An Israeli student crouches under his desk as he attempts to safely study for his Bible exam after a Kassam rocket hit his high school. By Allison Kaplan Sommer, PJM Tel Aviv editor Folks who live in the city of Sderot in southern Israel know full well that they are being used as pawns in a deadly game of chicken by Hamas. They don't like it one bit.
As Kassam rockets from Gaza rained on them relentlessly this week, so did the stories of pain, terror and fear coming from a population that is sick and tired of living the lives of a ducks in a carnival game, not knowing when a rocket might be randomly hurled at them or a loved one.
Yesterday morning it happened at a high school just outside the city.
“It was like being in a Hitchcock movie,” said Rinat Malkes, who got closer to the story than she had planned this morning when the Kassam fell in the middle of an empty classroom of the Shaar HaNegev school as she was standing out front, just yards away. “It was absolute and total chaos. People were hysterical. Fifteen and sixteen year old girls screaming and crying, their teachers were trying to calm them down.”
What is it like to be right there when it happens? “You get the fear of God in you. There was no siren, no warning, nothing. Just a huge boom, and everyone begins running in all directions to find shelter.”
When the rocket hit, Malkes, a blogger and Brazilian journalist was in Sderot, like most of the foreign press, to cover the story of the Israeli Defense Ministry bussing citizens out of the city who couldn’t handle the stress and danger anymore – mostly children and their mothers, and the elderly.
“People there are just so angry and they have no hope, they see no solution in sight. I asked one man how he is dealing with it and he said “I just pray to God because I see the government is completely useless. You have to understand that it’s a very poor city to begin with, people have to work. So there is a huge problem there with the children. They feel that their kids aren’t protected in the schools – and certainly not on their way to and from schools. But they have to work and the children are also scared to stay home alone, afraid to be alone in a rocket attack. It’s just awful.”
Schools were closed for most of the week in Sderot, as more than 60 rockets fell, injuring nine people. The only reason the school Malkes visited had been open was because high school seniors were preparing for and taking the all-important matriculation exams. Miraculously, the 9th grade classroom in which the rocket fell was empty.
Once the rocket lands, she said, “you look at it and it is so small and provincial and basic a weapon, it’s hard to believe they are disrupting life this way. But they are.”
They are certainly disrupting the life of the Olmert government, as it struggles between the wisest choices militarily, diplomatically, and politically.
On the diplomatic front, logic would dictate that it would be beneficial for the Israeli military to do as little as possible against the Kassam attacks.
With Hamas and Fatah tangled in a factional conflict (some would call it flat-out civil war) using their best manpower to kill each other, wasting infrastructure, losing soldiers, and embarrassing themselves in front of the world, they are have been causing far more damage to themselves than Israel ever could at the moment.
But there is nothing logical about local politics. When people’s lives and well-being are at stake, doing nothing is an indefensible policy.
Hiding in shelters as rockets fall when the government is doing nothing makes them feel like suckers. And anyone who understands the Israeli mentality knows that there’s nothing worse than feeling like a sucker.
As a result, several thousand of the city of 23,000 are fed up and they want to get out. Several organizations are there to help them leave. Arkady Gaydamak, a Russian billionaire tycoon deeply embarrassed the government last year by helping northern residents temporarily relocate during the Lebanon war, paid for some Sderot residents to leave the city early this week and put them up in hotels out of rocket range, as he has done in the past.
Determined not to be outshone by Gaydamak once more, this time, the government also offered to evacuate the weakest members of Sderot society and a group of several hundred families were shipped out by the government to IDF respite centers – the operation that Malkes was in town to cover.
The government did so reluctantly, since as Olmert says, pictures of Israelis fleeing their homes on buses is exactly the pictures they want surrounding the Arab world.
They were careful to spin the operation, calling it a “respite” or “vacation” not evacuation.
The fleeing Sderot residents, understandably, could care less about how they appear and care more about their own welfare.
As the candidates in the United States debate about military action in Iraq because they worry the terrorists will follow them home, in Sderot, attacks are already as close to home as it gets – in their houses, offices, and their children’s classrooms.
Ehud Olmert knows exactly how bad it looks to send people out of town. He also knows how badly its operations to try to get rid of the Kassam launchers plays in the New York Times and on CNN, and that attacking Gaza in retaliation means essentially walking right into a trap that Hamas has set, successfully distracting attention from internal Palestinian strife back to “disproportionate Israeli aggression” – taking a page out of Hizbullah’s Lebanon playbook. (The western media, while fairly disinterested in the Kassam barrages, gives front-page coverage to the Israeli response)
Conscious of this, Olmert is doing the best he can to define Israel’s response as “limited and precise” attacks against targets in Gaza.
But he has to do something. As the grassroots pressure mounts, the Israeli government and the military will have to to continue to act decisively against the attacks — as well as help Sderot residents who can’t take it anymore relocate until the situation calms down.
Olmert ultimately cannot be able to sustain a policy of doing nothing while his citizens are under attack.
No politician could.
[Photos and video: Rinat Malkes]