August 23, 2007
Shabbat in Sderot beneath a canopy of Qassams
(Page 2 - Previous Page)
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.