Rockets Began Falling in This Israeli City 20 Years Ago. This Is the Story of the First Fatality

In Sderot, near the Gaza border, 'We all suffer from post-traumatic stress,' said Mordechai Yosepov's son. 'My children grew up with the Qassam rockets'

Almog Ben Zikri
Almog Ben Zikri
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Eduard and Ilanit Yosepov at their home in Sderot.Ilanit is holding a picture of her late grandfather, Moredechai.
Eduard and Ilanit Yosepov at their home in Sderot. Ilanit is holding a picture of her late grandfather, Moredechai.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Almog Ben Zikri
Almog Ben Zikri

Mordechai Yosepov, the first person to be killed by a Qassam rocket fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip, barely knew Hebrew. He had immigrated to Israel from Uzbekistan in the early 1990s and found work at a factory in Sderot, near the Gaza border. He was killed on June 28, 2004 when a rocket that landed near a kindergarten in the town exploded.

One of his grandchildren, Ilanit Yosepov, who was 5 at the time, was in the kindergarten classroom at the time. Now 22, she has few memories of her grandfather, but she cannot forget the day that he died.

“I remember seeing him that morning on my way to kindergarten and soon afterwards, we heard an explosion that frightened all of the children. Later I learned that the explosion had killed my grandfather.”

Ilanit’s 49-year-old grandfather and a 4-year-old boy, Afik Zahavi, who also died in the blast, were the first victims of the Qassams fired from the Strip. The fatalities came three years after the first Qassam landed in Sderot in 2001 – 20 years ago.

Many of the city’s residents still struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder from living under the threat of the rocket attacks. Once simply a border town whose residents struggled to make ends meet, Sderot became a mandatory stop on the campaign trail for politicians prior to every national election, as they promised to change the situation.

Hundreds of Sderot residents attended the funerals of Yosepov and of Zahavi. Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet Jewish activist who in 2004 was a member of the Israeli cabinet, spoke at Zahavi’s funeral.

A police officer near a crater in Sderot from the Qassam rocket fired from the Gaza Strip that killed Mordechai Yoeipov, June 28, 2004. Credit: Arielt Schalit/AP

“This boy Afik,” he said, “had dreams. He certainly must have wanted to be a soldier and a hero, and now he has become both a soldier and a hero in death.” Seven other people have subsequently been killed by Qassam rockets fired at Sderot, but cabinet ministers stopped attending their funerals.

Since then, it should be noted, Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system has given the south and areas farther afield a layer of protection against rocket fire.

Yosepov, a cobbler by trade, immigrated to Israel with his second wife, Nina, from Namangan in eastern Uzbekistan. They settled first in south Tel Aviv, where Yosepov worked in construction among other things, helping to build the city’s current central bus station. They moved to Sderot several years later.

Eduard – Yosepov’s son from his first marriage – had moved to Israel with his mother and sister, Albina, a few years before his father’s arrival. “He had difficulty adjusting, not so much socially, because there were a large number of immigrants, but he found it hard to speak Hebrew,” Eduard said.

Mordechai YosepovCredit: Eliyahu Hershovitz

That summer morning in 2004, Mordechai Yosepov was waiting for a cousin who was dropping off his grandson at kindergarten. “It was only a few seconds, and the rocket exploded near him,” said Eduard, who was working as a security guard at Sapir Academic College near Sderot, where he was informed of his father’s death. “They called me and said, ‘Your father, your father,’ I didn’t understand what they were talking about,” Eduard recalled.

He and his mother immigrated to Israel shortly before the Gulf War in early 1991 and had to adapt to a new reality. “We had experienced antisemitism and tension with the Muslims in Uzbekistan, but were suddenly walking around carrying gas masks. Who knew such things even existed? We very quickly realized that in Israel there was terrorism and wars, but when it reaches you, your father, the pain is really difficult,” Eduard remarked.

The Yosepov family has grown since. The grandchildren who were in kindergarten then are adults now. The rockets have entered the family’s life repeatedly over the years, and in our conversations, members of the family spoke about four rockets that landed near their home, trying to remember which one came closest. The exterior of the house still bears shrapnel marks from a rocket that exploded nearby during the Israeli army’s operation in Gaza in 2012, Operation Pillar of Defense.

“We all have post-traumatic stress disorder here. All my children were born into the Qassams and grew up with them,” Eduard said.

His daughter Ilanit recalled their panic on a visit to Tel Aviv when they heard a loud bang that turned out to be a car tire that blew out. “We went crazy. We started running, I was 7 at the time and I remember how the Tel Aviv residents looked at us. They didn’t understand why we were acting the way we did.”

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