Living a life under fire

2014-06-24 00:00

FIFTEEN seconds — that is how long the people of the Israeli village Sderot, have to find a bomb shelter once the sirens go off.

The town, the closest to the Gaza Strip in Israel, was visited by The Witness recently as part of a journalism exchange programme organised by the American Jewish Committee.

Most people here are heavily traumatised and live in constant fear of bombardment, yet they steadfastly refuse to leave, because they know that if they do, the decades-long conflict between Israel and Palestine will simply move to another place in Israel, says Kobi Harusch, Sderot’s police chief for 14 years.

The village has been living under “constant bombardment for 14 years”, he says. When The Witness visited, the town had been bombed twice the previous week.

Studies have put post-traumatic stress disorder incidence among young children in this city at almost 50%, and there are high rates of depression and miscarriage.

Harusch says that over this period, more than 23 000 — mostly home-made and relatively simple missiles — have been lobbed at Israel from Palestinian territories, most lately mainly from the Gaza Strip.

Because Sderot is barely eight kilometres from the Gaza Strip — the border itself is two to three kilometres from the city — it is the most regularly bombed place in Israel.

Harusch explains that the Israeli defence force’s Iron Dome system is usually able to detect the firing of a missile from Gaza, and by the time they signal Harusch in Sderot, and he hits the siren, there are 15 second left before the missile hits the ground.

Because the missiles are essentially “home-made”, they do not have sophisticated targeting systems, and are simply fired indiscriminately onto the town in the hope of hitting human targets.

Each missile usually carries up to three kilograms of explosives, and is often designed to spray as much steel shrapnel as possible across a wide area.

Because of the Iron Dome and because the missiles are relatively simple, physical casualties are relatively few and far between. “The problem is mainly the trauma of it,” says Harusch.

He says that it is often difficult to ascertain who fires the missiles, as there are a range of fundamentalist Arab groups who have, in the past, claimed responsibility for bombing the town.

The city appears to show little physical signs of this bombardment, but when journalists ask Harusch to lead us to some places where the bombs have fallen, he merely shrugs his shoulders, squints his eyes and looks into the distance — there is no place in the city that has not yet been hit, he says.

The impact of the continual bombardment becomes obvious as one walks around the town.

Each home, for instance, has a small, square bomb shelter built onto it; it has become a legal requirement.

There are also pill-box type bomb shelters on every street corner, or along regular intervals along each road. These have been built on the basis that if 15 seconds is all one has, there has to be a bomb shelter within easy reach.

Harusch says the problem is that Israel does not have enough Iron Dome early warning missile-detection systems —they cost $100 million (R1,07 billion) a piece — so the government has to move the systems it does have from town to town.

Mark Regev, an international spokesperson for Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, says that by now, after decades of conflict and failed peace negotiations, both Palestine and Israel recognise that each have a right to their own homeland, and that it has become a conflict “between two rights”.

Regev says the Palestinians firmly believe that Israel is an illegitimate state, which has effectively put a stumbling block in the way of all previous peace negotiations, because “the only way to peace and reconciliation for both, is to recognise the fundamental legitimacy of the other”.

He says that the Arab world is in crisis and is suffering from a wave of religious extremism, and that even though Israel represents a minority in the Arab world, there is growing understanding that Israel can be an ally. “A lot of the talk is discreet,” he adds.

Professor Asher Susser, director and senior fellow at Moshe Dayan Centre for Middle Eastern and Africa Studies, says people in Israel have a “can-do attitude” to life, which is expressed in their development of information technology industries and in their entrepreneurialism.

He says people in Israel generally accept that the Palestinians have a right to their own country, but Israel’s enemies don’t accept that the Jews have a right to be in Israel.

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