Striving For Normalcy, Under Fire


SDEROT, ISRAEL — When Gabi Baron, an 11-year-old resident of Kibbutz Niram, plays outside, he has a set of instructions from his mother in case of a Kassam rocket attack.

“If I’m in front of a house, go inside, even if it’s a stranger,” recites Gabi. If there’s no house nearby, “go behind a tree.” In the absence of a tree or a car, Gabi knows to “lie on my belly and cover my head,” as he had done less than an hour earlier during a recent attack.

Dan and Eleanor Salomon often talk their grandchildren out of visiting them at nearby Kibbutz Nahal Oz, which is in range of the Kassams. “We know our home is safe, but we worry about the roads on the way here,” says Eleanor Salomon, who made aliyah from Denver nearly 30 years ago. Alon Geier, dean of Sapir College in Sderot, spends his days struggling to maintain a normal class schedule and keep enrollment from plummeting at a campus that has sustained numerous Kassam hits.

“I know more than 80 students who have asked for their money back,” says Geier. “They have to leave this environment.”

Life goes on in this trauma-plagued section of southern Israel, but not without a cost. Some 40,000 people are estimated to be living within range of Palestinian-made Kassam rockets, an estimated 6,000 of which have sailed over the border of Gaza and slammed into the surrounding Jewish communities over the course of the past seven years. While Sderot, with about 20,000 residents and less than a mile from Gaza is the largest of them, several kibbutzim and smaller towns are also regularly hit.

The rockets have claimed 11 lives, including two during a particularly heavy 32-day onslaught that began last May, and more than 4,000 people have been hospitalized, most from anxiety-related health problems.

Authorities fear, and mental health experts confirm, that the barrage, with no end in sight and a foreseeable worsening, is taking a psychological toll.

“Some parents worry this will affect the kids in the future,” says Anat Regev, principal of a local elementary school that is being razed because it was deemed too vulnerable. “They get up in the morning and know it’s another day of suffering. They feel as if they are sending their kids to the front lines and they are not soldiers.”

Apartments are empty and commerce is failing in Sderot — only 80 of an estimated 450 small businesses that existed before 2000 remain — and an eerie quiet can hang over the streets at midday. Sapir College, the largest employer in the region, is keeping its doors open primarily because of a $1.7 million grant from United Jewish Communities.

But those who remain here show a defiant resolve, and many who have left the area have been drawn back.

“This is our home,” said Gabi Baron’s mother, Marcel, an immigrant from South Africa. “We have every right to be here. We just have to sort out the situation.” She recently took her family to her native Cape Town for an extended six-month vacation, but “it felt more like running away. We were happy to come back.”

Gabi said his father used to have “a lot” of close friendships with Palestinian laborers who worked on their kibbutz, and would often visit them in Gaza before Israel withdrew its forces from there. “There was no fence between Niram and Gaza,” he recalls. “Now it’s different.”

Marcel Baron said that while she was once optimistic about a peace agreement with the Palestinians “it does get difficult when they try to kill your children.”

In addition to their anger at the terrorists who fire on them, many here seem equally frustrated by what they perceive as government inaction on their behalf. A Hebrew sign on a busy roadway sarcastically informs Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that the people here are deeply attached to the land, and fear that soon they will be “part of the land,” as in buried here. Meir Yifrach, the head of the Sderot Negev regional council, said the funds provided by American Jews through the UJC’s Israel Emergency Campaign was making up for bureaucratic slack. “When government doesn’t act, Jewish organizations do,” he said.

Alon Shuster, mayor of the community of Shar Hanegev, said he had been personally assured by Olmert of money for reinforced rooms to protect senior citizens. “But there is not one shekel in the new budget to start this,” he complained.

Another popular refrain among residents is that no other government in the world would allow its citizens to live under constant attack from a bordering country.

But military options to end the strikes are limited.

“The only way is for Israel to conquer the Gaza Strip again, which is a very big military operation,” says Shalom Harari, a reserve brigadier general in the Israeli army and senior research scholar at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya. The operation, says Harari would require at least four divisions, at a time when the army is more focused on a possible rematch with Hezbollah in the north.

This week Israeli aircraft retaliated against a Kassam strike, killing three militants. But ending the threat permanently, says Harari, would require searching Gaza towns for explosive stockpiles, something Israel did not do even when it controlled the strip.

“The army was around the [Jewish] settlements, not inside Gaza City and Khan Yunis,” which are larger and more densely populated than towns on the West Bank, thus more dangerous for close warfare.

“As long as the shooting of Kassams isn’t doing real harm — not psychological harm but the killing of many people — I don’t see [a Gaza invasion] as a real possibility.”

But the Kassams are far from harmless to those unlucky few who have found themselves in their path.

Yonatan Angel, 62,was a maintenance worker at Sapir College in June 2006, when a Kassam struck his building, and shrapnel tore a gaping wound in his abdomen. When he awoke from a coma, months of reconstructive surgery followed as doctors grafted skin from his leg to close the wound. He awaits another major operation this fall.

“I was asleep for weeks,” he said. “When I woke up, the first question people asked is, will I stay here?”

Yehuda Elmakyes, 33, and his family, were lucky enough to have left Sderot last year when a rocket completely decimated their apartment. “Everything was destroyed,” said Elmakyes, who recalls arguing with his wife, Mali, about whether to leave with their three children. Her triumph likely saved their lives.

Far less fortunate was Ayala Abukasis, 18, who was returning home from a Bnai Akiva youth group meeting in January 2005, when an alert sounded. With no place to hide, she threw herself on her younger brother, Tamir, shielding him from harm while shrapnel entered her brain. She was taken off life support and died six days later.

Tehilla Sofer, told the story of Abukasis — who she had known through Bnai Akiva — as she sliced up small chunks of pepper and onion and deposited them in a plastic container for a cooking class at Sdot Negev summer day camp here.

Too young to remember life before the Kassams started to fall, Tehilla and her friends, all 10 years old, were enjoying a day outside Kassam range at the camp, run by the Jewish Agency for Israel, financed by American donations.

With no trace of fear or stress in her voice, Tehilla told a visitor her sleep is often interrupted by air raid sirens.

“Sometimes you wake up at 2:30 in the morning from the siren, you run into the safe room and close the door. You know it doesn’t do any good, but you close the door anyway.”

They knew of no one else who had died, but several have heard the concussion of an impact far too close to home or school.

“One time a rocket landed on the path outside our house,” said Oraya Ifra.

“Our classes are interrupted a lot,” said Odaya Terbilisi. “There is a special bell that rings.” For these children, the most important words in their vocabulary are tzeva adom, the red alert signal that emanates from loudspeakers almost every day. There were two, in quick succession, during a visit by American Jewish reporters that lasted less than a day.

To cope with the stress, schoolchildren here are taught to sing a silly song as they evacuate and learn to hug stuffed dogs named “Chibuki.”

But neither Tehilla nor her friends said they dreamed of leaving Sderot. “This is where my friends and family and loved ones are,” she said.

Dan Salomon, the former Denver resident, also said he would stick by his kibbutz. But at a cost.

“You often hear after an attack that there was no damage and no injuries, but it’s not true,” said Salomon. “Each time, you lose something.”