We walk downstairs and underground into a bomb shelter where the Sderot municipality is housed. The first words from Shalom Halevi, a Sderot native and city representative: “I understand that there are those of you who are frightened. Be cool Don’t be frightened. We are living like this 11 years.”
Over the past 11 years, thousands of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip have targeted Sderot, a city in the western Negev that lies less than a mile from the border. Over 1,800 rockets have hit the city in the last three years alone.
Rockets outside of the Sderot police station.
The city’s name, meaning “boulevard,” refers to its placement in a network of avenues of trees planted in the Negev to fight desertification and beautify the arid landscape, evoking Ben Gurion’s efforts to “make the desert bloom,” a central tenant in Zionist ideology. Sderot was founded in 1951 as a transit camp for Mizrahi immigrants fleeing as part of the Jewish exodus from Arab and Muslim countries. They lived in the desert, housed in tents and shacks, until the government began constructing small apartments for the residents in 1954. Throughout the following decades, different immigrant groups flowed in from Romania, Ethiopia, Bucharia, and the Ukraine, culminating in the Russian aliyah in the 1990s, during which the city absorbed so many new immigrants that Sderot doubled its population. The diversity of immigrants absorbed means that Sderot is not without its social and economic problems. Sderot is a city of many different immigrant communities, complicating social cohesion, but it is also one that is deeply economically depressed. Despite government efforts to create housing and factories, the city holds one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.
As Halevi recounts, this community “lived a quiet and regular life.” Before the intifada, residents of Sderot and Gaza traveled freely back and forth, exchanging goods and services, and crossing borders for employment opportunities and socializing. This lasted until the Oslo Accords, when peace became an empty word in Israel and only made things worse.
The situation intensified when the rockets began in April 2001. At first they only caused slight damage and some fear but by the summer of 2004, Hamas and Islamic Jihad had developed rockets that traveled farther beyond the periphery, exploded deeper in the city, and caused more extensive damage. The attacks worsened following the disengagement in 2005 and became even more severe after the elections of Hamas in 2006. Hamas began firing Grad rockets, penetrating deeper into Israel and hitting the cities of Ashkleon, Beer Sheva, Ashdod and Eilat. Since 2004, rocket attacks have killed eleven residents of Sderot and severely wounded many more who were unable to access a shelter within the fifteen seconds it takes from the moment the rocket is fired in Gaza until impact.
The last alarm, Halevi told us, was two nights ago when a rocket was exploded in an empty area. The Iron Dome, installed in March 2011, intercepts 90% of rockets, with an estimated cost of each interceptor missile at $35,000–50,000. The various terrorist organizations use different styles of rockets made from pipes and filled with bolts that spread about 200 meters from the point of explosion. The rockets are named for heroes and places—al Quds (Jerusalem), Nasser, al Qassam—which are written in Hebrew on the rockets before they are launched.
With the daily barrage of rockets between 2007 and 2008, 6,000 people or 20% of the population left the city. In June 2008, 10-60 rockets fell everyday for 6 months. The residents were psychologically, financially, and emotionally exhausted and felt as though the government was not doing enough to protect them. Employees left. Businesses closed in an already economically depressed area. When asked why people have stayed, Halevi responded, “You can run from Sderot but the rockets will eventually go farther and farther. You will be running your entire life.” The truth, however, seems to be more an issue of finances; those who could afford to leave the city did so, leaving the poorest of the poor behind.
Living in a perpetual state of fear has deep effects. Residents describe the extreme stress, fear and anxiety created by the need to make regular life-or-death decisions. You are driving children to school. The alarm goes off and you have to get all the children unbuckled and into a shelter. You only have 15 seconds, not enough time to save all of the children. Who do you choose? It all gradually wears down your defense system, making you more and more vulnerable. People are emotionally wounded if not physically. Children are afraid to sleep in their rooms, to go to school. A 2007 survey showed that 75% of the city suffers from trauma. 1,000 residents receive psychiatric treatment at the community mental health center. They are raising a generation of children with PTSD without the Post.
Today, all schools, kindergartens, and day care centers are built as bomb shelters. The High Court ordered every apartment to have its own shelter, which works out to about 5,500 shelters. Over 100 sheltered bus stops line the streets. It is a town of shelters.
How do you live a normal life in an abnormal situation? The residents of Sderot have no choice but to continue on. “We must believe,” Halevi tells us, “that our life will be more and more better and what happened with families that arrived 20 years ago, their children are born here and will grow here. It will be better in the future.”