Sunday, April 06, 2008

A Town Under Fire Becomes a Symbol for Israel

From The New York Times, April 5, 2008, by ETHAN BRONNER:

SDEROT, Israel — This long neglected immigrant town a mile from Gaza, pounded by Palestinian rockets for the past seven years, is taking on a new identity, edging into the center of Zionist consciousness as a symbol of the nation’s unofficial motto: “Never Again.” Like the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, Sderot is now a must-see stop for those who support Israel or are being urged to do so. Several groups have set up offices to arrange visits to a damaged home or a trauma center. Foreign diplomats have been bused here by the government; a United Nations officer says he has brought top officials here five times; Senator John McCain came last month; Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, residents say, cannot be far behind.

Israelis and their supporters are lining up to volunteer. Money is pouring in for bomb shelters, social services and an Orthodox religious seminary. “For years, the government and others thought of Sderot not as a national problem but a local one,” Mayor Eli Moyal said, just before the ribbon-cutting for an elegant first aid and ambulance center built with money donated largely by American Jews. “They now understand that if Sderot falls, Israel falls.” The sense that Sderot is actually Israel’s front line in its battle for legitimacy and self-respect has gained real currency...

...the conviction of Sderot’s importance began growing with the huge increase in rocket fire since the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and after the 2006 war with Hezbollah, which sent thousands of rockets into northern Israel. With both Hamas and Hezbollah gaining strength on Israel’s borders and developing rockets with longer ranges, Sderot, its advocates say, is a bitter sample of what more prosperous and distant parts of Israel may face if the threat here is ignored. And to a growing number across the political spectrum, it has inspired a collective rescue operation. “In Tel Aviv, you have great cafes, nice clothes and you live an illusion as if everything is all right,” reflected Ilanit Swissa, a theater director and one of about a dozen liberal intellectuals setting up camp in Sderot who moved here a few months ago to work with high school actors. “But it is not true. Here I feel like I am contributing something. We are at war and you feel it here.”

Surrounded by orange groves and wheat fields, guarded above by a military blimp that sets off an alert with each rocket launched from Gaza, Sderot has been a tough place to live. There have been days when more than 50 rockets have landed in or near the town, bringing panic, destruction and occasionally death to a town of 20,000 that is heavily populated with Israeli minority groups — Moroccans, refugees from Central Asia and Ethiopians. Panic is widespread. Businesses have closed. Three thousand residents have left. Residents have grown accustomed to — though hardly comfortable with — the constant sound of a townwide alert known as “Code Red,” produced when the blimp detects an incoming rocket. Once the alarm has gone off, there is 20 seconds to get to a shelter before the rocket hits. Given such a short warning, kindergartners are kept inside all day rather than risk their failing to move quickly.

Hundreds of rockets are on grim display in the courtyard of the police station. The town itself, while typical of many its size in Israel, is now pockmarked with rocket holes and shelters and has developed a fierce black humor about its predicament, with sculptures made of rockets in a number of places. A sense of pride in Sderot’s gritty refusal to yield and an interest in finding ways to protect and enhance the town have spread rapidly.

---for Rabbi David Fendel, who has run a 500-student yeshiva here for years, the rockets are proof that withdrawing Israeli settlers and soldiers from Gaza was foolish. He has raised millions of dollars to build a new yeshiva. The point of his project is to make a statement to those who wish Israel ill. “The Palestinians are trying to turn this into a ghost town,” he said as he stepped through the construction site of his school. “We’re not going to let them. We’re going to make it a dynamic center of Zionism, Torah and building.” The building here is a bit unusual — the new yeshiva study hall will have 1,500 tons of concrete in its ceiling as protection against the crude homemade rockets known as Qassams and other rockets that assault the city on a nearly daily basis from Gaza.

Rabbi Fendel recognizes that there is plenty of work ahead. He is marrying off his eldest of seven children in the coming weeks. But even though his son and future daughter-in-law will live here at the yeshiva, the wedding will not be here because so many guests are afraid to come. Avi Farhan, who was a settler in the Sinai before it was returned to Egypt and then in Gaza before the Israelis withdrew, said he agreed with Rabbi Fendel that the withdrawal was a mistake. Standing on a bluff near his new apartment, he can see what remains of his former Gaza settlement, now a staging ground for rocket fire. “From my old house, they can now shell my new house,” he said ruefully.

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