Sderot, a small Israeli town at the northern tip of the Negev desert, lies a mere kilometre away from the Gaza Strip. It has gained international attention as a primary target for Palestinian rocket attacks. The level of international media interest in Sderot is such that many of its community representatives apologetically end an interview short to move onto another media appointment.
Despite its reputation, Sderot does not immediately come across as a war zone. It instead resembles an outer suburb in any developed country, the type with mostly new, double storey buildings and large vacant patches of land ripe for development. Much of the surrounding land is hilly farmland.
Occasionally, the otherwise quiet town is interrupted by the sound of a booming alarm. A radar warning system gives residents a mere 10 or 12 seconds to seek shelter from an impending rocket from Gaza. Lining Sderot’s main streets are a string of bunkers and fortified bus stops. Twice while I was in Sderot the ominous alarm sounded and I rushed, in the midst of an interview on each occasion, to the nearest shelter.
"I think we’re safe," one of my hosts advises, "it didn’t land near here." Although the rocket attacks have taken a serious economic and psychological toll on the population, damaged buildings and killed five people this year, Sderot is perhaps one of the safest war zones in the world. Over a hundred Palestinian civilians have been killed in Israeli attacks on Gaza in the same period.
Sderot was first established in 1951 as a transit camp for Mizrahi Jews, mostly from Morocco and Kurdistan, who were entering the newly created state of Israel. They were deliberately settled opposite Gaza to counter the refugee camps that had become home to ousted Palestinians. The early decades were difficult for Sderot’s people. Mizrahi Jews faced much discrimination from Israel’s European Jewish population. According to Itzhak Sharma, an Iraqi Jew who now lives in Tel Aviv, the early State of Israel was "like apartheid" for the Mizrahim. The Israeli Government gave limited provision for developing Sderot from the 1950s to 1980s.
Even now many residents complain that the Government is not investing enough in measures to protect them from rocket attacks. But the situation is far better for Mizrahi Jews in Sderot now. Indeed they have become the most established community and the past three decades have seen further waves of Jewish immigration from Yemen, Russia and Ethiopia. A local council spokesperson told me there are also approximately 50 Palestinian collaborator families although it proved impossible to contact any of them directly. Sderot’s population is now around 20,000.
After the 1967 Six Day War, Sderot’s residents – especially those formerly from Arab countries – traveled to Gaza for goods and services. Today, Gaza is completely closed off to ordinary Israelis and the relationship has been replaced with Qassam rockets, the home made projectiles fired from Gaza into Israel, and invasions of Gaza by Israel’s powerful army and airforce.
Nomika, a peace activist and founding member of Urban Kibbutz, told me that some of Sderot’s residents chanted "death to the Arabs" when the Qassam rockets started killing people in 2004. Israeli politicians fueled this hatred with promises to "raze Gaza" or to "turn off the water". In March this year Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai threatened a "shoah", the Hebrew word used to describe the Holocaust, on Gazans if rocket attacks on Israel did not stop.
"This horrifies me. [But] they do not represent the entire community. We are complex, cosmopolitan … multi-cultural [and]multi-trib[al]and there is no one point of view."
But even Nomika is loathe to ignore the threat of the Qassams.
"I used to think I was a strong person. But after seven years of Qassams I feel vulnerable, weak and emotionally traumatised … you feel like you could die at any time." I visited Sderot a day after a Hamas mortar attack from Gaza killed a man, Jimmy Kedoshim, while he was working in the garden at Kibbutz Kfar Aza, a town just west of Sderot. "It’s extremely peaceful here and then suddenly you start getting a bunch of alerts and rockets [start]falling."
Along with the trauma occasioned by the rocket attacks, the town is economically depressed. Several businesses have left or refuse to invest in Sderot due to the rocket attacks. The town currently has one of the highest unemployment rates in Israel. For these reasons, people are leaving Sderot in increasing numbers although many insist on staying. One person who is staying is Eric, a father with a young family and the director of a local IT company.
"I’ve built my life here. To leave would mean, you know, leaving the place I’ve chosen to live, people I’ve chosen to live with … I don’t want to surrender to the conflict [but by that]I don’t mean surrender to the other side [the Palestinians]."
"The house right across the street was hit. It’s not like World War II but it’s a long term, ongoing kind of action that is causing a lot of insecurity and tension and anxiety. So people are traumatised even though there’s no colossal damage … of course [there’s] the bombs that Israel sends to Gaza. But that doesn’t change the fact that you can’t find one person in Sderot who’s not been traumatised in one way or another by this endless conflict."
As I walked around Sderot, I could hear the intermittent boom of Israeli jets thundering over Gaza in the distance. Although physically separated there is no mistaking that Gaza and Sderot are linked.
"Well, it’s sad to say but we [residents of Gaza and Sderot]share a common pain," Eric tells me. "We don’t feel that we’re bringing up our families in a safe environment and the economy here is deteriorating because people do not want to invest in areas that are conflict zones."
To convey this common pain, Eric created a blog with a man from Beit Hanoun, the closest town to Sderot in Gaza, known as Peace Man. You can read their regular entries at gaza-sderot.blogspot.com.
"We started the blog … [to]bring some knowledge to the world about what’s happening to both sides in a way that’s not just showing the pain and the suffering of one side."
"Basically it’s just two people who are connecting and this is an example of what I feel can be done by many, we can connect… they’re just human beings, like we are. All they want is quiet, peace, honorable living – just what people in Australia want."
Eric turns to me after a rocket attack interrupts our interview. "It’s much more difficult to build things than to destroy them. It’s a very tedious and difficult path, but it’s something that has to keep going. Otherwise, what’s the use?"
Mustafa Qadri will be reporting for newmatilda.com from Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories over the next month. He will be documenting the human cost of the conflict for ordinary Israelis and Palestinians.
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