The most interesting part of my trip to Israel two weeks ago was not my meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, but having Shabbat dinner with the Bar-On family, a household of kibbutzniks living along the Gaza border.
Daily life in the western Negev region within the range of Qassam rockets is filled with nonstop unease. Five minutes after I arrived for dinner at Kibbutz Nir-Am, a PA sounded the “tveza adom” warning of incoming fire. In Sderot they have 15 seconds to take cover, which I had the enjoyment (!) of doing twice the day before, but on Nir-Am they are that much closer to Gaza and have only six to seven seconds. It didn’t matter for me, though. I missed the warning.
A single rocket attack, or even two back to back, is no big deal for people living in the western Negev. For the past six years they have been getting shelled; in late May attacks escalated and during two weeks they were hit by 293 Qassams.
This was the most interesting story I came back from Israel with, and it’s this week’s cover for The Jewish Journal.
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 dÃ©cor. 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 ....”
Why then, you ask—everyone asks—does anyone stay here?
Some stay because they are committed to the land, which is inside the Green Line of 1948 Israel. Others because they don’t want to be bullied by Palestinian terrorists. But many remain because, as Marcell Bar-On puts it, of “a lack of choice.”
If you could choose, would you stay in the area around Sderot?