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This past Wednesday, I organized a trip for myself and a few friends to go visit the Israeli town of Sderot. Located a mere kilometer from the border with Gaza, the town has unfortunately been shelled by rockets and mortar fire for 8 consecutive years at this point. I wanted to go experience it personally, and my friends wanted to go with me. As such, I contacted the Sderot Media Center, as I had heard of the tours they offer of the situation there to anyone and everyone who is interested. I spoke with a guy named Jacob, and he explained to me what to do (rent a car, and drive down there), and so the trip was set up…

…all except for unexpected difficulties in dealing with the Avis car rental people. Théo had reserved the car for 1 day for a price of 70 euros, which we all agreed was a fair deal. We got there, and the Israeli woman working the desk was absolutely unwilling to deal with us or even allow us to take the car we had reserved. After arguing with her, as well as the manager, we actually eventually ended up getting the car for 2 days instead of 1, and for a mere 56 euros. Not sure how that worked out, as the bulk of the arguing had to be done by Théo, as he is 25 and thus old enough (24 or older) to rent a car in Israel. We eventually got the keys and car itself, and thus were on our way. I am glad that Théo was both required and willing to drive, as drivers in both Israel and Palestine are incredibly unsafe in their habits.

We drove along the beautiful route and had the requisite conversations making fun of the various nationalities present in the car (all in good fun, as I am indeed a horse-riding cowboy who only eats hamburgers and drinks Coca Cola 🙂 ). We were surprised that we got there so fast (it was only about an hour’s drive), and so I called Jacob. After a bit of phone tag, we eventually figured out that he was in a car two behind us, so we followed him into the center of town and the Media Center.

Getting out of the car and introducing ourselves, we went inside and already got to see one Qassam rocket. We met some of the other people there, many of whom have lived in the United States/were previously citizens there (Jacob is from Silver Springs Maryland, as a matter of fact). We first went and visited the police station of Sderot, which is always on the tours offered by the Center. We went inside and out to their back yard, and got to look at the stacks of Qassam rocket bodies and other rocket remnants. Jacob explained that these were only a sampling of the rockets which have fallen, as the police take them away. Every rocket is marked with paint showing the time and date of when it fell, and there are other immediate details. First of all, the rockets are predominantly constructed from metal irrigation piping for the body, and then carved-up street signs for the fins. This is already worse than merely rockets being fired, as all the innocent people in Gaza are consistently regarded as complicit in the construction and launching of those rockets, and thus are also punished by the bans on irrigation materials, construction equipment/materials, and many types of foods (they cannot get spaghetti noodles, as apparently they can be melted down into some sort of fuel substitute). The rockets are filled with ball bearings and bolts and the like, in order to create more shrapnel. Nasty stuff.

We left the police station and went to the newly fortified playground in the middle of a residential area. This playground has two brand-new cement caterpillars, but they are different than anything else of similar appearance in the world. These two are 7-inch thick reinforced tubes of cement (one big difference) which are painted joyfully and colorfully on the outside, but have an additional feature on the inside. They have orange rings painted, so that the kids know how far back into the tube they need to get during alarms in order to avoid getting killed/wounded by shrapnel from the rockets. That is in and of itself disgusting, awful, terrible, and the reality for these children. Beyond the obvious, additional details from the tour later highlighted one of my fears as being true: the majority of the kids in Sderot grow up with the rockets and hearing about the Gazan source of those rockets, so they will probably be unable to easily consider any sort of peaceful resolution to the situation as a result. I am also sorry to report that beyond being obviously inclined to support the citizens of Sderot with what he had to say, Jacob voiced a fair number of fairly racist sentiments, such as correcting us, his guests, every time we said “Palestinians” – he insisted that we say “Arabs,” as he felt that all of them are the same (evil) people. Highly unfortunate, especially since we walked away from the playground and noticed a house getting a bomb shelter built as an addition. The laborers on top were Palestinian, and although I captured a shot of the entire situation without seeing them at first, they protested to other people taking any photos – Jacob told us to take photographs anyways, as (and I quote directly) “they have no power here.” I wish I could report otherwise.

We departed for a street which had been hit hard by the rockets, and Jacob continued his explanation of events in Sderot. We saw partially destroyed houses awaiting repairs, and we also saw fully demolished homes which have no chance of being repaired and simply need to be knocked down the rest of the way. He showed us a synagogue and told us a chilling story: a few years ago, there was a 450-person event in the synagogue at some point in the afternoon. The majority of the people departed for their homes, save for one family who stayed behind to help clean up from the festival. Her children were playing out in the street (thank God), and the father was in the back part of the synagogue doing some work. The mother of the family finished cleaning the front room, and locked the doors to it so she could finish closing down the synagogue for the day. Mere minutes later, a rocket fell directly into that same front room, utterly demolishing it. No one was killed or hurt, but this should illustrate just how precarious life can be in Sderot, with destruction happening at any moment and essentially without warning (15 seconds worth of alarm, when it goes off [only part of the time due to weather conditions]). We ended our time on that street by examining the damage that the smaller Qassams cause to the pavement, which is no longer cost-effective to repair.

We departed that street and visited two more places within the city of Sderot. First, we went to one of the schools and saw something I never imagined happened in real life. One can read in history books about buildings being fortified, but I saw something entirely different. The schools in and around Sderot all have a dome constructed over of them, of 2-meter thick steel armor. This is way beyond sandbags or the usual in terms of fortifying a building, but for good reason; a school was once randomly hit by a rocket on Shabbat, but if it would have hit during classes, many kids would have died or been severely wounded (based on how the damage occurred).

After our visit to the lookout point over the Gaza Strip (see the next post), we got to visit the outside of something which has been featured in some news sources as of recently. The Jewish National Fund (JNF) has funded and planned the construction of a massive fortified indoor playground for the kids of Sderot. Built within an abandoned warehouse in the industrial neighborhood of Sderot, the JNF has spent a bit over USD $5 million to partially rebuild it, then fortify it and fill it with playground equipment and a computer lab. We were unfortunately told to leave by a stern Israeli man who spoke no English, so we only got to see the outside (as you can see in the photographs).

In summary then, our trip to Sderot was a difficult but necessary experience. I am glad that I got to personally witness one of the many ways in which humanity can stoop so low and devalue human life, as it served as another major experientially-motivated reason as to why international religious aid work is my vocational calling in this life.


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