Sderot is a small city located less than a mile east of the northern border of Gaza. The story of Sderot is relatively unknown in the United States although the city's recent history should be famous. Since the beginning of the Second Intifada in October 2000, Sderot has suffered continuous rocket fire. As of January 2008, over 8,000 rockets have landed in Sderot, an average of about 2.4 a day.
At the end of 2006, Sderot's population was about 19,300. Aid organizations estimate that by the end of 2008, about 15-25% of the population left because of the incessant rocket fire. We visited the town after lunch at the Air Force base.
It is difficult to write about Sderot without becoming overly maudlin or over-correcting into dryness. I will try my best to stick to the facts without injecting too much of my emotions into the picture.
At first glance, Sderot seems like any normal Israeli city. However, the sameness evaporates the moment you see a fortified bus stop or a house with a bomb shelter added on like an extra garage. After our bus wound its way through the narrow streets and finally stopped, we saw a presentation from a group dedicated to showing the world the truth about life in Sderot. We saw footage of a man levering the remains of a Qassam rocket from the ground only a few meters away from a school. We learned about the warning system which gives citizens an average of 15 seconds to find shelter before a rocket lands. We learned that Hamas has fired over 200 rockets at Sderot since the end of Operation Cast Lead and during an ostensible cease-fire period. Then, we went to the police station and saw the remains of Qassam rockets.
The rockets are generally built out of readily available materials such as welded pieces of scrap metal and pipes. Some of these materials actually come from aid packages sent into Gaza. Like the IEDs used in Iraq, the rockets are filled with explosives and small bits of metal. When the rocket hits something and explodes, the bits of metal are expelled outwards with great force, becoming shrapnel. Any unprotected person within a few dozen yards of the explosion will suffer significant, possibly deadly injuries.
Upon close inspection, I was able to make out the markings on the rockets. Most were green, the color of Hamas. A few were yellow, however, the color of Fatah. The welding was often crude and some appeared shoddily made. Still, such rockets have killed 25 Israelis and injured over 700 more.
The Israeli government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars fortifying Sderot. The schools all have bomb shelters including rooftop barriers designed to withstand a direct hit. They are still trying to find enough money to complete these shelters but their efforts have helped keep casualties down.
The most emotional part of the trip came when we got back in the bus and drove past a playground. This is what we saw:
(Thanks to Dave Fuchs for posting these on Facebook; they're much better than my iPhone pictures.)
As you've probably guessed, the caterpillars are bomb shelters for children. When the alarm sounds, the children have an easily accessible and, hopefully, psychologically comforting place to hide until the rocket attack ends. Post-traumatic stress disorders are fairly common among children in Sderot although, as our guide mentioned, the "post" doesn't apply since rockets and mortars continue to fall.
We took a brief bathroom break and walked up a hill overlooking Gaza. Late in the afternoon, Gaza is hazy; it was difficult to see very far due to the smoke and pollution rising from the buildings. It reminded me of a painting I used as a computer desktop for years called "Desolation." It is dusky blue, the ruined landscape of a city decimated by war. The husk of something that used to be beautiful.
Most journalism focusing on the Arab-Israeli conflict talks about the physical damage done to people and places. It deals with body counts, homes demolished, and rockets fired. Through this lens, Gaza is a perfect example of Palestinian suffering; its inhabitants are poor, the buildings crumbling, and the body count high. The story of Sderot is hard to tell because it doesn't fit this narrative. The town is seemingly nice, the buildings well maintained, and the people relatively well off.
It is the caterpillars that tell the story of Israeli suffering over these past years. The people of Sderot don't die in large numbers or fire rockets or do much of anything other than try to live normal, simple lives. But they can't live peacefully because rockets fall on their homes, their synagogues, their schools, and their playgrounds. Sometimes the rockets don't come for days or weeks or months at a time. Sometimes over a dozen fall in a single day. But you never know when the next one is going to fall. You don't know if you really have 15 seconds to get to shelter, or 10, or 5. All you can do is run and hope that you make it in time, and that your friends and family do the same.
That is the face of Israeli suffering. It is the silent suffering of those who cannot be safe because others do not want them to be safe. It is the suffering of those whose mere existence is enough to trigger murderous hatred in others. Hamas cannot overcome the IDF and kill the citizens of Sderot. But Hamas can induce fear. Deep, corrosive fear. Fear that causes adults to build bomb shelters in playgrounds. Fear that causes intense trauma in children that manifests itself as bed-wetting, agoraphobia, and slowed mental development. That is the goal of terrorism. And that is another reason why such attacks must stop.
One last note: While we were looking at the Qassam rockets, a car alarm went off for a split second before the vehicle's owner turned it off. Our guide, a former American who made aliyah just over a year ago, reacted instantly; he flinched, ducked down, and looked for cover instinctively. Only a few of us noticed because he straightened quickly and continued informing us about the rockets. Most of us didn't even remember hearing the alarm and didn't react at all. But our guide did. And he had only lived there for a year.