Fertile, warm, and humid is the plain leading to the town of Sderot. The houses are yellow and white on the Negev, the desert dreamt by David Ben Gurion, the founder of modern Israel. Before the road leading into the town, there is a cafeteria full of Israeli soldiers in transit to military bases. It’s the border with Gaza and the Hamas rockets.
A few kilometers from here lies Havat Shikmim, the ranch of former prime minister Ariel Sharon. Once protected and fortified, the place is now neglected. The Hamas rockets have fallen near the grave of Sharon’s wife, Lily, and the flowers placed by the general have been burned by Islamist hatred. Hamas claims the Sharon ranch, which is located near Huj, an Arab village destroyed in the war of 1948.
Sderot was once famous for having one of the highest unemployment rates in Israel. Today this poor town of North African and Soviet immigrants boasts the sad record of having received the highest number of rocket attacks by Hamas. It is now the place most at risk in Israel. But severe risk also marks other southern cities, such as Ashdod, Beersheba, Netivot, and Ashkelon, the latter of which provides much of Gaza’s electricity but nevertheless is still bombarded by Grad missiles. The fact that a large part of the country is living much as those in Sderot do—running for shelter and fearing for their lives—creates a whole new sad reality: a sense of solidarity.
Bulldozers are hard at work in Sderot. Every street is dotted with concrete huts: the bus shelters have them, the souk (market) has them, and now the cranes and bulldozers are all over town making good on the government’s promise to put a missile-proof security room in every Sderot home. A few days ago, another rocket fell into the city. The militants of the terrorist movement have been improving their missiles. The people in Sderot used to call them “toys made in the kitchen.” Then the rockets began to kill and produce an array of disabled citizens. They are no longer considered “toys.”
Sderot is preparing for the next war against Hamas. “There are 5,000 additional shelters under construction in Sderot,” says Noam Bedein, director of the Sderot Media Center. Five thousand new shelters are a huge number for a small town of just 20,000 inhabitants. That’s why Sderot was dubbed “the world capital of bomb shelters.” In the courtyard of the police station are stored the remains of the launched missiles. The red ones were launched by Hamas. The yellow rockets came from the Islamic Jihad. Since the war ended in January 2009, hundreds of new rockets have fallen into the Negev desert and its kibbutzim.
In Sderot you have only 15 seconds to find a shelter once the alarm warns that Hamas has just launched a rocket. Gaza is less than a mile from here. In Sderot, many motorists do not wear seatbelts so that they can rush out of their cars when the alarm sounds. The school on the hill bears the marks of shrapnel bombs, and the army has nestled the building under huge slabs of steel. “People abroad do not realize what is happening here,” says the mayor of Sderot, David Buskila, an Israeli of Moroccan descent, as are most of those who came to Sderot in the 1950s to found the city.
Dr. Adriana Katz is an accidental hero of this endless war, because for years she has cared for the people here. “We just did a test for chemical warfare,” says Katz, who directs the trauma center in Sderot, where all the victims in shock arrive after the missiles fall. Katz belonged to the Meretz Party of Shulamit Aloni and Peace Now. “I needed time to understand that something bothered me. When the discomfort became pain, I immediately knew I had opened myself too much to the Palestinians, [because] everything the Jews did seemed to me unjust, fascist, colonialist. Then I realized the mistakes. Israel is a hard place, but special. We won’t run away.” Every week, her trauma center receives around 150 to 170 people for medical treatment.
When the situation is critical, the children of Sderot are sent by relatives to live elsewhere in Israel. The young mothers buying socks with their children still keep an eye out for the nearest bomb shelter. They still hurry home as quickly as possible. The 24,000 residents of Sderot have come out of their bomb shelters—but slowly, hesitantly. And the signs of a new tranquility, made possible by the Gaza operation against Hamas, are seen everywhere. At night, groups of men are talking in fast-food restaurants and cafes. This was unimaginable a year and a half ago. People are still driving with the windows down so that they can hear the alarm if it sounds. In such a case, the driver must get out and lie on the ground, even if it’s raining. “A lady stopped the car without getting out and now must undergo rehabilitation because she was injured seriously by the rocket,” says Katz. “I refuse to lie down on the ground. It’s like an instinct that prevents me—it’s too humiliating.”
Usually Hamas terrorists fire rockets on Sderot during the morning, when there is the maximum concentration of Jewish children going to school. Many Holocaust survivors in the city must take sedatives and tranquilizers. In Sderot there are large stocks of medicines for the shock treatment. It is estimated that more than half the population of Sderot suffer from stress or other psychiatric syndromes. After years of missile fire on the city, groups of children are in “regression”; they do not want to sleep alone, receive low grades at school, and fear leaving home.
But this is Sderot, the involuntary capital of torn psyches: the tranquilizers Lorivan, Clonex, and Valium are in plentiful supply; the antidepressants Seroxat, Cipralex, and Cymbalta are for deeper treatment, and severe psychoses are treated with the neuroleptics Zyprexa, Geodon, and Clopixol.
The new gas masks just distributed to the population have a benign name: Candy. The mask first appeared in 1991, when Saddam Hussein’s Iraq rained rockets on Israel. In February, Israel announced a new anti-missile system known as Iron Dome. It’s the great hope of Sderot, but some analysts have serious doubts that it can protect the city. The project has cost a billion dollars—to ward off the $25-a-piece rockets of Hamas. Iron Dome takes 30 seconds to intercept a rocket, which is most probably too long for the kibbutzim in the Negev and the towns in the north of Galilee. To make matters worse, Hezbollah and Hamas now have new Iranian missiles that can reach Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
In Sderot there is a park named after a four-year-old boy, Aphik Zahavi-Ohayon, Hamas’s first victim in the city. At Givat, “the hill,” you can see Beit Hanoun. It’s Hamas territory, just half a mile away. Yet houses with red roofs, tidy and comfortable, are under construction in this hill—the most frightening face of the new Sderot’s “normality.”
The mayor of Sderot explains that “there is a real possibility that we will pass on to a new conflict against Hamas. In the future we expect a new missile wave. We have built 2,500 new shelters. New shelters will be finished for schools by the beginning of the school year. I hope to see better days, although I’m not sure.”
Yet the people of Sderot did not abandon their homes. The few families who left did so because they could afford to leave this trenched city. “People try to learn again to live, they drive with the windows closed because it is too hot,” says Dr. Katz. “Many find it difficult to separate from the vault and they sleep in the shelters. In many houses the shelters are used for games by the children.” In Katz’s clinic, you will find a shelter that looks like an anonymous waiting room: a table and a small sofa with a blanket thrown over. “An alarm can bring you back to the fears, the insomnia, and my clinic is filled with people in anguish,” says Katz. “There is a poor seller of melons that can no longer shout on a megaphone to sell his wares, because it is too similar to ‘Tzeva adom,’ the siren alarm, and someone passed out when they heard him.”
In this atmosphere of surreal “peace,” people wait. “Here we are sitting on a barrel of explosives,” says Katz. “The only question is when you blow up.”
Few can understand better the plight of Sderot than their counterparts in Kiryat Shmona, the town near the border with Lebanon. The higher you climb in Galilee, the more palpable become the security needs of Israel. The road to Kiryat Shmona, “the city of eight,” built in memory of the Jewish pioneers who came up here to defend the kibbutzim, is scorched by bombs and fires. Even the water reservoir Eskhol, named for an Israeli prime minister, is a treasure protected by an electrified fence, cameras, and armed guards. The terrorists can poison even the water.
There is silence in Kiryat Shmona. The local Israelis call it the “so called” silence because it is more the faint vibration of a war to come—the calm before the storm. As in Sderot, many houses in Kiryat Shmona are equipped today with new shelters. Row houses are interrupted by new buildings, where families can escape in case of rocket fire. The greatest fear of the 20,000 inhabitants is that the alarm will sound when their children are just down the street.
In the summer of 2006, Hezbollah launched thousands of missiles on roofs and roads. Most of the 200 public shelters of Kiryat Shmona have been restored, ready for use again. Hezbollah has just staged a new show of force in southern Lebanon against a UNIFIL contingent of international forces, triggering many accidents, especially in the area under Italian command. The “Party of God” wants to show who controls the territory, because the struggle against Israel is never finished. Kiryat Shmona can become again the first target of Shia rockets. According to Jerusalem, Hezbollah controls 160 villages in southern Lebanon, ready to become strongholds in case of war, as they did in 2006.
More than 4,000 Katyusha rockets, which have a longer range and carry a bigger explosive payload than do Kassams, fell on Kiryat Shmona between 1968 and May 2000, when the IDF withdrew from Lebanon in full compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 425. During that same period, some 20 people, according to municipality statistics, were killed as a result of rocket attacks, and another 16 as a result of terrorist activities and infiltrations. Over the same period, rockets damaged more than 6,500 homes, in addition to factories, public buildings, schools, and kindergartens, as well as cars and other vehicles. Hundreds of people were physically and psychologically wounded. Three hundred thousand Israelis were forced to move to the south, and a third of the Israeli population hid in shelters. In many cases, the city could not afford to wait for the slow government bureaucracy to build the needed shelters but turned to private charity instead. Some shelters in Kiryat Shmona, which people here have dubbed Kiryat Katyusha, were made possible thanks to donations from the American Jewish community, and Livnot U’Lehibanot is the organization that collected money to renovate defensive structures for the population in the Galilee.
During the last war, local children drew pictures of beautiful domes that protected the city from the sky. That fantasy is almost a reality. Alan Schneider, director of the Bnai Brith World Center in Jerusalem, explains what his organization is doing to help the city: “We have funded an anti-missile system made by the Elbit Systems. It can provide precious information in case of attack.” The leader of Bnai Brith is expecting another round of attacks from Hezbollah: “UNIFIL’s mission has failed, and there is frequent passage of weapons from Syria to Hezbollah. So we fear the worst. Today the Lebanese terrorists have more weapons than they had before 2006.”
Not far from here stands Metulla, the city where in 1970, Arafat’s killers murdered Jewish students and tourists. During the last war, one third of the Israeli population fled. Today there is an unreal calm. It is impressive to see that the mountains, which had become black from bombs, are now green and that the traffic is again intense. There is no trace of the effects from the explosions in Kiryat Shmona. Yet the oldest trees of Israel—oaks, pines, and carob—which had grown like children, one by one, are no more.
Unlike before and during the war, you can now stand on a terrace overlooking the villages of Ataybeh, Markab, and Telkabe—all scenes of bloody battles. In these villages, Hezbollah is still hiding weapons and taking note of Israeli movements. Behind this green quietness there is the work of rearmament and reconstruction, even in the absence of yellow Hezbollah flags and posters that displayed the head of Israelis. “From those houses up there we never see a family, a child, nothing,” the locals explain. The houses are called the “eyes of Hezbollah.”
The Golan Heights are not far. The city of Quneitra lies low and close below the hills. Here you can physically feel the strategic fragility of Israel. If Jerusalem cedes the heights to Damascus, the Syrians will be able to look inside Israel. What would happen if, instead of the Assad regime, another government took power, one with Islamist genocidal ambitions toward the nearby Jewish state?
On the Golan there are no Palestinians, only Jews and Druze, who live together in harmony. Even the Golan “settlers” are different from those of the West Bank. They are nonreligious nationalists devoted to the defense of Israel. The Druze of the surrounding villages suffer the separation from relatives across the border, and often the families speak with megaphones, asking for news of their loved ones. The Golan is a place where signs of mourning remain intact. A local artist has made sculptures from pieces of missiles and tanks. There is the gaping mouth of a house gutted by bombs. A plaque commemorates the loss of a 20-year-old son. The memorial to the Egoz brigade, which patrolled the Israeli border with Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, is not far away from 30 bronze plaques engraved with the names of the fallen.
In the settlement city of Katzrin, nobody is expecting Israel to withdraw from the Golan. The city is a pearl of modernity and Israeliness. Red-roofed houses are under construction. These abodes are cheap because their future was always uncertain. Trucks full of bottles of the famous wine of the Golan, boycotted by the anti-Israeli activists, are leaving all the time. The “settlers” are planting new vines. Before the 1967 war, the Jewish state had built a row of trees along roadsides to protect pedestrians from the Syrian snipers. Those trees are still there, silent witnesses to a truce always under discussion.
Back in Tel Aviv, the Indian conductor Zubin Mehta has just finished performing in honor of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier kidnapped by Hamas. Back in 1991, when Saddam Hussein launched his rockets on Tel Aviv, the orchestra was playing Bach when the sirens suddenly began to scream. Zubin Mehta and Isaac Stern put on gas masks. The missiles fell, but the music won. Twenty years later, Zubin Mehta is still in Tel Aviv, as Israel waits again for a new wave of rocket fire. From Sderot to Kiryat Shmona, the Jewish state faces a new terror assault. Its citizens are sheltering again. And the world that isolates and hates Israel deepens the awful wounds.