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Sderot: Scenes From an Israeli City Under Attack

I spend most of Saturday in a shelter with over 200 volunteers who are in Sderot with the organization Lev Echad. Their aim is to show solidarity with the population and help in any way possible, but the situation in … Read More

By / March 3, 2008

I spend most of Saturday in a shelter with over 200 volunteers who are in Sderot with the organization Lev Echad. Their aim is to show solidarity with the population and help in any way possible, but the situation in the town of 25,000 has become completely untenable. Sporadic rocket explosions have been heard since the previous night, usually without warning, which leads to speculation that the Color Red early warning system is out of order, or that there is a new type of rocket that the system fails to register. The words 'Russian roulette,' often used to describe life here, gain real meaning. However, during a lull in the rocket attacks in the late afternoon, the volunteers venture out in groups of two or three to knock on doors and see how people around town are doing. I join Avraham and Atara, while Kobi, Shlomit, and Shira tag along, as they are heading in the same direction. We do not get far before the Color Red alarm actually sounds, which means we have 15 seconds to take cover. Avraham points to a flight of stairs leading from the street up to the the front yard of a house, and we all crouch down there. A few seconds pass before I hear the incoming rocket, and for every nanosecond that the whistling grows stronger, I know it's going to strike really close. Really close. The impact is massive, in the yard of what later turns out to be a kindergarten, just across the street, ten meters away from where we are taking cover. Kassam rockets do not fall down: They strike. There is a deafening explosion and a cloud of fire, smoke, and dirt. Car alarms instantly go off, there is no silence, no respite, it is all noise. My ears are ringing and I am thinking a mix of "fucking-shit-what-a-rush-that-was-fucking-close" and "sorry mom" (she asked me to stay away from the Gaza border). Thoughts of God are in there too, somewhere. I look at the people around me. Shira is sitting between the two other girls and looks like she wants the earth to swallow her. "Are you OK?" I say. She nods through her tears. "Are you OK?" I repeat and look at the other guys. Everyone says that they are OK. "Avi, you're bleeding," I inform him. "I know," he says and smiles as he touches a scratch on his face. He is 19 and just started his army service in the Armor Corps. He is a tough guy. "You're bleeding from your fucking nose, too," I point out. "I'm OK," he assures us. Then there is the wailing of a woman, piercing through the car alarm, like somebody is in pieces. I hesitate: I'm not sure I can handle shredded people. Seconds later the first paramedics are on the scene, but there are no wounded in sight. "Let's head back to the shelter," somebody says, which sound like a good idea. We run through the debris, up the street, ears still ringing. Halfway back we run into some other volunteers. Shira is obviously shell-shocked, so she is taken back to the shelter with the other girls, while the rest are asked to work the area, knock on doors and look for trauma victims. I hurry down a narrow alley with Avraham at the end of which we come upon an old lady. "Shabbat shalom," we greet her. It feels like a sick joke. "Shabbat shalom," she mumbles back as she looks down the street, where rescue personnel is cordoning off the area. "Nim'as lanu," she cries faintly, "We've had enough. Seven years of this and nobody cares. What if it would have been a weekday? That yard would have been full of kids."
Five minutes later the scene is crowded with various rescue vehicles and their respective crews, people from the neighboring houses, and the vultures of the press. This is business as usual, this is 40 times a day. Nobody is physically injured besides Avraham, and he is busy trying to help others. We meet two kids, not older than 12, that show us around the back of the kindergarten. "That was a Grad, a Katyusha, not a Kassam," says one of the boys with the authority of an expert. "Look at the extensive damage to the building, all the windows are shattered." They are absorbed by it, these saucer-eyed kids that possess knowledge that kids shouldn't have. Their own house is right next door: It was struck by a Kassam two months ago. Avraham and I head back to the shelter. We pass by a Synagogue where an old man is trying to gather a minyan. "Mincha, Mincha!" he calls out. Business as usual. We decline the offer, scramble together a couple of bottles of beer and find a quiet spot around the back of the shelter. I am shaking, and I realize that I have been shaking the entire time. "L'chaim tovim," I say as I raise the bottle with an unsteady hand, "To a good life." Avraham objects: "Rak l'chaim," he says with a humble smile, "Only to life. That's all I'm asking for: Life. It doesn't have to be good." We drink in silence. In the background we hear heavy machine gun fire from Gaza. "That's our tanks," says Avraham. "That's where I'm going to be soon, I hope. In Gaza, kicking some ass."

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