My wife and I were eating the Shabbat meal in the garden of our little home in Sderot, surrounded by four hungry cats who moved into our space and stare at us until we feed them.
While chatting, we heard something we had not heard for a year: a woman’s recorded voice saying, “Tzeva adom! Tzeva adom! Tzeva adom!” (“Color Red! Color Red! Color Red!”). The rocket exploded before the familiar announcement that we were under attack ended; they usually detonate afterwards, so that people have 15 seconds or so to get to their shelters.
We duly walked inside our bomb-shelter, a room holding our computers, documents and other possessions too important to lose. Our short run was gratuitous, though, and we knew it, because we had already heard the explosion. We are both trying to develop better “Kassam habits,” especially after a blast tossed my wife through the air during last summer’s war.
Sderot’s dogs run eagerly into the family shelter when they see their owners doing so, and have even learned to run when they recognize that woman’s recorded voice – but cats react opportunistically. We returned to our repast to find a feline helping himself to some salmon from my plate.
That night the Israel Air Force was busy.
Drones, airplanes and helicopters flew overhead. We heard the occasional explosion from a distance, as the air force sought the perpetrators of this latest Hamas attempted murder. We heard the unmistakable sound of a helicopter firing a rocket at the enemy; that soft “whoooosh!” with which we have become familiar. We heard no Iron Dome anti-missile system of the kind we daily heard during last year’s war, because the army took those batteries from Sderot when the shooting stopped.
I understand they will return to us soon, because war might return to this pleasant, green, hard-working little town.
We set out in search of the Kassam the next afternoon. Because the “nefilah,” which literally means “fall,” occurred during the Shabbat meal, when folks are at home eating, singing and making joyful noise at their Shabbat tables, and because the blast sounded rather faint in our part of town, many people did not know that we had been attacked. My wife and I walked toward the other neighborhood asking people where the bomb exploded until we found those who knew. I passed the local fire chief, who had not been on duty during this nefilah, but who wanted to see where his men had worked during his night off. He told me where to seek the damage, and joked that I had not seemed to recognize him without his uniform.
From the fire chief’s directions we both understood where the bomb had fallen.
My wife had lived a block or so from that home, and it was from a small hill about a hundred feet in the other direction that we and many people of this town sat watching the rockets being fired at Israel from Gaza during the war. The border dividing Israel from the Hamas-controlled terrorist network is about 2 km from the playground through which we walked to get to the crater the rocket had made.
It being Saturday afternoon, children were playing in that playground. Others were talking and laughing in and around the crater itself. They told us that this was indeed the hole the rocket had made, and each wanted to add where he had been and how he and his family had experienced the terrorist attack on this perfectly ordinary neighborhood, yards from a playground.
Traumatized people often have the need to tell about their trauma again and again.
They try to digest the horror by making it familiar – this rocket was an attempted murder of them and their families.
After some time listening to these children, we noticed a woman hosing down her yard. She greeted us in a friendly manner.
It was her home in front of which the rocket had burst. The smell of burning was still strong in her backyard. She had been telling and retelling her story to newspaper reporters all day. She did not object to recounting it once more to us.
The woman had been born and raised in Egypt. She, her parents and seven siblings had immigrated to Israel as late as 1972, and had lived in Sderot since then. In this town she married and raised a family, a small tribe that now included a number of grandchildren. This Shabbat she had taken her grandchildren from her hardworking son and daughter-in-law in order to give those parents a weekend to be alone quietly together. She, her husband and these grandchildren had been sitting merrily at table when the missile exploded about six meters away.
The soft blast that we heard from a distance shook their home, broke windows and blew the Venetian blinds from their places. When a rocket goes off right next to somebody’s house, it has the force of a small earthquake, and those who live in that home feel the sound- and shockwaves penetrate their bodies. The grandchildren screamed and cried. The woman dialed the emergency number to summon first responders. Everybody knew that the Kassam terror had returned, even though Sderot had not been attacked for a year.
Hate had obtruded itself into this ordinary scene to deny ordinary people ordinary lives.
A firetruck, several police-cars, soldiers and an ambulance arrived within minutes.
The Sderot emergency teams are well trained for these terrorist attacks. That the firemen and the police are small-town neighbors whom everybody knows makes it all a little more bearable. Other families living around that park and playground left their homes to help. Children the age of the family’s grandchildren ran to speak to and to comfort those grandchildren.
They too had had this kind of experience many times already.
Sderot’s children seem to have developed a special kind of camaraderie, even as we saw in the group talking and laughing next to the Kassam crater. They too had been among those to run to the children of that home just after the rocket fell, and spent the following day looking for bits of the rocket to add to the collection that every Sderot child makes; collecting pieces of exploded missiles is a major ritual for children of Sderot.
An older woman who had been walking down the street went into some kind of shock and experienced an unusual heart rhythm. She was the only person to have been hurt by that blast. The ambulance took her away. Sappers spent much of the evening examining the remains of the rocket and the hole it had made. They brought in a little tractor to dig out as much of the Kassam as they could. The professionals encouraged the family to speak often of their experience. The common procedure is that one uniformed specialist after another goes to everybody individually to ask what happened. They aren’t motivated by idle curiosity, but rather they want to encourage families to tell the story and get it out of themselves.
The family dog had been in a kind of cage outside the home. He was about 3 m. from where the missile landed. He was utterly quenched in spirit, staring forlornly at us from inside his home. The dog began eating only later the following day, and only small amounts of food. He was lucky not to have been struck by the shrapnel the Kassam threw in every direction when it exploded.
The blast and shockwaves a missile generates hurt, but the small bits of metal into which the rocket disintegrates as well as the other pieces that the Muslim terrorists stuff into their Kassams cause most of the damage. Most of the dead and wounded in our town were struck by this shrapnel.
This time, the shrapnel hit nobody. Holes ripped in the bus belonging to the woman’s husband – he ferries soldiers around Israel in his bus – were clearly visible. They had gone right through that metal, just as bullets would have. We could see other holes in metal gates in front of a neighbor’s home. Kassam shrapnel has wounded civilians who were standing more than 30 m. from the impact point. Imagine what such force would do to a child’s face.
This woman and her family have many thanks to give for having suffered so little that Shabbat. The government employees who will recommend how much compensation those folks will receive visited on Sunday morning. The state will compensate the family for the light damage their home sustained. The rocket exploded right outside their home; the merest wind variation could have sent it through their roof and onto the table where they ate. A Kassam exploding inside a room has much greater force than one that detonates in the open air.
For the cumulative emotional damage such constantly repeated terrorist attacks do to the good folks of Sderot there can be no compensation. Psychologists report a very high incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder here. These children rally around each other and act tough, but I often hear of bed-wetting and of young people who scream in their sleep. People evolve skills with which to cope with the damage they sustain, but that damage remains.