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Living in anticipation of that deadly siren

  • Paula
There is no more than 15 seconds from the moment a warning siren sounds until a rocket fired from Gaza hits southern Israel. Fifteen seconds is not a long time to stop whatever it is you’re doing, and get yourself – and your family – into a bomb shelter or reinforced room in your home. Sometimes it’s only long enough to throw yourself on the ground.
by PAULA SLIER | Aug 16, 2018

The rest of the time, life carries on as normal – until the next siren sounds.

Last Wednesday, 200 000 Israelis were ordered into shelters. More than 180 rockets and mortar rounds were fired by Hamas and its allies before the Israeli Air Force retaliated with airstrikes, and an informal truce was reached a day later.

Three Palestinians were killed, including a mother and her 18-month-old daughter, and seven Israelis were wounded.

The truce has held so far, but it was one of the most serious escalations since the last Gaza war in 2014, and it follows months of clashes and exchanges of fire.

Until now, Hamas has largely avoided attacking the bigger Israeli cities further from the Gaza border such as Beersheva and Ashkelon. However, border communities like Sderot – infamously titled the “bomb shelter capital of the world” – and about 50 agricultural communities, most of them kibbutzim, are easy targets. They dot Israel’s 51km border on the east and north of the Gaza Strip.

Sderot is the closest Israeli town to the Palestinian enclave. It is located than 1.6km from Gaza – its nearest point is 840m away – and is home to just less than 25 000 people. Many of its inhabitants were moved there by the Israeli government after being evacuated from their Gaza settlements in 2005.

The constant rocket fire has caused the population to drop over the years, and many of the families who remain simply cannot afford to leave, or have been unable to sell their homes.

A huge archway welcomes you to Sderot, boasting the town’s name in yellow, and leading to a lane of trees. If one can shake the omnipresent threat of rockets from Gaza, the place is actually quite pretty. But that threat is never far away.

As you drive around, you notice the bus stops that double as bomb shelters, and the children’s playgrounds whose outside toys, like huge curling snakes, provide protection when the rockets come. Every building is reinforced with safe rooms.

On the more than two dozen times I’ve visited the town, the streets have been ominously quiet and almost deserted.

I interviewed a hairdresser who had collected all the locks he’d cut and fashioned them into a big Qassam rocket made of human hair. It sits like a trophy in his salon window.

On the one end of the town is a hill jokingly referred to as “Sderot cinema”, where locals and journalists come to watch the fighting across the border in Gaza. There are a few worn-out couches and even a table where one can monitor Israeli army manoeuvres a few kilometres away.

Some critics have renamed it the “Hill of shame”, but residents have shot back at these critics. They maintain that after being on the receiving end of rocket fire for years, it should not surprise anyone that they are the first to encourage the Israeli army to bomb those who’ve turned their weapons against Israeli civilians.

Increasingly, it seems a question of when, rather than if, a war between Hamas and Israel will erupt. Officials and commentators on both sides, and in the international community, are warning another war is imminent unless a long-term ceasefire is brokered. To this end, rumours surfaced this week that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had travelled to Cairo and secretly met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in May to discuss the ways Israel could ease the 11-year-old Israeli and Egyptian blockade of the strip.

This, in part, has contributed to the recent upsurge in violence between the sides, as has American President Donald Trump’s decision to move the United States embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Netanyahu is basking in the glow of his recent diplomatic triumphs, and so now would arguably be the perfect time to make a difference. He should reach out to his American, Saudi, and Sunni allies to do something that would relieve the humanitarian disaster Hamas has inflicted on its population, and create a more lasting solution.

The impact of the status quo is felt on both sides. Israel’s southern residents are increasingly at breaking point. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is on the increase. Studies have found that the air-raid sirens and explosions have caused sometimes irreparable psychological trauma.

Three in four residents between the ages of four to 18 are said to suffer from PTSD, including sleeping disorders and severe anxiety. Thousands have sought psychiatric treatment at the community mental health centre.

Speaking on the phone after last week’s rocket upsurge, one mother told me her son doesn’t leave the house. “It’s not just when the sirens sound,” she told me, “It’s the waiting in-between, the constant alert that any second a rocket can be launched. We feel we are daily at war.”

Avichai Jorano, whose home was hit by a Qassam rocket in the past tells me, “We are afraid all the time. I try to be calm and tell my children everything is alright. But after my house was hit, you feel the danger in your home, and you can never shake it. We have spent the past few weeks running between our homes and shelters. It is very scary to have to sleep in a bomb shelter.”

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