A night in Sderot

Yossie Wagner, with wife Ruthie in their newly renovated home, says one "learns to live with" the constant threat of rocket attacks living a half-mile from the Gaza border. (Jacob Berkman)

Yossie Wagner, with wife Ruthie in their newly renovated home, says one “learns to live with” the constant threat of rocket attacks living a half-mile from the Gaza border. (Jacob Berkman)

NAHAL OZ, Israel (JTA) – Since it became a chief target of Hamas rockets from Gaza, I’ve made a few day trips to Sderot and the surrounding area. Twice I’ve had to run for a bomb shelter at the harrowing sound of the “tzeva adom” red alert air-raid siren.

But those in-and-out visits never seemed to stress me out. They lasted 10 hours or less, and always included a retreat by late afternoon to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, far out of rocket range. And it’s Sderot, not Baghdad. In war zone terms, it is the difference between getting a splinter and being impaled.

This time, however, the United Jewish Communities has arranged a one-night stay with the Wagner family on Kibbutz Nahal Oz, only a few hundred yards from the Gaza border. The other two nights will be spent at the Holiday Inn in Ashkelon, now in range of Palestinian Grad missiles and an increasing target for attack.

This time I feel trapped.

My unease doesn’t really start until I’ve been at the home of Yossi and Ruthie Wagner for about a half hour. The Wagners, both of whom have lived in Nahal Oz since the early 1970s, have the nicest home on the kibbutz.

Until about a year ago it was a typical, tiny kibbutz bandbox. But Nahal Oz is historic. In 1951, it became the first kibbutz founded by the Israeli army’s Nahal division, which settled Jews in strategic areas after the state’s birth. So unlike the rest of the Sderot region, which until recently has pretty much been left to flounder, when the first rockets fell on Nahal Oz in 2001, the Israeli government immediately stepped up with money to build a fortified safe room in every home there.

Nahal Oz then pitched in with funds and also allowed residents to use their own money. Those plans for building fortified rooms eventually turned into total house renovations.

Along with their fortified room, the Wagners added a second story, a new kitchen with dark wood cabinets, a spare bedroom and a new bathroom. Instead of keeping most of their backyard, they built a gorgeous sun room on the back of the house. That’s where I’m sitting a few minutes after Ruthie, who oversees several social work practices for Kupat Cholim, and Yossi, the accounts manager for the kibbutz, welcome me.

It’s just about 9 p.m., shortly after nightfall, and Yossi asks if I want tea with the spread of olives, pudding, cherries and homemade labane cheese that Ruthie has set up. I say yes. He exits through a sliding glass door and returns swiftly with a handful of freshly picked tea leaves.

Sitting in their newly furnished home, all is perfect and calm.

Until we start talking.

It has been a quiet day in Sderot; I’ve heard no tzeva adom, haven’t had to run. I’ve managed, at least for some of the day, to forget that this area is losing a war of attrition with Hamas. But now that detail is hammered home as the middle-aged couple tells me the kibbutz is only 820 meters – about half a mile – from the border. That’s closer than Sderot.

The kibbutz is hit about three or four times a week, they tell me. When it is, the residents are warned via radio or through a beeper system. The radios also warn them sometimes that the army is conducting a mission in Gaza and that they should be vigilant.

It has been quiet all week, they say. The law of averages tells me something could happen tonight, I think. I warm my hands on the cup of tea and start to shake my right leg nervously.

The radios have even been quiet. Something has to happen. I know it.

I lean forward, feigning interest in Yossi, trying to hide that I am really just stopping myself from twitching in angst.

Most of the rockets fall on the outskirts of the kibbutz, they say. No one has died.

I will be the first casualty. I’m sure.

The Wagners show me their safe room. Made of fortified concrete walls and ceiling, it is functionally the bedroom of their 22-year-old daughter, Yael. Emotionally, I am glad the room is there, though they have put me in the new guest room around the corner, past the new bathroom, near the new sun room.

I’m sure I will never get to the safe room within the 10 seconds between the sound of the tzeva adom and the impact of a rocket.

After the Wagners are asleep and I’ve been up working for several hours, trying to take my mind off the fact that I couldn’t get back to Jerusalem now if I tried, I march off the steps to the safe room.

Fifteen normal steps.

I estimate it will take seven panicked strides. I note to myself that I shouldn’t sleep with socks on because on their new tile, I’ll never make it without traction. Never.

The Wagners don’t even go to their safe room anymore.

“It’s probably stupid,” Yossi says.

At 1 a.m., a rocket lands in the distance. It sounds like a bowling ball dropping on thick spongy carpet a floor away. It feels about the same under my feet. It’s too far away to trigger the tzeva adom.

By 2:45 a.m. I am done with work, have nothing to keep me busy and my falling eyelids are dragging me to bed. Still I can’t sleep. I lay awake, thinking about the Wagners and their two sons, whose wives refuse to visit Nahal Oz. I’m thinking about their grandchild, who has never seen where her father grew up, and about the next morning. I’m wondering about when I will finally get to leave, and about the story they told me of the first and only time their in-laws came to visit them.

The in-laws were afraid, but the Wagners convinced them. Thankfully the visit was quiet – until they were about to leave. As the in-laws entered their car, a rocket fell within yards of it. As they reached the kibbutz exit, another rocket fell within sight of the car.

I’m thinking about the fact that the bus that will come to pick me up in the morning is a much bigger target than a small Israeli car, about the thud I felt beneath my feet a couple of hours earlier. I’m thinking that after years of sleeping in Manhattan apartments on noisy avenues, I will never hear the tzeva adom anyway. I pull off my socks.

As I roll over and push myself against the wall next to the bed – figuring it once was probably an exterior wall of the house and thus made of concrete and relatively sturdy, just in case I think about Yossi’s answer when I asked him how he deals with the constant threat of rockets.

“There are no rules,” Yossi said. “You learn to live with it.”

I pass out because I pass out. I don’t dream.

The next morning the bus picks me up. No rockets – until a few hours later. One falls on Kibbutz Nahal Oz, seriously injuring a Palestinian day worker.

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