In the early 1990s I spent quite a bit of time in Sderot, one of Israel's southern development towns that sits just at the northeastern tip of the Gaza Strip. At that time, I was coordinator of the Operation Exodus campaign of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle and Sderot was our twin community.
The idea was that a portion of the money raised in Seattle for Soviet emigration would be channeled directly to Sderot to help them absorb an additional 11,000 immigrants. The entire population of Sderot back then was only 12,000, so the town was expected to almost double its size over a period of just a few years.
I remember sitting in the sweltering conference room of the bare-bones municipality building in 1990, as city officials explained where the new neighborhood of pre-fab houses would be built, not far from the burgeoning industrial zone. There was optimism in the air, despite the obvious challenges of integrating such large numbers of people who had little in common with the largely North African Sderot old-timers. The newcomers would revitalize the town and stimulate the economy, we were told, and Sderot would become an attractive regional center. A safe community, secure in its uncontroversial status inside the Green Line.
These memories came flooding back yesterday as I sat in that same conference room listening to Eli Moyal, the ashen-faced, exhausted and exasperated Likud mayor of Sderot.
Not much has changed in the modest building--the same tired-looking, once-white stucco covers the walls, and the giant size map of the city in the conference room hasn't been updated. But the most striking difference in that conference room is the 13 pictures of Sderot residents killed in terror and Kassam attacks. Several of them are children, including Ayala Abucassis, 17, who was killed by a Kassam rocket last year on a Sderot street. A couple of the terror victims are Russian-speaking immigrants.
Since the Israeli withdrawal from Gush Katif last summer, Sderot has become the new address for a barrage of Kassam rockets fired from the area of the now-destroyed Jewish communities of Dugit, Alei Sinai and Nisanit. According to IDF statistics, more than 600 Kassams have been launched against Israel from the Gaza Strip since last September. Several have targeted the Ashkelon industrial area, but it's Sderot, barely 3 miles away from Beit Hanoun, that has borne the brunt of the onslaught.
Last weekend alone, seventy of the crude arrowhead missiles were launched toward Israel. Four Israelis were wounded and a few buildings were damaged. Every time there?s an incoming Kassam, a warning siren sounds. It's called "Red Dawn" and provides all of 15 seconds for people to dive next to a wall or under the bed. To say that the citizens of Sderot are on edge would be a severe understatement.
A group of residents is currently conducting a hunger strike in a small Sderot park. Their demand is simple: get the IDF to strike Beit Hanoun so they can live in peace and quiet. The park where they've set up their protest tent is a few yards away from the home of Defense Minister Amir Peretz, leader of Israel's Labor party. Peretz hasn't been home much lately; he's too busy issuing empty threats from Jerusalem. On Wednesday, Peretz clearly warned Hamas to stop launching rockets at southern Israel or "face the wrath of the IDF." Today, one day later, when a Kassam collapses an industrial building in Sderot injuring one worker, Peretz tells the Knesset plenum his preference would be for both sides to work out their differences within the context of an agreement.
Anger at such government policy is palpable all over Sderot. Over at the AMIT High School, a few short yards away from the municipality and Sderot's central square, students are squeezed into the ground-floor classrooms since May 21 when a Kassam burst through the red-tile roof shattering the ceiling of the 11th grade classroom. The teenage boys were finishing morning prayers in the school's synagogue when the missile hit.
"They're shocked, afraid. Everyone is frustrated at the government," Rabbi Amit Orenbuch, the soft-spoken school's principal says. "The students feel that nothing is as it should be," he goes on. Orenbuch, himself a seven-year resident of Sderot says this is the worst period he remembers in the town.
A few of the teenagers come out to talk to reporters. In the typical manner of teenage boys, they put on a facade of bravado; tense smiles cover their fears as they proclaim how they're OK and have no difficulties dealing with the situation.
Mayor Moyal has a more sober assessment of the effect of the Kassams on Sderot's children. "More than 50 percent of kids here are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome," he asserts. "It manifests in all kinds of ways; they're sleeping in their parent's beds, can't concentrate on their studies, taking pills," he adds.
Moyal pledges that by the end of the month no kids will be left in Sderot. All 5,000 children will be sent to summer camps in other parts of the country to protect them from additional trauma.
Moyal isn't placated by government promises to reinforce schools with Kassam-proof roofs. "I don't believe in protection; what we need is to prevent the terrorists launching missiles at us. Israel isn't really fighting terror, our government is trying to negotiate with terrorists."
The Likud mayor doesn't mince words in conveying his disgust at his Palestinian neighbors. "There's no reason the Palestinians keep on shitting on us after we took all our troops out of Gaza. It's just blatant hatred, that's why they're shooting at us. There are no Palestinian demands on this land. I'm calling on the citizens of Sderot not to go anywhere; we'll stay here forever. Not because we're strong, but because we're right. We won't give them the satisfaction of giving into terror."
At his news conferences with world leaders this week, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Sderot was barely mentioned. Mr. Olmert shouldn't expect a quiet homecoming.
Judy Lash Balint is an award-winning Jerusalem based writer. www.jerusalemdiaries.blogspot.com
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