Of the many stops made by the 58 delegates of the recent “Hadassah is Here” Israel Unity Mission, seeing with their own eyes the mounds of Kassam rockets behind Sderot’s Police Headquarters, was a bitter, somber experience. There was a time when most Israelis didn’t even know there was a place called Sderot much less where it was or how to get there. Today, with a population of close to 23,000 and located only three miles from the Gaza Strip, there isn’t an Israeli who doesn’t know about it. Since March 2001 and the intensifying of the Intifada, Sderot became the primary target of the many thousands of rockets fired by Palestinians from northern Gaza.

Indeed, since Israel’s complete disengagement from the area in August 2005 and the removal of close to 9,000 Jewish settlers in hopes of reaching a peace agreement, the number of ‘Kassamim’ has dramatically increased.

According to the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, there were 309 Kassam launches at Israel and the Gaza settlements combined in 2004 (the last full year before the August 2005 pullout), compared to 932 at Israel alone during the first 10.5 months of this year – a more than threefold increase.

Founded in the desert area of the western Negev in 1953 as a transit camp for Kurdish and Persian Jews, Sderot (Heb. for “avenues” or “wide boulevards”) eventually became a town that absorbed large numbers of immigrants from Morocco and Romania in the 1950s and early 1960s. In the 1990s Sderot again was called upon to absorb a large immigrant population; this time from the former USSR and in record time doubled its population.

In a conversation at headquarters with officer Meir Abirgil, who grew up in Sderot and has now served for 15 years in its police force, it became apparent how difficult daily life in the community has become.

“One of my nephew’s small children was killed by a Kassam about two years ago,” Abirgil said. “It takes only about 20 seconds for one to hit from the time it’s launched and there is a definite pattern with them being fired usually between 6-7 a.m. and then again in the evening between 6-7 p.m. Kids don’t play very far from home and many parents feel they need to be outside with them which isn’t natural.”

Interestingly, Abirgil pointed out that since the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian Authority’s local elections, approximately 40 Arab families from Gaza who were working as informants for Israel, are now residing in Sderot because of the greater risk they would face by remaining there. One of the mission’s Florida participants, Sidney Bernstein, who once lived in Israel and continues to maintain a residence there, reflected upon seeing the twisted piles of bound-up and rusting Kassam rockets as he and other participants walked around them.

“What I find so errie is to see that all these rockets have scribbled on them in yellow chalk the date they fell. We are here today on October 27 and I just found one that fell two days ago on October 25,” Bernstein said. “The police chief told us that what we see here are the rockets collected just from the last three months. For the people living here to go on despite this impossible situation should inspire us to do all we can.”

Mayor Eli Moyal, who suddenly has national name recognition because of Sderot’s plight, was scheduled to welcome the mission but due to a last-minute schedule change sent his advisor and spokesman, Yosef Pinchas Cohen. Cohen addressed what has become a more and more controversial topic, namely, that of whether or not to “evacuate” residents for periodic respites from the almost daily attacks.

“We cannot practically and will not idealogically move our residents away from the city for extended periods of time,” Cohen said. “On the other hand, we recently took many of our adults to the Dead Sea for a day and I know that just those few hours were of great theraputic value for them. Unfortunately, there is much frustration and many are demanding that the government do more because, beyond the deaths and injuries we’ve suffered, the numbers of school children experiencing serious signs of trauma is increasing. On behalf of Mayor Moyal I wish to thank Hadassah for the financial help you have given us.”

As a result of Hadassah’s Emergency Solidarity Campaign and its first unity mission in August, the organization has thus far raised $2.6 million dollars and allocated $50,000 to Haifa’s Rambam Hospital, $10,000 to the City of Haifa and $18,000 to Sderot. According to Director of Public Relations, Roberta Elliot, Hadassah believes that extraordinary circumstances require an extraordinary response.

“When it comes to Israel in times of war, Hadassah consistently has stepped up to the plate with extra funding when immediate needs beyond those of our own organization are identified,” Elliot said.

She explained that Hadassah’s Youth Aliyah schools and other Israel institutions took in residents from the north and were heavily involved in social services during and following the war.

“I’m pleased to say that the $18,000 we have promised to the Municipality of Sderot will be specifically used to provide scholarships to post-high school students now studying to become psychologists, social workers or physicians. Recipients will participate in community service, and also commit themselves to working in Sderot for at least five years as they deal with the community’s children,” Elliot said.

As the situation in Sderot continues to be of greatest concern, FJN plans to offer updates about the city and its residents in coming issues. The following is from, “Surreal in Sderot” an article that appeared on November 24, 2006 in Israel’s daily news magazine, Israelinsider (www.israelinsider.com). It was written by 24-year-old Noam Bedein who after a year of seminary studies, three years of Israel Army service on the Lebanese border and a year’s trek around Asia, moved to Sderot to study at the business school at the Sapir College Branch of Ben Gurion University and has started working at the new Sderot Media Information Center.

“It’s Thursday morning, and we’re awakened at about the same hour we usually are this week by the sound of sirens, seemingly set to coincide with the time when all the children of Sderot are going to school, kindergarten or nursery school throughout the town.

After taking cover in our security room, thinking all the time of the 1,000 families in this city who don’t have one, I leave home with my sister, Rivka, and our cousin, Hadassah, who are dressed as clowns. They are trained clown therapists off to meet others from around the country that have volunteered to perform in front of children in Sderot’s nursery schools. We arrive at the first one a little after 8:30 a.m. All the children are already sitting in their seats, thinking that at this very time yesterday a few rockets fell so close to this place, and killed Yaakov Yaakobov, who was buried Wednesday afternoon…

…Dalia Yosef, head of a project that deals with the Community Protection Services and who works with children aged 2-4, offers research data showing that 50% of these children suffer symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder which will be with them for many years to come, and that only half of them have been treated.

Dalia describes stories of teachers — not the children — breaking down, and not knowing what to do. They are simply not trained and inexperienced and have no one to supervise them. When the siren goes off, the teachers have to handle the hysterical children, while many times, the teachers themselves have children in different kindergartens and schools, many of which are unprotected. Out of over 100 kindergartens in the western Negev, indeed, only half are protected. Questions arise, like how do you deal with four-year-olds who just witnessed last week Fatima Slutsker being blown to bits, or Maor Peretz losing both his legs? What do you do when the siren goes off and the children are getting on the bus? Do you run toward the bus, get all the children out, and run back to the shelter? All in 15 seconds?

Before the clowns’ performance, children from another nursery school right next door come in. The first thing the teacher says is where to go when the siren goes off, because not everyone is going to fit into the small protected room, so they have to split into groups. Later on, teacher’s assistant Ilanit tells me that she was concerned that the kids were sitting too close together, not keeping the path clear to the protected room. The daily routine revolves around the Kassam and when and where it’s going to hit.

Five minutes after we leave the last nursery school, the siren goes off and three explosions are heard. One seems to have been very close by. We think about what the children and teachers were going through at that moment. My training as a forward observer in an artillery unit on the Lebanese border did not prepare me for this”.

This ran on Friday, 08 December 2006