Visiting Sderot with J Street U

In the theme of my most recent post about a day trip to Kusra, here is a recap of another trip I did recently this year.

Several months ago (yes, this post is VERY overdue), I went to Sderot with J Street U. Really, the trip was for college students, so I was sort of cheating but…oh well! They let me go and I was excited to participate in the day’s events.

Sderot is a city in the Western Negev, and it is the Israeli city that most closely borders Gaza. In fact, there is a military outpost in Sderot from which you can look out and see Gaza. Sderot is often used as an illustration of the ways in which the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict negatively impacts Israeli lives even if the death toll is much lower for Israelis than Palestinians.*

*Comparing the cumulative number of Israeli to Palestinian casualties as indicative of Israel using excessive fire power is, in my opinion, not a fair analysis because Hamas does not have any sort of alert or civilian protection system in place (in fact, quite the opposite as they often use civilians as human shields). On the contrary, Israel has devoted an enormous amount of resources – financial and otherwise – into establishing the most developed protective system in the world. I see it as a very unfortunate misuse of raw data when Israel is criticized by virtue of the numbers alone. 

Israelis living in Sderot deal with a constant sense of threat and, in many cases, trauma from living in an environment where they feel constantly at risk. On the tour I went on in Sderot, the group I was with learned that 20,000 rockets have been fired into Israel from Gaza, and Sderot has born the brunt of these attacks. Unlike other places in Israel that have the benefit of a siren system that leaves a reasonable amount of time to get to a shelter (in Jerusalem, we have 90 seconds), Sderot is so close to Gaza that there is only about 15 seconds between rocket detection and when it will hit. Given the constant threat and lack of preparation time, Sderot has enacted a series of safety precautions that make the city look very different from other parts of Israel. For example, all of the bus stops are bomb shelters. Every building is required to have its own shelter attached, and outdoor communal areas are made to offer hiding spaces. For example, this park for children is made entirely out of bomb shelter material:

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Besides learning the general facts about life in Sderot, we also had the opportunity to look at some of the shrapnel and piping from rockets fired into Sderot from Gaza. The rockets are generally made from pipes (which are allowed into Gaza for city infrastructure) and filled with nails, marbles, etc. The explosive element is created from chemicals that are given to Gaza for the purpose of agriculture. This type of explosive doesn’t make such a huge explosion, but it creates a lot of collateral damage through the shrapnel.

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It was very powerful to see the ‘leftovers’ from these rockets, especially because it was so clear that were basically entirely made from materials intended for aid. I see this a very troubling ethical dilemma. Israel both allows international aid into Gaza and also provides much of the materials themselves. It seems to be a very sad irony that so many of these materials come back into Israel in the form of rockets, and it also poses a moral question about the boundaries of providing and permitting aid.

At the end of our visit, we met with a representative from an organization called Other Voice. This was a very interesting perspective to end the trip with. Other Voice seeks to find a peaceable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, and they believe doing so requires a more conciliatory and compassionate perspective from Israelis. They believe that The Occupation is taking a psychological toll not only on Palestinians but, also, on Israelis in the sense that they have become numb to the abuse inherent within an occupation.

All in all, this was a very moving trip that left me with a lot to think about (and feeling very grateful that I have not lived my life in fear of constant rocket attack, planning my life around where I can get to within 15 seconds!).

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