had come from the group's General Assembly taking place this week in Jerusalem. "We are a proud people that live in terrible stress."

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