Life In The Target Zone


It’s hard enough to offer counseling to Israelis traumatized by rocket blasts in Sderot. But what happens when the counselor is also traumatized?

“We have a duty, so we do it; only afterward do you think about yourself,” says Aharon Polat, a social worker on call to respond to near-daily attacks by Palestinians on the southern Israeli town. He’s witnessed the Kassam blasts from as close as 150 feet, and like his patients, has his routine when sirens sound: “I go down to the floor and hide very good. I don’t want to die.”

How do you cope while helping others cope?

“I try to keep my emotions to myself, and afterward we talk about it in our group [of counselors], which is very important,” he says. “You see children die and parents cry. It’s very hard.”

Polat, 43, discussed his work at a series of meetings here with Jewish organizations and reporters. He’s part of a delegation of Israelis who live or work in Sderot who are here to tell their stories about life under fire.

“They are trying to frighten us, to terrorize us,” said Michal Kakoon, a junior high school teacher in Sderot, of the Palestinian attackers. “They want the world to see that they are fighting for their land.”

Some days, Kakoon said, her classes are interrupted as often as every half-hour by air raid sirens. “When children hear sirens they are starting to scream and faint,” she says.

The trip was sponsored by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Israeli government. Two of the participants, Stav Cohen and Mor Yehudai, saw their homes devastated by Kassams. “You feel violated,” said Cohen, 24, who was on duty at an army base at the time.

Polat said about 20 people have died in four years of rocket attacks while thousands have been injured or undergone trauma counseling. About 5 percent of Sderot residents have moved, and many more would like to, but can’t afford to because the value of their homes has plummeted.

Polat never counsels people to leave, except temporarily, as in the case of a teenager who refused to leave a bomb shelter. “I told her parents to find a place where she can get treatment from a psychologist, and hopefully she can [eventually] come back home,” he said.

Another challenge, he says, is to avoid reassuring people that the rockets will stop soon, or they will be safe from now on.

“I don’t even tell my children that,” he says. “We tell people now you are safe. You work on breathing, making a connection. People have the strength and resources. You just have to let it come out.”

The delegation offered a bleak assessment of peace with the Palestinians. “There is no one to talk to,” said Kakoon. Polat, who was forced to leave his home two years ago in Gaza, from where the Sderot-bound missiles are now launched adds: “We see now that [the disengagement] didn’t help. The Palestinians have a big appetite. They don’t want peace. We know there are al Qaeda people coming in from other countries. They keep dropping bigger and stronger bombs.”

Last weekend, the Orthodox Union kicked off a national campaign for Sderot, hoping to raise $250,000 to fund a new trauma team, a summer camp for parents and kids and adult- and Jewish education programs.