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A Look at Israeli Life Just Outside the Gaza Strip

For residents of the town Sderot, running to bomb shelters is nothing new

Tal Kra-Oz
July 10, 2014
People run for shelter during a 'color red' siren on July 10, 2014 in Sderot, Israel. (Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images)
People run for shelter during a 'color red' siren on July 10, 2014 in Sderot, Israel. (Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images)

Oded, an adorable eight-and-a-half year old blond boy, lives in Sderot. “There’s been a lot of tzeva adom,” these past few days, he told me, referring to the early warning “Color Red” alarm system that alerts residents to incoming rocket attacks from their neighbors in the Gaza Strip.

I met him today at the massive indoor playground—which doubles as 21,000 square feet worth of bomb shelter—funded and operated by the Jewish National Fund on 12 Paris Street in Sderot’s industrial zone. Opened in 2009 as an alternative to the town’s long-empty outdoor parks and playgrounds, it has hosted some 250,000 children with its basketball courts, jungle gym, video games, and even a therapy room. But it was Oded I was concerned about. His peers seemed happy to talk with the other journalists in the room, but Oded had withdrawn to the rock climbing wall.

I asked him if he’d been sleeping well at night. “Yes,” he answered, “in our bomb shelter.” No, it isn’t a bummer, he said, it’s actually very pleasant in his family’s shelter. “I get a little frightened sometimes, but I’m okay.”

Oded is soon off to the basketball courts and I survey the scene: dozens of children in a playground on a hot summer’s day. But there’s little chance of sunburn beneath the playground’s fluorescent lights. My tour of Sderot today was led by the Sderot Media Center, a hasbara organization led by citizens of the town.

Today is the third day of the IDF’s Operation Protective Edge, but for the Media Center it was business as usual. The threat of rocket strikes has only very recently manifested itself in much of the rest of the country—”5 million Israelis threatened,” as the headlines screamed this morning. But Sderot, the self-styled “Bomb Shelter Capital of the World” has long ago grown accustomed to the rockets, and to accompanying the odd journalist—or presidential candidate—on tours of the town.

Just down the road from the playground is the “Denber Paints and Coatings” factory, or at least what remains of it after it suffered a direct rocket hit on a Saturday night two weeks ago and burst into flames. Today the adjacent road is still covered with paint, but much of the mess has been cleaned up—the six-foot crater left by the rocket is barely visible—and the factory’s owner, Baruch Kogan, is confident that within a matter of months operations will be up and running again.

Despite the risks—a weekday strike would surely have killed several his 30 workers—and the frustrations—he expects to receive government reimbursement for only a fraction of what he estimated to be be 15 million NIS worth of damage (almost $4.4 million)—he said he won’t be moving his factory elsewhere, not a chance.

It’s a resilience born of 13 years of rocket strikes, of “Color Red” alerts that leave you with 15 seconds to run for your life. Marcelo Jolodenco, one of the Media Center’s “citizen ambassadors,” said that the rockets have long ago become part of daily life. “We know that following safety instructions saves lives, and this operation hasn’t changed much for us,” he said. “It’s the cities that are new to this that have to adapt.” (And as if to echo his words, as I write this, another siren goes off here in Jerusalem, though geography has granted me the relative luxury of 90 seconds to find cover.)

As we stood outside the burnt paint factory, two plumes of smoke whooshed into the sky, and moments later an explosion was heard as a nearby Iron Dome battery successfully intercepted rockets aimed for somewhere north of us (the residents seemed nonplussed, but it truly was a sight to see. And then, just minutes later, it was our turn: a tzeva adom alarm sounded and we bolted into the factory as a thud sounded in the distance.

Alon Davidi, Sderot’s Mayor, met us on a hill on the city’s Western-most point, overlooking the Gaza Strip from barely half a mile away. “I know many people are dying in Gaza, that they’re under attack,” he said, “but the Hamas and the people who chose Hamas are responsible for that. They have the ability to choose their own future, just as we do here. And they have the opportunity to build that future, with the billions the European Union and the United Nations pour onto them. But look at my city: this is where they aim their rockets, not at the army. Do you see weapons in Sderot? Pictures of suicide bombers?”

For Mayor Davidi, Protective Edge is just another battle in the long war of good versus evil. “The Hamas and the Jihad are evil,” he said. “Just look at what they did to their brothers from the PLO when they took over Gaza [in June 2007]—they tossed them off the rooftops. We don’t want people there to die, but if we give them the chance, they’ll reach us all.” The solution, he said, is simple. “Their leadership has got to change. I hope the army doesn’t leave until it finishes the job.”

In the distance sat Gaza City, and further northeast, interspersed with refugee camps, Jabalia, Beit Lahia, Beit Hanoun. And then a narrow area of sand dunes home to the ruins of the Israeli settlements Eli Sinai, Nisanit, and Dugit. Just short of nine years ago, on Tisha B’av 2005, I was a Givati infantry soldier on my way back from home leave. The disengagement from the Strip was about to begin, public transportation to the area had been put to a stop to prevent protesters from arriving, but I had managed to hitch a ride to Gaza with the former Deputy Chief of Staff of the IDF Major General (ret.) Uzi Dayan, who was visiting the settlers. We sat on the cold tiles of an Eli Sinai home, in accordance with the fast day’s custom, and heard stories of the family’s previous evacuation, from the Israeli settlement of Yamit in the Sinai Desert in 1982.

Uzi Dayan is now the Chairman of Israel’s National Lottery, and he was in Sderot today in search of ways to help out with some of the 1.5 billion NIS of lottery profits that are his to give back to the Israeli public, though he found time to address us in an underground bomb shelter that doubles as a student club house (Sderot happens to also be a burgeoning college town, thanks to the local Sapir College).

“To be frank,” he began, “terrorism is not an existential threat. But it is a strategic threat. From time to time you reach a point where enough is enough. This is one of those points.” He was adamant that Hamas, a terrorist organization with a clear territorial address, could be defeated. “I think the goal should be dismantling the organization. I can’t take terrorism out of the hearts of people, but I can remove [Hamas leader] Ismail Haniyeh from his role.”

Demilitarizing Gaza as a rocket base would require a temporary reoccupation of parts of the Gaza Strip, and require two divisions—roughly 32,000 soldiers. And if that wouldn’t happen by the end of the operation, we’d all be meeting again in a year or two under similar circumstances. “I want them to remember what happens when you mess with Israel,” he said.

My mind drifted some seven miles southwest, to Kibbutz Nahal Oz, another fixture of my service in the area. Decades before I was born, in 1956, Roy Rotenberg, the military commander in charge of the Kibbutz’s security, was killed by soldiers from the Egyptian Army that occupied Gaza at the time, his body mutilated. Uzi Dayan’s uncle, then-Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan, eulogized Rotenberg.

Yesterday at dawn Roy was murdered. The silence of the spring morning blinded him and he did not see those lurking in ambush on the ridge. Let us not blame the murderers today. Can we blame them for hating us fiercely? Eight years they sit in the Gaza refugee camps and before their eyes we transform the land and villages where they and their fathers sat into our inheritance.

Not from the Arabs in Gaza, but from ourselves we must seek Roy’s blood. How did we shut our eyes from looking squarely at our fate, from seeing the purpose of our generation in all its cruelty? Have we forgotten that this group of young people, sitting in Nahal Oz, carries on its shoulders the heavy gates of Gaza, while on the other side hundreds of thousands of eyes and hands pray for our weakness to manifest itself, so that they can tear us to pieces? Have we forgotten this?

We cannot flinch from the animosity that fills the lives of hundreds of thousands of Arabs that sit around us in wait. Let us not drop our gaze lest our arms be weakened. This is our generation’s fate. This is our choice – to be armed and ready, strong and strict or to let the sword slip from our fists – and have our lives cut short.

Many of Sderot’s youth do not remember a world of peace and quiet, because they were born into one where there is no peace and quiet. But the more than 40 children, women, and elderly reportedly killed in Gaza over the past three days serve as a reminder that the very same is true of life in the Gaza Strip, regardless of where the blame rests. I sometimes fear that Moshe Dayan’s haunting eulogy might also be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As we left the club house, a young indie singer who lives in Sderot, Tamar Capsouto, who had been listening to Dayan’s briefing, hoisted a guitar, took a seat in the shade, and attempted to offer an alternative in verse. Take a lake and fill it with your dreams, she sang.

If there is one thing stronger than the explosions that have rocked Israel’s South and the Gaza Strip, it must surely be the dreams of this land’s children.

Tal Kra-Oz is a writer based in Tel Aviv.