by: Janet Aslin, Assistant Editor
Israel is a tiny nation whose citizens all live short distances from her borders with neighboring countries. Of course, some live closer than others and two of those borders—Gaza in the southwest, and Lebanon–Syria in the north—are very hostile. What is it like to live within sight of the Gaza border? This autumn, the Bridges for Peace Solidarity Mission visited two of those communities.
It was a peaceful, sunny day when we boarded our buses in Jerusalem for the two-hour drive to Sderot, home to 23,000 Israelis. I wasn’t sure what to expect as we headed toward the city that has been called the “bomb shelter capital of the world.” The area has been mostly quiet since the negotiated ceasefire that ended Operation Protective Edge in August 2014, but the attacks have not stopped altogether. For example, on July 1, 2016, a rocket hit an empty Sderot kindergarten and just a month before our visit, a rocket damaged a street in the city. Would we have a quiet day?
Skies were still blue as we drove into Sderot where our guide, Tom Brimmer, pointed out the bomb shelters. They were everywhere! In Jerusalem we have 90 seconds from the time we hear the Code Red Alert siren to safely get to a shelter. Here it is 15 seconds. We didn’t see many people on the streets and the bus stops, which in Jerusalem would have been crowded, were mostly empty.
Our first stop was at a police station where we were briefed by a member of the military responsible for security in the city. Along the outside wall of the building were racks of exploded rockets on display, a visual reminder that even though this day was peaceful the area has seen its share of violence. We learned that Sderot has been a city under siege for the last 16 years. Since 2001, more than 11,000 rockets have been fired from Gaza and during 51 days in the summer of 2014 more than 4, 500 fell.
The spokesman explained that mothers have had to choose which of their young children to take to the bomb shelter. The 18-year-olds now entering military service have never known anything but peace-shattering rocket attacks. Most suffer from PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) and need special understanding from their army commanders. “We don’t want your pity,” the army spokesman said. He went on to say that the Israelis who live in Sderot understand that they cannot give in to terror. Their desire is to live in peace with their neighbors across the border, but they also know that they are living on the front line.
The 21,000 square foot indoor playground and community center built for Sderot by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) provides a place for communal fun. With 15 seconds to find shelter, children cannot safely play outdoors or ride their bicycles along the streets. Large gatherings such as weddings or bar mitzvahs also need to be held in secure, bomb-proof locations in case of rocket attack. The JNF center meets both these needs as it includes a soccer field, movie theater, disco, rock climbing wall, snack area and computer center. We were able to visit the center and although the older children were in school at the time, we enjoyed watching the little ones show their prowess on the climbing wall. It is a place of hope in the face of adversity.
Next we visited Kfar Aza (Gaza Village in Hebrew), a kibbutz that is home to approximately 600 people. We were welcomed by a young woman who shared some of the history of this kibbutz. Before the most recent outbreak of violence, Kfar Aza was a thriving community which maintained excellent relationships with the Arabs who lived in Gaza. It lies even closer to the Gaza border than Sderot and after a kibbutz member was killed in 2008 by a rocket while working in his garden, many members decided to move away.
Today the kibbutz is slowly growing although it has not reached the population it had previously. Members are working to attract new families to the kibbutz through their strong community, excellent schools and good quality of life.
After this introduction we were treated to a delightful presentation by the kindergarten children of Kfar Aza. Smiling nervously, they told us how old they were and then sang several songs. Many of us knew the last one, Hine Ma Tov (Psalm 133), and joined our voices with theirs as we sang, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity.” After they left, the teacher told us a bit more. They look like normal children, but they have been affected by the violence. When they go on field trips, they always want to know, ‘Where is the safe place?’
Next we were taken on a walking tour of the kibbutz. Very quickly we came to the border fence and could see the Gazan community of Shuja’iyya. Our guide showed us where the IDF tanks had been deployed in 2014 and the location of the garden where the kibbutz member had died. On our way back to the community dining room, she pointed out one particular pathway, telling us that this had been directly targeted by a position in Gaza and how each building had sustained some damage.
The day we spent along the border with Gaza was peaceful and serene. It was difficult for me to imagine how that could change in an instant with the sound of an incoming rocket and the Code Red Alert siren blaring. For the residents of Sderot, Kfar Aza and other communities along the border the threat is all too real. Let’s pray, as the children of Kfar Aza sang, for the day when brothers will once again dwell together in unity.
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