Wartime in Israel: What it looks like from Sderot

Republished with permission from the blog on the 'SDEROT: Rock in the Red Zone' Website. The posting's writer is Laura Bialis, the American director/producer of the documentary 'SDEROT: Rock in the Red Zone.' Bialis has spent the last year in Sderot on this project, and (mazel tov!) has gotten married to Avi, one of the subject of the film.

January 6th, 2009
These have been interesting days. For the last week, I’ve wanted to write my experiences and share them with all of you. To be honest, it’s been hard to concentrate. I’ve been busy — I’ve been trying to capture as much as possible with my video camera. I used to have a crew, but my two usual shooters are afraid to come to Sderot right now. So I’m on my own, except for my husband, who has become my assistant cameraperson because he won’t let me out of his sight. We’ve made a pact to try to stay together as much as possible so we don’t worry about each other.

I want to describe what it looks like – and sounds like –- from here.

Every morning, we are awakened by the Tzeva Adom alert. This is one of the most bizarre air raids in history. It starts with the click of a loudspeaker, and then a calm woman’s voice says “Tzeva Adom (Color Red), Tzeva Adom (Color Red)” over and over again. The alert has been difficult to hear at times, especially if you were playing music or watching TV. Last week, two soldiers from the Home Command Unit appeared at our door and handed us a home beeper system that goes off two seconds before the Tzeva Adom alert. So now the loud beeper sound is added to the repertoire.

The moment of the alert, my husband Avi and I jump out of bed and run to our Mamad – our bomb shelter. We huddle there and hug each other waiting to hear the explosion. Sometimes it’s a distant thud. Sometimes it is terrifyingly close, and our house shakes. After about twenty seconds, it’s over. They say that you have a fifteen second warning. Actually, it varies. And once in a while, you will hear a Qassam land without a Tzeva Adom alert. Those are the worst times, because that means there is a very decent chance that someone has been hurt.

Here in Sderot, we are accustomed to Tzeva Adom alerts on a weekly and even daily basis. But last week, the situation reached a new level. On Wednesday, December 24, we received over 60 rockets. The following Saturday, we heard a new sound – airstrikes. It was a strange moment. Finally, after eight years, Israel was taking action. Since then, the Qassam attacks have been endless. In the old days, we knew there could be a Tzeva Adom alert. Now we know there will be.

This week, there have been approximately 10 Tzeva Adom alerts in Sderot every day (some days more, some days less.) Keep in mind – each Tzeva Adom is accompanied by two to four exploding rockets.

So this is how we live. We stay alert at all times. If Avi takes a shower, I need to be nearby listening for the alert, ready to grab him out of the shower if need be (and vice versa). If we drive somewhere, we tune our radio to channel 104, the army channel. All Tzeva Adom alerts are broadcast on that station, so you can immediately get out of your car and run for cover. We also drive with seat belts off, and windows open, just in case. (Several of the people who have died from Qassams were in their cars when the attack occurred.)

Where do we run? Well, Sderot is pretty well prepared. There are bomb shelters of every shape and size everywhere you look – almost every ten meters you have one. The idea is that you are always within fifteen seconds of a shelter. However, this concept is flawed in its execution. Some areas are covered with shelters. But some residential streets have none. If you are on a residential street in the middle of a Tzeva Adom alert, you run into the nearest house. This is what happened today. As we heard the alert, we saw a flash of two people in front of our house. We ran, opened the door, and the two young guys followed us, running into our bomb shelter. We waited to hear the explosions, they thanked us and were on their way.

Another issue - not all homes have bomb shelters. In fact, several of my friends don’t have one, and fifteen seconds are not long enough for them to reach the public shelter. They usually crouch under a stairwell hoping everything will be okay.

But ironically, Sderot is probably the safest place in Southern Israel at the moment. Because now the entire South is being hit: Ashkelon, Ashdod, Be’er Sheva, and Netivot, among others… We have friends in these cities, and when the bombs started to fall there, they were in shock for days. They are less prepared than us. There are not bomb shelters lining the streets of these towns, but fewer, larger community shelters where now many people are sleeping. While we definitely feel a sense of solidarity, the fact that large part of the country is living much like us – running for shelter and fearing for their lives – creates a whole new sad reality.

When I first came to Sderot I didn’t run to the shelter. The threat seemed so random. It seemed almost impossible that you were going to be hurt. The fear of Qassams is something that takes a while. It grows on you. Because now, I know too many people with near misses. I have a friend who reluctantly left his bed to go the shelter. He was lucky he decided to go, because the Qassam landed directly on his bed, where he had been sleeping a few seconds earlier. I have another friend who miraculously survived a Qassam hit on her house. She is okay after massive rehab, but she has shrapnel in her brain that is too deep to remove. And I have friends who have seen people killed by Qassams – right before their eyes.

I often feel that the international press doesn’t get it. They make light of the rockets. Because when you come to Sderot for one day, the attacks seem random and you feel somehow immune from harm. The words “amateur homemade rockets” that I see written in most major news publications, make the threat seem less serious. But the fact is, these rockets are nothing other than bombs, falling from the sky, designed to kill civilians. And they do.

The press usually focuses on the number of dead people. If these Qassams are really dangerous, why haven’t more people died? Good question. Thousands of lives have been saved by the 15-second warning system. With over 10,000 rockets that have landed in this area in the past eight years, there would most likely be hundreds killed if not thousands. But the fact that we know when the rockets are coming, saves our lives. Still, is this any way to live? Can you imagine this happening in any city in America or Europe?

On Sunday, I filmed a home that had been completely destroyed that morning. It was a small, three-room place. No bomb shelter, but miraculously, the room where the owner took cover wasn’t hit. The rest of the house was demolished. I’ve seen tons of footage of destroyed homes in Sderot, and filmed in broken houses. But I had never set foot on fresh rubble just a few hours old. I was shaken. That house was struck by a Qassam, which is approximately 6-8 kilos of explosives attached to a metal tube with fins. Last night we were informed of new intelligence that Hamas intends to begin shooting Grads into Sderot. Grads are twice the size of Qassams and are what Hamas uses to bomb the further cities like Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Be’er Sheva. Now you know why my cameraman has headed out of town.

Besides the Qassams, there are other developments. Being about one mile away from Gaza, we can hear everything. The insanely loud sound of bombs being dropped from airplanes, F-16s, helicopters, helicopter guns, mortars, tank shells… these sounds have now become the soundtrack of our lives.

When I first came here over a year and a half ago, Sderot was almost like a ghost town. Now the international media has descended on us in droves. There are TV trucks and cameramen everywhere you look, and reporters from every network, broadcasting in every language from the hilltops and town corners. At least my friends who own Coffee To Go, the local café, are finally getting some business. (When I first arrived here and hadn’t yet found a house, Avi used to joke that I was single-handedly keeping the place afloat.)

For me it’s interesting. Sderot is a small place, and after a while, you recognize most people you see in the supermarket, café or falafel stand. For months I must have seemed to Sderot’s citizens like “that strange American girl wandering around with a camera.” Now after a year here, I feel like a local. With the town full of foreigners, I really feel like this is my town. That I am one of the people that they are here to film, running to the bomb shelter during a Tzeva Adom alert.

All around, you just feel war. People stay in their houses, schools are closed. “Learning Together,” a wartime television program broadcasts daily high school classes for kids who can’t go to school. The classes are taught by famous Israeli writers, poets, and philosophers.

The war is the only thing people talk about. It’s hard to get things done. It’s hard to keep ourselves from watching the news all day. And the weirdest thing is to watch the news about something that just happened a block away. When you realize that you are the news. Two nights ago we sat in Coffee To Go for dinner. Suddenly, Tzeva Adom. We ran to the interior of the room, away from the glass storefront. The Qassam exploded just across the street — the café rocked with the blast. Journalists who had been on a coffee break raced out to try and get their shots. Five minutes later, a large-screen TV above our heads was broadcasting the update from Sderot – including what we had just felt and heard.

This morning Avi looked at me and said, “It’s impossible to relax, to have fun, to enjoy life. The war just makes life stop. We aren’t living right now. We are only surviving.” I know he’s right. I’m trying to think of it as an experience that we are going through that will make us stronger. That everything is going to be okay.

Its very sad and depressing for us to hear the loud explosions in Gaza and to know that there is no way for innocent civilians not to be killed in this war. But most of us also feel that finally the government is doing what it needs to do to defend us. I get emails from people and read articles calling Israel’s response “disproportionate.” It upsets me. I feel they just don’t have a clue. What would be a proportionate response? For us to shoot unmanned missiles targeted at civilians every day? Instead, we are doing something more effective and humane – we are taking away their weapons. We are bombing their stockpiles, tunnels, and terror infrastructure. We are sending SMSs and leaflets warning civilians to leave areas that will be bombed. And we are doing what we need to do to stay alive. From this corner of the State of Israel, it is obvious that if we don’t do something now, we are looking at an existential threat. If anyone has any doubts about that, then I invite them to come live with me here in Sderot. I have an extra bed and am happy to offer it. I guarantee they will change their mind once they’ve spent a few days in my living room.

Last week, before the war started, I did an interview with Yossi Cohen, an established Sderot musician who plays bass in Avi’s band and has a band of his own. He’s had his own share of trauma – he now suffers a hearing loss from a Qassam that landed right near him, and has anxiety and depression as a result of another close landing that killed someone. He also happens to be one of the nicest people I know. Yossi works for the city (his day job) doing landscaping projects. He took me to his most recent work of art. It was a bomb shelter — one I had passed a million times. But now it had been painted a nice shade of brown, and was covered with panels of green vines. Design-wise, it looked like something you would see in Palm Springs. It seemed so surreal to create designer bomb shelters. Yossi explained that someone thought it would be a good idea to boost morale. These kind of absurdities run amok in Sderot.

A few meters away, was a smaller bomb shelter with graffiti spray painted on it. I asked Yossi what it said (my Hebrew still not up to par). It says “Secede from the pathetic state.” Yossi added, “I know the person who wrote it.”

This sort of sentiment wasn’t unusual in Sderot. When I first arrived, I was told by many residents that this was a city without a state. And last year friends told me they were not planning to put up a flag on Yom Haatzmaoot (Israel’s Independence Day.) Sderot had such a terrible year. It was hard to feel patriotic.

But last week everything changed. We watched speeches by Barak and Livni about how after eight years, something had to be done and they were going to do it. Avi felt they were finally apologizing to the people of this area for ignoring their suffering for so long. No one is happy that there is a war, that we are bombing Gaza, and that innocent people will suffer as a result. But the people here feel that finally the government is addressing what has been an unbearable situation. Yesterday, Yossi’s job included hanging up Israeli flags all over the city, and he was interviewed on Channel Two saying, “I’m finally proud to be part of the country and to put up the flag.”

When I went out of the house this morning, there they were. Hundreds of blue and white flags, shiny and new, on every lamppost and lining every street. It was a beautiful sunny day, and as I turned down one particular street – the street where Avi proposed to me — I saw hundreds of blue Stars of David staring back at me.

It’s hard to live here and not wonder, “Will we survive? As a country? As a people?” I have been thinking this on a daily basis, and last night went to bed in tears after a stressful argument with a friend on this very topic. But somehow seeing that row of flags made me feel better. Maybe we won’t make it. But we’ve got to do everything we can to try. Here in Sderot, we are part of a country again. And as a people, a nation, we have history on our side. The flags and those two thoughts are going to get me through this war.

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