A bitter anniversary - seven years of Kassams from Gaza

Sderot residents to testify about life and the rockets.

Kassams burn 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Kassams burn 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Seven years since the first Kassam rocket slammed into Sderot, a public hearing - the first of its kind in the town - is set to take place on Tuesday; residents will shuffle into one of the only buildings that is protected from Kassam fire, and testify about life in the rocket zone. "If a Color Red siren goes off while people are inside, the building is fortified, it won't be a problem," Shira Eitan, an organizer from Shatil, the field unit of the New Israel Fund that works for democratic change and social justice, said Sunday. "But if it goes off while people are arriving, they'll have to hurry inside quickly." Sirens or no, Shatil organizers and a group of Sderot-based social activists are planning to give Sderot residents a platform and promote greater policy-making influence by demanding that the government take responsibility for their lives. A report summarizing the hearing will be distributed to Israel's decision-makers, with what a Shatil press release called "the aim of prompting policy change with regard to the social and economic rights of Sderot residents." As far as the Kassam rockets, reports vary as to when the first one actually hit Sderot, and accounts from the IDF, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and various NGOs list dates spanning from January 2001 all the way through May of that year. But for organizers of Tuesday's event, the exact date of the first Kassam attack on Sderot is less important than the seven hard years that have followed. "It doesn't matter if the first rocket fell in January or June," Eitan said. "This meeting is a symbol of seven years of suffering, and we're expecting a full crowd." Shatil has been operating in Sderot for just over a year, but the organization knows that what they're up against is nothing new, and that the town's problems are not all a result of the Kassams. "We speak a lot about the fact that what's going on in Sderot didn't begin seven years ago," said Ya'acov Mashiach, another Shatil organizer. "It's a series of events that began 50 years ago. The government brought in Russian immigrants in the 1960s and forgot about them, neglecting their educational structure and general social rights." Add in seven years of rocket attacks, Mashiach said, and the situation has exacerbated beyond belief. Nonetheless, nearly 10,000 rockets have been fired at Sderot in the last seven years, and 3,000 residents have fled, according to The Israel Project, an international nonprofit organization that provides information to the media. In addition, 22 Israeli civilians have been killed by Kassam fire since 2001, including eight in Gush Katif before the 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip. But aside from the hard facts, Eitan is hoping her organization will be able to highlight a different view of Sderot, outside the prism of numbers and statistics, focusing more on social justice for citizens of a democratic country. "Until now Sderot has been portrayed a specific way in the media," Eitan said. "The people living there are shown as either worthy of pity or as heroes. We're trying to bring a different message, one that explores the social and human rights of the city's residents, because these people are citizens of Israel, and they have rights just like anyone else." Eitan explained that Shatil is not in favor of a new military operation in Gaza, nor is it a proponent of negotiations with Hamas, which has taken responsibility for the majority of rocket fire and controls the goings-on in Gaza with a firm grip. "There are plenty of voices speaking out about both of those options," Eitan said. "What we're trying to do is give a voice to the people stuck in the middle, because everything in Sderot, from the education system to the residents' financial situations, is in serious trouble, and the government is not doing enough to help." Getting the government to help is the main goal of Tuesday's hearing, and Eitan said she hopes the people's voices and the sincere illustrations of their hardships will speak loud enough for those in positions of power to hear. "This is the first time that residents of Sderot can give their accounts, their testimony of what life is like in Sderot," Eitan said. "It's not that we're poor, unfortunate souls who need to be taken care of, no, we live here and we want to continue living here with respect."