Thursday, April 9, 2009

A Trip to Sderot

During Operation Cast Lead, or the recent war in Gaza, the Israeli media was flooded with stories of Israeli citizens in Sderot running for cover upon hearing air raid sirens going off signaling the flight of a rocket originating from the Gaza Strip. The story of Sderot as a besieged city has become the symbol of Israeli suffering at the hands of Palestinians and Hamas in particular. When the opportunity arose to go to the city to hear directly from its citizens, my friends and I traveled an hour and a half southwest of Jerusalem to visit with members of three groups active in their community: Other Voice, a student group at Sapir College, and Sderot and Western Negev Media Center.

As we approached the city (in Israel, a population exceeding 25,000 is considered a city), I finally understood the news stories I read during the war recounting people finding cover from rockets at bus stops. Every bus stop in Sderot either was a bomb shelter, or had a bomb shelter next to it. One of the first bits of information we received from our first hosts, members of Other Voice, was the location of the bomb shelter in the house. Our hosts expressed that they experienced perpetual tension waiting to hear the next air raid siren go off. From the very first moments upon our arrival in the city, there was no doubt that the citizenry has been deeply affected by threat of rocket attacks.

Our introduction included a brief history of the area. Sderot is considered a “Development town”, part of a policy of social engineering that emerged in the 1950s to absorb the flooding of new immigrants, generally of non-European descent. In its earliest years, Sderot was almost entirely composed of Moroccan immigrants. These towns tend to be the poorest Jewish areas of Israel and offer little to no social mobility. This compounds the issue in Sderot. Most of the citizens do not have the means to move away from the area, and there has been little government intervention to ameliorate these and other social issues that plague the city.

Our hosts told us that the rockets had started after the second Intifada. As a result, real estate prices in Sderot plummeted making it nearly impossible for residents to move. Despite the hardships our hosts experienced, they expressed their deep sense of concern, and even grief for the people of Gaza, stating that the intolerable situation they lived in did not compare to the suffering felt in Gaza. All of the members of Other Voice had kept in contact with Palestinians in Gaza throughout the war via phone and internet and every one of those Palestinians knew some one who had died as a consequence of Israeli Defense Force actions. After the war, Other Voice has continued their efforts to maintain dialogue and to demonstrate solidarity with their friends in Gaza.

We then traveled to Sapir College to meet with two students who had organized a recycling center, and were dedicated to living a green or sustainable lifestyle. The students had traveled across Israel collecting various items that people considered to be waste, including books, kitchen items, clothing, etc. The students then mend or fix the items and resell them for a nominal fee. The fee is then used to sponsor different events for the Sderot community in an attempt to provide an alternative and empowering image of Sderot rather than that of a victimized city. The students expressed dedication to Sderot and to all of the people of the Western Negev, including the Bedouin (an Arab population that was once nomadic). Stories of exchanges between these Jewish Israeli students and the Bedouin were a great source of optimism for me.

However, the optimism I felt from meeting these two extraordinary groups came to an abrupt halt with our third and final meeting. The director of the Sderot and Western Negev Media Center was to be our guide on a tour of the city. He began as our first hosts did by informing us of the proper procedure in the event of the air raid siren going off. However, his language was a bit different. He informed us that we would be running for our lives as all citizens of Sderot are forced to do on a regular basis. He went on to paint more frantic and pitiful pictures of parents unable to “save” their children because of the limited time they have to run for their lives to shelter. Every morning, bus drivers are plagued by trying to choose which child they would save if the siren goes off because they could only save one. He went on to say that the psychological detriment to the citizenry of Sderot is overlooked by the international media because people are dying in Gaza and “if it bleeds, it leads.”

One of my friends asked a very interesting question:

Q: If the people of Sderot are suffering psychologically from the possibility of rocket attacks, then what of the citizens of Gaza who are bombarded every day by the Israeli military?

A: Yeah, of course they suffer psychologically because Hamas uses them as human shields.

During our conversation with the guide there was no indication that Israel could even partially be at fault for the suffering of the people of Sderot or Gaza. When asked about the 1,400 Gazans who had been killed in the war, again, our guide put the burden on Hamas stating that very few civilians had been killed because the Israeli military was able to target the terrorists. Apparently he had not read the Haaretz articles discussing the Israeli military’s lax policy of defining “combatant” and accounts of the targeting of civilians. Finally, we asked him what the war had accomplished as Sderot is still threatened with rockets, if not more so now. He replied: “The job wasn’t finished”

It is this mentality that has made the Israeli-Palestinian conflict intractable. The Israeli government and the media’s manipulation of Sderot’s very serious problem as a symbol for Israeli suffering has hindered any kind of real change for the neglected resident of the city, and has perpetuated the view that all Palestinians in Gaza are terrorists. This kind of dehumanization is an obstacle to peace.

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