17 January 2009
Mike Robin Bailey, Media and Advocacy Manager for Oxfam in Jerusalem reports on his recent trip to Sderot.
Pale blue skies hold feathery white clouds far above my Oxfam colleague and I as we arrive in Sderot. Blue and white Israeli flags flutter on cars and lampposts and bright new blue and white paint stripes the parking areas. It is quiet, a mid morning calm echoing the daily three hour lull in the fighting in progress 10 kilometres away in Gaza.
We talk with Shimrit who grew up in Sderot and now lives in a kibbutz close to Gaza. She tells us how growing up with the threat of rockets has affected her. "I'm always listening for the warning, always looking for where the nearest shelter is. I drive the car with the window down and the music low, I stay close to town where I can get to a shelter. She tells us she relaxed three months into the recent truce but all that was quickly a memory after the beginning of November when the Israeli incursions and the rockets restarted. She shows us the shelter where volunteers from all over Israel come to run services for children in Sderot's shelter schools and kindergartens. The collection of young men and women are smoking and sleeping and planning the next clown shows to keep Sderot's cooped up children entertained. Shimrit spends her time now fundraising to pay for the entertainers and special services the children need. She is uncomfortable about the war but like everyone in Sderot she wants the rockets to stop.
Next we meet Sivan, a young woman who elected to come from her home in the Galilee to study at the Sapir College in Sderot because she felt people in Sderot are forgotten but now finds herself very worried about the people of Gaza as well. She explains how her views about the war in Gaza are out of step with her family and her fellow students. "I have lots of friends but few I can have political discussions with and even them I avoid now because we always end up shouting at each other. My father isn't talking to me at the moment either." Sivan tells us. She feels so strongly about her convictions she is organising a campaign to encourage fellow students to refuse to attend classes while people are dying in a war within earshot of the college. Sivan says she has seen the pictures of the horrors that are happening in Gaza, the dead children, the terror and grief. What she asks for are pictures of everyday life there, of ordinary people to help her make her fellow students think about the majority of people under shell fire in Gaza who are not Hamas fighters.
We are joined by Mor who is the field coordinator of Mahpach, an Israeli civil society organisation that works with Jewish and Arab communities in Israel. The community she works with in the Kasdo district of Sderot is amongst the poorest with a large number of single mothers and immigrants. She tells us that people in her community used to meet Israeli Arab community members from Nazareth but she doubts many will turn up to the next meeting of the community committees where this cooperation takes place. Now that there are people being bombarded in Gaza people in the Kasdo community feel conflicting emotions because their sympathy for poor people like them in Gaza is at odds with the pride they feel in Israel and the Israeli army. "They don't like to think about it because they want the peace and quiet so much. They feel relieved something is happening at last to stop the rockets," she tells us.
As if to demonstrate, we are shocked into action by "Seva Adom, Seva Adom, (Code Red, Code Red)" shouted urgently over the tannoy. We have only got halfway down the stairs from the college canteen where we had been sitting when we heard five distant crumps as rockets exploded. Panic over, we returned to our table in the deserted canteen. Sivan explains that many students have stayed away, in one class where there should be 50 students only 4 attended this morning. At weekends Sderot is a ghost town she tells us, everyone who can goes somewhere else.
A common theme emerges from these discussions. People in Sderot are exhausted from listening out for rocket warnings and running to shelters. They want peace and quiet so much they don't want to think of what is happening to their neighbours in Gaza. "It's made easier by what we are told, that Arabs fire the rockets, that Arabs are bad." Shimrit told us. Hardly surprising then that when I got a mobile call from my colleague in Gaza she was amazed by the ease of communication with someone only ten kilometres away.
Driving back through Sderot towards Jerusalem we pass scar marks in the road where exploding rockets have gouged their distinctive star pattern. A last reminder that the danger from Palestinian rockets is real though clearly of a different magnitude than the might of the force being directed at Gaza.