Living with Terror
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|Joseph Grieboski||June 23rd 2008|
Cutting Edge News Foreign Editor
|A Resident of Sderot in Israel|
Imagine it: a modern under constant attack from invaders; barrages of flaming armaments crashing into the city from the skies, citizens running for cover from the unholy hellfire streaming down. The lives of average citizens are disrupted in a constant torrent of explosions, fires, and only 15 seconds means the difference between life and death.
Warsaw 1939? London 1940?
No, it is today, the tiny town of Sderot, at Israel’s desert edge with Gaza. Men, women and children in this tiny city have all collectively endured Hamas-launched Kassam rocket attacks for eight years. In that time, the city's population – once numbered around 24, 000 – has fallen to just under 19,500. The city is now a fortress or concrete bulwarks. Even bus stops in Sderot are all reinforced cement structures used as shelters when rocket warning alerts go off. Knowing at all times the location of the closest shelter is just part of life here.
As of January 2008, over 8,000 Qassam rockets and more than 2,500 mortar shells have been launched at Sderot. Massive rocket fire against Sderot and the Western Negev started in January 2001, and has continued ceaselessly every day.
The Qassam short-range missile was developed by Hamas – with the aid of Iran – as means of terrorizing Israelis because they are easy to manufacture, components are cheap and readily available, they simple to transport and operate, and can reach up to 20 kilometers (approximately 15 miles). That is just enough to lob over the border.
From education and the economy to mental health and security, no aspect of life in Sderot is unaffected by the constant reminder that death can be as close as going for a walk.
During his first visit to Israel as Mayor of Los Angeles this past week, Antonio Villaraigosa visited Sderot. “When you look at these rockets, 7,000 rockets fired on innocent children and schools, it's wrong and that's why we're here,” the mayor commented as he inspected a huge pile of remains of rockets and mortars that have landed in the area.
Even hours after Israel and Hamas agreed to a temporary cease-fire, Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip fired over 40 Qassam rockets and 10 mortar shells at the area around Sderot. In response, the Israel Air Force attacked two Qassam-launching sites in the northern Gaza Strip. There was no word yet of casualties, but the Israel Defense Forces identified hits in both incidents.
Despite the initial exchange of fire, after two days, the cease-fire seems to holding. It is being reassessed on an hour to hour basis. Even still, the whole idea of a ceasefire has stirred little excitement in Sderot. The seven years of rocket fire from Gaza were temporarily interrupted for only a few months when in November 2006 Israel and Hamas agreed on a earlier truce. The besieged residents of Sderot do not believe that this time will be any different.
Gila Kreif, 26, admitted to a foreign correspondent, "No one believes in this ceasefire. We have heard a lot about it, but we don't really believe it. Even during the days of calm, life is often unbearable. But we will not leave this town, that would be like conceding defeat to our enemies."
But the people of Sderot find themselves defending against more than just missiles and rockets these days; now they are also defending against political opposition and indifference.
Sderot residents met this week to testify about their experiences living under fire for seven years. Meeting at the city's Cinemateque, they demanded the Israeli government “take responsibility for their lives.” Many came less to speak about the danger of Qassams than about the social and economic problems they feel the government is ignoring. Residents have even started a petition drive accompanied by a powerful 15 second video to influence Israel officials. View Video
"The continuing state of physical insecurity in Sderot reveals the ineffectiveness of government authorities in protecting Israeli citizens and fulfilling their basic rights in times of emergency and in routine periods. This public hearing is a spearheading event that will enable the community to organize and act to spur the government to take responsibility for its citizens," Shira Eytan, the Shatil organization's Negev-based social justice coordinator, told JTA News.
The hearing presented testimony by several residents, who related personal stories about their lives in Sderot and described how they have coped with the mounting social and economic distress of the past seven years.
Many in the city claim that the rockets are compounding already existing problems, such as widening socioeconomic gaps between people in the city and those in the rest of the country, and the failure of local institutions to cope with that gap.
But the political leadership in Jerusalem has a different response. Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai slammed the citizens of Sderot and other hard-hit areas near Gaza as he took the Knesset podium to rebuff their complaints.
According to Israel News, Vilnai stated, “As for the residents there – we here in Jerusalem suffered hundreds of casualties. Hundreds dead. And you know this. Whether on exploding buses and other acts of madness here, in the heart of Israel, in our Jerusalem. So did we say we can't sleep at night? Did we say we were helpless? Did we say we were abandoned? Would I as a resident of Jerusalem ever dream of saying such a thing?"
Vilani, who was responding to the no-confidence motion filed against the government, continued: "Ever since 1967 we suffered bombings here, starting with Zion Square and Mahane Yehuda, and those here who are from Jerusalem remember this well – but did we ever, even for a moment, think along those lines? Did someone in this building, in this plenum, ever utter such words?”
Israel has two choices, according to Vilnai: "Use of military force, at the end of which – there will be some sort of ceasefire. Or a ceasefire." Either way, whatever pause occurs, all believe it can only be partial and fleeting.
Cutting Edge News Foreign Editor Joseph Grieboski is President of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy and Secretary General, Interparliamentary Conference on Human Rights and Religious Freedom.