Commentary Magazine


Sderot Under Siege

Larissa Yaakobov stands before me sobbing. Her young daughter and nine-year-old son look on helpless. “I can’t do it anymore,” she says in broken Hebrew, “I can’t live here.” “Here” is Sderot, an Israeli border community adjacent to the Gaza Strip where Larissa has lived since she emigrated from Russia fifteen years ago. Larissa ’s son does not say a word. He hasn’t said much, she tells me, since the two watched a Qassam rocket slam into a woman a few feet away killing her instantly.

Less than twenty four hours before Israel unleashed its air-force on the Gaza Strip, I sat with four families in Sderot who have been injured and traumatized by Hamas rocket fire. In the hours before Israel ’s incursion, the mood was tense—even by Sderot standards. The streets were barren; everyone is bracing for new waves of rockets.

Sderot has no shortage of children’s playgrounds—twisty blue and yellow slides, swings and handle-bars. But children are no where to be seen. I do see plenty of bomb shelters.  Every bus-stop in Sderot has been turned into a lime-colored enforced shelter with a single shrapnel-proof window. I enter one of these rooms to see what it is like inside. A car screeches to a halt and the driver dashes out to join me in the shelter. He is panicked and out of breath. Seeing me enter the shelter, he mistakenly thought a rocket was headed our way. I apologize sheepishly for the confusion as he returns to his car and speeds away.

I scan the looming gray clouds above for any indication of incoming rockets or mortars. A single fish-shaped white balloon sitting high off in the distance is my sole source of comfort. It is the Israeli army’s preferred method of identifying incoming rockets. It triggers an alarm which gives residents a few seconds to find shelter. I cannot shake the feeling that at any moment a rocket will fall from the sky and strike me directly. I note the location of every bomb shelter along the way in case I must make a mad dash to safety.

This feeling of unremitting and ubiquitous terror is the norm in a community of 20,000 residents.

Victims of Terror

Moshe Turgeman spent a lot of time in Gaza before the intifada. Not only did he serve in the Israeli army there, but he used to get drinks and hang out in area frequently. “There are good people in Gaza ,” he tells me. Hearing this is rather remarkable because in August 2006, Moshe’s house took a direct hit from a Qassam rocket launched from Gaza . He managed to get his kids to safety but he was injured in the attack. I ask Moshe what life is like in Sderot today. “It’s not life,” he responds. His children are scared, he fears going outside and his disability has made it impossible to work. There were times, Moshe says, when he thought the warning siren was broken because it sounded non-stop for hours. “Forty-eight Qassams fell in a single day,” he says. “The scariest thing is that sometimes they fall without an alert—at any moment.” Moshe knows of what he speaks. One day he was ironing a shirt on the upper floor of his modest apartment. In an instant, a rocket fell meters from him and shrapnel nearly pierced his heart. He shows me the jagged hole in the window next to which he was standing during the attack. “It’s not life” he repeats.

Another lucky unlucky Sderot resident is Mayer Dahan. Rockets fell on both his synagogue and house—in the exact spot I’m sitting he makes sure to point out. The ceiling of Mayer’s house crashed down on him during the attack and one of his daughters was partially paralyzed. Now his entire family—four children and a wife—sleep together in their tiny one-room bomb shelter. No one even bothers to go upstairs anymore because there is not sufficient time to get the shelter. I ask why their family doesn’t move away. “We tried,” Mayer’s wife says. “I moved to Netivot to get away, then Grad [rockets] fell on Netivot. I couldn’t escape.”  “One Qassam and your day is ruined,” sixteen-year old Lidon Dahan notes dryly. “You don’t leave the house.”

I cannot help but notice the street names en route to my last stop in Sderot. They read: “The Defense” and “Moshe Dayan” It seems something of a cruel joke to have such names when the government cannot provide even a modicum of security for Sderot. I put on my Ipod to escape the reality for a few minutes but quickly turn it off when I realize that the warning siren might be difficult to hear over the music. How strange that Hamas has affected my ability to listen to music.

Nissim Hochayon’s apartment is dark and depressing, rather fitting for the general mood of Sderot. Like Mayer, Nissim suffered trauma and injury from a series of rocket attacks. Unlike Mayer, his face is forlorn and he doesn’t smile once during our meeting. He too sleeps with his entire family in their tiny bomb shelter night after night. He describes the trauma of seeing two children killed by a Qassam in front of his eyes. I ask what should be done to protect his family. “I’d go to war,” he replies curtly. “Every sovereign state should protect its citizens. We don’t have anyone to protect us. It says is the Bible that he who comes to kill you—kill him first.” Why don’t you move away, I ask. “We thought about moving to Ashkelon , but they get Grad rockets. Besides, that’s what the terrorists want.” By coincidence, Hamas leader Mahmud al-Zahar momentarily appears on the TV behind Nissim as he speaks. I think of our present physical proximity to the terror-mastermind. Like his father, fifteen year old Assaf Hochiyon admits he’s terrified to live in Sderot but wouldn’t move away. “All my friends and family are here” he says. Yarin, Nissim’s youngest son, tells me that a Qassam fell on his classroom but that the kids were praying in a different room at the time. “We’re afraid to go outside” Nissim says softly.

The American Way

It must be said if General MacArthur or General Patton were in charge, there would be no Qassam problem. The residents of Sderot would sleep like babies—in their own beds. Both Generals would begin with the recognition of Gaza as enemy territory and Hamas as pure evil—unrepentant terrorists who seek the destruction of Western Civilization. Both Generals would occupy Gaza immediately with ground troops and without hesitation. They would pursue total victory and vanquish any semblance of resistance. Both would succeed beyond our wildest expectations. Gaza is an infinitesimally small piece of territory and a rather large joke compared to the mighty Nazi state and once ruthless Japanese army, both of which were defeated and pacified at the hands of MacArthur and Patton. Not a single cent would be spent by either General on absurd plans to shoot down rockets from Gaza . That’s defeatist and passive, they would say, and that’s not how winners act.

The reason why Israelis have not found a solution to the Qassams is simple: they’re Israelis. Jews care about what others think and they’re moral to a fault—a very big fault. But there is nothing moral about the depraved state in which the launching of almost 6,000 rockets can pass without an overwhelming retaliation. There is nothing sane about restraint in the face of a vicious war waged upon you. A bumper sticker on a beat-up maroon-colored car in Sderot reads “A Time to Love.” But this is not a time to love. It is a time to hate; it is a time to war; it is a time to win. In other words, it is a time to be American. If 6,000 rockets were launched at San Diego from Tijuana , rest assured that the residents of Tijuana would have little trouble finding parking because their city would be flattened. There would be no talk of ceasefires. America would wage war, it would win, and the rocket fire would cease.

But defeatism is one of the most prevalent characteristics in Israel today. Ask an average Israeli if it is possible to defeat Hamas and the answer is invariably “No.” No where is this resignation more apparent than the government. In 2005, Ehud Olmert said: “We are tired of fighting, we are tired of being courageous, we are tired of winning, we are tired of defeating our enemies. We want that we will be able to live in an entirely different environment of relations with our enemies.” Contrast that with Winston Churchill in 1940: “We shall not flag nor fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France and on the seas and oceans; we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be; we shall fight on beaches, landing grounds, in fields, in streets and on the hills. We shall never surrender…”

Why have Israelis become so timid? It is in no small part because they have been bombarded for so long by so many enemies. Nearly 10,000 rockets have struck the homeland in the past few years. Put simply, a rocket attack on Israel is no longer the big deal—the supreme violation of decency and act of unspeakable terror—that it once was. Israeli President Shimon Peres exemplified the problem when he blurted out “Qassamim Shmamamim,” the Hebrew equivalent of “Qassams Shmamams.” This is no different than the phenomenon of brushing aside the daily murderous statements of Hamas leaders like Ahmad Bahr, former Speaker of the Parliament, who openly called for the slaughter of Jews “down to the very last one.”

One also hears the insane excuse from Israelis opposed to military intervention that the rockets launched from Gaza kill relatively few people. As if that matters. Israel is like a battered woman who speaks glowingly of the days when she is beaten lightly. Any sensible nation would recognize that the number killed from such attacks is utterly irrelevant. What matters is the number of people the terrorists intended to kill and the number of citizens living in fear. Six people were killed in the 1993 World Trade Center attack. But 60,000 would have been killed has the terrorists not been so dim-witted and miscalculated the proper size of the bomb. The question arises: Should the US have responded to six deaths or 60,000 deaths? The answer is patently clear. Stupidity, incompetence and the inability to shoot accurately does not absolve terrorists of responsibility for their intentions. Israel , in other words, should respond to every rocket as if it landed directly on a restaurant or school.

Israel seems fated to do what must be done only after it is too late. Hundreds of civilians were killed in suicide-bombings in Jerusalem , Haifa and Tel Aviv before Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield. The suicide-bombings were drastically reduced following that incursion into the West Bank , and yet Israelis seem incapable of learning lessons from that experience. How many civilians could have been saved had Israel acted sooner? Can Israel be awoken from its stupor only by terror attacks of unprecedented scale?

Like all democracies, Israel is slow to mobilize but unstoppable once primed. There is no force as deadly in war as an angry democracy. Just ask the democratic Theban general Epeminondas or William Sherman or Curtis Lemay. Once the sleeping giant is awoken, literally no force can withstand the fury of free men at war. This is all the more reason why Israel should not be cowed into half-measures and counter-productive cease-fires that allow their enemies to regroup and rearm.

The siege of Sderot is about much more than one community. It is about the moral clarity of a people; it is about the courage of a nation; it is about the indifference and double-standard of the world. But Israel remains the most responsible party, apart from the terrorists themselves, for this unbearable situation. It has prized immediate quiet over total victory and thus indefinitely delayed lasting peace. Its obsession with the “peace process,” a euphemism for empowering dictators, has distorted its faith in justice and liberty. But victory will only come about through the unwavering recognition that Israeli democracy is infinitely mightier—morally and martially—than authoritarianism and Islamism.

Israel’s actions in Gaza should be the beginning of the beginning. Hamas must be annihilated and Gazans very faith in their way of life must perish in the agony of their total defeat, to paraphrase MacArthur. Only then may the people who elected the region’s most vicious terrorist group undergo the spiritual reformation so critical of a defeated people to reject militarism and violence and embrace civility and restraint.

About the Author

David Keyes is the Coordinator for Democracy Programs under Natan Sharansky at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies. He assisted a former UN ambassador and served in the Strategic Division of the Israeli army.




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