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Organizing Life Around Hamas

In 2007, I traveled to Sderot to make a film. Months later, I made it my home—and Gaza my neighbor.

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An Israeli girl sleeps on the floor of a bomb shelter on May 16, 2007, in Sderot, Israel. (David Silverman/Getty Images)

Before the IDF had a Facebook page with exciting info-graphics and sleek videos, I showed up in a small town that nobody I knew had ever heard of called Sderot.

An Israeli friend had sent me emails describing a small Negev town that was being hit by 50 rockets a day. When I read her messages in my Los Angeles living room, I naively assumed that Sderot was some disputed settlement in Gaza; I quickly learned it was well within the green line and had been attacked for seven years. More research uncovered Sderot’s music scene: The city had produced a disproportionate amount of famous Israeli rock bands—a Jewish Liverpool. As a documentary filmmaker looking for an angle, I had found it in the combination of rockers and rockets. So, I showed up in July 2007 and began to shoot my movie.

It’s now five years later, and my life has become inextricably linked to Sderot. My daughter is Israeli—and so am I.

***

My first week in Sderot, I received explicit instructions: Upon entering the city, open your car window and turn down the stereo so you can hear the tzeva adom, or red alert. Take off your seatbelt, and be ready to run, because when the alarm sounds, you have only 15 seconds to get to shelter. They didn’t tell me that sometimes its less than 15 seconds—and sometimes the alarm doesn’t sound at all.

I heard my first tzeva adom while staying across the road from Sderot, at Kibbutz Nir Am, on the Gaza border. I awoke to the strange sounding alarm, fumbled for the key, and opened the door. I heard a loud and close boom before I could make it across the lawn to the little bomb shelter with its bright blue steel door. More explosions followed.

As a filmmaker, I noticed the small, strange little details. I laughed at a huge billboard advertising air-conditioning units for bomb shelters. I marveled at the dogs who could hear the alarm before people and ran into the bomb shelter with their tails between their legs.

At first, I commuted from L.A. to Sderot. But at a certain point, I realized I would never truly understand what Sderotis go through unless I lived there. So, in December 2007 I rented a huge house for next to nothing and moved in.

My daily routine was organized by the fact that Hamas was our next-door neighbor. My alarm clock was the tzeva adom that went off every morning at 6. I would run to the shelter, wait for the boom, and go back to bed for another hour or so, when there would be another one. This happened on and off between 6 and 8 in the morning most days. Though there could be a rocket at noon, it rarely happened. Rockets were reserved for times when kids are on their way to school, or playtime, around 4 or 5 in the early evening.

I was one of the lucky ones—I had a shelter in my house that doubled as a laundry room. Others were others far worse off. Apartment-building residents couldn’t get to the bottom floor in time. Teenage musicians I filmed demonstrated their hiding places under stairwells, under beds, and in closets.

Qassam rockets started as an inconvenience. What were the chances that this one small rocket would hit me? All of that changed one foggy Saturday night, when the tzeva adom system didn’t work. A Qassam landed in the street a couple of blocks from my house, critically wounding two brothers, aged 8 and 18. The 8-year-old, Osher Twito, lost his leg. It’s not the size of the rockets. It’s the shrapnel and ball-bearings inside, which become like thousands of bullets flying through the air outward from the point of impact.

As the months of filming went on, I fell in love with Avi Vaknin, a rock musician and Sderot native who was working with kids in a bomb-shelter-turned-music-club called Sderock. In September 2008, we got married in our backyard—the first wedding held in the town in over four years. (Most residents, understandably, held their celebrations in other towns and cities for fear of a random rocket ruining their event.)

Many members of Avi’s family have been touched by Hamas’ terror. My nephew, Lidor, lost his Bnei Akiva counselor, Ella Abukasis, to a Qassam attack in 2004. Ella, 17, heard the whistle of an incoming Qassam and threw her body over her little brother, saving his life. She suffered shrapnel wounds to her head and died a few days later. Once Lidor’s little sister, Atara, was showing me her class photo from kindergarten. “There is my friend, Afik,” she said, “May his memory be a blessing.”

***

Over the past three years, the Israeli government has spent more than half a billion shekels to turn Sderot into a fortress. Every apartment building unit and private home has gotten a new bomb shelter. I wish I had filmed the city from the air, because the landscape has changed entirely. Brand new four-story columns are built onto older apartment projects. Five new schools have been built, and the buildings are bunkers, complete with shatter-proof glass and steel windows that can be closed at a second’s notice. As the rocket fire has expanded to an ever-larger area, especially in the past week, Sderot somehow seems less scary than everywhere else. What about the towns that get hit by Grad rockets, twice the size and range of Qassams? Over the last couple years, I’ve begun worry when we need to go to Netivot, Ashdod, Ashkelon … where would we run when the siren goes off?

***

Avi and I live in Tel Aviv now, but we come to Sderot almost every weekend to spend Shabbat with his family. I often wonder what will happen if there is an incoming rocket while we are driving? How will we hear the alarm in the car? On the open road, where would we go? There was a radio station that once broadcast the alarms, but as far as I know it’s only operational during a major escalation.

Sderot has become a symbol of a country that has had to adapt. And these days, it’s not hard to imagine that the rest of the country will have to follow Sderot’s lead. A few months ago, as I worked on my film with my editor in Tel Aviv, he turned to me and said, “I live in a really old apartment building. The walls are like paper. If anything happens here, I’m finished.” Sometimes I just step back and think to myself: Can you imagine having this conversation in L.A.?

***

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jbirdme65 says:

There is something wrong with an Israeli government that would let this go on. Israel must re occupy Gaza

We really don’t want to go back in there.

Yankeesfan says:

Correct Others were others far worse off.

Roberta Grossman says:

I hope you and your family are doing okay Laura! Roberta Grossman

Binyamin says:

Prior to recent violence, the IDF killed 4660 Gazans since the rockets began in 2001. About 38% were, by Israel’s own estimate, civilians. http://www.btselem.org/statistics

Will more killing achieve Israel’s aims? If Cast Lead did not stop the rockets, what will?

Perhaps it is time to recognize Hamas’ right to exist. Instead of declaring what Israel will not do to resolve the conflict (partition Jerusalem, evict settlers, give up the Jordan Valley and admit a single ’48 refugee), perhaps Israel should say what it will do.

brynababy says:

It has said what it will do many times over and offered it, in writing, during three different Prime Ministers- offering 95-99% of what Palestinians ‘say’ they want. Always turned down and attacks began against Israel. They could have had an incredible , successful, burgeoning State by now. No, they really don’t want a State, they want all of Israel, without Jews, of course.

itsonlyfair says:

“Can you imagine having this conversation in L.A.?” How about imagining the conversations in Gaza where far more powerful bombs are killing civilians daily.

timbowalker says:

There is something wrong with an Israeli government that would let this go on.

Israel must un-occupy Gaza.

timbowalker says:

What is life like in Sderot when the Palestinians are not fighting against the Israeli occupation? Those are precisely the same conditions the Palestinians are fighting for.

The Palestinians are simply trying to share with Israel the very conditions which they themselves have been blessed with by Israel. They seem to think it important for all Israeli citizens to know first-hand what life in Palestine is like under Israeli occupation. It would also seem they hope the Israeli people will someday wake up and make their government change the way it mistreats Gazans.

I think the word for this is resistance. I’m not certain, but I think I’ve read that Jews themselves tried something like this when others were treating them poorly.

jacob_arnon says:

Laura was your move to Sderot a career move? Did you move there to have something to write about? So now you have written it. What next?

Will you abandon the people of Sderot and move back to LA or wherever you came from?

Replying to “timbowalker”: Now more than ever — international law is akin to “an ongoing discussion about rights” in which every government and NGO has its lawyers, and every law professor an opinion. And today, there is certainly lots of “manufacturing” of alleged norms of public international law. For example, the “proportionality” doctrine is regularly distorted and willfully misrepresented. The doctrine of proportionality does not require some sort of a rough balance between Israeli and Hamas dead. Nor does it address a need for some equivalence between the deeds of Hamas and those of the Israel government. Rather, in the context of international humanitarian law, there must be proportionality between what the Israel government actually does and what is reasonably required to prevent the firing of Hamas rockets at Israel civilians and soldiers. Specifically, if the Israel government would be reasonably able to prevent the firing of those Hamas rockets via measures that fall well short of using nuclear weapons to obliterate Gaza, then the Israel government is legally obliged to use those less drastic means that are likely to be friendlier to the fate of the civilians in Gaza. However, international law certainly does not require the Israel government to sit back and accept the firing of rockets at Israel civilians and soldiers, just because measures to prevent that firing would likely result in some civilian deaths in Gaza. And here the reasoning is obvious: If the Israel government has to choose between (A) some Israel deaths (civilian and military) resulting from Hamas missiles hitting Israel; and (B) some Hamas deaths (civilian and military) from Israel preventive measures, the Israel government has to opt for (B) to prevent (A). Any other decision would irrationally privilege Muslim Arab lives in Gaza over the lives of civilians and soldiers in Israel. And, here the ancient Rabbis would probably have agreed, because morally it is better for the wicked to die than have the innocent perish. And, make no mistake! From a moral perspective, Hamas tends to implicate the adult population of Gaza. The civilian adult population of Gaza is probably directly or indirectly to some degree morally complicit in the willful aggression of Hamas, which the Muslim Arabs of Gaza clearly supported in the 2006 Palestinian elections, and which they probably continue to support today. For example, pollsters tell us that Gaza’s adult population specifically supports the notion that rockets be targeted at Israel civilians, which is not “resistance” as alleged by “timbowalker”, but rather a flagrant war crime. By contrast, there is simply no rule of either morality or law saying that a State is precluded from using force in self-defense, which is truly a fundamental principle of modern public international law (jus cogens). Where there is self-defense, the State has a moral and legal right to use force, even though that recourse to force is likely to cause some civilian injury and death. And never forget that, with respect to Gaza, the Israel government acts not by way of retaliation or punishment, but for PREVENTION, i.e. to prevent Israelis from being the intentional target of Hamas missiles. And, “timbowalker” should know that the Hamas war crime of intentionally targeting Israel civilians cannot be justified by an alleged Palestinian right to wage a war of national liberation against Israel. Of all extant Peoples, the Jewish People has the strongest claim to be aboriginal to the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, where the presence of Israel is lawful. During the 1960′s a Muslim Arab population for the first time generally chose to self-identify as “the Palestinian People.” The self-determination rights of this newborn Palestinian People should be peacefully reconciled with the aboriginal, treaty and self-determination rights of the ancient Jewish People. However, the Palestinian People has no right to wage a war of national liberation against the Jewish People whose presence in the Jewish aboriginal homeland is lawful. Go to http://www.allenzhertz.com to read an October 2011 posting on “Jewish Aboriginal Rights to Israel,” which describes the principles for peacefully effecting a juridical reconciliation of the self-determination rights of the newborn Palestinians People with the aboriginal, treaty and self-determination rights of the ancient Jewish People.

This is ridiculous. You say “The Palestinians are simply trying to share with Israel the very conditions which they themselves have been blessed with by Israel.” Israel doesn’t indiscriminately launch rockets at Gaza’s civilian population. It’s perfectly happy to leave them alone, so long as they stop launching rockets into Israel.

Nor is Gaza under occupation – Israel left in 2005, under a hotly-contested disengagement. Despite that, Israel still supplies Gaza with electricity and public services. Maybe the democratically-elected Hamas government should focus on helping its poor civilian population instead of attacking Israel?

Hamas has been shooting rockets at Sderot and other towns in southern Israel since the early 2000s. If anything, Israel has shown immense restraint. It’s built an Iron Dome anti-missile system, bomb shelters, an air-raid warning system – all defense mechanisms which ensure Israel can protect its citizens without needing to launch an offensive into Gaza if it can avoid it. Which Israel would very much like to avoid.

Binyamin says:

Israel did not “withdraw from Gaza.” It converted it into a prison camp, albiet one that is relatively well supplied (thanks to European and U.S. taxpayers). It is part of Israel’s delusional hasbara to claim it is anything other than a part of occupied Palestine.

herbcaen says:

The Palestinians are upset that they were born 70 years too late and are not participating in Hitlers Einsatzgruppen. If Israel is the Jewish state, then Palestine is the anti-Jewish state They and you regard Jews fighting back as unnatural and worthy of death. Why dont you do something productive and serve as a human shield in Gaza and face the IDF instead of being a Nazi hero on the computer?

timbowalker says:

Every word of your response is based on racist right-wing lies that are so far fetched that not even Likud’s most ardent apologists would dare speak in such a manner publicly. Your thoughts are pure hate and something to be ashamed of.

It is in fact the people of Palestine who are “fighting back”, and Israeli efforts to pretend to be their victim is a major reason vast majority of the entire world disagrees with Israel and supports the Palestinians. It makes no difference what Israel thinks of world opinion, the world has judged, and Israel has been permanently been judged wrong. They can pretend all day that the world is wrong, or that this judgment hasn’t even been made, but it has been and it will remain so until Israel decides to join the human race and end their crimes.
Unfortunately many Jews mistake this judgment and the anger and disgust associated with anti-Semitism. And any Jew who shares the belief that Israel is wrong is called a “self-hating Jew” in a very childish manner. The world does not hate Jews, it hates Israeli crime and arrogance. The world hates to have to watch as the people of Palestine continue to suffer and die under Israeli power.
Jews ask why the world pays so much more attention to the plight of Palestine rather than on Darfur or some other problem area, and the answer is simple: We have been watching these same people, these same families, suffer and die most of our lives. Most of us grew up watching Gaza and the West Bank be nibbled up by illegal settlers and then bombed “back to the dark ages” by Israel after they’ve made some meek effort to show resistance to the Israeli theft.
The world is tired of crying over Palestinian children and babies being slaughtered by Israeli pilots flying American made and paid for Planes and helicopters. It has been too long. Israel has become the pebble in the shoe that will not move or be removed. The sore spot this pebble has caused has now become infected and threatens to spread. I

katgurl says:

The conditions the Palestinains ‘share’ by trying to murder Israeli children are NOT the conditions Israel creates for Gaza. The actions taken by Israel to ensure security and those taken by Hamas et al to reinforce ideology are two totally different worlds. Hamas and their lot do not ‘resist’- they instigate and corrupt the lives of their own citizens with violence. Remove Hamas, remove their constitutional call for the deaths of Israeli citizens and Gaza’s lot will improve. Are you that blind?

katgurl says:

What would YOU do ‘Benyamin’. To ‘free’ Gaza is to allow Jewish deaths by the thousands. Hamas has shown time and again that their goal, the destrruction of Israel, will remain intact no matter what the conditions are in Gaza…or anywhere. You seem proud of your sage abilities….what is your wise solution?

Binyamin says:

Recognize Hamas’ right to exist.

Compromise, don’t demonize.

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Organizing Life Around Hamas

In 2007, I traveled to Sderot to make a film. Months later, I made it my home—and Gaza my neighbor.

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