Inside the caterpillar shelter, an orange line indicates where one can safely stand beyond the range of flying shrapnel. (photo by Gil Zohar)
Miri Asulin personifies the contradictions of those who live in Israel’s cities and settlements bordering the Gaza Strip.
The 41-year-old mother of seven and principal of a brand-new elementary school in Ashkelon’s southern suburbs, 15 kilometres from the coastal enclave, commutes from her home in nearby Sderot, where she has been living for 26 years since she married. Until the barrage of 40 rockets fired from Gaza on the Sabbath of Oct. 26-27, she had dutifully and quietly followed Home Front Command orders. Though no one was killed in that bombardment, for Asulin it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Addressing a pool of journalists in an air-conditioned classroom in her fortified building – the week before this Monday’s attacks from Gaza, which included more than 300 rockets or mortar bombs that day alone – Asulin asked that we not mention the name of her school since she has not received permission from the Ministry of Education to host the media. But she is unwilling to risk holding the interview outside on a pleasant fall day, lest a Colour Red rocket alert siren begin wailing.
“After 17 years [of rocket fire], I decided not to be quiet any longer about what is happening to us in Sderot and the south,” she began. “An attack on any Jew is an attack on all the Jewish people.”
What was it like that Shabbat as the sirens went off?
“The children were screaming,” she recalled. The worst part, she said, was the feeling of helplessness in the face of a “merciless enemy. We worship life. They worship death. One side has to be defeated.”
She said, “I’m no longer willing to remain silent. I’m not a politician or a cabinet member. I’m a mother.”
Asulin has witnessed the creeping paralysis of post-traumatic stress disorder. “Children have reverted to [being] bed-wetters, afraid to go to the bathroom alone. We’re going to have a generation of IDF soldiers who are traumatized,” she warned.
Ninety-four percent of Sderot’s children have PTSD symptoms, she said.
Mental health professionals treating PTSD say the best strategy for coping with psychological warfare is to maintain one’s daily routine. But those professionals urging resilience are themselves vulnerable and suffering from chronic burnout.
Asulin couldn’t sleep all night following the rocket barrage. “My body is in trauma,” she said. “I’m in shock.”
“With a snake, you cut off its head,” she said. Calling for reprisal attacks, she urged the Israeli government to kill 10 Hamas terrorists for every rocket fired.
As visceral as Asulin’s trauma is, Sderot itself shows few signs of the 25,000 Qassam rockets and mortars that have targeted the city and nearby kibbutzim for 17 years, killing 56 people. The city of 26,000 has no shattered glass, no bomb craters and no burned-out buildings. Superficially, Sderot looks green and prosperous.
Alon Davidi was reelected mayor in the Oct. 30 municipal elections, reflecting the satisfaction – or the apathy – of Sderot’s populace.
“Sderot is one of the most bombarded cities [in the world] since World War II,” according to Noam Bedein, the founder of the Sderot Media Centre. To his abiding frustration, there is no military solution to the rockets fired intermittently from Gaza, he said.
Paradoxically, Sderot has been experiencing a construction boom in recent years, he explained. Founded in 1952 as a dumping ground for new immigrants from Morocco, the development town struggled in obscurity even as newcomers arrived from the Soviet Union, Ethiopia and India. The turning point came in 2013, he said, when the rail line opened, linking Sderot and nearby Ofakim and Netivot with Tel Aviv and Beer Sheva. Attracted by low real estate prices and tax benefits, tens of thousands of people have relocated to the former development towns and nearby communities. Construction cranes, new shopping malls and a burgeoning skyline of high-rise apartment towers reflect the wave of commuters who flock to Sderot’s underground train station. Two thousand apartments have been purchased in Sderot since the 2014 war. The population is projected to double in the coming years, to 50,000 people. Relatively few families abandon Sderot, in part because the value of their homes won’t allow them to purchase equivalent housing in the more expensive centre of Israel.
Everywhere in the city, bomb shelters have sprouted like mushrooms after a rain, making Sderot the bomb shelter capital of the world. Hoping to lower the odds in the game of Russian roulette, the ubiquitous reinforced concrete structures have been strategically placed so that one can race to a shelter anywhere in the 15 seconds notice that the siren provides. Every bus stop has an adjoining shelter.
A colourful concrete caterpillar crawls through a playground. There are no steel doors. Bedein explained that the precious seconds it takes a child to pull open a heavy door could mean the difference between life and death. Inside the caterpillar shelter, an orange line indicates where one can safely stand beyond the range of flying shrapnel.
Rabbi Ari Katz, the director of public relations at Sderot’s Hesder Yeshiva – where soldiers combine religious studies with army service for five years – has broad perspective on the rockets targeting Sderot. Originally from Chicago, he lived in Gush Katif until 2005, when the Israeli government uprooted the 8,000 Jews living in the Gaza Strip. It was that unilateral disengagement, followed by the 2007 Hamas takeover of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority, which created the conditions for the current rocket campaign, he said.
“We’re in a standing pattern, waiting to see what will be,” he said. Standing on the roof lookout point, which offers a panoramic view towards Gaza, one kilometre away, he proudly pointed to the new construction edging towards the frontier.
“They see the cranes,” he said, referring to the people of Gaza. “They think we’re crazy.”
Gil Zohar is a journalist based in Jerusalem.