Presenting the human side of Sderot, Israel and the Western Negev would seem innocuous enough, as it is the only region in the western world where rockets and missiles target a civilian population. The people of the South have their own story to share.
Yet after a 13-day coast-to-coast visit to Canadian college campuses, organized by Hillel Canada and the CIJA umbrella organization of Canadian Jewry, it would seem that even Sderot residents must fight for their legitimate right to live in the land of Israel.
The purpose of this trip was to balance the after-effects of the “Gaza narrative,” exactly one year after the IDF’s 21-day Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip.
On Canadian college campuses, the challenge became to justify the very existence of the city of Sderot.
This was best exemplified by an article published in a Winnipeg student newspaper, penned by a Palestinian-Canadian sociology student. This student amazingly attacked the credibility of another student for sharing her experiences in Sderot. This student had described her shock at the 15-second alarm, known as the “Color Red,” which warns Sderot residents of an incoming rocket from Gaza with only moments to escape to safety before it explodes.
The Palestinian student showed little sympathy for Sderot under fire:
“‘Sderot’ is actually a settlement on the Palestinian land of Najd, an illegally occupied territory stolen from Palestinians. It is a town created on the ashes of an ethnically cleansed and defaced Palestinian village.... You want to talk about ‘terror’? Najd’s Palestinian villagers were expelled on May 13, 1948 by Israeli forces before Israel was even declared a state.”
Here is a well educated student born in Canada, of Palestinian descent, calling Sderot an illegitimate “settlement” constructed on the ruins of an Arab village abandoned during the 1948 war. Indeed this same student makes no acknowledgement of the historical fact that between 1951 and 1953, the Jews who settled in Sderot were from among the 850,000 Jews expelled in masses from Arab countries. During and after the 1948 war, 670,000 Palestinian Arab refugees fled or were forced from their homes.
THIS STUDENT was not the first to rationalize the thousands of aerial attacks and terrorizing of Sderot and Negev civilians.
“You know why Sderot is under rocket fire? Because there was an Arab village called Najd,” began a BBC reporter in an interview. I recall the reporter sitting in our Sderot Media Center office trying to find a “reasonable excuse” to justify rocket fire against a civilian population.
Ironically, most Israelis and Jews do not even know that Palestinians and their leadership define Sderot as an illegal “settlement,” while under international law it is indisputedly an Israeli city.
The first question I often ask student audiences during presentations is the following: “If Sderot is a settlement and two miles northeast of Sderot lie the ruins of the Arab village called Najd, which the Palestinians say had a population of 30 families who now live in the United Nations refugee camps in Gaza, what’s the justification for Jews to live in Sderot or anywhere else in Israel?”
The challenge today is to first actually ask these basic questions, before suggesting solutions to the modern Arab-Israeli conflict.
“What is our right, as Jews and as Israelis, to this country in our homeland? Do we have any rights to this land at all?” This is the one way to get across and present Israel’s perspective to Muslims, to pro-Palestinians, to Israel critics and to the international press. By asking this basic question, we ask everyone to realize that Israel is the only independent country in the world whose legitimacy as a state is being questioned.
YET ANOTHER student expressed himself during the presentation at Ottawa’s Carleton University: “You Jews dreamed to go back to your homeland after 2,000 years... Why do you think we will stop teaching our children to dream of returning to our homes in Al-Majdal [Ashkelon] after only 60 years?”
In other words, educated Canadian-born Palestinian students living comfortably abroad, view Sderot quite simply as an illegal settlement and do not recognize the Jewish State of Israel. Palestinian education focuses on the preparation of the Palestinian people for the “right of return” to homes and villages from 1948 which no longer exist. Homes and villages for example in and around cities like Sderot, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Beersheba and more which have all been under terrorist missile fire.
“So, what’s your solution to this reality?” students asked at each Canadian campus that I visited. In the hundreds of presentations I have given in the past three years, I always answer, “I’m not here to present you with a solution; I’m here to articulate the problem.”
This should not exempt students from knowing the reality of what people in Israel have to cope with – and, in the case of Sderot, that their unique rocket reality is like no other in the world right now. Rockets have become a daily routine; where one civilian population is targeted by rockets, rocket-launchers take cover among another civilian population on the other side of the border.
Can this definition of terrorism be understood from a typical five-second daily news broadcast?
“Two rockets fell outside Sderot today. No injuries and no damage” is how the typical news update reads, followed by a weather report.
These news reports have now tallied up to 311 attacks, including 20 different types of rockets and mortars fired from Gaza toward southern Israel, since the end of the military operation in Gaza on January 18, 2009.
IF THINGS were truly clear about our rights as Jews to live in Israel, I would not have found myself providing my testimony to Judge Richard Goldstone in Geneva. I was allowed a 30-minute presentation in which I described the past eight years under rocket fire and concluded by raising my hands in front of them: “I do not have enough fingers on my hands to count the amount of times rockets exploded only 10 meters from a kindergarten.... Why do we have to wait until a kindergarten or classroom full of children suffers a direct hit by a rocket in order for us to have the international support and sympathy to do what is right to protect our own citizens?”
This was the question I put to Goldstone and the rest of the UN panel of judges, which was met only with stony silence.
The time has come to raise these questions among college students
around the world, and to provide them with accurate responses so they
can stand up for Israel and for themselves.
By generating that kind of awareness, we promote peace without instant
solutions and we force the world of public opinion to acknowledge the
real barriers to peace, beginning with the continuing refusal of the
Arab world to recognize the legitimacy of Sderot and of Israel in their
neighborhood.The writer is a photojournalist,
lecturer and the founder and director of the Sderot Media Center
(www.SderotMedia.org) He gives briefings to foreign government
officials, embassies, foreign press and student groups from around the