I heard two explosions, one after the other, indicating that two Kassam rockets had struck my town, Sderot, Israel, at about 1:30 last Thursday morning. Having been through the big fire of last week, when a Kassam ignited a paint factory, I looked out my window for any sign of fire. I saw none. I considered going out to look for the damage, but I knew nobody would be in the streets at that hour. Nobody would be able to direct me in the direction of the bombing. I listened for ambulance or fire-engine sirens, but I heard none. I concluded that it had not been a serious attack. Much of the town seemed dark; it sometimes happens that a Kassam blast knocks out Sderot’s electricity. I returned to bed.
In the morning, the “Breaking News” section of the Jerusalem Post informed me that the blasts I had heard had indeed struck houses in Sderot. I deduced that the fire-engines, ambulances, and other vehicles had not turned their sirens on in the middle of the night, because they did not want to awaken the whole town, and because no traffic would clog the streets at that hour anyway. I set forth to investigate.
Few people were in the streets, because folks stay home on “Kassam days.”
I found helpful citizens who directed me in the general direction of where they had heard the explosions. After several chats, I narrowed my search to Neveh Eshkol, a neighborhood many or most of whose buildings were old “shikunim,” or apartment blocks with small apartments, very often owned by Amigur, which means they are government-owned, highly subsidized flats for families who have little money.
I went into a grocery store to ask exactly where the rockets had fallen. The owner joked, “Do you always come to me with this question?” He referred to the fact that I had indeed asked him about earlier missile attacks on his neighborhood. I pictured them to myself; everybody who lives in Sderot reviews the many bombings he has seen as he passes through the streets where he has seen them. A tree stood near a kindergarten until recently; a Kassam had split it in half on the first day of the school year, and the first Kassam murder in Sderot was that of an elderly immigrant from Bukhara who bled to death after shrapnel hit him as he waited for his granddaughter outside another school.
I knew that hopes of the Muslim terrorists who shoot these missiles at us in order to kill random people of Sderot had not been realized. I was therefore not in the state of agitation and terror with which I approach a home that I know has just been hit, but of whose inhabitants’ fates I do not yet know. I saw various government-types walking around outside the building. We looked up to see the unmistakable hole a Kassam makes in a home’s wall.
I walked upstairs to the top floor. That floor is usually that which is hit. The door to the flat stood open, and people were examining the home to assess damage for insurance. They were measuring the hole the rocket made when it went through the wall, touching the broken furniture, and photographing everything. Knick-knacks and family photos lay on the floor. Pictures hung on the wall, but at crazy angles. Everything in that room was covered with the dust the explosion had created, and an acrid smell of stale burning hung in the air. The rocket had penetrated a wall, knocked off part of the back of a sofa that had stood at that wall, and made a small crater in the concrete floor in front of the sofa. I studied the angles at which the missile entered that home. Had the Kassam arrived a few hours earlier, someone might well have been sitting on that sofa. The missile would surely have cut him in two.
The men and women who were making the insurance estimate asked me who I was and what I was doing there. I replied that I was there to learn about what had happened in hopes of writing an article about it, and they told me that it was good I did so, in order that people would know how we live in Sderot. I took some pictures and left.
While walking downstairs, taking pictures of the shrapnel holes the missile had left in the hallway, I saw a woman in the flat below that which had been hit. She looked friendly and pleasant. We introduced ourselves; her name was Alyce, with the accent on the second syllable. I asked her if she had been present when the bomb hit, and she told me she had been. I requested an interview for this story, and she responded, as folks in Sderot often do, that the world should know what goes on here. She invited me into her living room, where her daughter of about six years and her dog played with each other.
This mother told me that she and her two daughters had been asleep when they heard the alarm, which is the recording of a woman’s voice repeating in stern but calm tones, “Tzeva Adom! Tzeva Adom! Tzeva Adom!” — “Color Red!” — over a loudspeaker system audible all over town — and not a siren as many articles about Sderot mistakenly report. Alyce, her daughters, and the family dog ran to the family bomb shelter. Dogs usually do what their families do, and run where they run. Under ideal circumstances, about fifteen seconds elapse between the alarm and the hit. The crew firing that Kassam does not seem to have read the many articles reporting that number of seconds, though. The rocket crashed into the flat over that family’s head just as the alarm completed its warning, and just a second or two before they could disappear inside their shelter.
The blast shook the building. Electricity failed, as I had noticed while looking out my own window at that moment. The entire apartment filled with hideous black smoke from the explosion, as well as with the filthy dust it had kicked up everywhere. Alyce and her daughters began coughing and sneezing. They completed their run to the shelter-room and slammed its door behind them. Its air was not quite as filthy as it was in the rest of their home.
Alyce panicked when she thought of her friend upstairs. Had she been hit? Was she dead? She too is a mother, with children who played with Alyce’s own two daughters. Gagging on the poisonous air, Alyce ran though the smoke and the swirling dust out her door. In the stairwell she met her friend. They hugged each other and burst into tears to find each other alive. Each told the other that her children had not been injured. Alyce fought her way through the choking atmosphere to the shelter and her daughters.
The ambulance, police, and firemen arrived almost immediately. The authorities evacuated Alyce’s upstairs neighbor and her children to a hotel, because one cannot sleep in a home so damaged and with a rocket-hole in the wall. A sapper examined the rocket to make sure it had no timed explosives that might detonate in a few minutes and kill everybody there. He carried the pieces of the Kassam downstairs and out the door. His job is always the first to be done after an attack, before the others get to work.
The police put red and white tape all around the street downstairs, identifying this home as a crime-scene, as indeed it was: the crime was that of attempted murder of these two families by Hamas operatives working just a few kilometers away.
Through this police tape came Alon Davidi, the mayor of Sderot.
He had given orders that he be roused from his bed whenever the Muslim terrorists struck an actual family. He ran upstairs and into Alyce’s home, where he hugged her and her children, encouraging that family as best he could, and doing a mayoral job with which few other mayors must cope. Alyce told me that she had indeed felt comforted by this mayor’s running over to her in the middle of the night.
Alyce phoned her brother. He drove to his sister’s flat at great speed to help any way he could. He brought the two daughters to his own home, where they spend the night, though not asleep — nobody sleeps after such an experience. An ambulance took Alyce to the hospital in Ashkelon. Sderot is too small to have a hospital of its own. Having clarified that neither her friends nor her family had been injured, Alyce became very weary. She felt paralyzed in her legs. She panted and coughed, because of both the billowing clouds in her home and nervous exhaustion. The hospital gave her tests to see how she was doing and pills to calm her down. Her brother drove up to bring her home at about five in the morning. She sat alone in silence surveying the mess her home had become.
Her brother brought the two daughters from his home to their own at about breakfast time. The younger daughter chose to remain at home with her mother, but the elder, who was eleven, preferred going to a summer camp. Sderot gives its children camps, partly because it keeps the children indoors and in buildings that have bomb shelters. The elder daughter said, flat-out, that she could not deal with looking at her home after a bomb hit it. I have heard this reaction a number of times. Many people feel personally violated, if not raped, when the place where they sleep and keep their clothes and family albums has been invaded in this manner.
I liked Alyce and her strength of character. When I told her she seemed a forceful and capable woman, and a good mother to children at such an hour, she replied that she had to be strong for them — adding parenthetically that she wished somebody would be strong for her, too.
I returned to Alyce for a brief visit on Monday. I met the other daughter. Alyce and her children had come home from visiting the insurance people and the psychologists who help folks in these circumstances. The harrowing weekend she had passed had exhausted her. I decided not to stay long.
Alyce told me that the psychologist had telephoned her and invited her to visit, and that they would try to give her the tools she would need to help her children cope with the new situation. I inquired further, and she said that the psychologist said she should see to it that the daughters had things to do, toys to play with, books to read, and that friends should visit them. She should encourage her children to tell their experience to each other, to their friends, and to Alyce. I was once in a school whose playground had just been hit, and I saw the teacher going around her class asking every child to tell just what he or she had seen and thought during that Muslim terror attack. Telling about trauma seems to be a therapeutic tool for the traumatized.
Alyce told me that the insurance people sympathized with her and tried to help, but that the nature of government institutions is that they proceed with paperwork, declarations, signatures, notarizations, and all that, and that it will take time to put her home right. Alyce had particularly hoped to get her air-conditioner repaired or replaced as soon as possible. Sderot is a hot city on the edge of the Negev desert. This summer has been one of the hottest for many years. Having no air-conditioning makes things harder and less humanly comfortable for a working-class, single woman supporting two daughters and a dog with her waitressing job.
Having no air-conditioning might seem trivial to some, but Alyce is an ordinary woman who is being denied an ordinary life, complete with ordinary comforts. Hobbes and others posit a kind of contract between a citizen and his government, under whose terms the citizen obeys the law, and the government protects her. As Alyce pointed out but as some intemperately expressed hand-drawn signs I read on the walls of that building expressed with much greater anger than Alyce would ever allow herself, the government of Israel might not have kept its end of the bargain. Many people in Sderot are very angry about what is happening.