I have visited Sderot, the Israeli town which has been worst affected by the Kassam rockets from Gaza. Around 7000 rockets have fallen on Sderot during the last eight years – two or three rockets a day on average. When the bombardment was at its heaviest, 70 or so rockets could fall on one day.
It was in September last year that I and a group of Swedish journalists was guided by a student, Agi Venkiet, a 25 year-old girl. We drove round in a bus while she explained. Or rather, tried to explain.
19,300 people live in permanent fear in Sderot. How can one call it living?
Agi explained that she had no idea of the prevailing reality in Sderot when she moved there to study at state high school a few years ago. The shock was not so much the rockets as that the situation was so little reported in the media.
It is seldom that anyone dies because of the Kassam rockets in Sderot. They are neither accurate or powerful. But it does not mean to say that they are harmless.
A rocket that frightens the hell out of a whole family is not worth noting when so many more dramatic events happen in the Middle East. But when the the family has been woken up night after night by rockets which fall nearby, the nerves begin to give. The children shit themselves and have nightmares. The adults have trouble sleeping and begin to take pills. Certainly it is hard to get one’s job done.
Little by little, life falls apart from fear.
The thing I remember most clearly was Agi’s fear. She talked rapidly and seemed far-away, and with hardly ever a look in the eyes. She wanted us so much to understand, but suspected that we did not. Perhaps she wondered if our sympathies lay with the other side – with those who were firing the rockets.
She pointed out the play area which was rebuilt so that the climbing frame in the form of a writhing snake serves also as a shelter. Under the cheery colours is one made of reinforced concrete. She explaned that many children continue to wet their beds until they are quite old. That 60% of the people take tranquillisers. That is it hard to complete lessons in school because all the time they are disrupted by the bombardment.
She tried to describe the feeling when the alarm went off and that there are only a certain number of seconds – I have forgotten how many – perhaps twenty – to take shelter. This experience of panic characterises the whole of life in Sderot.
And the inhabitants realised then, in September 2008, that everyone had forgotten them. Their own government as well as world opinion. Their disrupted life was a non-event which just went on without anyone taking notice.
I have returned to this many times in my thoughts after Israel’s offensive in Gaza. The brutal ground-offensive, which has caused so many deaths of Palestinian civilians, is indefensible. And the situation for the inhabitants in Gaza was of course at least as bad as for the inhabitants of Sderot, even before all this happened.
But the fear of the rockets is the explanation why Israel has hit back so hard. To live in constant fear hollows-out the soul. In the end, one can expect anything.
If it were my child or yours who woke, sweating, from nightmares, or it was our sense of life’s pleasure that was ground down daily – how far would we be ready to go to put an end to the terrror?
It is impossible to give an answer unless one has lived in fear for eight years. But before one condemns Israel’s assault in Gaza, one must at least have asked the question.
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