If the rocket that struck a kindergarten yard in Sderot had fallen a day later, Israel would have woken to the news of a massacre of special-needs children and disabled adults.
Around 2 a.m. on Saturday night, a rocket fired by terrorists in Gaza exploded in the sandpit of the kindergarten in this town that abuts the Gaza Strip. The explosion sprayed shrapnel up in the air, shredding through the concrete walls. The ground-floor apartment next door, which is rented out to a charity that cares for disabled adults, had its windows blown off their frames, glass showering the living room. By chance, the apartment was empty: The residents had been moved out on Friday so the furniture could be replaced over the weekend. Had the disabled residents been home, they would have needed two minutes to move to their safe space; they would have had only 10 seconds before the rocket struck. By the morning, the kindergarten teachers were already packing the children’s toys into boxes; they, too, knew that they would have had no way to move all the toddlers to safety in 10 seconds if the rocket had fallen during the day.
Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad began their latest offensive at 10 a.m. on Saturday morning. The previous day, Palestinian militants shot and injured two Israeli soldiers; Israel retaliated. The Hamas-run Health Ministry said a pregnant woman and a baby girl were killed in an Israeli airstrike. The IDF later retorted they were killed as a result of Hamas activities, implying that a rocket intended for Israel might have fallen short inside the Strip. But the damage was done.
The Shabbat-morning barrage caught everyone off guard. One woman in Sderot told me her 11-year-old grandson had gone to play in the park when the sirens blared. His parents quickly threw their two young girls into their home bomb shelter, ordering them not to move. They keep Shabbat, but they jumped in the car as missile sirens blared incessantly, and searched for their son. They found him, in tears, after a frantic hour-and-a-half long patrol. The grandmother was on her way home, to pack: A hotel in Nahariya was opening its doors for free for residents of Israel’s South, and she was joining countless other internally displaced persons seeking safety.
Soon, Sderot was practically a ghost town. Shops were shuttered. The Home Front Command had ordered all schools within a 25-mile radius of the Gaza Strip to close, keeping 210,000 children at home. Their parents, for lack of a better choice, had to stay home with them.
This has become normal life in Israel’s constantly barraged South. Not that south is even an accurate description: Sderot is south in Israel like Virginia is south in the United States. It’s a 50-minute drive from Tel Aviv, and the Gaza border is only an hour away. Rehovot, where sirens also wailed, is only 10 miles from Tel Aviv’s famous beaches.
Residents of Sderot look at you funny if you ask whether the whole family slept in the bomb shelter at night. “So did anyone with their head screwed on,” one man said. By now, they know the drill. That doesn’t make being woken at night by a missile siren any less scary: When the rockets fly, a voice on a loudspeaker shouts, “Red Alert! Red Alert!” Then, you have only seconds to seek shelter, and then there’s a bang, which, in the best case, means that the Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted the projectile, and, in the worst case, means that the rocket hit a home, a car, or a human being.
What do residents want in Sderot? Of course, they all want the rockets to stop, but they cannot agree on how. Some say Israel must pummel Hamas mercilessly to restore deterrence; others say there is no way out but engaging in dialogue.
Throughout Sunday, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad fired rockets nonstop: 690 rockets in 36 hours. Some sirens caught observant Israelis in morning prayers in synagogue; one resident says everyone in his synagogue leapt on the floor and hid under the pews. The IDF spokesperson’s team says the number of rockets equates to one every three minutes, but the truth is that Hamas fired nonstop for hours, hoping to overwhelm the Iron Dome. With four Israelis dead, it appears they succeeded.
Both Israel and Hamas are claiming to have changed the rules of the game in what is the worst exchange of hostilities since the 2014 war between them. Hamas claims to have done so by piercing Israel’s defenses with intense salvos of rocket fire, while Israel argues that by resuming targeted killings of Hamas commanders, it was able to pressure the terrorist group to stop shooting. One Hamas official, who the IDF says handled Iran’s money transfers to Gaza, was killed in a direct strike on his car.
But four Israeli civilians were also murdered: Moshe Agadi, 58, was killed when he stepped out for a cigarette break just before a nighttime missile attack on Ashkelon; Ziad al-Hamamda, 47, was killed when a rocket hit a factory in Ashkelon; Pinchas Menachem Prezuazman, 21, was killed by shrapnel as he ran for cover in Ashdod; and Moshe Feder, 68, was killed when terrorists fired an anti-tank missile straight at his car near Kibbutz Erez. On the Israeli side, it was the deadliest day since 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, with only two casualties fewer than that war’s civilian death toll. In retaliation, Israel struck 340 targets in the Gaza Strip, which Hamas officials say left 29 Palestinians dead, including at least 11 Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives.
Reporting for i24News, my colleagues and I moved to a vantage point in Kfar Aza, only a mile and a half from the Gaza Strip. The walls of the bomb shelter next to the soccer pitch shook every time the Iron Dome intercepted a missile overhead. After a few hours, we received a warning from a local resident: There was intelligence that Hamas might fire an anti-tank missile at a vehicle in the village. We had to get out. We started the car and prepared to leave; the local security officer saw us and asked whether we were crazy.
“Do you know the way out?” he asked.
“No,” we said.
“Follow me,” he said with a resolute sigh.
We drove with our seat belts unbuckled, just in case we had to jump out in a hurry. Sure enough, a few seconds later, the siren blared: “Red Alert! Red Alert!” Our cameraman, Daniel, slammed his foot on the brakes, and we threw open the doors while the car was still moving. We threw ourselves into a bomb shelter meters away as a loud explosion erupted overhead. Later, we had to take a circuitous route out of the danger zone: The army had blocked the roads parallel to the Gaza Strip, fearing Hamas might shoot an anti-tank missile at another civilian vehicle. Israel has reportedly already started planning a concrete wall to protect against similar attacks.
Back in Tel Aviv, it is impossible to understand how the residents of Sderot live under constant rocket fire. You step into the shower, and wonder what you could possibly do if you had 10 seconds to run—naked—for cover. What do you do if you happen to be on the toilet? Asleep? Having sex? The radio stops intermittently to sound a siren, warning residents of specific towns to run for shelter. You stand frozen, trying to figure out whether it’s just the radio or if the same sound is coming through the window as well, which means it’s time to evacuate to the stairwell.
On Monday morning, a ceasefire was announced. The fighting went away as quickly as it came, and Israel started returning to its abnormal normal. Wednesday is Memorial Day; Thursday is Independence Day; the Eurovision song contest is next week. Senior ministers have insisted the international songfest is not a consideration in whether to press on with the campaign against Hamas, but everyone knows Israel would be handing the terror group a major victory if the event were canceled or derailed.
Nobody doubts that the next round will come as quickly as this one had. And nobody can be sure it will go away quite as quickly, either.
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Eylon Aslan-Levy is an Israeli news anchor and political commentator. He is a graduate of Oxford, Cambridge and the IDF.