In Sderot, a Painful Feeling of Deja Vu

With the start of the IDF’s operation against Hamas in Gaza, in which 40,000 troops have been called up, life in one of Israel’s most missile-battered cities becomes increasingly unsettling.

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A house damaged by rocket in Sderot on July 3. Representative of U.S. Jewry came to witness the damage for themselves, and see what they could do to help. Credit: AP

It’s been a disappointing day for Prosper Hazan. He would normally be selling his vegetables in Sderot’s open-air market until at least 6 in the evening. But given the sparse foot traffic – the twice-weekly market sets up shop in a central parking lot from which it’s impossible to get to a shelter in the seconds one has to race to safety – he’s selling his stock to a restaurant supplier for less than a third of its normal price at 1:45 P.M.

“It’s just going to rot otherwise,” says Hazan, 50, wiry and weary-eyed from stress. His two teenagers, now on summer vacation, would normally have come here today to help him, but he told them to stay at home, fearing for their safety. A 20-year-old son is serving in the IDF's Golani Brigade, and was called overnight to be moved into Gaza.

“So Bibi’s going to send them in, for what? My son should go and die there?” says Hazan, using Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s nickname. “The situation is a catastrophe. It’s been like this for years, they go in, they come out, no one manages to stop it. If this were happening to Tel Aviv, they would know how very well how to deal with it.”

Of course, in the last few minutes there was a siren warning of an incoming missile in Tel Aviv; indeed, throughout the day, Israel’s security establishment was predicting with almost absolute certainty that Hamas would target Israel’s metropolis.

There is a painfully grim feeling of déjà vu in this southern development town-turned-city that has so often borne the brunt of rocket attacks from Gaza. Unlike in previous years, however, Sderot is no longer the big target, due to Hamas’s upgrade to more sophisticated missile technology with longer ranges. But the fact that places like Ashkelon, Ashdod and Be’er Sheva are now in Hamas’ sights is not exactly consolation for those who keep dreaming that a slightly more normal life would come soon.

Especially, that is, for someone like Anat Benami. A therapist, she sees many clients who suffer from stress disorders. But she canceled all her clients Tuesday because in her private clinic, in nearby Kibbutz Mefalsim, has no shelter. She sent her daughter, 12-year-old Roni, to stay with her sister in Ashdod. But scant difference that made – they’ve been in and out of the shelter all day.

“So where do you think it’s better to be?” Benami, who also works as a volunteer for the Sderot Media Center, asks her daughter on the phone.

“Both places are really scary,” answers Roni, whose mother had put on speaker- phone. “It’s the same. Both places have rockets falling on them.”

As they speak, a few more rockets crash somewhere in the vicinity of the city, though it’s hard to know where. Overhead, there are flashes of smoke clouds and a few passing military planes – a sign of the Iron Dome knocking grad rockets out of the sky shortly after being launched from Gaza.

With Israel and Hamas gearing up for a larger confrontation, a day in Sderot is a series of conversations and attempts at normal life while people hear and feel the missiles fall, rushing to safety when they hear that eerie recording calling “Code Red” – or not. Sarah Cohen, one of Hazan’s competitors at the outdoor vegetable market, just ducks beneath her stall, as the closest shelter is across the street. “I’d be more likely to die getting hit by a car running into the traffic on the way to the shelter than from a rocket,” she quips.

It’s not just families with children who quickly feel the stress when the missiles start falling at a quick clip – at this writing, over 70 on Tuesday alone. Older people find it hard to cope, unable to get to a shelter quickly enough when the sound “Tzeva Adom” or Code Red crackles over the city loudspeakers.

It’s tough for Gita and Boris Kaufman, 85 and 82, who emigrated here in 1992 from Belarus. They live in an old building, and in recent years were unable to rush out of their apartment and into a crowded public shelter nearby. In just the past year, the government paid to have their buildings renovated with a small extension for a “safe room.” Now, says Mrs. Kaufman, it’s her favorite room in the house.

“We came here thinking it would be quiet, and we chose it only because my daughter came here. I lived through World War II, and I didn’t think I’d have to live with that kind of uncertainty again,” Kaufman says. “All the money the government has to spend to defend people here is kind of a shame; it could be spent in better places. But where else can we go?”

Her granddaughter, 20-year-old Shirit Milikovski, says her grandparents are too old to move. And for that reason, the rest of the family remains committed to staying. She grew up here and has a long list of memories in which normal life has been interrupted to rush for shelter, including being yanked brusquely out of a swimming team practice – she hadn’t heard the siren while under the water. “It’s a situation in which people need to save their lives in 15 seconds.” Despite that, she doesn’t fit the stereotype of the born-and-bred Sderot resident who calls for the IDF to bomb Gaza into oblivion. She’s involved for several years in “Creativity for Peace,” which prepares young Israeli and Palestinian women “to pave the way for peace in their communities” and focuses on “understanding of the story of the other,” according to its website.

Rather, some of the young Palestinian women she’s meeting with since she was 16 write from the West Bank and Arab towns in Israel, asking is she’s okay.

“They send me messages all day. How do I feel? Am I safe? They really care and it warms my heart,” she says. “I think the situation isn’t good for both sides. Killing innocent people is wrong no matter how you look at it. We need to understand that not all Palestinians are like Hamas. There are people on both sides who want peace, but their voices, unfortunately, are not heard in the media.”

In Sderot, Gita Kaufman rushes to her safe room - added to her building just a year ago - while her granddaughter, Shirit Milikovski, closes the shutters.Credit: Ilene Prusher

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