Kassam Roulette: The human toll

The randomness of it all and the constant sense of being in peril are in many ways the most difficult issues to grapple with.

Kassam rocket hits Sderot and the media reports "No damage." What on earth do they mean? Sderot has been beleaguered by rocket fire for several years. Thousands of Kassams have rained down on the town, but the last few weeks have set a record: From May 21st to the 28th, 250 Kassams fired from Gaza hit and exploded, causing incalculable damage throughout the whole community. Two killed the people they hit, but even for those allegedly "no damage" rockets, the non-stop atmosphere of fear they engender destroys lives and businesses - and has brought many in the area to the brink of despair. For many, the devastation caused by "no damage" Kassams might be irreparable. In the business district, what appears to be a busy jewelry store stands out against a row of shuttered shops. Rafael, an employee, stands behind the counter while most of the floor space is taken up by four young men leaning against display cases. Not that there's any jewelry on display - both the front window and mirrored shelves are empty. Neither are the young men customers. "No one's buying anything at all," Rafael says. "We're just here talking about the Kassam that hit this morning." Just an hour previously, 36-year-old Oshri Oz from Hod Hasharon was killed when a Kassam exploded near his car. He struggled out of the vehicle, took four steps, then collapsed and died on the roadway. "Since then, there've been two more rockets," notes one of the young men. "It's not a good day to be out." Last Sunday, May 27, a total of nine Kassams crashed into Sderot. One man was killed - but the whole town was terrorized. Before the advent of Kassams, Sderot was a quiet little community, home to 23,000 people, several factories, hi-tech businesses, yeshivot, schools, parks and a thriving business district. Located 40 kilometers northwest of Beersheba - and just one deadly kilometer from Gaza - today, Sderot is home to only 13,000 residents. It doesn't take long to see why: On the edge of town, you can't miss a charred wheat field that was ignited by an exploding rocket. Once you know what to look for - blackened earth, shattered glass - evidence of Kassams is everywhere, on every street, in every neighborhood. Although it's mid-morning, there are no pedestrians and very few cars on the streets of Sderot. The market stands empty, the schools are closed, and at least 75 percent of the small businesses are either permanently shuttered or closed for the day. In what used to be a busy street-side sales area, today only one man peddles a few racks of women's clothing. Why is he open? "Ma la'asot?" he says, with that ineffable Israeli shrug, "What can you do?" Sonia's Flowers is open. Bright colored blooms and lush floral displays nearly flow out the door - but look closely, and see that most flowers are silk, not fresh. "We used to bring in fresh flowers every day," says Ella, daughter of owner Sonia. "Now? Once a week, maybe. We live just five minutes walk from here. I'm worried about my daughter. The schools are closed, so she's home. It's a bad situation." A bakery is open, doing minimal business as a few customers rush in, buy a few essentials and hurry off to safer quarters. "There's no business," says baker Yerucham Cohen. "Only a few people want to leave their homes. But what can I do? I have a home here, a mortgage, a family. Where would we go?" Back at the jewelry store, the talk has turned to the matzav ("the situation"). "I came from Uzbekistan," Rafael notes. "Now I'm here in Israel and I don't understand. Why are we Jews the ones hiding, covering our heads? The Arabs shoot rockets at us - shouldn't they be covering their heads? I hate this, it's all politics. But it isn't right. I need help, and I don't know what to do. I have no customers, so I can't stay in business. I have a home, a family and debts, so I can't leave. What do I do?" Esther and Itzik Ifrah recently returned from a short break staying with family in Haifa. Now they're back home, sleeping, again, with their seven children aged 15, 14, 10, eight, seven, six and two, in their home's bomb shelter. The shelter is tiny - with a washer and dryer already in the room, there's barely space for a single mattress on the floor. "The children spend most of the day here," Esther says. "At most, they come into the kitchen. The 'Red Dawn' rocket alarm gives us only a few seconds to take shelter. I don't let them get very far away." Esther's concern is fully justified. "Last Sunday at midnight, a rocket hit a house down the street - it blew the windows out of our car," she says. Today, the home that was hit stands empty, with the front door hanging off the hinges. Inside, electrical appliances took the brunt of the damage. A television screen is shattered, an oven and microwave blasted out. Shrapnel scars cover the walls and a chunk of plaster is missing over a door. Some unidentifiable substance similar to soot covers everything. The situation proves frustrating for everyone. "We just can't live like this," Esther says, noting that she's worried about the effects on the children. Their eldest son, Meir, normally attends a yeshiva in Yeroham but today he's home. "When I'm away at school I worry about my family," Meir says. "I phone them all the time. I don't like to be separated from them." As the father, Itzik's frustration lies in his inability to make things better. "I'm not the boss here," he says, referring to the matzav. "I can't control anything. My wife can't go outside, not even to shop. Anything we need, I pick up on my way home from work. My kids are cooped up in a tiny room. There's no school. All the time we listen, listen, listen for the alerts, so we don't play much music because we can't miss the warnings. There's no reason why we should be living like this. This is our home. If the Arabs want a country of their own, let them act like it." Esther worries that the children show signs of stress: sleeplessness, stomach and digestion problems. "They aren't hungry, they're restless. No one sleeps very well. I buy games for them, two and three at a time, but they get bored. At least when we were in Haifa they could run around a little." The streets outside may be empty, but inside the local Clalit Health Services clinic it's very busy. Patients queue outside every doctor's door. One of the doctors - who asked not to be named out of concern for patient confidentiality - says the clinic is seeing far more mental problems and psychological issues than physical injuries. "We're treating very many more cases of anxiety-related problems - people with depression, insomnia and panic attacks," he says. "If someone is physically injured by a Kassam, they go to the hospital. So here, what we see are all the anxiety-related disorders, plus cardiac cases, from when a Kassam hits. "Everyone who comes in first needs to talk about the 'near hit' he suffered, the miracle, how he survived what nearly happened," the doctor continues. "It's interesting how everyone, secular and religious, uses the word 'nes' (miracle). I think every one of us has experienced a close call, and the miracle of escape sticks in the mind: The Kassam hit the neighbor's house across the street. He was sitting in his living room and everything fell to pieces, but he sat there, watched it all and wasn't hurt. "There's a religious dimension to all this," the doctor says. "Faith is growing among a lot of people." The doctor himself has lived in Sderot for over two decades, has children and grandchildren here. "I can tell you this," he says. "I'm not leaving. I wouldn't even think of leaving. But here's the thing: I'm not afraid. I'm not going to run and cower. Many people here have the same attitude: If your name is written on one of those Kassams, then you can't run away from it. If it's not written there, then there's no reason to run. From what I see, this is a very good test of faith. We Jews have overcome bigger problems than those pesky rockets - we survived the Holocaust. With God's help, we'll overcome this, too. We are here, and will not leave." In many ways, the most difficult issue to grapple with is the randomness of it all, the constant sense of being in peril. Because the Kassams come out of the sky with barely a few seconds' notice, it's hard not to be tense and alert all the time. It's not knowing if your name is on this Kassam, or the next one. At least subconsciously, that feeling of anxiety never abates. Merav Gross is one of two national service (sherut leumi) volunteers who work for Mercaz Hesed, Sderot's primary charitable organization. After one of her own 'near misses,' Gross emphasized the danger of walking around outdoors unprotected. "I was walking from the Mercaz down to our Yad Sarah center," she says. "I heard the whistle, then two Kassams went right over my head and hit just a short distance away. Another time, one hit very near our Hesed building itself. That's why we've had to close down some of our operations. We can't have people working there, volunteering in that building. It's not anywhere close to safe." For Mercaz Hesed, these last weeks have been grueling, both for the five full-time volunteers and all the part-timers who pitch in for various projects. "We give out food to families in need every Thursday," Gross says. "Under normal circumstances, to be included they have to bring us all their documentation. Our social worker checks everything, and we visit the home to make sure they qualify. But now? There's no time, and the need is so great." In past times, when only normal emergencies took place, Mercaz Hesed ran several charitable operations. "We had a restaurant - really a soup kitchen, but a nice place where anyone at all could come and eat," Gross says. "But now that's closed. It's too dangerous to have people coming into this building to cook and serve, or to eat. No-one would come out, anyway. Being on the streets is too dangerous, so instead we deliver food to individual homes." Several hundred boxes of food are delivered each week. A box will typically include dry goods like pasta or rice, oil, flour, chocolate and soup. "We used to give out fresh vegetables, but that's changed, too," Gross says. "It used to be tomatoes or cucumbers or whatever we had. But now we can't have volunteers here sorting and packing, so we add a bit more frozen vegetables to the box, a frozen chicken and some milk products. A box is worth about NIS 250-300 if you were to buy it." The shift from serving hot meals to delivering boxes of food increased the costs, too. "We have volunteers who make the deliveries, but with gasoline so expensive, it costs a lot. Plus, with so many street signs down and new people doing the driving, it's not always easy to find the houses. People get lost. Even with maps it sometimes takes a while to find the right place." Not surprisingly, the demand is up. "It's true that the population of Sderot has decreased, but not demand. That's increased," says founder Avichai Amutzi, who started Mercaz Hesed as a small project seven years ago, when the Kassams first began falling. "Now with this war, we're giving out much more food. Sometimes regular people can't get out to shop - it's not just the homebound anymore. And with so many people depressed and lonely, out of work and without income, the demand has increased exponentially. We don't get any government money or help. Donations from private businesses and individuals have increased, but not enough. Right now we have a room full of supplies, but in two days that will all be gone and then I don't know what we'll do. I don't know where the next supplies will come from. That's what's worrying me at the moment." The work at Mercaz Hesed has had a deep impact on Gross, the 19-year-old volunteer who oversees much of the organization's work. "I've seen things I never thought I'd see," says the daughter of Ellis and Jackie Gross of Meitar, who made aliya from Minneapolis in 1979. "I can't get used to seeing 400 people standing in line, asking for food. For everyone who asks, we do our best. No one goes away without something. We do whatever we can to help." Other Hesed projects have been temporarily closed. "We recycle furniture - people donate to us and we give it to those in need. We also supply tables and chairs for celebrations. Our second-hand shop had to close. People won't come to shop. But clothes aren't what people desperately need right now, anyway - they need food," says Gross. Other Mercaz Hesed programs - like Zaka (the rescue and recovery organization staffed mostly by Orthodox Jews) and Yad Sarah (the nationwide volunteer network aiding disabled, elderly, housebound people) - remain busy. "Our Zaka volunteers were out to deal with the man who was killed this morning," Gross says. "Requests for Yad Sarah help are up, too. Before, many people were homebound so they didn't need a wheelchair or crutches. But now they want to leave for a while and need mobility. They turn to us." As if to illustrate the point, the front door to the Mercaz opens and a voice calls out for help. A woman was found wandering on the streets, crying. A motorist saw her and brought her to Mercaz Hesed, knowing they would handle the situation. The woman, who appears to be in her mid-60s, sobs out her frustration, loneliness and fear. A glass of cool water is pressed into her hand, and after a few minutes she says, "I've been inside at home for a whole week. I'm afraid to go out. Now there is no more food in my refrigerator, nothing in my cupboards. I didn't know what to do. I started walking…." Even as she speaks, a food box is packed for her: rice and pasta, vegetables and two chickens from the freezer. As the motorist who brought her stands waiting to drive her back home, her name and phone number are recorded so they can check back with her later to see how she is. "Did she really need food?" asks Amutzi. "Honestly, I don't know. She might. Or maybe she was just lonely. It doesn't matter. In times like this, we'd rather help first and ask questions later. When a Jew asks, you give, right?" To help Mercaz Hesed care for shattered citizens of Sderot, e-mail avihi123@gmail.com. Or call 052-4314483.