Trapped on the front lines

Sderot residents beg the government for the tools to survive.

kassam trauma 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
kassam trauma 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Nitai Shreiber is tired. "This place has five times more anxiety and hardship than we can deal with," says the soft-spoken executive director of Gvanim, one of the largest providers of social services for Sderot's weakest sectors: the poor community of immigrants from the Caucasus which makes up 35 percent of the town, the mentally handicapped and those suffering trauma from living in the tense city. Shreiber has been a "social entrepreneur" in Sderot since 1990 and founded Gvanim, a nonprofit organization, in 1994. Today he employs 280 people, 150 of whom, including Shreiber, live here. One-third of these, also including Shreiber, are in therapy. "I stay strong by having a place where I can be weak," explains Shreiber, who until two years ago was a reservist in one of the IDF's most elite military units. This is the part of the crisis that the rest of the world and most of Israel - particularly the government - doesn't understand, he believes. Sderot is the epicenter of real, ongoing trauma. In the course of an hour's conversation, we twice rush into the adjacent room, whose walls are thick concrete that can withstand the flying shrapnel of the bombs that have rained down on the small town - 50 fell yesterday - for seven years now. When the citywide alarm sounds, you get 10 to 15 seconds before the rockets fall. Almost three weeks ago, eight-year-old Oshri Twito lost his left leg to shrapnel wounds because, sometimes, they crash into the town before the siren can be sounded. Shreiber's is the story of Sderot. A mix of the gentleness of a social worker and nervous father of four, he carries a soldier's tenacity along with a deep bitterness at the irresponsibility with which he believes the government is handling the Sderot crisis. "I never supported Ariel Sharon's policies, but Arik would take responsibility," he says. Residents say the government takes their suffering for granted, refusing to fortify a room in each Sderot home despite the certain knowledge that the bombardment will not end soon. As the situation in the western Negev escalates - Kassams weigh five times what they did when the first ones fell seven years ago, Grads hit northern Ashkelon and Palestinian targeting is improving monthly - the residents feel abandoned. Some 20% of the town's population, mostly those who could afford it, have left. Many of those who remain do so because they have no choice. The value of their homes has plunged during seven years of permanent assault, leaving them unable to move even to nearby Negev towns like Netivot. They are trapped on Israel's front lines. Shreiber is part of a not-insignificant group of Sderot residents who remain despite having the wherewithal to leave. "I am here fighting for my home," he says. Shreiber's house, which is relatively new, has a fortified room. The entire family has slept together in that single room, in a bunk bed and mattresses on the floor, for the past four years. "The statistics work in your favor," Shreiber explains grimly. In seven years there have "only" been six rocket falls within 50 meters of his home, the latest coming two weeks ago when a Kassam punched a hole in his neighbor's wall. A specific home is unlikely to be hit, Shreiber concedes, but there is another compelling reason to fortify the homes of Sderot. "My son wants to go play soccer, but the field is half a kilometer away. What am I going to do? This has been his entire childhood; it doesn't trouble him. He says to me, like it's nothing, 'If the siren sounds, I'll just run into the migunit,'" a concrete structure with multiple openings so that many children, with seconds to escape a bombardment, can enter quickly. Shreiber's two teenage daughters "sleep in a permanent state of readiness" and wake easily when the siren sounds. The country, and particularly the government, is unaware of this reality, he believes. "Everyone comes calling when someone is killed or wounded, but the emotional scarring is cumulative." In the end, Sderot residents are persevering, he believes, but they are doing so without the help they feel they deserve. "A journalist asked me if we are despairing. No. We are frustrated," he said. Shreiber notes with gratitude those who have helped, citing the United Jewish Communities, American Jewish Committee and International Fellowship of Christians and Jews by name. This week alone, following the death of a Sapir College student from shrapnel wounds, the Jewish Agency has begun to distribute 1,700 UJC-funded scholarships, valued at $1.7 million, to Sapir students. The town's bomb shelters have recently been refurbished through massive grants from the IFCJ. For this aid, Shreiber is grateful. But hearing today that Social and Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog decided last week to increase salaries, fortify buildings and add man-hours to Sderot's overtaxed welfare services, he is less than happy. "Expanding the welfare office isn't what we need. They're just 20 people, less than 10% of my own staff. We still lack basic help." Basic help, for Shreiber and others The Jerusalem Post spoke to in Sderot, means fortifying a room in each home. "You need to feel safe at night so you can live your life the next day," says Hezi, who works with Shreiber. "The government doesn't have a solution to Gaza? Fine! But say so, and fortify the houses!" "I'm not complaining about the situation," agrees Shreiber. "I chose to live here, and we feel that the people of Israel are with us, and so are American Jews who help and visit. But" - to the government - "give us the tools to live on the front lines. Help us to sleep at night. Why do we have to beg?"