A Birthday in Sderot; Terror 36 Hours Later

On Thursday night my little brother George celebrated his 36th birthday at his apartment in Sderot. My partner and I brought our two sons, my mother came, and George’s partner of course, and a few close friends. We played with my beautiful 1-year-old nephew, we drank IPAs, they had steaks and I had grilled haloumi.

George’s apartment faces west overlooking Gaza. During the day you can see the towers of Gaza City clearly. I’ve never visited him without thinking about if rockets or mortars will fall, and I’ve never visited him without looking at the view and thinking about the siege on Gaza. Most Israelis live on the edge of the volcano that is two million people under siege with a concerted effort not to think about the volcano — but the people in Sderot know where they live. They can literally see the volcano. That night, on the other hand, I suddenly realized that you can only barely see Gaza. There are only a few hours a day of electricity there, so the skyline at night is mostly invisible.

We left Sderot at 10:30 pm on Thursday night. Less than 36 hours later, on Saturday morning, Hamas terrorists in a pickup truck sat in front of the supermarket at the end of their block and fired shots at George’s building. An unknown number of Sderot residents were killed that day, trying to flee the rockets, surprised by the attackers. Parents, children, the elderly, slaughtered and maimed in violation of every human norm, severe and extreme and disgusting cruelty.

We will never know what my brother and his partner and son would have done, if they hadn’t travelled to family outside Sderot for the chag. I do know that my friends who were there, with young children, locked in their homes, not knowing if there were attackers inside their building, not knowing if their doors would hold. Waiting out the pure terror of those hours.

The sense that those victims could have been them, could have been me, my children, my mother – it’s as palpable as the keyboard I type this on. And that is a textbook effect of terrorism. Its purpose is to create fear that emanates far beyond the victims, to the widest circles of society, and thereby, aims to achieve political ends. The trap is set for us. Live in fear — they have achieved their immediate target. Look away — you’ve lost your human empathy for the victims. I don’t make a habit of reading descriptions of bombings and stabbings that take place here. But this is too enormous, too horrendous, too close — so horrifically close.

As a person, as a parent, as a daughter. I read the stories of the survivors, the family members who were on the phone, on whatsapp, helpless as their sister or their son begged for help, as the army didn’t come, hearing the gunfire. The last message: “I don’t think I’m gonna make it, be strong for me.”

I’ve cried so much, and my tears continue flowing. I try to stop reading the stories, but I need to know more. They went through it and I didn’t — by coincidence. My children and I were a hairsbreadth from what they went through; my brother and his family — even closer. I keep staring at their young, innocent faces and thinking thoughts I never wanted to think.

My survival instinct says – find out what happened to them, because it could happen to you. As I drive in the south, I’m wondering if my car will be ambushed, imagining horror scenarios around every corner. I don’t know if there’s an Israeli who is not thinking those thoughts. I can’t imagine where we go from here, what it will take to feel safe.

I pray that the beasts who planned this attack meet a terrible fate. Their evil inhumanity contributes nothing to Palestinian freedom.

I also pray that the deeply traumatized civilian population in Gaza does not. And I know that some will.

After those two immediate concerns, I wish and hope and pray that more and more Israelis will wake up to the fact that we will not be safe on a volcano’s edge. I hold the truth that Hamas is evil and the massacre they committed was the lowest that humanity can sink to, alongside the truth that Gazans deserve freedom. It feels like both here and overseas, those truths are not easy to hold together.

Vivian Silver (left), the peace activist and Habonim bogeret who lived on the Gaza border at Kibbutz Beeri, now in captivity in Gaza, said it so clearly, addressing the government in 2018: “Show the required courage that will bring changes of policy, that will bring us quiet and security. Returning to the routine is not an option.”

We need to live together in this land, for our own safety, for the safety of my children, my nephew in Sderot, and the children in the kibbutzim, and Gazan children. But I don’t know if we will. Right now I don’t know much at all. Just heartbreak and fear. That’s all that’s clear.

RuthStevens@gmail.com Stevens Ruth