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Sderot is still a priority

Josh LipowskyEditorial
Published: 14 August 2009
 
 

Sderot fears calm is too fragile to last

Josh LipowskyWorld
Published: 28 August 2009
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Ruth Edry and her daughter Shilat, 8, show the remains of a kassam rocket they hung in their front yard.
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Sderot has been the target of thousands of kassam rockets fired from the Gaza Strip. Since the end of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in January, quiet has mostly returned to the small town but its residents are waiting for the rockets to begin again.

Ruth Edry lives in the Sderot neighborhood known as M3. It is the part of the town closest to the Gaza Strip. A short walk down her street leads to an overlook with a view into Gaza — too far away to see clearly with the naked eye, but close enough to allow only 30 seconds warning to Edry and others in Sderot of kassam rockets.

The streets of Sderot are quiet now. The rockets and mortars lobbed from Gaza for nine years have mostly stopped since Israel’s Operation Cast Lead ended in January, as Hamas has largely held to an informal ceasefire.

Reporter's Notebook

Rather than rejoicing in the break from the more than 8,000 rockets that have hit their town since 2000, the people of Sderot fearfully wait for the attacks to renew, sure that this is only the calm before the storm.

“It’s worse for me than when there was one kassam a day,” Edry said through a translator in her home. “You never know when it’s going to come.”

Edry has lived in Sderot all of her 40 years and remembers when the rockets first began to fall, close to the same time her third child, Shilat, was born. There was no tzeva adom — red alert siren — then to provide the short but vital warning, nor shelters to run toward.

Only in recent years have the town’s buildings been reinforced. Many schools, bus stops, and synagogues have reinforced roofs. A playground near the town’s Jewish community center has a long tunnel shaped and painted like a snake, for children to play in. Paid for by the Legacy Heritage Fund, it is reinforced to act as a shelter in case of an attack. And earlier this year Israel’s government finally began allocating money to Sderot’s residents to build safe rooms in their homes, although a debate still rages between the state and the people about the thickness of the walls — the government is building walls 30 centimeters thick, but the people want 60-centimeter-thick walls. The walls of Edry’s safe room are 30 centimeters thick, which she said is not enough.

A request for comment from the Israeli government had not been answered by press time.

For four years Edry’s three children dared not venture to their home’s second floor for fear a rocket might crash through the roof. At night, the family huddled in the living room. The children still do not sleep upstairs.

“This quiet is misleading,” said Moshe Ben Chamo, another lifelong Sderot resident, through a translator. “The other side is stocking up on missiles and rockets.”

For 10 years, Ben Chamo was a bus driver in the small town. On Dec. 31, 2008, he went to visit his parents when a kassam struck the house next door. Shrapnel penetrated Ben Chamo’s jaw and some still remains, because doctors worry about artery damage if they try to remove it.

Ben Chamo’s 17-year-old daughter, Shir, was at home when he was injured. She heard the piercing sound of the tzeva adom and immediately called her father to make sure he was safe. He said he was fine and with his father. Shortly after she hung up, another tzeva adom sounded. She called her father back but Ben Chamo did not answer. Shir’s mother said he was likely hiding and not to worry.

A few minutes later, a family friend called frantically asking about Moshe, saying he had just been on TV, bleeding in an ambulance.

“It’s life,” Shir said. “When there are kassams you need to be in a safe place, but then it’s normal life.”

After being disabled, Ben Chamo was fired from his job. He survived with help from the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Fund for Victims of Terror .

Last month, his father, Shimon Ben Chamo, opened Café 26, an Italian restaurant and the first new business in Sderot in many years. Moshe Ben Chamo went back to work.

“We want to keep on living our lives and show that in times of hardship and in good times, we’re here,” he said while showcasing the new restaurant, scheduled to have its grand opening that night.

In a year, Shir will join the army. She wants to be in the navy, she said. She likes the uniforms. Some teenagers from Sderot look forward to their army service as a means to leave behind the tzeva adoms and the need to know the location of the closest shelter. Shir looks forward to leaving home, but only for a new experience, not to escape.

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Moshe Ben Chamo with his son Dov, 12, and daughter Shir, 17. Ben Chamo’s father Shimon recently opened an Italian restaurant in Sderot called Café 26.

“This is my place,” Shir said. “My family, my friends [are here]. This is home for me.”

Still, when she eventually has a family of her own, Shir wants to raise her children somewhere with more opportunities than in Sderot, which has struggled economically for many years.

“We’ll survive,” Ben Chamo said. “We’ll be strong and we’ll live our lives.”

Like Ben Chamo, Edry also expects the rocket fire will begin again. Outside her home hangs the exploded shell of a kassam rocket she picked up while at a community protest at nearby Sapir College. As the group gathered to demand the government provide reinforcements in their homes, the tzeva adom sounded and a rocket struck the campus.

“Three, four years of quiet, then I’ll start believing it,” she said.

The noise of a passing bus reminds Edry of the whistle of a rocket nearing its target, while the sound of the tzeva adom plays in her head.

It took Edry several years before she would see a therapist, who diagnosed her with post traumatic stress disorder, a common condition among some 80 percent of Sderot’s families, according to Ohad Drory, a social worker with the Jewish Agency for Israel.

For more than a year Drory has worked for JAFI’s Victims of Terror fund, created in 2002 and redirected in 2008 to help those living in rocket range of Gaza.

The Victims of Terror fund is supplied by United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization of the North American federation system. Within UJC allocations, funding has mostly come from the 2006 Israel emergency campaign, set up in response to the Second Lebanon War and then refocused on Sderot. The IEC raised $290 million, of which UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey contributed $6 million.

The money is for terror victims’ immediate needs, such as paying for temporary housing, clothes, and repairs. But not all the scars in Sderot are physical.

“There is no blood, there is nothing you can show that you are actually injured,” Drory said. “Everybody here suffers from trauma. Everybody.”

In the early days of the fund, it sometimes took months for victims of rocket attacks to receive payouts because the government had to recognize them first as victims of terrorism.

“A lot of civilians in Sderot and areas surrounding Gaza become victims of terror but they are not typical victims of terror because they just live their lives and in a second their houses got hit and then they need to take control of their lives again,” Drory said. “These people couldn’t go back to work, couldn’t function at home, in any way. Even emotionally you’re blocked. You can’t show emotion to your children, to your wife. [PTSD is] a very, very hard disease. For those people, the kassam hits their houses and people say you’re OK, but for them the clock is stopped.”

JAFI’s SOS fund has been providing more immediate response to victims. Within 48 hours of a rocket strike the organization provides a check of up to $1,000. Since the start of Cast Lead JAFI has disbursed more than $90,000. Perhaps more important than the money to repair physical damage, JAFI has been helping with the emotional damage.

“When someone gets a direct hit in his house, he starts from zero,” Drory said. “It’s only the beginning of a long fight — against the government, social security, and against himself to recover from a mental trauma. Because we’ve been in this situation a lot of times we can give them the map to get through as easily as possible.”

Accessing government funds requires cutting through some red tape, however. Edry’s husband, Ronen, drives a taxi in Sderot and in 2006, a kassam landed two meters away from the cab. The Edrys ended up having to split the repair costs with the government. The government should do more, Edry said. She wants to see her taxes cut and help with her high mortgage — taken out several years ago to pay for the second floor addition, which she no longer uses.

Despite the argument over the structure of the safe rooms, their mere existence has been a boon to the psyche of Sderot’s residents, Drory said.

“It gives the people the feeling that somebody cares, somebody is doing something for them,” he said. “If you sit in a war zone for eight years and they don’t even give you protection in your own home, you don’t feel anybody cares.”

Missions from the United States frequently came to Sderot in recent years. These visits demonstrated that the outside world had not forgotten about Sderot, Drory said.

“The citizens in Sderot can feel it — there is support from all over the world, not only in Israel,” he said.

Since the unofficial ceasefire took hold, though, and because of the world’s economic slowdown, funds have been harder to come by for JAFI. This has meant fewer services for the region, including a reduction in scholarships, respites, and summer camps.

Although UJA-NNJ’s Partnership 2000 sister city is Nahariya — which sustained heavy damage from Hezbollah rockets during the Second Lebanon War — the federation has played a role in Sderot since the end of the 2006 war. Most recently, a gift from UJA-NNJ helped complete a second-floor addition to Sderot’s Jewish community center, which included a reinforced roof. The federation has also helped build quiet rooms in Sderot’s schools, where children can go during school days for counseling and therapy.

“Because Nahariya went through katyusha missiles [during the Second Lebanon War] and we know how they felt, we feel a connection with Sderot,” said Ofer Lichtig, UJA-NNJ’s community representative in Israel. “We understand how they feel as well.”

Israeli media reported this month that the Iron Dome anti-missile system is closer to completion. Some, like Edry, doubt the system’s ability to completely eliminate the threat, but government sources hope it will target and destroy incoming rockets. The government estimates the project will be operational in 2010.

Defense may not be enough, though.

“Hamas is not going to stop,” Edry said. “We gave back all the settlements and Gush Katif and see what they’re doing.”
Edry’s sister Penina was among those evacuated from the Gush Katif settlement bloc in 2005 and now lives in Sderot.

“She left her house and now gets missiles,” Edry said.

“The people of Sderot want peace,” Ben Chamo said. “We all want to live normal lives. The other side is not giving us the opportunity to live in peace.”

Ben Chamo describes himself and his family as patriots. They will stay in Sderot to show Hamas that it cannot force them out. Ben Chamo fully expects another round of fighting and that next time, the IDF will strike a more devastating blow to Hamas. Israel, he insisted, has to be strong in its negotiations with the Palestinians.

“Peace is what I want but I’m not willing to give up land,” Ben Chamo said. “Israel has to resist because we have nothing else.”

Those left in Sderot can be divided into two categories: those who refuse to leave because of the rockets, like Ben Chamo, and those who cannot.

Edry, whose 16-year-old daughter Chen won’t leave the house anymore, said that she and her family were ready to leave Sderot and the rockets, but couldn’t. For what she would get for selling her two-floor home, she would only be able to buy a one-bedroom apartment elsewhere in Israel.

Earlier this month, a kassam and two mortars landed in the Negev, outside of Sderot, in one day. The tzeva adom did not sound in Sderot, but the incident was a reminder of the fragile calm.

“If there is one bomb they put on the fence and a few soldiers get killed and Israel attacks with air force in Gaza, then the kassams will come again,” Drory said. “You don’t need much to get this area on fire again. One mistake.”

 
 

Ill-conceived ‘crusade’

 

Sharing the love — bringing baseball to Israel

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Kenneth Fried in Sderot at the dedication of a youth recreational center.

Dr. Kenneth Fried loves baseball. He also loves Israel.

Working with the Jewish National Fund, the Demarest resident — and chair of “Field of Dreams,” JNF’s “hardball mission to the Holy Land” — has found a way to combine those two interests.

Several years ago, Fried and his wife Sharon, both physicians, were approached by JNF to help establish a secure indoor recreational center for the youth population of Sderot. The couple seemed a likely choice, having provided outdoor recreation equipment to the Solomon Schechter Day School in New Milford, where the bases are dedicated to their four daughters.

Coming from a family of athlete/physicians, Fried — a vascular surgeon whose parents, Drs. Seymour and Sylvia Fried, live in Tenafly — told the Standard at the time, “We feel physical education is part of growing up along with academics.”

“I was enamored of the experience,” Fried said of his involvement in the Sderot project. He was also impressed by the JNF projects he saw in Israel.

Now, his enthusiasm is directed toward another project. Approached once again by JNF — where he has been named to the group’s North Jersey board — he said “a light bulb went off” when he realized that the competitive men’s baseball games he’s been participating in here could also be played in Israel.

Part of a baseball league dubbed “A League of Our Own,” which includes 18 teams, Fried says “probably a third of the members are Jewish, because of the demographics.”

Members play both in North Jersey and in Florida. One of his team members is Fair Lawn resident Ritchard Rosen, who will be participating in the Israel trip.

Fried thought, “Why not do this in Israel as well?” he said.

The plan came together when he was on a bus, speaking with Russell Robinson, the chief executive officer of JNF. The two were talking about the Israel Baseball League, launched several years with great fanfare but little success.

“He said JNF felt there still was a strong interest” in developing baseball in Israel, said Fried. “It was an agenda they wanted to pursue.”

Fried believes strongly in the power of baseball.

“It becomes part of one’s own fabric and personality,” he said. “Your experiences are better when you connect to it.”

The plan, he said, is to bring a group of baseball lovers to Israel and “to start with the youth, running clinics in addition to participating in games against Israeli teams.” The Israel Association of Baseball, he said, has four teams in four cities.

Mission participants will have an opportunity “to see Israel through JNF eyes” and use field facilities to connect with Israelis through baseball, said Fried. In addition, “We’d like to try to sow the seeds for a more established youth program, maybe starting a pilot project like a baseball academy.”

Because Israel has many expatriate Americans and Canadians who already love baseball,
the sport “could become part of the fabric of Israel sports,” he said, suggesting that the IBL didn’t work because “Israelis don’t understand the slow pace of baseball. They have to learn the game.”

He called it shortsighted to assume that “if you build it, they will come,” unless the groundwork has been properly laid and baseball is partnered with a youth program.

While JNF’s “e-mail blast” has generated tremendous interest, he said, the trip, originally slated for May 8-15, will need to be rescheduled, since many respondents have said they need more time to prepare. In addition, to keep costs affordable for the different constituencies who might attend, JNF has agreed to make side trips optional to participants who are coming mainly to play baseball.

“We’re hoping this will become an annual thing,” said Fried. “People are coming out of the woodwork. Three people want to send their sons or nephews who are playing college baseball, youth who need a different kind of Jewish connection. Another e-mail was from a kid looking for a mitzvah project and wanting to send baseball equipment to Israeli kids.”

He also received a note from a man on Kibbutz Lotan in southern Israel who would like to introduce baseball to the kibbutz and needs equipment — and another from a graduate student at the Jewish Theological Seminary who wants to play baseball and explore how Israeli society accepts the sport.

For more information about the upcoming mission, e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

 
 

It’s how you say it that matters

 

Sderot, besieged by bombing, JNF provides cutting-edge protection

The mayor of Sderot, David Bouskila, and the award-winning journalist Linda Scherzer were guest speakers at a Jewish National Fund event held last week at the Englewood home of Doryne and Milton Davis. More than 40 people gathered there to learn about the current “matzav” (the situation) in the border town, a target of 8,600 Hamas rockets since 2001 — with 28 deaths reported by 2009, hundreds injured, millions in property damage, and thousands of people, including 3,000 children, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Sderot has a population of approximately 22,000. At the end of 2008, the mayor reported, 10 to 15 percent of the population had fled — the average number of missiles that landed in the city daily was nine. Today, said Bouskila, the town enjoys a period of relative calm; only one or two missiles land every other day, and people have begun to move back to the city.

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JNF’s Bob Levine, left, stands with Sderot Mayor David Bouskila during a JNF gathering last week. Jeanette Friedman

Teaneck resident Bob Levine, JNF’s vice president of education, noted that a 21,000 square-foot, bomb-proof facility is protecting hundreds of children and senior citizens daily. It was built as a giant recreation center to provide children with a state-of-the-art safe play space/social center so that they wouldn’t have to worry about getting to a conventional bomb shelter within 15 seconds — the time between the sirens going off and the rockets landing.

Bouskila said that 75 percent of the children suffer from PSTD. “They may never be like other children,” he continued. “They lost their childhood, they worry about the situation and their parents and they don’t know what to do….

“Our children study in a democratic society with values of human rights … but the terrorists use human shields so civilians die. Yet that is not the point. It is the media. We are not popular in the international media. It is impossible to be strong and popular at the same time — we have to be underdogs. But if we become weak, we will be destroyed.”

Linda Scherzer, who made a presentation before the mayor spoke, had been on the Middle East beat for eight years and connected to Sderot as part of the Bergen County Jewish community in 2008, when a group of local women arranged to bring 40 traumatized kids from Sderot to summer camp in the United States.

Scherzer, a former Mideast correspondent for CNN, described today’s relative calm as a “hudna,” defining that Arabic word, often translated as “ceasefire,” as a time to rearm and prepare for more war. She said she’d learned from the Palestinians she covered in the west bank and Gaza that they had generational patience, that they felt that their turn would come eventually. As for Iran, she said, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is two years closer to his nuclear bomb, while he arms terrorists on Israel’s borders. “The extremists will tell you to your face they have no interest in peace,” she said. “They are willing to wait. They understand that if their grandchildren won’t see it, then their great-great-great-grandchildren will replace the [Jewish] state with a fundamentalist religion. Their numbers have grown and their ideology is consistent. What you see is what you get.”

What is far more troubling, she said, is the callous indifference of the international community and how everyone heaps calumny upon Israel. She wondered aloud if the media are to blame for this attitude and why it was not aimed at Sudan, Libya, Iran, and other regimes that ignore human rights.

But she feels the media are generally honest, with a fair degree of integrity. “It takes journalists a while to get up to speed,” she said, “but the Palestinians have convinced the world that they are the real victims. They know they are no match for Israel’s army, so they confront [it] on the airwaves [and] in a public relations war where they embed their fighters in civilian populations. Then they aim at Israeli civilians, knowing eventually the army will respond, and the images that result from that are compelling; they are filled with tremendous pain, and they make the pain on the Israeli side look like nothing.”

Scherzer told of a doctor, a Holocaust survivor, who was in her clinic in Ashkelon during an attack and was disfigured. At a U.N. panel discussion in Geneva, one of the panelists said to the doctor, “I feel sorry for you, but it in no way does it make up for the horror Israel inflicts on Gaza.”

The mayor thanked the JNF and American Jewish community for what they have done for the children of Sderot and added, “It’s not just about the children. JNF also built us a reservoir that provides water to all the farms around Sderot and gives life to the area. People who left are coming back and starting to buy houses and apartments. No one should believe that if we leave Sderot, there will be peace. We left Gaza, and nothing changed. We will not leave, because next it will be Ashkelon. We are in Israel proper, not in a settlement. Bibi came to visit, and played with the children. We are proud, because I bring world leaders to the recreation center and show them how the American people built it for our children. When Obama came to Sderot he said that if his daughters were in town, he wouldn’t let them sleep there.” Quoting the late Prime Minister Golda Meir, he said, “We will have peace when the Arabs love their children more than they hate us.”

To raise funds for the shelter and other projects in Sderot, JNF is selling steel tulips for $1,000 a piece. Conceived and designed by soldier/artist Eldor Levy of the Givati Brigade, they are made from Kassam rockets that landed in Sderot. Bouskila said, “When a deadly weapon is transformed into a beautiful flower, it makes a powerful statement for peace. You touch the metal that was meant to kill. Now we can sell it to give life. This is our wish — to teach people to love.”

 
 
 
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