Israelis Return to Gaza Border Homes, With Many Resentful and Awaiting Next Flare-up

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People flatten themselves on the ground during a rocket siren in Ashkelon, this month.
People flatten themselves on the ground during a rocket siren in Ashkelon, this month.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Almog Ben Zikri
Almog Ben Zikri
Almog Ben Zikri
Almog Ben Zikri

For the past few days the phone at the Sderot Resilience Center has been ringing nonstop. Worried residents, who until the weekend were busy protecting themselves, now have time to lick their wounds. The staff at the resilience centers – operated by the Labor, Social Services and Social Welfare Ministry and set up to treat those suffering from anxiety and trauma – know from experience that the rate of requests will only increase. It takes time for trauma to sink in, and this time it’s of an unprecedented scope.

Every military operation has a breaking point for residents. The feelings unleashed linger for years and include depression, a sense of abandonment and neglect, lack of trust in the authorities and a growing sense that they, the residents of the south, are less important than others. They are convinced that the slogan “Justice for Sderot must be the same as justice for Tel Aviv,” will fade just like the old slogan “Netanyahu is strong against Hamas.”

In the 2014 Gaza war the traumas were caused mainly by the tunnels that penetrated Israeli territory and threatened to bring Hamas members into the backyards of the Gaza border communities – to this day some residents have nightmares about that. This year the breaking point was due to an unprecedented amount of missile fire at Israeli communities, especially in the south. It was the most violent round of fighting ever for the home front.

The fears were intensified by a plan to evacuate the border communities, which wasn’t implemented, leaving them to find their own solutions; the penetration of shrapnel through the window of the safe room in a Sderot apartment that led to the death of 5-year-old Ido Avigal; and the firing of hundreds of rockets at Ashkelon, where safe rooms have yet to be approved. The fact that the army’s powerful response came only after rockets were fired at Jerusalem was like rubbing salt onto the 20-year-old wounds of Sderot residents.

Eyal Massad of Kibbutz Nir Am expressed that breaking point among Gaza border residents in a response to a tweet by Channel 13 news reporter Almog Boker, who reported that during the last hour before the cease-fire air force planes circled above the Gaza Strip with an order to attack if rockets were launched at the Tel Aviv area. “Shit on our faces,” wrote Massad. “If now there’s a mass departure of families from the Gaza Strip border, you should know that we really tried, we really gave living there a chance.”

A room in an apartment that was hit by rocket in Sderot, earlier this month.Credit: Eliyahu Herskhovitz

“What I wrote was the result of tense weeks,” he told Haaretz. “That report broke me. Are we second-class citizens? The citizens of the south aren’t good enough for a missile to be fired at Gaza if they’re attacked? It’s very frustrating. It means that there’s a state of Tel Aviv and a state of the Gaza border communities. It’s nothing new, but our resilience is gradually disappearing, especially now when I have two daughters to protect.”

Massad has lived with his wife Efrat in Nir Am since 2007. Both are originally from the center of the country. They came south as students studying at Sapir Academic College and decided to stay. They have experienced three Gaza wars, but none of them affected them as profoundly as this one. “This operation raised many questions for many residents. Many buildings that were supposedly protected were hit – the mamad [safe room] in Sderot, a supposedly safe kindergarten in our kibbutz which was hit in the ceiling by a rocket.”

Orel Schitrit, 25, lives in the Atikot neighborhood in Ashkelon with her mother and sister. She’s an activist and student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem working with organizations pushing for improved protection and access to safe areas for the disabled. The neighborhood is one of the city’s oldest, with the greatest disparities in the availability of protected spaces. “I haven’t returned to routine,” she says. “I find it hard to eat, I’m exhausted, I can’t concentrate, I’m extremely stressed.” She says she’s a different person.

She first cried only a few days after the cease-fire. “It happened during a Zoom lesson. Everyone was discussing Jewish-Arab relations, the postponed elections in the Palestinian Authority. I said the discussion was privileged. There are so many things they didn’t discuss. Who’s talking about the fact that I can’t return to normal? Who’s talking about the voices I can still hear, the sirens, the fear, my trauma, the trauma of Ashkelon residents?

“It’s easy to say that we’re back to a normal routine, but recent events are still in my thoughts. A neighbor, a Holocaust survivor, told me in the middle of a siren that it reminds her of the Nazis. Another neighbor took a sleeping pill and said that’s it, she was placing her fate in God’s hands. Those are thoughts that will always be with me.

A woman reacts after a rocket landed in a residential area of Ashdod, last week.Credit: Ilan Assayag

“This operation proved to me that Ashkelon residents are simply not equal to others, it’s a feeling that grows on a daily basis,” said Schitrit. “It’s not only the government, it’s the media too. You hear the difference in their voices when they report rocket fire on Tel Aviv or Holon. There was an atmosphere of ‘Wow, they fired at Tel Aviv’ while we here had already endured endless barrages.”

Two days after the cease-fire went into effect, Noam Tirosh, 38, and his wife Anat still had tears in their eyes. As a Be’er Sheva resident he had never experienced such massive firing – 214 rockets within a few days. During the first days of the operation the family left the area. They spent about a week near the Dead Sea and then went to relatives in Modi’in.

“Returning home on Friday evening was very difficult. For the children it was nice, but we felt extreme helplessness and instability,” says Tirosh. “Yesterday in kindergarten my daughter played a game that broke me. They were riding a scooter and imagined being caught by a siren in the middle when they weren’t near a protected space, so they prostrated themselves on the floor and protected their heads. As a parent those are not the games I want my daughter to be playing.”

Tirosh, a lecturer in the Communication Department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, has lived in Be’er Sheva for 16 years. He and Anat are raising and educating their three children, aged 9, 5 and one and a half in the city. He says he believes in coexistence and his children attend bilingual institutions. The events in the Negev added to his distress and he began to think about leaving Be’er Sheva.

“There was a feeling that on all fronts, wherever we go, there’s fear and danger. For me personally it was the worst round of all. Added to my feelings of helplessness and frustration because of the escalation, I felt that the most sensitive parts of my world view, my belief in coexistence, are under attack. I felt that we’re right before a civil war, or already at its start, and that disturbs me. My world view hasn’t changed, Jews and Arabs have to live here together, and recent events only make that clearer. But suddenly I think – is it possible?”

A man in his hosue that was destroyed by a Gaza rocket, in Sderot, earlier this month.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Hila Gonen Barzilai, director of the Sderot Resilience Center, says that “the city residents don’t easily buy the statements ‘We defeated Hamas,’ “We caused them serious damage.’ They know, based on past experience, that another round and firing at the border communities is only a matter of time. There’s a gap between their great desire for that to happen, to believe that Sderot is equal to Tel Aviv, and some kind of terribly sad awareness that it won’t happen. For the past 20 years the reality is that firing at Sderot and the border communities is a daily occurrence, but one missile in the direction of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem leads the government and the army to shake off the dust and go out to fight.”

Gonen Barzilai, who lives in Ganei Tal in central Israel, spent the entire period of the conflict in Sderot. She didn’t return to her family, and with her team from the resilience center visited the places where rockets fell. In most places they treated people with anxiety attacks, but in one place they treated people who lost their entire world – the family of Ido Avigal. “It’s a traumatic event that stays with us and the residents,” she says.

In order to explain to themselves why they continue to live in this amazing place, they know that there’s at least one place that’s really protected. When that’s breached it’s very upsetting. People are demanding answers, they want to know what happened here.”

She says that for the first time the fighting affected her in a new way. “There was crazy shelling here, even during quiet hours it was impossible to really sleep. I’ve been here for a decade and there’s never been such a violent and intense round. In the past there weren’t so many rocket landings in Sderot, there weren’t so many direct hits. Yesterday when I returned home my children were all pumped up and I said ‘Listen, I can’t hear any more noise, calm down.’ And suddenly I realized what’s happening to me, you can’t contain any more noise.”

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