Despite calm, Israeli town faces scars from rocket fire
Just three months after the last war between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip, the border town of Sderot appears to be on the road to recovery.
The streets are busy and the city is full of well-maintained parks and playgrounds. The local real estate market is booming.
But beneath the veneer of normalcy, the scars of years of rocket fire run deep.
Fragments of metal rockets are on display outside the main police station, sort of like a museum. Next to each park and bus stop is a small concrete air raid shelter, often adorned with colorful murals and street art. An Iron Dome rocket defense battery is located on the eastern outskirts of town, a few hundred yards from a new apartment complex.
Some residents of Sderot say they jump at the slightest noise. Parents report that children always wet their beds or are too afraid to sleep alone.
Noam Biton says she had a normal childhood in Sderot. But the 16-year-old high school student says it hasn’t always been easy. One of her strongest memories is of an air raid siren sounding as she attended a bar mitzvah celebration on a quiet day.
“We were lying on the floor, three of us,” she said. “The only thing protecting us was a car. The rocket landed nearby, spraying shrapnel in the area.
Outgoing and active in her local Boy Scout troop, Biton says she is always careful to sit by the door when she takes the bus – just in case there is an anti-aircraft siren and she would need to evacuate quickly.
Her mother, Dvora, a longtime resident, says uncertainty is a constant companion. “It saddens you that at all times someone is in control of your life,” she said. “We cannot escape.”
Israel and Hamas, an Islamic militant group that opposes Israel’s existence, have waged four wars and numerous skirmishes since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007, a year after winning Palestinian elections .
It is impossible to compare the conditions in Gaza and in southern Israel. Israeli strikes killed some 4,000 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians, during the four wars and inflicted heavy damage on Gaza’s infrastructure. Tens of thousands of people, unable to flee the impoverished and blocked territory, suffer deep psychological wounds.
Israelis are now protected by a rocket defense system, have the ability to temporarily escape the rocket firing range, and have access to psychological counseling and government support. Yet more than 100 people have died on the Israeli side in the four wars, while heavy rocket fire crippled the lives of millions of people in times of combat. Even in times of calm, rocket fire can erupt at any time without warning.
No place in Israel has been hit harder by Palestinian rocket fire than Sderot, a working-class community about a mile from the Gaza border. Yet two decades after the first crude rockets landed in the city, experts still struggle to understand their long-term effects on a generation of parents and children who have come of age in this traumatic environment.
“People who live in southern Israel live with the understanding that it is only a matter of time until the next time,” said Talia Levanon, director of the Israel Trauma Coalition.
“You are literally trying to heal from the last time while preparing for the next time, which makes our job very, very difficult,” she said.
Levanon’s nonprofit operates a series of “resilience centers” across southern Israel that offer a variety of services, including counseling and workshops for families and communities.
To show how affected people have been, she said that during a brief wave of violence in 2019, nearly two-thirds of the region’s 60,000 residents received services from a resilience center.
The 11-day war between Israel and Hamas in May was the latest reminder of Sderot’s precarious position. Nearly 300 rockets were fired at Sderot, according to the municipality. Despite the protection of the iron dome, 10 rockets directly hit buildings, including one strike that killed a 5-year-old boy.
The people of Sderot often use the word “resilience” to describe the community. And in many ways, Sderot appears to be thriving.
Once known as a dusty backwater in Israel’s Negev Desert, it has grown into a bustling city of some 27,000 residents, with new apartment complexes and expensive villas appearing to pop up in any open space. It has a heavily fortified train station connecting it to major cities. There are shopping malls, bars, and restaurants popular with college students in the city.
Researchers say people who grow up here tend to stay in the area as adults, out of pride and a close connection to its close-knit community.
Local government spokesperson Yaron Sasson said veteran residents and newcomers alike are drawn to special tax breaks, generous services made possible by the support of government and foreign donors as well as the atmosphere of a small town. At a time when much of the country is now within rocket range, he said Sderot is even considered relatively safe, thanks to its many air raid shelters and reinforced schools and kindergartens.
Yet, according to the trauma coalition, residents suffer from a wide range of symptoms. Adolescents suffer from higher rates of diabetes, aggression and high blood pressure than their counterparts in other communities.
Anxiety, depression, sleep disturbances and general exhaustion are common symptoms among adults, and researchers are only now beginning to study the effects of growing up in Sderot on young parents’ educational skills. children. Another question is how the young people of Sderot – who are often frightened by loud noises – can behave in the military, a compulsory rite of passage for most Jewish Israelis.
Dvora Biton said that whenever she got out in the car, she planned a route that would take her past one of the dozens of bomb shelters scattered throughout the city. The car window is always open, the radio volume is kept low, and the pantry is stocked with canned goods. All its loudness, even a bursting balloon, makes her jump.
“It’s something that you think about 24 hours a day,” she says. “You cannot escape it, even when you are sleeping.”
Fifteen years ago, before there was the Iron Dome, a rocket landed in front of the family home, leaving a fragment of metal embedded in its front door. Biton left the fragment in the doorway for years, recently finding the strength to remove it during a home renovation.
“I wanted to leave it there as a reminder that we live in an unhealthy reality,” she said. “But on the other hand, there is a feeling that you want to be free from these things.”