Over the past years, I’d heard about Sderot on the news, at NYU’s Bronfman Center, and from my family. My cousin, only a few months older than I, was doing social work in Sderot as part of her military service. Needless to say, it was frightening to think about.
Sderot is a town that sits about a mile away from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Its 20,000 civilian residents have been victim to continuous rocket fire over the past decade. Thousands of Qassam rockets have hit the town.
Needless to say, I was a little edgy during our visit. As one of our lecturers mentioned how he drove in his car with no music playing and his seatbelt off, just in case there was a code red, I nervously eyed the doors and windows I sat by. Despite all efforts to remain level and realistic, I wished we sat on the other end of the room, away from the doors and windows. I looked down at my flip flop, which lay on the floor, and contemplated how many of the fifteen seconds between hearing a code red alarm and the falling of a rocket I would lose in trying to put it back on before running. Later, as we stood on a small hill looking at Gaza, with instructions to run to the other side of the hill in the eventuality that there was a code red, I thought about how unwise it was for me to wear flip flops at all as they did not provide ideal running conditions.
Amidst my paranoid thought-processes came the realization that my thoughts existed in the thousands among each resident of Sderot. I could only imagine how a parent would feel each time they heard the code red. I bemoaned the thought that little children have to run for shelter in the middle of recess, only to sing songs as the code red count down concluded so as to drown out the sound of the rocket falling. I was overwhelmed by the stories of those who died from the rocket fire while standing on a street corner, on the way to school, and sitting at home…
Miraculously, despite the thousands of rockets that have hit Sderot, the death toll has remained low; sadly, this has proved to be a mixed blessing. The international community is largely ignorant to Sderot’s sad predicament.
As most people are unfamiliar with Sderot’s story, here’s some background. The 2nd intifada began in September 2000. Jews in the Gaza Strip were attacked and nearby Jewish communities became targets for rockets. Sderot, being so close to Gaza, became the primary target for mortars and rockets. In 2004, the Israeli government adopted a disengagement plan. It was supported by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a retired general who led the right-wing conservative Likud Party. In light of opposition within Likud, he created a centrist party called Kadima (“forward”) in order to ensure Knesset approval of the disengagement plan.
The government’s reasons for the disengagement included a hope for peace as well as a practical realization that the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip cost Israel a large amount of military manpower and resources for little to no real benefit.
The disengagement plan tore the nation apart. There were those with religious arguments, claiming the land comprising Israel should never be given away. Others took a political tact, saying that the Gaza Strip was as legitimately as part of Israel as were Tel Aviv or Haifa. From a humanitarian perspective, there were those who said the evacuation of tens of thousands of people from their homes was a violation of human rights. Above all were security concerns. While the disengagement was conducted in the hopes that peace would follow, there were those who felt that disengagement would facilitate an increase in rocket attacks, as prevention would become nearly impossible. Beyond that, the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip placed a larger part of Israeli territory within rocket range.
In August of 2005, the disengagement plan was enacted. Israel evacuated the Gaza Strip. The move was unilateral—Israel asked for nothing in return. The IDF forcibly removed approximately 15,000 Jewish residents from the land and left no military forces in the territory. No one could claim that the Gaza Strip was occupied anymore.
Despite the evacuation of all Jews and IDF forces from the Gaza Strip, Gazans claim that the Israeli occupation of the territory persists. While Israel no longer has a presence in Gaza, it maintains a naval blockade in order to keep out of Gaza weapons that could be used to fight against Israel. Certain items are not permitted into Gaza, including cement and piping, without the sponsorship of an international NGO (because the materials could be used in fighting against Israel and in preparing Qassam rockets). Israel’s actions are entirely legal under international law. Despite this, Hamas manages to obtain weapons and materials used to construct rockets through underground tunnels that reach from Egyptian Sinai to the Gaza Strip. Rather than live peacefully and demonstrate a preparation to leave serenely side-by-side with Israel, Gazan terrorists have opted to take an offensive tact, continuing to launch rockets at civilian towns within range.
When the rocket fire reached a frequency of more than 20 rockets in a day in 2008, the Israeli government decided to take action and launched Operation Cast Lead in December of that year. Sderot’s story became an integral part of headlines worldwide; even so, popular opinion was against Israel. People claimed that Israel’s military actions in Gaza were a disproportionate reaction to the rocket fire that plagued Israeli civilians for a decade. The international community cited the low death rate of Israeli civilians. Israel’s success in protecting its citizens thus became a detriment.
Since the conclusion of Operation Cast Lead, rocket fire has decreased. Unfortunately, it has not ceased entirely. Consequently, Israel has invested millions of dollars in fortifying Sderot against rocket attacks: there is a bomb shelter at every bus stop, multiple-floor bomb shelters are being attached to old apartment buildings, schools have countless bomb shelters dotting their recreational grounds, new constructions are built under different codes, playground equipment doubles as play spaces and bomb shelters.
The most amazing thing about Sderot’s tragic situation? People aren’t leaving. Sderot’s residents are largely staying put. While some cannot leave for practical or economic reasons, for many it’s ideological. They refuse to be pushed out of their homes by terrorists’ rocket fire.
Sadly, the story of Sderot is becoming the story of other Israeli towns. As Qassam rockets evolve and their range increase, more and more Israeli civilians are within reach of rocket fire. The attacks on Sderot are actually lessening as Gazan terrorists aim for larger population centers like Ashkelon (population: 112,900), Ashdod (206,400), and Beer Sheva (194,300). It is estimated that 1,000,000 people are currently within range of Qassam fire from Gaza.
It is particularly interesting to consider Sderot’s predicament (and, increasingly, Ashkelon’s, Ashdod’s, and Beer Sheva’s) at a time when talk of a two-state solution involves Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories, which would expose other areas of the country to rocket attacks.
Unfortunately, peace does not seem to be on the horizon. The best thing we can do is to spread the word: share Sderot’s story with friends and family. Become part of Israel’s second front line—the one that defends the country in the media, in the classrooms, even in the restaurants and bars. Unfortunately, the battle in those fields, the one where rhetoric, language, perception, and popular opinion reign, is currently being lost. For the sake of every civilian within range of the continuously-launched rockets from Gaza, join that battle and fight.