Missile fire from Gaza began against Sderot and the western Negev in January, 2001. Since then, more than 10,000 Kassam and Ketusha rockets have pummeled Israel’s southern region. Twenty-eight Israelis have died in these attacks; nine of them lived in Sderot, and 3 of those were children. Additionally, more than 600 Israelis have been injured and thousands have been psychologically traumatized by the rocket explosions. The western Negev and especially Sderot bear the physical scars of these attacks – many homes, schools, businesses and synagogues have been damaged, and great economic hardship has fallen upon the individuals and families living in these areas.
Once populated by 30,000 people, Sderot’s remaining 19,000 residents live 2.5 kilometers from Gaza. More than any other group in Israel, they absorb most of Gaza’s missiles, which have forced thousands to abandon the city and relocate elsewhere.
Sderot has one of the highest post traumatic stress (PTSD) incident rates in Israel due to the rocket fire it receives. One of the local trauma centers “treats 620 patients, of whom 80% are children”, according to the center’s director Daliah Yosef. And that center is in danger of closing due to lack of funding. The Sderot Mental Health Center, which treats victims 18 years and older, has more than 6,000 trauma victim files.
Since the Gaza incursion in January 2009, international news has led many to conclude that the negotiated ceasefire was successful, since so little has been reported about the ongoing rocket fire. However, more than 240 rockets have targeted Sderot and the western Negev since the ceasefire began in January, 2009.
After visiting Sderot in October 2008 and May 2009 we found the people resilient, incredibly warm and welcoming, though in great need of support, encouragement, and hope. Many told us their feelings of being forgotten, abandoned by the world. Yet they have tried to make the best of a terrifying situation. Due to Sderot’s proximity to Gaza, residents have 17 seconds to seek cover from incoming kassams. In order to survive, children’s playing fields are surrounded by bomb shelters, rocket proof roofs are being built over elementary and high schools and each residential home must make room for their own private bomb shelter.
In May, we had the privilege of meeting Sderot’s new Vice Mayor. His new administration has been working hard to repair the immense damage caused by rocket and mortar fire. Money and willpower will fix that destruction, but the damage done to people’s lives isn’t easily repaired.
Research and statistics provided by Sderot Media and Jacob Shrybman.
During one of our visits to Sderot we met Ruth Zahavi, one of the first victims of the plague of kassam attacks. On June 28, 2004 Ruth was taking her son, Afik, for a walk to register him for nursery school. In the days before the creation of the early warning system, Ruth and Afik were suddenly struck by a kassam rocket. Ruth was critically injured, losing her right leg, and Afik was killed. He would have been four years old that month. Since then, emergency first responder teams have been created to deliver immediate assistance to victims; a city-wide alarm calling out “Tzeva Adom!” (“Color Red”) now warns Sderot’s residents of incoming rockets; and above-ground bomb shelters have been constructed throughout the city. Residents have 17 seconds to find safety when the alarm sounds. Nevertheless, the city lives in fear and suffers emotionally, financially, socially and spiritually. The people of Sderot need hope and the Almond Branch Initiative decided to bring that desperately needed encouragement.
We drew up plans to renew an abandoned children’s park near Sderot’s city center. The park is bordered by residential housing and a large elementary school. A grey cement bomb shelter stood ominously on its corner and the remnants of a broken down wooden jungle gym structure stood rotting. Children could be heard in the school next door, but the playground was unusable. Sderot’s youth have suffered greatly from PTSD, and Almond Branch decided to take on this project to bring life and hope back to the city, reminding them they have not been forgotten. Our organization partnered with 17 Americans who donated their own travel expenses. Totaling more than 49% of the cost of this project. The old gym set was torn down, the area re-cemented, covered in safety matting and a new, brightly colored jungle gym play area was reconstructed. We also created a toddler play area, painted crossed American and Israeli flags with the word “hope” written in English and Hebrew on the outside of the bomb shelter to remind the children and their families that America still stands with them. We also constructed wooden pergolas to provide shade, picnic tables for families to gather around and created two memorial areas; one dedicated to 4 year old Afik Zahavi, and the other one in remembrance of all those who have lost their lives as a result of kassam missile attacks. The entire cost of this project was $87,000, of which $42,750 was provided by our volunteers, who paid their own expenses.
While working on the park renewal project we’ll had the opportunity to distribute humanitarian aid items like food, clothing, medical supplies when able, toys for the children and encouragement to all.
This was an enormous project to undertake, but one that no doubt brought hope in the face of hardship to the residence of Sderot. In the midst of their fears, loss and trial we were able to remind them they have not been forgotten.
Jill R. Petrie