Behind the police station in Sderot are two large display cases holding pieces of Arab rockets that have exploded in the town over the last fourteen years. The cases are about 30 feet long, and contain large pieces of projectiles that have been picked up from the ground. They display a brief history of Arab rocket development, from home made in Gaza to those imported from Iran.
Elliot Chodoff, the military strategist and security expert on our Honest Reporting tour of the Gaza border area, identified some of them for us. Although most of the rocket pieces had rusted, some still showed traces of their original color. The green ones were Al Kassam, used by Hamas, and the yellow ones were the Al Kuds rocket, fired by Islamic Jihad. Fatah calls their model Al Aksa. These rockets were made in workshops in Gaza from irrigation pipes or road signs. Fins were attached to the end of the tube for aeronautic stability. They were fired by men standing out in the open, except for the Nasser rocket, which was fired off the ground. The rockets were not accurate. It didn’t matter–their purpose was not to kill, but to disrupt life as much as possible.
They disrupted life very well.
Sderot is known as the town that was repeatedly fired on by rockets from Gaza. Evening newscasts in Israel routinely ended with the words “and [number of] rockets fell on Sderot.” It was the only town that Hamas and other terrorists in Gaza targeted frequently.
When the rocket attacks started in 2001, Sderot had neither alarms nor shelters. By 2007, they had both. Everyone in Israel knew that the sirens in Sderot gave residents 15 seconds warning of attack. Fifteen seconds is not much time to find a protected place to shelter. Most public building in Sderot had a safe room, a reinforced room to protect all who sheltered there from injury. The government built reinforced roofs over school buildings and playgrounds. Even bus stops had reinforced concrete walls and roofs.
The rocket warning sirens were given the name “Shachar Adom,” Red Dawn. When an incoming rocket was detected sirens went off, and loudspeakers screamed, “Shachar Adom! Shachar Adom!”
There was one problem: Shachar is a boy’s name. Someone high in the defense ministry complained that his son Shachar was being taunted by his schoolmates. In what Elliot called an “only in Israel” moment, a committee was formed to find a better name. After much deliberation, they decided on Tzeva Adom, Color Red. Apparently, they could find no child in the country who was named “Color.” Today, rocket alarms throughout Israel are still announced “Tzeva Adom.”
I remember campaigns in the US to increase awareness of Sderot’s situation. Solidarity missions to Israel went to Sderot to receive briefings or to distribute toys to children in shelters. One Jewish school sounded an alarm every time a Tzeva Adom was sounded in Sderot. Everyone would stop what they were doing and recite Psalms for the safety of the residents under fire. Some days little schoolwork was done, but the children quickly learned several Psalms by heart.
A 2007 study by Dr. Rony Berger at Ben Gurion University found that about 45% of the preschool children in Sderot had post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is an extremely high rate. To put it into perspective, over the course of their lifetime, about 30% of veterans of the Viet Nam war develop PTSD, according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs.
As Hamas acquired more powerful Katyusha rockets from Iran, rocket attacks increased, in both number and in range targeted. These rockets were also packed with ball bearings, to make them more lethal. Hamas fired the Katyushas at Ashdod, Ofakim, and Ashkelon. Like Sderot, they are all towns within the 1948 borders of Israel.
Around that time, our friend Avi moved to Ashdod from a small town near Hevron which is always in danger of attack from local Arabs. After a few weeks of sporadic rocket attacks, his children said they wanted to move back to where they were safe.
For years, people in the south begged the government to Do Something to stop the attacks. In the fall of 2012 Arab rocket attacks increased dramatically both in number and range. Cities as far away as Lachish, which has a 45 second warning, and Beer Sheva, with a one minute warning, began to be targeted.
The government sent six-foot diameter concrete sewer pipes to be used as bomb shelters in towns where none existed. Although these would not protect anyone from a direct rocket hit, they would protect the people huddled inside from injury from shrapnel.
In November, Israel launched Operation Amud Anan, Pillar of Defense, to wipe out Gaza’s stockpile of rockets. It lasted eight days, but did not result in destruction of all Gaza’s rockets. Iran immediately promised to rebuild the Arabs’ supplies of weapons.
After the ceasefire, rocket attacks decreased significantly. They did not totally stop.
In areas within the 15 second warning zone, much of the population had spent those eight days in bomb shelters. People suffered tremendously, despite visitors who came to offer support to the citizens, and brought toys and games to the shelters
Daniel Berkly, the youth department manager at a community center in Sderot, told us that although the visitors meant well, their approach was misguided. They came, talked with the adults, played with the children, and left. In a way, these visits increased the sense of helplessness felt by the residents.
The city decided to deal with the situation on its own strength. A new mayor was elected whose slogan was “Something new is happening in Sderot.” Buildings and parks were constructed; older buildings were rehabilitated. By this time, every house had a safe room. Local people were going to help local people.
When rocket attacks from Gaza again escalated in fall 2014, the weapons’ increased range resulted in siren warnings in Tel Aviv. This was the first time Tel Aviv had been under Arab attack since it was bombed by the Egyptians in 1948. Even Jerusalem was targeted.
During Tsuk Eitan, Operation Protective Edge in the summer 2014, 200 of Sderot’s teenagers, about 10% of the city’s adolescent population, organized and staffed bomb shelters. Doing so enabled them to deal positively with the trauma of the war—they were no longer helpless victims. Additionally, they reached out to the rest of the country. Their message was, “We’ve been dealing with this for 12 years. Let us help you.”
Daniel spoke to us about what life is like in Sderot. While you can’t forget the security situation, it can’t be the only thing you talk about. He pointed out that although over two thousand rockets have been fired at the city in the last fourteen years, no one has been wounded. “You need to be very unlucky to be hit by a Kassam rocket,” he said. Psychological trauma, however, is a different story. The attacks are random, indiscriminate, unpredictable, and ongoing. The prevalence of bed-wetting among children is high, as is the miscarriage rate. In a way, the military operations are easier to deal with because during those times everyone is prepared for alarms.
So how do they deal with the trauma? The primary schools teach about rocket attacks and protecting yourself from them. All schools and community centers are now fully sheltered. When an alarm goes off, everyone continues with class, or their meeting. No doubt they are distracted, but they don’t have to move. All the schools have counseling for children. A special resilience center conducts programs to help adults deal with stress. The national treasury state funds repairs to buildings damaged by military activity. One school that had suffered a direct rocket strike was not repaired. The school lobby highlights its injury, as if to say, “We survived.”
Why have Daniel and his wife chosen to raise their family here? He said what we all know—living in Israel is living in a state of conflict. It’s been that way since long before the founding of the state.
Despite the hardships, Daniel and his wife like Sderot and they like the direction in which the city is moving. It is growing and the population is increasing. Unlike the center of the country, housing is available and reasonably priced. They like the feeling of community and the diversity of city residents.
When he finished, Daniel recommended we stop at one of two places for a snack. On a nearby corner is a coffee shop that is staffed by special needs adults. On the opposite corner, is an ice cream store. The owner makes the ice cream himself. The ice cream is as good as Ben and Jerry’s. I know–Allen and I each ate a scoop of it. It was well worth the calories.