Shabbat Kassam

It's been a testing time for the city's firefighters who battle the blazes caused by Kassams.

Kassam smoke 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Kassam smoke 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Fire chief David Sheetrit is not a fan of crossword puzzles. He watches as visiting Tel Aviv firefighters pour over the Friday newspapers on Saturday. They brought them with them when they came to bolster Sderot's fire station, which during "normal times" boasts a total staff of three, Sheetrit and his two deputies. "Three across and five letters down: What is a Muslim religious leader called? Answer: Mufti." A Tel Aviv firefighter scribbles in the answer, and a short discussion on the Muslims of Gaza ensues. "They are like cockroaches, these guys who fire the rockets. You kill them and others take their place... there won't be peace between us and them, there's not even peace between them and themselves." And so it goes. The firefighters have just returned from quelling a blaze set off by a rocket in Kibbutz Nir Am's wheat field. The fire destroyed about 20 percent of the field, which totals 10 dunams, or about 2.5 acres. This will hurt the kibbutz financially. The situation is already bad here down south. Saturday was hotter than normal for this time of year, and the blaze was stoked by a strong wind. Sheetrit told his men to enter the field at places that were already ablaze, and not from where the fire was yet to reach, to avoid them being surrounded by a quick-moving flame. The fire truck circled behind the blaze and then tackled it head on. The main truck was close enough to the blaze - 300 degrees, according to the firefighters - to melt some of its plastic markings. An unexpected danger: pieces of burning wheat, blown by the wind and the flame, lodged into the truck's radiator and threatened to overheat the engine. They had to be pulled out one by one. Sheetrit takes me on a tour of the city. He has lived in Sderot for 27 years. We head to the neighborhood directly facing the Gaza Strip - about four kilometers to the east as the Kassam flies. When the Palestinians started shooting rockets at Sderot in March 2001 this neighborhood bore the brunt, as the range of the "crude, homemade rockets," as the foreign press likes to call them, was extremely limited back then, "when they were still in their diapers," Sheetrit said. Now, more than six years later, all of Sderot is in range. Developers have bought land in this neighborhood, directly facing the Strip, and infrastructure has been laid. But nobody is building new apartment blocks yet, and the value of the plots has plummeted. There are three types of Kassam rockets: 90mm, 105mm and 115mm. You can identify who made them by their colors, or lack thereof. Green and red projectiles belong to Hamas, yellow ones belong to Islamic Jihad's Al-Quds [Jerusalem] brigades. Those without any paint at all are fresh off the assembly line and their makers didn't manage to decorate them. Sderot's three-man fire station is responsible not only for the town, but also for the adjacent kibbutzim and their vast fields. Just for comparison, Tel Aviv has 27 firefighters on duty per shift. One of Sheetrit's deputies is planning to leave Sderot, if he can sell his house. I'm not sure he's told Sheetrit yet. His son awoke from a nightmare recently. He said that in his dream, he heard the Color Red siren [which warns of an approaching Kassam] and couldn't get close enough to a protective wall. Fear has permeated the dreams of many children here, and that is something no parent can bear. My aim was to find out if the residents have developed survival skills over the years, something they can share with people who don't live in towns under constant rocket attack, such as Tel Aviv. Of the 23,000 people who live here, about 8,000 were away this Shabbat, and many of those who stayed were indoors, to avoid the rockets and the heat. The Color Red alert gives you anywhere between five seconds' warning - if the Kassam is being fired from close to the border, for example from Beit Hanun - to 30 seconds if it is being fired from further away, i.e., from close to the Gaza coast. The rockets usually come in pairs, or threes, interspersed over 30 to 60 seconds. The trick is to know, at all times, where you are relative to the Gaza Strip, where the rockets come from. You need this information so that you will know which building to run to when you hear a Color Red alert. If you're facing north, Gaza is on your left, and you need to hug the eastern side of a building, to keep the structure between you and the rockets. If you get this calculation wrong, you are exposing yourself to a direct hit. If you're facing south and Gaza is on your right, the same applies. You may think this is obvious, but many a newcomer gets confused when the siren rings out. Sderot is not as easy to figure out navigationally as, let's say, Tel Aviv. It's simple in "the city that never stops": the sea is on one side, and the town is on the other. Sderot is turning into a city that never sleeps. Fear is everywhere, even at the fire station, where the Tel Aviv crew try hard to hide it. One thing you can try, if your wits are about you, is to watch where the sun is on its path from east to west. If it's morning, find the sun, and that's east, so you can figure out where Gaza is. If it's evening, the sun is in the west. If it's midday, look at your shadow: If it's behind you and to the right, Gaza is to your left. Even trickier is what to do when you're driving and the siren sounds. Here the answer is unanimous: Get out of the vehicle and run to the nearest shelter or wall. If there is no building, lie down on the road and cover your head. Just don't stay in your car. The main reason not to stay in your car is that rocket shrapnel - and every Kassam has ball bearings or bolts in its warhead - can tear through your gas tank and blow up your car. Remember to always have your window slightly open, so that you can hear the Color Red alert and the Kassam shriek. "Everybody knows what to do when you hear an alarm - but in the end it really is a gamble, like poker or roulette," Sheetrit says. "Some people even gamble with their lives and do nothing when they hear the alarm. Most people who have been wounded or killed by Kassams in Sderot were outside when they were hit. The Home Front Command sent soldiers here a while back and they went into each and every home here and explained to everyone what they need to do to protect themselves. "Everybody knows, but it doesn't always help. It's not organized, and when you're caught by an alarm and the rockets start landing, it really is every man for himself. Some people survived because they didn't find shelter in time, as the shelter they were heading to was hit," he says. Scary words from the city's fire chief, who turns off his air conditioning and sleeps with his windows open at night, so that he can hear the Color Red sirens.