I'm really behind on writing on this because of the rapidly deteriorating situation here. Yesterday's missile attack (I use the word missile for a reason. The IDF believes that Hezbollah was using Iranian-made Fajr rockets) on Haifa was an escalation. There is a lot of concern here about the kinds of rockets or missiles that Hezbollah possesses. Already, they've shown much more precision and range than they did in previous Katyusha attacks on the North. So, today there was an attack on Afula. Afula is 45 kilometers from the Lebanese border, farther than any projectile attack so far. Yesterday, the entire country north of Tel Aviv was put on alert by the IDF and as the attacks steadily creep southward, I think the country is getting ever more tense. Yesterday, I talked to a guy in an elevator who told me that this was the worst its been here in the 20 years he's been here. He admitted that the Gulf War may have been slightly more intense because of the gas masks, but he said this was almost as bad.
The attack on Afula was not the only sign of escalation of the conflict today. Last night, al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade (Fatah's terrorist wing) in Nablus lobbed a bomb at a patrol of soldiers, killing one and wounding five more. St.-Sgt. Osher Damari, 20, was killed in the attack. According to the Jerusalem Post, a group of Palestinians gathered to celebrate around the soldier's body parts. This was a terrifying news story for me this morning because the IDF threatened dire retribution if it did not receive the body parts. With the situation in Gaza as well as the situation in Lebanon, the last thing the IDF needs is an operation in the West Bank. Luckily, al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade announced that it will return the body.
The other big story was the attempted suicide bombing in Jerusalem. A 25-year old Palestinian male from the West Bank was caught carrying a 5-kg bomb in a bag. He was caught by a security check on Jaffa Road, just outside of Jaffa Gate. That is at most a 10 minute walk from where I'm staying, so that story really hit home. I had just found out today that the son of one of my co-workers lost an eye in a terrorist attack. Israel's a small country and it seems like everybody's lives have been touched by terrorism in a way. Another wave of terror would be just too much to bear emotionally.
I wanted to recount my trip to the western Negev last week. First, I stopped off at Sha'ar HaNegev (Gate of the Negev) to meet with a representative from the regional council there. A regional council in Israel is like a municipality, except it serves rural areas. There I met with Eliyahu Segal, secretary for the regional council.
Although Sha'ar HaNegev has a population of 6,000, it serves an area of 50,000 people. It is sparsely populated desert land. The claim to fame for Sha'ar HaNegev until very recently was that it is the home of Sappir College and also Ariel Sharon's farm. Recently, however, the area has become more well known for the Kassam rockets that have been launched there from Gaza. More than a thousand kassams have landed there in the past three and a half years.
"I must say the truth," Segal said. "The last year, or two years, have been very hard days and nights. Every night, I get up every hour or every half hour and I hear the bombs."
Segal described how he would count the second between the launching of bombs and the time of impact in Gaza. I thought it was ironic that instead of counting sheep in bed, he counted the sounds of the blasts.
Segal told a story that took place in Sha'ar HaNegev, just three weeks before I arrived. One Saturday night, a group of parents went to the head of the regional council and argued that he should close down the schools. He originally protested because he believed that the community had to go on.
Yet, the parents insisted and he agreed. The next day, when the students were supposed to be at school, a kassam rocket landed outside of the school, sending a janitor the hospital with shrapnel wounds. One can only speculate what could have been.
"We have luck," Segal said. "Every day, we pray to have another day and another day without a problem."
One interesting aspect of the conversation was that Segal supported the disengagement. There has been a lot of protest in places like Sderot from people who feel that the kassams would not be falling if it weren't for disengagement. When the disengagement occurred, many of the uprooted families moved to Sha'ar HaNegev, where the council built housing.
It's hard to think that these people left their houses for "peace" and now they must live in fear of Kassam rockets.
Segal left me with a message of hope.
"I love this place and I'm sure we can find, I don't say peace, but quiet," he said.
Next, I traveled to Sderot. Before Kassams started hitting Ashkelon, a major city with a large population and important role in Israel's energy production, Sderot was the focus of the situation with Gaza. Sderot is a small Israeli town of 25,000 in the western Negev, less than a mile from the Gaza border.
Before the incursion of the IDF into Gaza, many of the Sderot residents were protesting the inaction of the government. Part of this is due to the right wing ideology of people who would choose to live so close to Gaza.
Yet, looking at a fairly rundown, depressing community, I realized that there was another issue at play. With it's low budget housing and depressed economy, Sderot is also home to people who live there because they cannot afford to live anywhere else.
Walking around, I noticed that there were very few signs written in English. One of the few signs read, "Do you feel safe? Can you sleep well? Do you feel protected? Well...we don't...It's time to wake up from the nightmare, say 'No' to Kassam!! Say 'yes' to life."
In Sderot, I talked to one of the few fluent English speakers Atara Orenbach, a mother of six. Orenbach is a school teacher who learned English from her parents, who immigrated from New York. Seven years ago, she decided to move from a settlement to Sderot. Moving to Sderot, she thought things would be much quieter than in the settlements.
"We decided that we should look for a place where we could do as much as possible for Israeli society," Orenbach said.
In Sderot, she took a job as a high school computer science teacher, offering children a skill to help them advance. Her husband teaches Judaic studies at the high school as well. One day, while he was teaching his students the Torah out of his classroom, a Kassam rocket went through the roof of his classroom. Just by chance, that day he had extended Torah study so the students were outside of the room at the time.
"It was just a miracle, one of the many miracles we've had in Sderot" Orenbach said.
Orenbach discussed the conversations she's had with her children about security.
"I taught them, even the three-year old, if you hear the alarm, you leave your bike and run to the house," she said. "It's very hard to get a three-year old to leave his possessions."
Still, Orenbach said with a saddened expression that all her children, even the three-year old were now experts in what to do if attacked by a missile. She described how her family no longer sleeps upstairs anymore, choosing to sleep together in the basement. When her seven-year old wants to take a shower, she refuses to do it alone, in case the alarm goes off and there's nobody to tell her.
"My children should be allowed to sleep quietly at night," she said. "My children should be allowed to go to the playground."
Driving through Sderot, I saw evidence of Kassam attacks on rooftops, streets and playgrounds. These are not precise weapons by any stretch, but they can kill and they have this community living in fear. With all the attacks in the north right now, the attacks in Sderot seem to be an afterthought, but they are still happening every day. I think the message that I took from my trip there is even if massive numbers of people aren't dying, whole communities are living in fear. Worse yet, this is a normal feeling for a generation of children.
Here's a hole in a fence caused by shrapnel from a Kassam that crashed through a roof next door.
Here's a mark in the street from a Kassam. Just up the block was a playground.
Later in the day, I went to the Gaza border, where things did not look so good. Throughout the day I could hear Israeli shells and when I arrived at the border, I saw smoke rising from Gaza City. I was told that the smoke bombs are fired before the real ones to tell civilians to leave, but I have not confirmed that. Whatever it was, it did not look pretty.
Here is smoke rising from Beit Hanun, where most of the Kassams originate.