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Dodging Rockets in Southern Israel

November 20, 2012 11:02 am 1 comment

Shrapnel blasted building in Southern Israel. Photo: Sderot Media Center.

I’ve been to the Western Negev town of Sderot more times than I can count. For nearly three years from 2008-2010, I was in the beleaguered city regularly, as many as 2-3 times a week, doing PR work for the town’s Hesder Yeshiva. Therefore I am hardly a stranger to the Tzeva Adom (code red) early warning system and having to literally run for my life to the nearest shelter within 15 seconds. But my visit to Sderot yesterday was like no other.  In short, Sderot is a real life warzone. Along with Ashkelon, Ashdod, Be’er Sheva, all the border kibbutzim, and other cities and towns within 40km of Gaza (or perhaps 50km, 60km and 70km), the fact is that at least one million Israelis are under daily terror from rocket fire, carried out by Hamas and their affiliates.

As we know, Hamas is committing a double war crime – firing indiscriminately at Israel, while using human shields by launching their attacks while embedded within their own population centers.

When I arrived in Sderot at around 9AM, the roads were deserted. A few brave souls were walking the streets and several municipal crews were providing their standard services. Other than that, there were very few cars on the road, and there was very little pedestrian traffic.

Just to back up for a second, the goal of my visit was simply to show support for the people of the town, which I consider my second home.  After being there so many times, I have developed personal relationships with the local supermarket owner, members of the police force, Noam Bedein, the Director of the only full time media center in the area, and of course many of the teachers, staff members and students at the Hesder. I also had with me a bag full of art supplies and toys donated by residents of Efrat to deliver to the children of the area so that they would have something to do while stranded in bomb shelters for days on end.

Schools and businesses have in fact been closed for nearly a week, which in itself is no doubt causing much frustration and stress at home as people are constrained to small spaces, usually their shelters.  I got out of my car near the center of town, and it was a media circus.  All types of journalists and their crews both national and foreign – whether TV, print, radio etc. were scrambling to gather information. The mayor of Sderot was roaming with the press, stopping to shake hands with the few brave locals out and about to show support. MK Yitzhak “Buji” Herzog (Labor) was speaking to Fox News Radio, and Israel’s Channel 2 with a staff of nearly 10 people, was camped out, cameras ready to go live, in two strategic locations.  I approached one of the Channel 2 crews and asked if they wanted some sound bytes from an out-of-towner, which they were happy to have.  As I was waiting for my live interview,  (audio only, but here is the link in Hebrew)  an older woman with a broken arm walked by the makeshift set. “What happened?” I asked. “I broke my arm this week after falling running to the shelter during a rocket attack. I had just washed the floor and it was slippery,” she said. “Get well soon I replied.”  I wondered – was this woman included on any of the daily rocket injury reports? Or perhaps she was ignored when the press reported “No injuries and no damage” since the rocket which caused her to fall seeking cover landed in an open area.  But what about this woman? Doesn’t she count? What about the dozens of others who go into shock and whose injuries, either physical or psychological, also don’t make it into the headlines? Or the children in Sderot, where between 75-90% have been suffering for over a decade from symptoms of PTSD from the rockets, and who are not receiving the necessary psychological care they need since services are lacking?

I gave my interview, broken Hebrew and all, (pausing several times as booms rang out in the distance) and moved on down the road in the direction of the police station.  Other journalists were roaming in that area including Matthew Bell, a radio journalist who reports for PRI’s the World (a co-production of BBC World Service, Public Radio International, and WGBH Boston – all code for – “you can hear this biased anti-Israel show on National Public Radio, or NPR,” in America).  I decided to reach out to Matt. I introduced myself and offered to give him my take on the situation for his show. He was also happy to get some sound in English and we spoke on mic for several minutes. “What should Israel be doing to end the conflict?” he asked.  I explained that in my opinion, after 12 years and 13,000 rocket attacks on our civilian population Israel’s only two options are to destroy Hamas, or to turn off the electricity in Gaza, so that they can’t use Israeli power to build and fire their weapons.  Hopefully if we choose the latter, the people of Gaza – who will see that their troubles are a result of their leadership’s aggression, will decide for themselves that enough is enough and Hamas must go. (After getting to know Matt – see below – I was not surprised when listening to the show on-demand after it aired, why I was edited out. The only two voices he decided to air were extremes on both sides – one Israeli saying essentially “give peace a chance” and another saying “bomb them bomb them” over and over.)

After the interview, I asked Matt if he wanted to go get a front row seat to the war, and I offered to take him to the “Golani tree” outlook, just several hundred meters from the border.  He agreed so we hopped in his car and were on our way.  Matt turned to me and admitted, “I’m glad I wasn’t asked to go into Gaza to cover the war.” “Why’s that,” I asked, assuming he would say ‘because of the dangers of entering a war zone.’ Instead he said, “Because I don’t think I could handle seeing dead and wounded children in Gaza.” Fair enough I thought. But then I asked him, “Did you hear about the three Israelis murdered in Kiryat Melachi, and the baby who was wounded?” Without a change in his tone or an ounce of regret or sympathy, Matt says, “yeah I was there,” and not one word more.  And I’m left thinking, ‘you have no remorse for 3 Israelis murdered and a bloody Jewish baby, but you don’t want to go into Gaza, just in case you might see Arab children hurt?’ While I’m familiar with years of skewed anti-Israel coverage on “The World” and many other NPR affiliated shows, now I truly knew with whom I was dealing.

Despite his obvious bias, I kept quiet as we drove up to the lookout point.  The Golani lookout point, West of Sderot with a clear view into Gaza, is the same place where in 2009, the foreign press spent “Operation Cast Lead” covering the war, as during that battle, the foreign press was banned from entering Gaza, based on Israel’s logic, that they wouldn’t report the truth anyway.  We arrived at the outlook, and several other camera crews, mainly British TV stations, joined soon after for this optimal vantage point.  Less than 5 minutes later, the ground shook around us after we saw a huge explosion just several kilometers to the West. The IDF somehow (maybe using a drone? Tank shell? Fighter plane?) succeeded in a direct hit on a terror target – a building in Beit Hanun, the closest border city.  The building appeared destroyed on impact with a plume of black smoke rising through the air.

Before. Photo: Josh Hasten

After. Photo: Josh Hasten

As the camera crews filmed away, all of a sudden I noticed a streaking white line streaming through the sky. The line started no doubt from the middle of a populated area in Gaza, and was heading towards one of the Israeli Kibbutzim on the border.  This was the first time I’d had ever seen an enemy rocket in flight.  A small boom was heard shortly after, as the rocket made impact but had not landed in the direction of our position.  It’s important to remember that in addition to Sderot, the Kibbutzim along the border – Nir Am, Kfar Aza, Sa’ad, and many more, while often neglected by the press, have suffered on an equal level to Sderot over the past 12 years.

Then it was our turn.  From behind us in Sderot we heard the dreaded Tzeva Adom blaring on speakers throughout the town.  I felt a pit in my stomach as I knew a rocket was headed our way, and we were essentially in an open area, without shelters.  On instinct I crouched behind the trunk of the massive Golani tree itself, with my body facing the Northwest corner of Sderot just in time to see a rocket land with a large thud to the North (just West of Sderot) in an open field, not more than several hundred meters away from our position.  I had seen enough.  Matt wanted to stay in hopes of capturing more action (yes, war sells), while I decided to hitch a ride back to Sderot with two locals who had also joined us on the hill to watch the war as it happened – since they had nothing better to do on a Monday morning, as both men hadn’t been to work in nearly a week with factories and large businesses closed because of the war.   They dropped me off at my car in the center of town, and I decided to grab some lunch in the nearby mini-mall before heading to Jerusalem. Thirty seconds after I started driving, there it was again, ‘Tzeva Adom.’ I quickly jumped out of the car, leaving it running, and while looking in all directions quickly realized that I was caught in no-man’s-land. Not a shelter in site.  So I did what the home-front command recommends in that situation, I lied down on the ground, hands over my head along a small retaining wall made out of rock, putting the wall between myself and Gaza to the West.   It was then that I heard the ‘symphonies of this war.’  First a loud whooshing noise with a boom. Thinking that a rocket had just landed, perhaps in an open area and the incident had finished, I started to get up. Seconds later and what seemed to be directly over my head, there was a huge explosion.  I looked up to see a cloud of smoke in the sky.  Turns out the first sound wasn’t the Kassam, but the launch of a missile coming from the IDF’s Iron Dome defensive missile system, targeting the inbound rocket.  The second enormous boom was in fact the successful impact, blowing the rocket out of the sky. Gaining my bearings after witnessing this abnormal reality firsthand, I got back in my car and quickly (windows down, no seat belt on) made my way to the coffee house to grab lunch. I felt at that point that I had to be indoors.  I walked into the coffee house, and was literally the only patron. I asked the owner who was sitting with a group of friends outside drinking coffee and smoking, if in fact they were open. “Betach (for sure) he said.” Sensing that I was a little shaken from my rocket encounter overhead, he assured me that I could relax and eat in peace. “Oh you have a bomb shelter?” I asked. “No, he said, but there is a shelter just over there,” pointing to an opening near another store in the mini-mall.  “Don’t worry,” he said, “if there is another attack, you’ll have plenty of time to get there, trust me I know.”  How calm he was. How calm all his friends were.

That is the sick reality of the situation. 12 years of attacks, and for the locals, the rockets are just a part of their daily lives. So this week, there is no school and no work, what do you do? Sit at the coffee house, run for shelter when necessary, and go back to sitting as if nothing happened.  Nothing normal about this at all.

I finished lunch and decided it was time to head for Jerusalem. I guess Hamas wanted to say goodbye because as I approached the exit of the city, there it was again, ‘Tzeva Adom’. I quickly pulled over smashing my car into a curb, and tried to get out as soon as possible. After spilling an entire Coke Zero on myself and untangling my foot from my phone charger, I managed to reach a nearby bus-stop shelter.  For those who don’t know, ALL bus stops in Sderot are now shelters.  I entered the shelter only to find myself ankle high in some form of liquid, which I discovered was a putrid combination of urine and water. The local Russian Oleh who had made it inside seconds earlier said to me, “they must have just cleaned it in here, that’s why there is so much water.” ‘Cleaned it?’ I thought to myself. Dumping water over urine in a closed area just spreads the urine all over the shelter without actually cleaning it.  The man could see I was nervous then said “I can tell you aren’t from here.” I admitted that he was correct, but I told him that while I wasn’t a resident, I had plenty of experience running from rockets, but today was just especially crazy. Seconds later, another resident, this time a woman, also speaking with a Russian accent, popped into the shelter. “Why are you guys still in there?” she asked. “I already heard the boom.” Apparently she had been in the shelter’s doorway and hadn’t even bothered to step all the way inside the urine-infested cubicle.

I got back into my car, and drove away and out of the city.  With the windows still down and my seatbelt unbuckled, I couldn’t tell if it was in fact real, or just my mind playing tricks on me, but I could have sworn that driving North on Route 232, making my way back to Jerusalem, I could hear the “Tzeva Adom” blaring throughout the communities to my left, between my car in Gaza.  ‘At what point should I buckle up?’ I thought.

With rockets raining down on communities as far away as Kiryat Gat, Tel-Aviv, and yes, Gush Etzion, and Jerusalem, in reality during the entire drive to Jerusalem I would  potentially be under fire.  I decided at Kiryat Gat that I would buckle up. I made it back to Jerusalem both physically and mentally exhausted.  All of that just from several hours in the South. Imagine if you can, living like that for 12 years, day in and day out.  I certainly can’t.

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