June 26, 2007
By Cindy Mindell
GREENWICH-It used to be known as the “musical town of the south,” the birthplace of many Israeli pop artists. But now the whistle of Qassam rockets is the common sound in Sderot, and Israelis call the western Negev community the “terror-infected place of the south.”
Sderot residents Itay Avitan and Mor Yehudai gave a first-hand account of daily life in the shadow of Hamas attacks, speaking last month at the UJA Federation of Greenwich annual meeting. Sponsored by the Israeli Foreign Ministry and the Jewish Agency, the two were part of a five-member delegation sent to describe the unrelenting situation to this country's media, lawmakers, and Jewish community.
For seven years, the town of 24,000 residents has been the target of constant shelling from Beit Hanoun, only a mile over the border from Gaza. By the time of the Greenwich presentation, the missiles had killed 10 Sderot residents and wounded hundreds. The same day, a rocket had hit the roof of a school. Most of all, Avitan and Yehudai explained, normal life has been disrupted beyond recognition. Many residents have left. There are thick concrete walls everywhere, and children no longer play outdoors.
“You don't see many people in the street,” said Yehudai, 21. “Most stay inside unless they absolutely have to go out.” While Yehudai was serving in the Israeli army three years ago, her family's home was destroyed by a rocket, just hours after her parents and younger sister had evacuated to Beersheva. And still, the future social worker advocates for peace talks with moderate Palestinians, a view shared by most Israelis.
“I still believe that the only thing that will help us is peace,” she says. “I'm hoping a solution will come fast, because living like this for seven years is a nightmare.”
“Our way of life is changed completely,” said Avitan, 23, who is studying visual communication and plans to join his brother's Sderot-based advertising agency. “We have to drive with our windows open to hear the air-raid siren. If there's no one else home, you can't take a shower because you won't hear the siren. Everyone just waits for the alarm.”
Avitan's good friend was killed recently when a rocket hit her balcony.
“I do want peace to prevail,” he says, “but since last year's evacuation of Gush Katif, nothing has changed: the missiles continue hunting us, and it has gotten worse, especially the last couple of months.”
Hamas targets the town, rather than the surrounding agricultural area, Avitan said, in order to maximize human casualties.
Avitan supports the development of Nautilus, a mobile laser that can destroy incoming missiles while still airborne. The joint U.S.-Israeli project is not expected to be completed until 2010 or 2011.
United Jewish Communities, the umbrella of Jewish Federations of North America, recently allocated $1.8 million from the Israel Emergency Campaign for Sderot and its environs. This follows $6.4 million given since the IEC was re-launched in 2002, in response to Palestinian terrorism. The new funding will be used for humanitarian purposes and to offer relief to the besieged residents, sending children to summer camps in central Israel, and elders on weekend respites. Special services will be provided to Sderot's Ethiopian residents as part of the Ethiopian National Project.
“The shock of the situation will stay with us our whole lives,” said Avitan. “So thank you for everything the federations have done. Thank you for keeping a connection with our town and for not forgetting us.”