Visiting Sderot

Posted: April 15, 2009 by Jonathan Boyko in Gaza, Hamas, Israel, Own Articles
Tags: ,
There is just 5km distance between Gaza and Sderot

There is just 5km distance between Gaza and Sderot

This Passover Sunday, I have managed to go to southern city of Sderot – population of about 20,000 – suffering Hamas’ attacks for eight years now. Located less than 5 km (3 miles) to the nearby Gaza border, city’s residents are subject to constant rocket attacks from the Palestinian city. From 2001 to the end of 2008, days without rocket fire were few. According to statistics, over 80% of Sderot’s children require psychologists’ support, with most mental health centers overworking. Only recent IDF operation – ‘Cast Lead’ – managed to bring relative cessation of hostile fire.

Making my way to the city, I could hardly believe this was the place of much terror to its citizens. The nature outside Sderot is beautiful this time of yeah, with trees as green as they ever get in hot Southern weather. The road leading to the city was recently repaired, with more highway construction on its way in close proximity; cars flowed freely on it to the north and to the south.

Nature, near SderotThe entry to the urban area is unobstructed by anything: when making right turn from the highway to into the city itself, I would expect to see either military or police forces; none of them to be seen there, though. I drove past the bus stop, deeper into the city, with my GPS taking me to city center. There – incidentally – a demonstration, by few hundred former Gaza Strip residents, took place. I say ‘incidentally’ as my prior goal was not covering the protest – I only heard about it on the news on my way.

I had to drive only about 150 meters (roughly 490 feet) to encounter the sad reality people of Sderot have to live with – the migunit, a small, reinforced concrete structure, built in order to protect the citizens as soon as the rocket fire alarm sounds. Since the alarm begins, people have about 20 seconds to make their ways into protective structures – such as this – in order to protect themselves from incoming rockets or many small pieces of shrapnel embedded into them by terrorists, to make rockets’ ‘kill range’ larger. In this particular example, either kids or an artist painted over the concrete walls to make it look a bit happier. Those structures are part of Sderot’s life in past several years and they are the sole reason for low number of Israeli casualties during the recent IDF operation in Gaza. In many cases, these bunkers saved lives of people; Hamas never bothered to build those for Palestinians in Gaza Strip.

The 'Migunit' - a reinforced structure used as protection from Qassam rockets

The 'Migunit' - a reinforced structure used as protection from Qassam rockets

I was surprised by how small the city is. It is not miniature; however, you can drive all around it in less than half an hour. The day was quite warm and peripheral streets were mostly empty, besides several children I have seen playing by a kindergarten. The city center, however, was flocking with life and most of all – police, guarding the rally by former Gush Katif residents. The plan was for them to start walking towards Gaza Strip, however, they did not manage to get permit for that from the police, and thus they mostly stayed in a park in central part of the city.

Overall, people were quiet and listened to speakers, no doubt supporting them. Although mostly just expressing their will to return to Gush Katif settlements, some went into radical views, saying their wish would be to settle inside Gaza city as well. It seemed to me that although the gathering supported the idea of return to abandoned settlements, most of them understood the unrealistic nature of such calls. They only have God to believe in now.

"Nashuv le kol yishuv" - "We'll come back to every settlement"

"Nashuv le kol yishuv" - "We'll come back to every settlement"

Demonstration by right wing activists in Sderot on April 12, 2009

Demonstration by right wing activists in Sderot on April 12, 2009

Border Police officers guarding the demonstration

Border Police officers guarding the demonstration

The press were there to cover the demonstration

The press were there to cover the demonstration

Qassam-struck market

Qassam-struck market

After a while, though, it was time to leave the protest and move on, deeper into the city.

I walked west and into residential neighborhoods. A very short walk from the park was city’s market – live evidence to city’s violent past and present. Qassam rocket hit it several years ago, since then it remains this way. Maybe city’s municipality decided to leave it like this for outsiders.

Deeper into residential buildings, I met Vladimir – a former Soviet Union immigrant, living in Sderot for quite a few years now, with his son living in Sderot as well, and daughter living in Tel Aviv area. Vladimir – a man in his sixties now – told me his legs usually hurt and he cannot run.

“What do you do when the alarm sounds?” I asked.

Vladimir

Vladimir

“Usually just stay where I am. If I am destined to be hit, I will be,” he replied.

Vladimir told me, that in Sderot, everyone fears Hamas’ rockets – and he lays his hopes on newly elected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“I hope Netanyahu will strike them,” he says. “He does not tolerate such things”.

I said nothing now, as I resented the will to express my opinion on the matter. Since the very start, Netanyahu presented himself as politicians fighting for a seat – not a leader. Israelis can hardly expect him to do well either way – in wars or negotiations.

Bidding Vladimir farewell, I followed his suggestion to visit the local police station, where he told me Qassam rockets were collected – ones that hit the city in the past. On my way, I passed a bus stop and was dumbfounded: the bus stop was a small bunker made of reinforced concrete – something I never heard even in Israeli press. Later, I would spot dozens bus stops, just like this one, all over the city.

Reinforced bus stop

Reinforced bus stop

Few minutes later, I reached Sderot’s police station. At the front desk sat single officer – named Aharon – doing his usual duty. All emergency calls for police dispatch came to his desk and our conversation was interrupted several times.

“I got used to the [Qassam] attacks,” Aharon told me.

“Can you really get used to it?” I inquired, “It is not ordinary”.

“It is here. Rocket attack is an event – just like any other event I get calls about”.

“Everyone gets equally hurt here,” he then added. “The attacks affect everyone, especially the children”.

Aharon then allowed me into the back yard, where the police station collects the Qassam rockets that hit the city. Sderot’s bomb squad removes the rocket from the ground or building after it hits and brings it here.

Qassam 'collection' 1Qassam 'collection' 2Qassam 'collection' 3

These children will have at most 25 seconds to run to nearest shelter in case of rocket attack

These children will have at most 25 seconds to run to nearest shelter in case of rocket attack

All around me, I saw people acting as usual – they went shopping, play soccer on a street, or just sit on a bench outside. Driving around the town, I have also noticed two young boys – 9 years old at most – driving around the street on a scooter. It so much resembled ordinary life people live around Israel.

Yet, there was something unordinary about this town, where every child knew exactly what to do in case of ‘Color Red’ – the alarm alerting the citizens of an incoming rocket.

It was time for me to head back – unfortunately, all I could afford myself that day is several hours to walk around the city, trying to comprehend their restless lives. Thankfully, Aharon told me that recently, attacks were scarce and it seemed Palestinians targeted the city a lot less these days. Instead, they just fired rockets to intimidate residents of Israel’s south, as a rocket launch would cause the ‘Color Red’ alarm to sound in at least half a dozen towns surrounding Gaza Strip.

On my way back, I thought about people I have met or seen. For me, those were several hours of simple exploration. For them – it was life. Life, in which deaths or injury plays a great role.

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Comments
  1. […] the rarity of fatalities in Israel is no thanks to you, but instead thanks to Israel building fortified bunkers every 100 yards (something Hamas builds only for its own fighters). Where are you, Human Rights […]

  2. Thanks, mate. I mean, it’s not as good as the gun lamp, of course…

  3. Edward says:

    This is a fascinating account of your visit to Sderot. Well done with the pictures and inquiries.

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