A Different Voice from Sderot

Nomika Zion

Nomika Zion founded the urban kibbutz Migvan in Sderot in southwestern Israel. She is also director of the Center for Social Justice in memory of Yaakov Hazan at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem. The following translation is based on a speech she gave in Hebrew at the "Gaza: End the Siege" demonstration in Tel Aviv on December 2, 2006.

Early last week, I threw open the heavy metal shutters of my "security room," which had been sealed shut for many months. The room, which is both my work area and my "protected space" - filled up with sunlight at once. It was a huge relief. Within minutes and over the next two days, Qassam missiles landed around us, but something in our consciousness was already calmer and more optimistic. Thus began the cease-fire.
For most of you here tonight, the cease-fire is an important political event. For us, adults and children in Sderot and the adjacent villages, and for those in the Gaza Strip as well, it is the simple human act of opening a window (if you have one at all), and a release, if only for a moment, from the chronic fear and oppressed uncertainty that have become our constant companions. It is called: normal life.
Allow me to share with you some personal insights and feelings from the past year. I have been living in Sderot for almost 20 years. For five years and a half I have been "breathing" Qassam rockets fired from Gaza. Some of them have struck a few meters from my home, and for the first time in my life I understood the emotional meaning of the expression "victims of shock and anxiety."
All the daily anxieties that have been extensively reported are familiar to me. I adopted all the rituals conditioned by the anxieties: to jump in response to any unusual noise, to nervously watch the sky while walking in the city, to bolt out of bed like an automaton at three in the morning and run to the fortified room, to tensely wait for the boom, to verify that everybody is okay and so on.
Nevertheless I want to sound a slightly different tone. I will not say anything new or original here. The only validity to my words is the fact that I am a resident of Sderot. I am not leaving the town for any Qassam. I am not returning to the flesh pots of Tel Aviv's Sheinkin Street at the end of the day.
Let me start by saying that the repeated calls "to destroy Beit Hanoun" (a Qassam launch area in the Strip), "to raze Gaza," "to black out cities" and to "turn off the water" horrify me when they are uttered by a frustrated public. They are even more horrifying when they are stated by public figures, ministers and journalists who express empathy.
There are calls for which there cannot be empathy! When one repeats the same call so many times, it becomes inadvertently a legitimate part of the daily agenda. What singed the ear five years ago is suddenly transformed into acceptable music and then to sweet music. One becomes accustomed. This process of becoming accustomed scares me even more than the Qassams.
Sderot is a multi-cultural town, multi-tribal. Journalists must exercise extreme caution when they presume to represent the "feelings of the residents." Not all the residents of Sderot seek revenge. Not all the residents of Sderot wish to "raze Beit Hanoun." Not all wish to progress on rivers of Palestinian blood. We have enough on this account. Too many years, too much blood.
Just because I am one of those who believe in a real welfare state, it is important for me to note that the State of Israel did indeed rid itself of responsibility for many areas of the economy, but it did not relieve itself of responsibility for Sderot. The media did not forget Sderot. The Israeli public did not remain indifferent. The army was not less "bombastic" because we are residents of the periphery, rather than of posh Ramat Aviv Gimmel.
On the contrary. The media grabbed Sderot in an empathetic and suffocating hug. The public in all its sectors expressed concern and solidarity and rained gestures and gifts on us. The IDF pounded the Gaza strip, day and night. Government ministries poured in money, lots of money. The State was supposed to maintain aid until things got better.
But last June, during the week in which the protest tent went up in Sderot pointing its darts against the government, youth at high risk (and there are a lot in Sderot) went out to demonstrate in the town squares. "Where is the money?" they shouted when they learned that their support networks were about to close, and they would find themselves thrown out precisely during that difficult hour. This is the really important question which hung in the air, without an answer: Where did the money go? What are the priorities? Does the municipal structure provide a true and correct response to the needs of this exhausted city? The Qassam produces true anxieties and mental burnout, but it also dangerously conceals the economic and social problems, which are no less deep, and with which the city must still deal.
During that same week in June, Vice Premier Shimon Peres chided us to maintain restraint, and earned the unfortunate headline "Qassam, Shmassam." I did not fall off my chair. The wording certainly did not shine with political wisdom, but the content and the criticism were worthy of examination. What Peres essentially said was that panic is not a plan of action, that the destruction of Palestinian cities is not an agenda.
Also in June, the "Festival of Southern Cinema" took place in Sderot. This uplifting experience somehow did not rate media coverage. In the darkened halls, David Ben Shitrit's jolting movies about the refugee experience of Palestinian women were screened. Also, the story of the dissident air force pilots was shown. It seemed almost hallucinatory: Outside, the Qassams whistled and, on the screen, endless Palestinian suffering splashed. Many spectators bolted out of the theater; they did not want or could not allow the images to crack their defense mechanisms. The power ethos and the victim mentality that we get intravenously injected by the culture after our first breath on earth are so deep that, at times, they appear impenetrable. For me, it was a most powerful moment. This is a Sderot I want to live in a Sderot that does not forget that on the other side of the equation there is human suffering as well.
It is better for us to focus on the defense and strengthening of Sderot rather then grab some short-term media gains at the expense of the real work. The town is indeed exhausted, but it is not under an existential threat.
The leadership does not need to promote hysteria; it needs to calm things down. It does not need to stir up emotions; it needs to help all of us to live in a complex reality in which there are no magic solutions, and certainly none achievable by force. The leadership does not need to black out and close off a town. It must maintain routine life and stability. It does not need to rush and shut down the education system; it needs to nurture and strengthen it. After all, the kids that are loitering outside are less protected and are more traumatized than children who are inside a stable and supportive framework.
A brave leadership can go far by transforming the calls for the blood of Palestinians into extraordinary initiatives such as meetings between youth from Sderot and Gaza.
The media coverage has raised my disgust to ever higher levels. It fanned emotions and staged an endless number of dramas without checking the facts. Sderot became a synonym for hysteria and fainting.
The media narrative has been addicted for years to the power paradigm. Our screens show non-smiling and "non-apologetic" security types, one after another, who reveal to us hypnotic plans to defeat the Qassams through daring commando operations and a host of other creative ideas that seem to have been taken from Rambo's operational arsenal.
I am incensed by our Palestinian neighbors who recycle again and again historical errors and shoot Qassams at us instead of creating a Riviera in Gaza. By doing so they are condemning millions of non-combatants to live in deeper squalor than they already do. But he who sows wind during 40 years of occupation is destined to reap a storm, and it is recurring in front of our eyes.
Yes, even after the Israeli disengagement from Gaza. Reality is becoming increasingly more complicated and the State of Israel is heavily responsible, too heavily responsible for this mess.
During the past few years, every time a little quiet sets in, or some understanding is achieved, comes the next "targeted" liquidation of a senior or junior wanted person, and Sderot immediately assumes bombardment alert mode. Who benefited from all these liquidations? What kind of security did we buy for ourselves, save for the next barrage? For months we could not sleep, not only because of the Qassams. The IDF pounded rocket launching sites 24 hours a day from the ground, air and sea. Nights without rest for Sderot and the neighboring villages. A nightmare for the residents of the Gaza Strip. An endless and useless bombardment. On whom? For what purpose? Who did it benefit? What security achievements were gained?
At the beginning of his term, a neighbor of mine in Sderot, Amir Peretz, took a brave step as minister of defense. He reintroduced the moral discussion into the narrative, the very morality that was pushed out of the public debate many years ago. If and when it was mentioned, it was generally only in soft tones, apologetic mumblings that were whispered only after all the calculations of image and advantage were reviewed. Not what we did, but how we will look to the world.
Since last June, however, the person who reintroduced the moral dimension into our narrative has built a cemetery in his heart, where hundreds of bodies of innocent Palestinian children and civilians lie. Veteran Labor leader Yitzhak Ben Aharon once said: "I am trampling my own soul." Peretz has become, in my eyes, a tragic hero. He trampled his own soul. Or at least that is how I wished to see him - that his heart did not turn to stone, that the power of the IDF did not completely intoxicate him. However, after the second Lebanon War, after the wholesale slaughter and destruction in Gaza under the cover of war and following it - I don't know what to believe.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz, something incredibly important happened here this past week. Don't miss it! You even competed for the credit. The terrible thing that happened to us, the citizens, is that we stopped believing. Give us hope that there is something to believe in. Allow us to open a window, the window in the "security room," and the window of opportunity and the window of dialogue. Stop the liquidations policy. Do not lead us under the populist deception of more force and more force. It is not calming; it provokes panic!
Talk to them already! Through overt channels or covert ones. Propose a creative policy. Break the myth of "There is nobody to talk to," with which we are being drugged time and time again by cynical politicians and their loyal spokespersons in the media. Do not close any window of opportunity, and don't quash any initiative in its infancy just to maintain a fossilized thought paradigm.
Break the insane Chad Gadia1 hierarchy of violence. Everything has already been tried ad nauseam. The butcher has already slaughtered the ox, and the fire has consumed the stick that had beaten the dog that had bitten the cat that had devoured the young goat. Only the water has not yet extinguished the fire.
At least try, but honestly, without fear and preconditions, the political option. It is your civil duty! It is your moral duty! Because if you do not, singer Chava Alberstein's chilling rendition of the never-ending Chad Gadia song will exemplify our reality, just as I close with these words: "Once again, we start from the beginning."