We visited Sderot yesterday. Leaving Nitzan we gave a lift to a Gush Katif student learning in the Sderot Hesder Yeshiva combining Torah studies and army service.
“How are you holding on?” I asked.
“Okay. It’s a little easier for me and other Gush Katif students. We lived through rocket attacks. Boys from other parts of Israel find it more difficult when they hear the ‘Red Alert’ warning and hear the explosion just fifteen seconds later. We study, eat and sleep in the shelter. It’s not great, but it’s a fact of life in Sderot.”
“Do the students help out in the city?”
“Yes, we visit families and play with the children in the shelters. People from abroad sent toys and games, so we have what to do with the kids. They sure need help. They’re so scared. Many sleep with their parents. Others wet their beds. We try to give them courage to continue living in this town. We lived like this in Gush Katif. We grew up like this. We know what they are going through.”
We dropped him off at his Yeshiva and met with Noam Bedein, head of the Sderot Information Center for the Western Negev, who provides information in English to foreign journalists and operates a website, www.SderotMedia.com His aim is to let the outside world see the human tragedy in Sderot.
“The foreign media isn’t reporting the story of the devastation of Sderot. They just write about Israel’s retaliation. Even the Israeli press doesn’t get worked up over the attacks. The Kassams are dismissed as ‘homemade’ bombs. Come, I’ll show you homes that have been hit.”
Just then the ‘red alert’ was sounded and we rushed into a security room with steel doors securely locked. I didn’t hear any explosion.
“I guess it was a false alarm” I said. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
As Noam drove me around the city we spoke of the work I could do for Sderot. Noam was swamped and my assistance could help. One by one we passed homes — lovely, spacious homes — parts of which had been destroyed by the ‘homemade’ rockets.
I had seen bomb damaged homes in Gush Katif but was totally unprepared for the destruction caused by these highly advanced, powerful Kassams. ‘Homemade’ is part of the mythology of Arab resistance to ‘the occupation’. These rockets were not being made by elves in a primitive underground workshop. These precision-made rockets were coming from Iran via Egypt, and were more devastating than anything we had seen in Gush Katif.
The damage to property is bad enough. The damage to people is worse. They are in shock. They function at the lowest level, so traumatized from the constant attacks that their only concern is buying food and returning to their homes.
The ‘red alert’ warnings are most often heard in the early morning, late afternoon, and middle of the night. People have seconds to scurry to a shelter, if there is one nearby. The elderly and the infirm don’t bother making the effort.
“During the months of the so-called ceasefire” Noam explained, “the government made no response at all to the hundreds of attacks. It drove people crazy. You are willing to be brave when your government is fighting for you. But no response at all leaves you feeling helpless and abandoned.”
Noam showed me a school building with a concrete security roof. “But the roof covers only a third of the building” I exclaimed.
“In that school,” he replied, “only the first, second and third grades are protected. Children beg to be put back to third grade so they’ll be safe.”
Noam pointed to a huge concrete wall protecting one side of a school building. The other side is unprotected. The protected classrooms are dark and airless.
“A teacher,” Noam jokes, “asked the children why snails have shells. One child said the shells are protection against Kassam rockets.
On Jerusalem Day the homemade Western Wall was filled with notes begging G-d to stop the Kassam rockets.
During the math matriculation exam a ‘red alert’ sent students rushing to a shelter. Fear replaced concentration.”
Store after store had closed. A once vibrant town is shutting down. Fear keeps people from wandering outside.
I saw glass-fronted shops that had been renovated after a rocket attack had devastated an entire shopping center.
“Why glass?” I asked a shop-owner.
“This glass is shatterproof” she replied.
“Do you believe it?”
“Do you have any customers?”
“I haven’t had a customer in three weeks. People don’t buy clothing. Just food. I’m going to have to close down soon.”
The community center has closed down. It has no protective roof. The mental health center is unprotected, making trauma victims even more fearful.
“Hi, Noam!” a young man called out. “Did you see the damage caused by the rocket that fell a half hour ago?”
We made our way to a dilapidated housing project. On the top floor of a four-storey building two elderly ladies, immigrants from the former Soviet Union, sat in shock, crutches and a walker propped against a nearby wall. Shards of glass, smashed crockery, splinters of wooden cabinets lay in a pool of water in their devastated kitchen, where the Kassam had exploded.
Walking up the narrow stairs in the crowded housing block gave me an opportunity to meet the residents. Each floor, each open doorway, each shattered apartment told a story of stoic people nearing the end of their patience.
Glass and debris-filled floors surrounded two infants in car seats perched on a shredded couch. One couple had put their cat, a beautiful red-furred animal, into a carryall to send to safety.
“How were two invalids supposed to run to safety?” cried one woman.
“Where is the government? Where is the army? Why are we abandoned?” shrieked a woman clutching a toddler to her breast.
Israel radio and television reported the attack, stating there were no injuries or damage. The damage was all too visible. The injuries no less so.
I had lived through rocket attacks for five years in Gush Katif. All I could do was hug the people of Sderot and promise to tell their story. Perhaps people living in their safe neighborhoods will come out and demonstrate and cry “No more!”
Please pray for the people of Sderot. They are your family.