January 13, 2010

In Israel: The Invisible Wounds

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I never thought I would feel unsafe or threatened in Israel. If anything, my first few days in the country suggested a settling sense of normalcy. But when we arrived in Sderot I could feel a change. From the solemn expressions on the faces of young children — many of whom spent years of their childhood locked indoors — to the exhausted appearance of Kobi Harush, the officer in charge of security in Sderot, it was clear that terror was something deeply embedded in the lives of those living in this victimized town.

Before the War in Gaza that began on December 27, 2008 and ended on January 18, 2009, the town of 21,000 suffered three to four attacks daily. Violence peaked when Hamas gained control over Gaza in mid-June 2007. At best, residents of Sderot have 15 seconds to find shelter from rockets that fall on the town.

Harush showed us the remains of a small sampling of the thousands of rockets that rained down on Sderot over the past few years. The weapons are far from sophisticated. Most are nothing more than metal tubing that encases scrap metal, glass, nuts, bolts — really anything those a mile away in Gaza can get their hands on. They are built in garages and most can only travel three to nine kilometers. They rarely kill, Harush said, noting that Palestinian rockets have only claimed the lives of 13 residents in Sderot.

The greatest damage Sderot has incurred comes in the form of a veil of fear that taints the lives of everyone living there. Today, though violence has reached a relative lull, every home is equipped with a government-built fortified shelter. In the best case scenario, sirens sound when rockets are approaching, giving the residents a mere 15 seconds to find cover.

Mothers are constantly faced with the inhumane dilemma of deciding which child to grab first to bring into a shelter. Babies reflexively lift their arms at the sound of the sirens, ready to be lifted up and taken under cover. In a children’s playground, a brightly colored tunnel made to look like a snake serves as a bomb shelter.

There isn’t much life to be lived in Sderot. “In many ways, you stop your life and you’re just dealing with survival,” said Dalia Yosed, former head of a project that deals with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Sderot. Yosed described the emotional dilemma she faces daily, raising her son in a place where 70 to 90 percent of youth suffer from PTSD. Only time will tell what such mental trauma will do to the town’s youngest generation, she said.

“I live here because I have hope that one day there will be peace,” Yosed attempted to explain to a room full of bewildered Americans. To the majority of us, the concept of living in a place like Sderot was unfathomable.

This was the closest many of us will ever get to an active battleground. And as we stared at Gaza from a look-out point about a mile away from the border, the intrepid reporter in all of us wanted to go even further. What’s on the other side?

Though we never got to see life in Gaza firsthand, Bassem Eid, founder and director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, assured us a few days later that there are people living in Gaza who aren’t talking politics — they aren’t firing rockets and mortar bombs at Sderot and they don’t care about the placement of the security wall or the Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

For the mothers, fathers and children of Gaza, their priorities are first and foremost survival, followed by securing health and an education for their children. While Eid has devoted his life to exposing daily hardships and human rights violations in Gaza, unfortunately his reports will rarely make it into Western media.

He described the extent to which media has become either pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian with an undue focus on violence and bloodshed. And as Hamas gains traction in the Gaza Strip, as it has continued to do since it took control from the Palestinian Authority in 2007, the international community is becoming less and less concerned with the situation there.

For every story we read of Israelis suffering from mortars and rockets, there are horrors we will never hear about, exposing the poverty-stricken, fearful lives of Palestinians in Gaza. While Sderot certainly shook us all, I was equally disturbed by my ignorance of life on the other side.

Previous Posts:

In Israel: The More You Know, the Less You Understand

In Israel: Wearing My Religion on My Sleeve

In Israel: Student Media Converge in the Middle East

Original Author: Emily Cohn