You've come to Passaic, New Jersey for a meeting in a community center. You sit down around the table with a dozen other people. Suddenly you hear an air raid siren. Terror grips everyone's face. They jump up and dart out of the room. They yell to you, "Run! We have 15 seconds!" You dash after them, towards a safe room at the end of the corridor. Crowded inside, the people hold their breath, waiting for the rocket to land. Total silence. Then an explosion.
All the people frantically dial their cell phones, trying to locate their family members. It isn't safe to go out yet, they tell you, because often these attacks come in pairs. After several nerve-racking minutes, people file out and return to their jobs. Your meeting proceeds quickly, tensely. Twenty minutes later, the air raid siren goes off again, and the whole scene is repeated.
Could you live like this?
Would you wonder: "Why should I have to?"
This scene is the daily reality for the 22,000 Jews who live in Sderot, a town in Israel's western Negev desert. One mile away is the Gaza Strip, controlled for the last year by the democratically elected terrorist organization Hamas.
TRYING TO IGNORE
Toronto resident Rachelle Bronfman came to Israel last October for a vacation. Leaving behind her husband and three children, she came for a ten-day "Women's Mission." She had been to Israel many times before, but this time she just wanted to have a good time, without getting involved in any of Israel's sticky issues.
Then her cell phone rang. The caller identified himself as Alon Davidi and asked if Rachelle could come and look at his project. She didn't want to get involved. "Just fax me," she tried to brush him off. Alon insisted that his project was too big to describe by fax. He persuaded Rachelle to meet him in Jerusalem.
"I knew there would be rocket attacks into Israel's borders, but I didn't want to deal with it."
Alon explained that he is the head of the Sderot Defense Council, a NGO he started to help his fellow residents in the embattled town deal with the traumas of their children and themselves. He opened up his laptop and starting showing Rachelle pictures of what's happening in Sderot: wrecked living rooms with rocket-pierced holes in the ceilings, elderly people crouching for cover, children with the panicked faces Rachelle had seen only in movie theaters during a horror film.
"I knew in the back of my mind," recalls Rachelle, "that when Israel pulled out of Gush Katif there would be rocket attacks into Israel's borders, but I didn't want to deal with it and I tried to ignore it. As I talked to this person who lives in Sderot about the people and damages, it was hard to ignore it. He asked if I would come to Sderot. I said, 'Okay, I'll come. I owe it to these people at least to go.'"
Rachelle asked other women in her group to join her. Seven women agreed to forego shopping that day and instead go to Sderot. Alon sent a minivan for them. A mere hour and a half after leaving Jerusalem, they had crossed the width of the country and were on the battlefront.
Alon took them around to see his projects, all geared to give a psychological respite from the 24/7 tension of living under intermittent barrages of rocket fire. "People are terrified to come out of their apartments," Rachelle explains, "so Alon organizes local programs for the children. He also takes them to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for a day -- a day without having to worry for their lives. I decided then and there that I had to do something."
Rachelle returned to Toronto and organized, with help from the local UJA, a giant rally in support of Sderot. The rally, attended by 2500 people, featured a live hook up to Sderot, so people in Toronto could hear Sderot residents describing their trauma-filled lives. Keynote speaker Alan Dershowitz asserted that Sderot is one of the world's worst human rights disasters, as innocent people living within the internationally recognized borders of their own country are simply sitting ducks for enemy attacks.
Last Thursday Rachelle returned to Sderot to ascertain that the money she had raised was being properly used to alleviate the stress of the local residents. She arrived at 10 AM and went directly to a meeting at the community center. Suddenly the air raid siren went off. Fifteen seconds to get to safe shelter! Rachelle dashed after the others into the safe room.
"You have less than 15 seconds to get to safety. If you're walking in the street or taking a shower -- there's no place to go!"
"The worst part," recalls Rachelle, "was to see grown men with terror in their eyes. These are men who have served in the Israeli army. But they were terrified."
Every time Rachelle sat down for a meeting, the air raid siren shrieked again -- six times in less than four hours. "It was scary," she testifies. "You have less than 15 seconds to get to safety. If you're walking in the street, or driving in a car, or taking a shower -- there's no place to go! Then you hear the boom of the rocket exploding. And everyone dials their cell phones, desperately calling their children. Where are you? Are you safe? Looking at this scene, I couldn't believe it was real."
Finally someone told Rachelle that she had to leave -- it was too dangerous to stay in Sderot. Her hosts took her toward the minivan for her return to Jerusalem. Suddenly the siren went off. People glanced in all directions around the parking lot. Where to run? Someone located a shelter at the far corner. They ran as if their lives depended on it -- because they did.
This shelter was a concrete roof with two walls. Two sides were completely open for instant access to fleeing pedestrians. Rachelle was told to huddle down and put her arms over her head. If the rocket hit next to one of the open sides, the shrapnel would injure them all. She heard the rocket explode somewhere blocks away. They waited to make sure a second rocket was not on its way. Then they sprinted to the minivan.
Rachelle's hosts told her driver to drive very fast on the access road leading out of Sderot because there are no bomb shelters along that road. Rachelle and eight other people got in. The minivan careened out of town at top speed.
The driver floored it on the access road. Suddenly the siren went off. He screeched to a stop.
It was the most terrifying experience of her life. And it's what these people live with every day, 24 hours a day.Everyone leapt out of the vehicle and started to run. Rachelle glanced around. Only open fields. Nothing but dirt and rocks. There was no place to run. But she followed the others. Then someone shouted, "Drop down!" Rachelle dived down into the dirt, her hands a flimsy protection for her head. "I'm going to die here," she thought, shaking, as the faces of her family flashed before her. It was the most terrifying experience of her life.
The rocket exploded nearby, but not near enough to injure them. "That's when it hit me, what these people live with every day, 24 hours a day."
Israel evacuated Gaza in July, 2005, uprooting 9,000 Jews from the flourishing communities they had built there over two generations. The logic of the withdrawal, supported by a majority of Israelis and insisted upon by the world, was that once the settlements, the supposed "obstacle to peace," were destroyed, the Palestinians would direct their energies to building up their own state within their own borders. When Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was asked what Israel would do if the Palestinians instead launched rockets over the border fence into Israel, he replied that the Israeli response would be swift and emphatic, and that the world would stand behind Israel in its legitimate steps to defend itself.
In the two and a half years since every last Israeli civilian and soldier left Gaza, the Palestinians have launched over 2053 Kassam rockets into communities on Israel's side of the international border. They have killed 12 people and wounded over a hundred. In the last two weeks, a ten-year-old boy lost his leg to a rocket attack and another youth almost lost his hand. Last Wednesday, Roni Yihye, a 47-year-old father of four from Moshav Bitcha, was killed by a Kassam rocket while attending classes at Sapir College.
No country in the world would put up with even one such attack on its territory. Can you imagine the United States sustaining a rocket attack on Passaic and not going to war? Can you imagine England sustaining a rocket attack on Brighton and "practicing restraint"?
Rather than "swift and emphatic," Israel's response has been half-hearted and restrained. Air strikes have targeted the rocket launch areas, as well as terrorist cells and their leaders. Yet even such limited counterattacks have elicited international ire. Can you imagine Switzerland condemning the United States and England for their aerial bombardments of German cities during WWII? Of course not!
How's this for a jaunt into the surreal?
- Months ago, the government of Israel declared Hamas-controlled Gaza "an enemy entity." Yet Israel -- along with Egypt -- continues to supply this "enemy entity" with 70% of its electric power.
- Israel supplies Gaza with gasoline for the vehicles that it uses to take Kassam rockets to their launch sites to be used to attack Israel.
- When Israel stopped supplying 1% (according to the BBC) of Gaza's electricity, the world denounced the move as a "humanitarian crisis."
- The UN Security Council has never condemned the attacks on Israel's sovereign territory. But this weekend, following Israel's stepped-up air and ground reprisals, the Security Council, meeting in emergency session, prepared a statement calling for an end to all violence in the Gaza area, both rocket attacks and Israel's military reprisals, thus equating the Palestinians' attacks and the Israeli defensive efforts.
Some 4,000 residents of Sderot have already fled the city. Rachelle Bronfman was asked why the 22,000 remaining residents don't also move to a safer city. She replied, "Most of them are too poor. Their apartments are worthless. But even if they had the money, where would they go? Eventually all of Israel will be within range of missiles from Gaza in the South, Hizbullah in the North and the PLO-held territories in the heartland."
Her words were strangely prophetic. Last Thursday, eight long-range Grad missiles from Gaza hit Ashkelon, Israel's port city of 100,000 residents. The Grad missiles originated in Iran and were smuggled into Gaza through the porous border with Egypt.
Soon there will be no place to run for any Israeli.
Photo credit: Yossi Shitrit