'Nothing has changed. The army didn't finish the job'
After a one-week truce, the Israeli town of Sderot is under fire again. Lara Marlowereports
THE causus bellifor Israel’s three-week assault on the Gaza Strip is stacked on metal racks and in a glass museum case in the parking lot behind the police station: several hundred projectiles of various shapes and sizes, some rusted, others still gun-metal grey, splayed at the end that held the explosives.
There are Kassams, Nassers, Batars and Aqsas – all homemade rockets less than a metre long. There’s the newest addition to Hamas’ arsenal, the grad missile, the longest at 122mm, reportedly imported from Iran, via the Lebanese Hizbullah and tunnels under the Egyptian border.
They’re not much compared to the countless one-tonne bombs, phosphorus and heavy artillery shells that Israel rained on Gaza, but the rockets and missiles have terrified southern Israel for eight years. Though it’s impossible to obtain an exact figure for casualties, who include Israeli settlers in Gaza before the 2005 pull-out and Filipino and Thai guest workers, 18 to 20 Israelis are reported to have been killed by the projectiles since 2001.
And this small, working class town, population 23,700, has been on the front line. Police estimate 9,000 of the 11,000 projectiles fired from the Gaza Strip have landed in greater Sderot. “A lot fell in open fields, and we didn’t find them, including the one this morning,” says the duty police officer.
Hamas fired two rockets from the Gaza Strip yesterday. One exploded in the Sderot area, the other near Ofakim. The fact that rockets are again being fired, after a one-week truce, and that the tunnels under Rafah are back in operation, have led to grumbling. “Nothing has changed. The army didn’t finish the job,” I heard several times yesterday.
It’s hard to believe this tidy town is only a few kilometres from the misery of Gaza. If it weren’t for the blue and white Israeli flags that flutter from every lamp post and garden wall, you might think you were in southern California.
The flags give Sderot a festive feeling, like a beach resort, with its falafel stands and coca-cola signs. Small villas are surrounded by flowering shrubs. Palm and eucalyptus trees grow in profusion.
Enclosed, concrete shelters at every bus stop, and throughout the town, are the only sign of danger, identical to the “duck and cover” shelters in the Green Zone in Baghdad. “Tzeva Adom” (red code alert) are words you hear often. Each time the siren sounds, everyone heads for a shelter.
Police say 75 per cent of the population fled during the war, but for those who remained, the bombing of Gaza was entertainment. “All the teenagers went to Hagiva (the hill), because it was exciting; it was action. It’s a bit boring here,” says Anna Kutikov, of the Sderot media centre.
Barack Obama and John McCain visited Sderot during the US presidential election campaign. Obama famously said that if someone fired rockets at his house while his daughters slept, he’d do something about it.
“It’s easy to come here and say that,” says Kutikov. “But when it happens, world opinion is against us. If it happened to them, they would do the same thing.”
The last person to be killed by a Kassam rocket in Sderot was Roni Yehia, a middle-aged soldier on sabbatical leave who was doing a degree at Sapir College. Yehia was a few metres from the main entrance of the college when a Kassam exploded on February 27th, 2008. “I was 50 metres away when it hit,” says Ernesto Pinkhasov, an immigrant from the Russian Caucasus and a security guard at the college. “I saw his heart outside his body. I tried to push it back in. He had four broken ribs. He was trying to speak. He died in my arms.”
Pinkhasov’s fellow security guard, Uzi Azran, worries about him. “He tells me: ‘Uzi, I wake up at night and I see people dying in my arms and I feel helpless. I need to talk to someone about it, but I’m afraid the government will take my gun away if they know I see a psychologist.’ ”
Azran was deployed with the Israeli Defence Forces in the Gaza Strip from 1989 until 1992, during the first Intifada. He drove a jeep set alight by a Molotov cocktail, and says he escaped death at the hands of a lynch mob: “I saw a psychologist every week for two months; it helped get it out of me.”
Pinkhasov’s trauma seems deeper. By a twist of fate, he is probably the only Israeli who has seen four people die from Kassam rockets. The first were two immigrant Ethiopian children, who lived in his neighbourhood, in 2001. In January 2005, Pinkhasov was driving when he saw a rocket hit Elah Abecassis (17), in his rear view mirror. “She was in a shelter, but she ran out to save her little brother. She threw herself on top of him,” he recounts.
The day before Roni Yehia was killed, Pinkhasov’s house was hit by a Kassam. “It keeps adding up in your brain, until you feel your head will burst,” he says. “I was happy when the war started, because I live in Sderot. We didn’t have a choice,” he adds, a sentiment which opinion polls show to have been that of between 80 and 90 per cent of Israelis.
Azran and Pinkhasov play a television video they’ve saved on the computer in the security guards’ station. Fast-moving and set to music, it shows images of destruction, the wounded and dead over the past eight years. It reminds me of similar videos on Arab networks, except the time span is much longer, and the victims are Israeli.
Intercut with the rubble and gore is a blurry grey image of what is allegedly the interior of a mosque in Gaza. “They must be butchered and they must be killed,” says the caption, attributed to Hamas, in Hebrew and in English. Hamas is utterly, totally demonised in the eyes of Israelis. “I hate Hamas,” says Azran. “They are exactly like Nazis. They want to kill Jews.”