In the past three years, Palestinians living in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip have launched more than 6,000 rockets at southern Israel, timing the majority of their attacks to cause the most possible damage. Prior to Israel’s latest offensive, most of the rockets fell between 7:30 and 8:10 in the morning, when children walk to school.

Since the beginning of Operation Cast Lead, an average of 20 rockets have fallen each day.

Mechi, a woman who has lived in the border town of Sderot for the past 15 years, knows the reality all too well.

Most of Mechi’s seven children were born in Sderot, which sits just few kilometers from Gaza and up until last week, had borne the brunt of the rocket fire. Her older children, now teenagers, are currently away at boarding schools, but the younger ones – all of 12, six and one – live under the constant threat of attack.

But speaking by phone from her office in Nes Tziona – she commutes daily from Sderot, taking a longer route to avoid the ever-expanding range of Hamas’ rockets as she drives northwest to work – Mechi sounded calm, even relieved, when asked about the current situation. More than three years had passed since the Israeli government uprooted its citizens from their homes in Gaza, and still, Sderot was a constant target.

“If you had looked at the faces in Sderot when the new war began last week, you would have seen people smiling,” not because of the war, said the woman, but because there was a glimmer of hope that the rockets would cease. “Finally, the rest of the country remembered us, and we were happy.

After the disengagement from Gaza in 2005, “we were told that the army would attack if even one missile fell, but this wasn’t true,” continued Mechi. “Thousands fell, and only now, they are doing something about it. We’re happy that they are doing something.”

Still, having lived with rocket attacks for so long, residents in Sderot know all too well what families in other cities are now experiencing. They’re worried about the residents in Ashkelon, Be’er Sheva, Ashdod and Kiryat Malachi.

“For us, there are shelters everywhere now, and even though the government wanted to close the schools, we were able to convince them to open the preschools, because these buildings have reinforced cement structures built over them,” explained Mechi. “The preschools are the safest buildings in Sderot.

“The ones I worry about are the families” who used to live in Gaza, she continued, suddenly crying. “They lost their homes. They lost everything, and now they are living in temporary housing that leaks in the winter and offers no protection. They don’t have any shelters.”

A Palestinian rocket tore through a home in Sderot, Israel, last week.
A Palestinian rocket tore through a home in Sderot, Israel, last week.

On the Sand Dunes

Rabbi Yigal Kirschenshaft, who was a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in the Gaza Strip until he was removed with all of his neighbors, now runs the Chabad House in Nitzan. Living in a caravan-city the Israeli government set up in the sand dunes outside Ashkelon to house some 500 families from the now-abandoned town of Neve Dekalim has presented a host of challenges in the current crisis, said the rabbi.

Speaking by phone, he apologized at the outset that he might have to interrupt the conversation if the air raid siren warned of an impending rocket strike. Except that in Nitzan’s case, residents can’t go to a shelter; they have to hide out in large concrete sewer pipes perched on the dunes.

According to Kirschenshaft, all classes have been cancelled in Nitzan and Ein Tzurim, another encampment housing some 120 families from Neve Dekalim. Gatherings are forbidden, and life pretty much is at a standstill.

Still, Yigal and Tzipora Kirschenshaft continue to reach out to the neighbors they’ve known for years. He drives a recreational vehicle – essentially a synagogue on wheels – around town, providing a mobile book and video library for the community. The couple visit families in their homes, and organize whatever activities they can for the children. On the last day of Chanukah, the second day of the Israeli offensive in Gaza, the rabbi delivered traditional fried doughnuts to every house.

And despite the difficulties involved in travel, Kirschenshaft also makes an effort to visit families in Ein Tzurim and Yad Binyamin, a pre-existing city outside of rocket range that is home to about 250 Neve Dekalim families.

Amazingly, said Kirschenshaft, the former Gaza residents are resilient. Despite offers pouring in from around the country to put them up until the latest crisis ends, most of the families have chosen to stay.

Said the rabbi: “They don’t want to give the Arabs a prize for their efforts.”