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Wartime in Israel: What it looks like from Sderot

January 6th, 2009

These have been interesting days. For the last week, I’ve wanted to write my experiences and share them with all of you. To be honest, it’s been hard to concentrate. I’ve been busy — I’ve been trying to capture as much as possible with my video camera. I used to have a crew, but my two usual shooters are afraid to come to Sderot right now. So I’m on my own, except for my husband, who has become my assistant cameraperson because he won’t let me out of his sight. We’ve made a pact to try to stay together as much as possible so we don’t worry about each other.

I want to describe what it looks like – and sounds like –- from here.

Every morning, we are awakened by the Tzeva Adom alert. This is one of the most bizarre air raids in history. It starts with the click of a loudspeaker, and then a calm woman’s voice says “Tzeva Adom (Color Red), Tzeva Adom (Color Red)” over and over again. The alert has been difficult to hear at times, especially if you were playing music or watching TV. Last week, two soldiers from the Home Command Unit appeared at our door and handed us a home beeper system that goes off two seconds before the Tzeva Adom alert. So now the loud beeper sound is added to the repertoire.

The moment of the alert, my husband Avi and I jump out of bed and run to our Mamad – our bomb shelter. We huddle there and hug each other waiting to hear the explosion. Sometimes it’s a distant thud. Sometimes it is terrifyingly close, and our house shakes. After about twenty seconds, it’s over. They say that you have a fifteen second warning. Actually, it varies. And once in a while, you will hear a Qassam land without a Tzeva Adom alert. Those are the worst times, because that means there is a very decent chance that someone has been hurt.

Here in Sderot, we are accustomed to Tzeva Adom alerts on a weekly and even daily basis. But last week, the situation reached a new level. On Wednesday, December 24, we received over 60 rockets. The following Saturday, we heard a new sound – airstrikes. It was a strange moment. Finally, after eight years, Israel was taking action. Since then, the Qassam attacks have been endless. In the old days, we knew there could be a Tzeva Adom alert. Now we know there will be.

This week, there have been approximately 10 Tzeva Adom alerts in Sderot every day (some days more, some days less.) Keep in mind – each Tzeva Adom is accompanied by two to four exploding rockets.

So this is how we live. We stay alert at all times. If Avi takes a shower, I need to be nearby listening for the alert, ready to grab him out of the shower if need be (and vice versa). If we drive somewhere, we tune our radio to channel 104, the army channel. All Tzeva Adom alerts are broadcast on that station, so you can immediately get out of your car and run for cover. We also drive with seat belts off, and windows open, just in case. (Several of the people who have died from Qassams were in their cars when the attack occurred.)

Where do we run? Well, Sderot is pretty well prepared. There are bomb shelters of every shape and size everywhere you look – almost every ten meters you have one. The idea is that you are always within fifteen seconds of a shelter. However, this concept is flawed in its execution. Some areas are covered with shelters. But some residential streets have none. If you are on a residential street in the middle of a Tzeva Adom alert, you run into the nearest house. This is what happened today. As we heard the alert, we saw a flash of two people in front of our house. We ran, opened the door, and the two young guys followed us, running into our bomb shelter. We waited to hear the explosions, they thanked us and were on their way.

Another issue – not all homes have bomb shelters. In fact, several of my friends don’t have one, and fifteen seconds are not long enough for them to reach the public shelter. They usually crouch under a stairwell hoping everything will be okay.

But ironically, Sderot is probably the safest place in Southern Israel at the moment. Because now the entire South is being hit: Ashkelon, Ashdod, Be’er Sheva, and Netivot, among others… We have friends in these cities, and when the bombs started to fall there, they were in shock for days. They are less prepared than us. There are not bomb shelters lining the streets of these towns, but fewer, larger community shelters where now many people are sleeping. While we definitely feel a sense of solidarity, the fact that large part of the country is living much like us – running for shelter and fearing for their lives – creates a whole new sad reality.

When I first came to Sderot I didn’t run to the shelter. The threat seemed so random. It seemed almost impossible that you were going to be hurt. The fear of Qassams is something that takes a while. It grows on you. Because now, I know too many people with near misses. I have a friend who reluctantly left his bed to go the shelter. He was lucky he decided to go, because the Qassam landed directly on his bed, where he had been sleeping a few seconds earlier. I have another friend who miraculously survived a Qassam hit on her house. She is okay after massive rehab, but she has shrapnel in her brain that is too deep to remove. And I have friends who have seen people killed by Qassams – right before their eyes.

I often feel that the international press doesn’t get it. They make light of the rockets. Because when you come to Sderot for one day, the attacks seem random and you feel somehow immune from harm. The words “amateur homemade rockets” that I see written in most major news publications, make the threat seem less serious. But the fact is, these rockets are nothing other than bombs, falling from the sky, designed to kill civilians. And they do.

The press usually focuses on the number of dead people. If these Qassams are really dangerous, why haven’t more people died? Good question. Thousands of lives have been saved by the 15-second warning system. With over 10,000 rockets that have landed in this area in the past eight years, there would most likely be hundreds killed if not thousands. But the fact that we know when the rockets are coming, saves our lives. Still, is this any way to live? Can you imagine this happening in any city in America or Europe?

On Sunday, I filmed a home that had been completely destroyed that morning. It was a small, three-room place. No bomb shelter, but miraculously, the room where the owner took cover wasn’t hit. The rest of the house was demolished. I’ve seen tons of footage of destroyed homes in Sderot, and filmed in broken houses. But I had never set foot on fresh rubble just a few hours old. I was shaken. That house was struck by a Qassam, which is approximately 6-8 kilos of explosives attached to a metal tube with fins. Last night we were informed of new intelligence that Hamas intends to begin shooting Grads into Sderot. Grads are twice the size of Qassams and are what Hamas uses to bomb the further cities like Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Be’er Sheva. Now you know why my cameraman has headed out of town.

Besides the Qassams, there are other developments. Being about one mile away from Gaza, we can hear everything. The insanely loud sound of bombs being dropped from airplanes, F-16s, helicopters, helicopter guns, mortars, tank shells… these sounds have now become the soundtrack of our lives.

When I first came here over a year and a half ago, Sderot was almost like a ghost town. Now the international media has descended on us in droves. There are TV trucks and cameramen everywhere you look, and reporters from every network, broadcasting in every language from the hilltops and town corners. At least my friends who own Coffee To Go, the local café, are finally getting some business. (When I first arrived here and hadn’t yet found a house, Avi used to joke that I was single-handedly keeping the place afloat.)

For me it’s interesting. Sderot is a small place, and after a while, you recognize most people you see in the supermarket, café or falafel stand. For months I must have seemed to Sderot’s citizens like “that strange American girl wandering around with a camera.” Now after a year here, I feel like a local. With the town full of foreigners, I really feel like this is my town. That I am one of the people that they are here to film, running to the bomb shelter during a Tzeva Adom alert.

All around, you just feel war. People stay in their houses, schools are closed. “Learning Together,” a wartime television program broadcasts daily high school classes for kids who can’t go to school. The classes are taught by famous Israeli writers, poets, and philosophers.

The war is the only thing people talk about. It’s hard to get things done. It’s hard to keep ourselves from watching the news all day. And the weirdest thing is to watch the news about something that just happened a block away. When you realize that you are the news. Two nights ago we sat in Coffee To Go for dinner. Suddenly, Tzeva Adom. We ran to the interior of the room, away from the glass storefront. The Qassam exploded just across the street — the café rocked with the blast. Journalists who had been on a coffee break raced out to try and get their shots. Five minutes later, a large-screen TV above our heads was broadcasting the update from Sderot – including what we had just felt and heard.

This morning Avi looked at me and said, “It’s impossible to relax, to have fun, to enjoy life. The war just makes life stop. We aren’t living right now. We are only surviving.” I know he’s right. I’m trying to think of it as an experience that we are going through that will make us stronger. That everything is going to be okay.

Its very sad and depressing for us to hear the loud explosions in Gaza and to know that there is no way for innocent civilians not to be killed in this war. But most of us also feel that finally the government is doing what it needs to do to defend us. I get emails from people and read articles calling Israel’s response “disproportionate.” It upsets me. I feel they just don’t have a clue. What would be a proportionate response? For us to shoot unmanned missiles targeted at civilians every day? Instead, we are doing something more effective and humane – we are taking away their weapons. We are bombing their stockpiles, tunnels, and terror infrastructure. We are sending SMSs and leaflets warning civilians to leave areas that will be bombed. And we are doing what we need to do to stay alive. From this corner of the State of Israel, it is obvious that if we don’t do something now, we are looking at an existential threat. If anyone has any doubts about that, then I invite them to come live with me here in Sderot. I have an extra bed and am happy to offer it. I guarantee they will change their mind once they’ve spent a few days in my living room.

Last week, before the war started, I did an interview with Yossi Cohen, an established Sderot musician who plays bass in Avi’s band and has a band of his own. He’s had his own share of trauma – he now suffers a hearing loss from a Qassam that landed right near him, and has anxiety and depression as a result of another close landing that killed someone. He also happens to be one of the nicest people I know. Yossi works for the city (his day job) doing landscaping projects. He took me to his most recent work of art. It was a bomb shelter — one I had passed a million times. But now it had been painted a nice shade of brown, and was covered with panels of green vines. Design-wise, it looked like something you would see in Palm Springs. It seemed so surreal to create designer bomb shelters. Yossi explained that someone thought it would be a good idea to boost morale. These kind of absurdities run amok in Sderot.

A few meters away, was a smaller bomb shelter with graffiti spray painted on it. I asked Yossi what it said (my Hebrew still not up to par). It says “Secede from the pathetic state.” Yossi added, “I know the person who wrote it.”

This sort of sentiment wasn’t unusual in Sderot. When I first arrived, I was told by many residents that this was a city without a state. And last year friends told me they were not planning to put up a flag on Yom Haatzmaoot (Israel’s Independence Day.) Sderot had such a terrible year. It was hard to feel patriotic.

But last week everything changed. We watched speeches by Barak and Livni about how after eight years, something had to be done and they were going to do it. Avi felt they were finally apologizing to the people of this area for ignoring their suffering for so long. No one is happy that there is a war, that we are bombing Gaza, and that innocent people will suffer as a result. But the people here feel that finally the government is addressing what has been an unbearable situation. Yesterday, Yossi’s job included hanging up Israeli flags all over the city, and he was interviewed on Channel Two saying, “I’m finally proud to be part of the country and to put up the flag.”

When I went out of the house this morning, there they were. Hundreds of blue and white flags, shiny and new, on every lamppost and lining every street. It was a beautiful sunny day, and as I turned down one particular street – the street where Avi proposed to me — I saw hundreds of blue Stars of David staring back at me.

It’s hard to live here and not wonder, “Will we survive? As a country? As a people?” I have been thinking this on a daily basis, and last night went to bed in tears after a stressful argument with a friend on this very topic. But somehow seeing that row of flags made me feel better. Maybe we won’t make it. But we’ve got to do everything we can to try. Here in Sderot, we are part of a country again. And as a people, a nation, we have history on our side. The flags and those two thoughts are going to get me through this war.

WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE FROM HERE: Dec. 27, 2008

December 27th, 2008

1:30pm

This morning we woke up late and were lounging around our living room. We suddenly heard a huge boom, the likes of which we had never heard before. It was not a qassam exploding … it was not the sound of faint explosions in the distance. It was really loud and our entire house shook. I ran outside — neighbors were out looking at the sky. It took a few moments before we realized that there was a major air operation launched against Gaza. Its not very far away… only a mile or so. So when they get hit, our house shakes. It literally sounds like a sonic boom.

Now its all over the news. The bombing is not stopping. There have been counter attacks. We are advised to stay inside near bomb shelters. Netivot and Ashkelon have started to get hit- one person has already died in Netivot. We are bracing ourselves for the storm. We are wondering why they aren’t hitting Sderot. Netivot and Ashkelon are being hit by grads, not qassams…. maybe the IDF hit a launching spot intended for Sderot? Who knows.

As usual, I am worried about how this is being covered by the international press. I turned to the CNN web site, and was aghast. It described the situation as “dozens of rockets have been fired into Israel” since the cease-fire broke down. This is preposterous. It has been hundreds. Just this Wednesday there were 70 rockets, yesterday 20… the proportion looks totally different from the outside looking in.

As soon as I felt I had gotten enough footage, my first instinct was to take a shower. Its scary to take a shower when there are a lot of qassams, because you sometimes can’t hear the alert and it takes a while to make it to the shelter. So I wanted to make sure I got my shower in before the onslaught.

2:28pm

There have been Tzeva Adoms in Ashdod, which was hooked up to the Tzeva Adom system earlier this week. And a few minutes ago, Kirat Gat received its first hit. Wow. Last March we were surprised when Ashkelon and Netivot started to be affected. Now the problem covers a large area of the country. Its not just a Sderot problem anymore.

A YEAR IN SDEROT

December 13th, 2008

This week marks one year since I moved to Sderot, a small town on the edge of Israel’s Negev desert, one mile away from the Gaza strip. I came here to find out what it means to live in a never-ending war, and to document the lives and music of musicians under fire.

Sderot is known for being a poor southern development town, for being hit by qassam rockets from Gaza for eight-years with no end in sight, and for being the “Liverpool” of Israel, having bred some of Israel’s most successful rock bands.

Among Israel’s elite and Tel Aviv society, Sderot is known as a “lousy” place… and on the surface it looks run down, unkempt, and unbeautiful. I have noted the shocked expressions of most Israelis when they hear that I have moved from West Los Angeles to Sderot. But in my year here, I have forged an unbreakable connection to this place. Maybe I’m just a small town person who’s been stuck in a big city most of my life, or maybe the artist in me felt constrained dealing with the film industry in LA. All I can report, is that I have learned more in this, my 35th year, than any other in my life.

Outside of New York City, Sderot is literally one of the most diverse places I have ever been. It was a town founded my immigrants from North Africa in the late ‘50’s. When they got off the boat in Haifa harbor, they asked to be taken to Jerusalem. Instead, they were sprayed with DDT, put into trucks, driven down to an empty place with literally nothing, and dumped there. They lived in tin shacks, battling the heart in the “Ma’abara” [Transit Camp] for a couple of years until they could build real housing. This place became Sderot. Because of these beginnings, there is a certain contempt for Sderot from the outside, and a certain pride and close-knitedness from the inside.

For almost thirty years the town’s makeup was almost all Jews from Arab lands, until the Ethiopian Aliyah and Russian Aliyah doubled the population. Today, if you go to the Shuk (the outdoor vegetable market) on Sundays and Tuesdays, you see every type and flavor of Jew. Moroccans and Tunisins bargaining, old women from Kazakhstan and Dagistan wearing traditional clothing. You drive through the town and see everything from the typical Israeli soldier standing at a bus stop, to Ethiopian women in their wrapped headdresses and skirts, old men sitting on park benches, and Israeli teenagers of every color, shape, and size, squeezed into their tight fashionable jeans and hanging out by the corner pizza store.

Take that scene and add the film students from all over Israel who attend Sapir College (just two minutes down the road). Many of them live in Sderot, and along with the musicians that the town in famous for, it creates a very interesting mix. When I first arrived, I was shocked by the amount of music, culture, and sheer talent that could emerge from one small city. It’s been difficult to choose who to focus the film on. People are writing, rehearsing, and performing here daily… Here is just a taste of who I have been following:

- Tzerei Sderot, a teenage choir that performs all over Israel and all over the world. The group includes: Meshi, fifteen and adorable, whose mom was born in the Ma’abara; Sali Or, a thoughtful singer who writes his own music and has just become a cook in the army; Nastia, a punky ball of fire who was born in Moldova. She dreams of being a combat soldier; Lidor, a gregarious kid with a kippah who is sings piutim in his synagogue, Arzu, whose parents are from Azerbajan, the flirtatious Sapir, who seems like a troublemaker; and Ran, fourteen, who works at the one restaurant in town making pizza. He is struggling with a changing voice, and obsessed with trance music.

- Hagit Yaso, an 18-year-old beautiful and brilliant Ethiopian singer from Tzerei Sderot who has just joined the Army band. Destined to be a star.

- Noam Shlomo, the choir’s director who is a composer and musician in his own right. He has done incredible arrangements, spiffing up the rhythm of known Israeli and Jewish songs and making them into magnificent chorale pieces. Most of his own songs use text from the Tanach.

- Micha Biton, an ethnic rock artist in the midst of a successful solo career, having released three albums.

- Haim Uliel, one of the founders of the music scene in Sderot, he was in the first famous Moroccan wedding band that brought ethnic music into the mainstream, revolutionizing Israeli music.

- Avi Vaknin, a rock musician in the process of releasing his first album. For ten years he managed SDEROCK ( Sderot’s bomb shelter turned rock club, ) and worked with kids to create “The Hope Project,” a hip-hop album with lyrics written by Sderot’s youth about the situation.

In my year here, I have followed each of them as they have pursued their individual goals and careers despite the challenging circumstances in which they are living.

I personally have lived through some of the worst periods of qassams – one weekend we received 160. I have witnessed the anger of a community in pain, a town that feels abandoned. I was here the weekend that a young boy lost his leg, sending the entire town into a fury, and sparking demonstrations all over Israel. I have watched the town band together in these moments of trauma. I have noticed the apathy of Israelis to whom Sderot has become a boring and repetitive cause for pity. I have rejoiced in the solidarity of a nation, when over 10,000 people from all over Israel arrived in Sderot during one of the hardest times, to support the local economy and boost morale.

I have celebrated Purim with costumed and drunken people dancing in the streets, and Mimuna, the Moroccan festival after Pesach, which cannot be rivaled outside of Sderot – thousands of cakes of every kind, open houses and people going door to door, and my musician friends reveling in a musical ethnic fantasia. Let me tell you – no one can party like the Moroccans.

I have seen the face of the city change—bus stops replaced by bomb shelters called “Migunits” – and documented the city as it became a world symbol, visited by John McCain, Barak Obama, and even the mayor of Los Angeles. I have met Christian groups on pilgrimages to pay homage, and “trauma tourists” who show up with their cameras at Sderot’s police station to get a photo of themselves with the qassam museum. I have met Israelis afraid to come here, and groups of Americans who come to educate themselves and show support.

In my year, I have witnessed an incursion into Gaza, a cease-fire negotiated (even though supposedly the Israeli government isn’t speaking with Hamas), and that cease-fire broken. I have been here during corruption charges brought against the mayor of Sderot, and against the prime minister of Israel. I was here when rockets started falling on Ashkelon – a much larger city – bringing the number of people affected by rocket fire from 20,000 to 250,000.

As all of this was happening, I fell in love with one of the subjects of my film – Avi Vaknin. First with his music, then with his lyrics – poignant and full of protest – and then with him. I will never forget the reaction of a colleague I was meeting in Tel Aviv. “Wow! You think of Sderot as a place where people are suffering through a war. Its amazing to think that meanwhile, people are living their lives, people are even falling in love, “ she marveled.

We decided to have our wedding here in Sderot, in our garden. That was strange for two reasons—most Israelis have huge weddings held in event halls, and secondly, nobody has events in Sderot. In fact, for five years, weddings, bar mitzvahs, brits…. have all been held outside of the city. Nobody wants to risk their event if there is a qassam that morning. What if people are afraid to come? What if you hire a caterer and then you’ve wasted all your money?

Though my parents were certainly not thrilled with the idea of coming to Sderot, and even locals wondered what would happen if there would be a problem, we decided to make a statement. We had met here, this place had brought us together. Avi had even proposed to me in one of those Migunits—the bus stop bomb shelters.

It was a risk – our home bomb shelter holds about seven people and we were inviting one hundred. Besides, if there was a Tzeva Adom, you would never be able to hear it because of the music. But we did it anyway. And my parents, sister, uncles, cousins, and friends from all over Israel who volunteered to risk their lives to come to our wedding, had the time of their lives.

Now here we are, and one year has passed since all of this began. It’s impossible not to realize how much has happened in this one year, and how much I have learned and lived from my little window on the world in Sderot.

ANOTHER WEEK IN SDEROT: THIS IS WAR

March 1st, 2008

As many of you know, I am living here in Sderot, making a film about the situation through the eyes of Sderot’s musicians. I live with Avi Vaknin, one of the musicians in my film, and Aner Moss, who is working as my cinematographer.

I am sad and angry today. It has been a really difficult week here. Wednesday the qassam attacks escalated again. Several fell on Sapir College, which is just a couple of minutes from here, killing a student. Many landed in Ashkelon — one on a hospital. The attacks continued Thursday with more injuries. Because the rockets started hitting Ashkelon, the Prime Minister (while eating sushi on a trip to Japan) announced that Hamas is trying his patience.

Living in Sderot these days is all about listening and waiting. It feels like there is going to be a real War. You can hear everything. Sometimes we hear a far away boom. We look at each other and say: “Must be us. Must be us bombing them.” We hear helicopters. The first time I heard a helicopter here I realized suddenly that this isn’t LA. Its not a news helicopter or a police helicopter, or most likely not even a hospital helicopter. A helicopter here can only be one thing. IDF. The first time I heard airplanes, I realized there was no airport around here. You hear airplanes and they are military airplanes. If they are loud, probably F-16s.

Below is a journal from my last 36 hours:

Friday, 3:00AM:
Tzeva Adom (Color Red Alert) does not go off, but there is a weird alarm going off– its the thing that goes off after there are several Tzeva Adoms in a row. It wakes us all up, and we don’t know what to do– do we run to the shelter? Maybe it is a mistake. I make a mental note to try and interview someone about the Tzeva Adom system.

Friday, 10:00AM:
I say (out loud) that we are lucky for no Tzeva Adom this morning. A half an hour later, we are getting ready to leave the house: Tzeva Adom, Tzeva Adom. We run into the shelter. This time, we hear the whistle. Avi always told me, that the scariest moment is when you can hear the whistle, because it means it is landing right near you. After the whistle, a huge boom that rattles the house. We run out to the street, all the neighbors have come out and everybody yells, “Where did it fall?” People are running around looking. We finally realize it has fallen across the street on the back side of our house. Luckily there are no homes there, just an open field.

Friday, 4:30PM:
Right before Shabbat. Avi’s brother and his family stop by to visit. His 8-year-old twin nieces are chasing our cat around our backyard and playing catch with grapefruits they picked from the trees. Aner is filming. All of the sudden, a huge boom. It was a qassam WITHOUT the Tzeva Adom warning– one of the scariest things possible. Then it starts: Tzeva Adom, Tzeva Adom. We run into the shelter. More explosions. Close.

Friday, 8:00PM:
Shabbat dinner at Avi’s parents. Avi is really depressed and angry. He keeps asking, “Is this a way to live? Why? Why?” He doesn’t usually get this worked up, but something about seeing his nieces exposed to the danger makes him sad. He can’t eat.

Friday, 10:00PM:
We can hear singing and cheering. Its a huge group of Bnei Akiva, they tell me, I go out with Avi’s nephew, Lidor, another one of my subjects who is in the Sderot Youth Choir. We see six hundred young people from a group called “Lev Ehad (One heart.)” They hold Israeli flags and walk through the streets of Sderot singing, clapping, and cheering, to show solidarity. Its an amazing sight.

Friday, 10:30PM:
We are driving home. We have the radio tuned to 104fm, where after 9PM there is silence, but the Tzeva Adom is broadcast — supposedly a couple of seconds before you can hear the loudspeakers. We stop the car and run up the walkway to the nearest house. We bang on the door. Nobody home. We get close to the wall of the house, just in case. For the first time I am afraid, I can hear my own heart beating. Something about the process of trying to run and not knowing where to go.

Friday, Midnight:
We are sitting in our house drinking coffee with Robbie and Lavi– two of Avi’s friends– film students from Sapir college. Robbie is really mad. They are talking about how upsetting it is that seven years of rockets and the government doesn’t care, but now that rockets hit Askhelon, its suddenly not okay anymore. Robbie says it is because of who live here– Mizrachim (Jews from Arab countries) not Askenazim. Poor people. The government doesn’t care about the people of Sderot– but Askhelon is now the limit. Avi talks about his new song. Its called, “Sushi in Japan.” I presume it is about Olmert, eating his sushi.

Saturday, 2:00AM:
Tzeva adom. This is strange– doesn’t usually happen at this hour. We run to the shelter. Can’t hear a boom. Maybe its too far. I get back in bed and try to sleep. I hear helicopters.

Saturday, 5:00AM:
Tzeva Adom.

Saturday, sometime between 5 and 7AM:
One or two Tzeva Adoms. I don’t remember. I don’t get up, I don’t wake up. I just stay in bed. Screw it all. If they want to bomb me, go ahead.

Saturday, 7:30AM:
Tzeva Adom. We wake up and run to the shelter. I am so tired I can’t even stand up. Get back in bed. I can hear gunfire. Really loud gunfire… like a machine gun. Is is from a tank or a helicopter or something.

Saturday, 9:30AM:
Tzeva Adom. Okay, maybe its time to get up. I hear airplanes — really loud. Must be F-16′s.

Saturday, Noon:
Helicopters. I get online. I can’t help it. What does it say in the news. Thirty-three qassams from yesterday until now. Twenty-six people killed in Gaza, including some civilians. Several IDF soldiers injured.

I look at the press from the West and get very angry. Its mostly about their injuries. Another article about Palestinian protests about our attacks. This is ridiculous. If there were no rockets raining on us the IDF wouldn’t have anything to do there. I don’t like the way we are portrayed. We don’t want this war. They are dragging us in. What can we do? There are rockets raining on us daily. But in the media we look like the aggressors. It feels so unfair to be sitting here and reading that. My entire perspective has changed. I used to think that Israel needed to take care of how it looked to the Western World — that we can’t look like monsters. Now I know it doesn’t matter. They will paint us however they want. I just can’t read the news anymore, it makes me too angry. We need to move forward with our lives, protect ourselves. The government has a responsibility to protect its people. The question is, what is the best way to do that?

Saturday, 2pm:
Tzeva Adom. I’m alone in the house, I run to the shelter.

Saturday, 3pm:
Tzeva Adom. I stay at my desk. This is ridiculous.

Saturday, 7pm:
The news. Two Israeli soldiers killed. 45 Palestinians.

As I am writing this, more helicopters. More guns. Very depressed.

Shavua Tov From Sderot.

SHABBAT SHALOM FROM SDEROT: WE ARE NOT ALONE

February 22nd, 2008

Amazing amazing day in Sderot today– I am moved to tears.

——
Since the upsetting incidents that happened here on February 10, I feel that I am now “Sderoti” and have been looking at Israel through that lens. I have seen a great deal of complete apathy, classism, racism, or just the simple feeling that Sderot is someone else’s problem. I have been living here, have felt the anger, frustration, feelings of abandonment… Over the last several weeks I have been seriously worried about the future of this country. If there is no solidarity, if we don’t support each other and come together to solve what really is a problem for the country as a whole, how can we survive?

It’s amazing how your entire perspective can change in one moment.

This morning my cameraman and I went to the entrance of Sderot and filmed a convoy of thousands of cars — an estimated 10,000 people — driving into Sderot. With Israeli flags flying, signs reading “SDEROT WE ARE WITH YOU” and red ribbons attached to their car antennas, they honked and clapped as they approached. They sported big smiles and waved their hands out the car windows, and then they hit the streets to do all of their Shabbat shopping.

I stood in the middle of the highway and cried.

I later found out that this was the initiative of a few individual citizens from Modi’in, who felt that the government wasn’t doing enough for the people of Sderot. They simply woke up one day, and decided that it was up to them to act– to help repair the economic crisis, and to simply bring a message of solidarity. They started the convoys several months ago, and though there had been several before this one, today was the biggest yet.

I met people from all over Israel, from all walks of life: young, old, religious Jews, hippies, a team of cyclists, a parade of motorbikes, a singing group. The citizens of Sderot were incredibly moved — I saw so many happy faces on the streets. When you have a camera, people feel they can just come up to you and start talking, and we filmed some amazing reactions.

What happened today felt like a miracle. It made me so proud to be a Jew and to be living here. It made me think that maybe there is a reason that we as a people keep surviving — despite governments, politics, and all the scary things that happen in the world, throughout the generations we seem to continually come to rescue one another. Today I saw the meaning of “Am Yisrael Chai.” I am full of joy and gratitude, and I know that all of Sderot shares my feelings.
Shabbat Shalom.

Angry

February 10th, 2008

some of my friends here are so mad– they want to shoot qassams at Tel Aviv– they almost never complain about the palestinians…only about the government. Its like being in New Orleans– nobody gives a shit about the people here. And if all of the people in this town got up and left, the state of Israel would be at the real beginning of its demise. Yesterday a kid lost his leg…. and my friend saw it. Everybody in town was furious-. I convinced my friend to drive out of here for a few hours because he was so upset. But when we went to get out of town, the main highway out of town was blocked because there was a riot– people were burning tires and stopping the roads…. it is so upsetting I can’t even explain. And yesterday was so sad that I couldn’t even film it. I am hiring my cinematographer to come here because he will get the shot no matter what. I just can’t do it… I just can’t stick a camera in someone’s face when they are so distressed. Somehow it feels okay if I am paying for someone else to do it… I just can’t.

Shabbat was insane. Friday morning we ran to the bomb shelter 8 times… then after shabbat dinner it was like five times again.. the people living here are heroes. And the rest of israel doesn’t care.

DO SOMETHING

February 1st, 2008

It was May 2007. I woke up one morning to read emails from friends in Israel about the humanitarian crisis that was happening in Sderot. Qassams (homemade rockets) had been fired over the border from Gaza for the last seven years at this small town in the Western Negev. Now their frequency was increasing and the resident of Sderot were subjected to fifty rockets on some days. Five thousand people (one fourth of the population) had left, and many who stayed had no where to go. It was a crisis, covered by the Israeli media all day and night for days. Sitting in my Los Angeles apartment reading the stories, I wondered how much of this news made it to the news pages in the US. I opened the LA Times. Nothing. New York times, nothing. MSNBC, nothing there either. CNN, nope. I waited for a week — that week in May– continuing to hear stories from Israeli news, eyewitness account of the crisis. At the end of the week, an article appeared in the NY Times. Its headline: IDF KILLS FIVE IN GAZA. I read through the whole article, to read about the IDF’s actions. Only the very last sentence mentioned that rockets are being fired from this area into a town called Sderot. No context. No mention of a humanitarian crisis. I was furious! The perception was that the IDF’s “incursions” were one-sided, or not all that necessary. There was nothing in the American media about the war that was being imposed on Israel from the other side.

As a documentary filmmaker I realized suddenly that I didn’t need to wait for the New York TImes. I had just spent five years documenting and creating an epic film about the heroes who led the thirty-year human rights movement to free Soviet Jews. People on both sides of the iron curtain who came together and literally changed the world. Inspired by their determination to DO SOMETHING, and not just sit on the sidelines, I realized what I needed to do. I needed to go to Sderot and tell the story of what is happening there. Not from a news perspective, but a human story about real people and what they are going through.

I found an amazing angle for my film. Sderot, it turns out, is a city famous for its music. Over the last twenty years it has produced some of the biggest Israeli bands and rock stars. A music club for teenagers, called Sderock, is run out of an underground bomb shelter in the town’s center. (Sderock was there before the Qassams, but now its location has turned out to be vital.)

So I moved to Sderot, and I am living here documenting the lives of young musicians whose music reflects the situation. When I first arrived here, I felt like I found buried treasure. I found a small town filled with warm and wonderful people. A rich mix of cultures of Jews from all over the Arab world– Morocco, Tunisia, Kurdistan, as well as immigrants from Ethiopia, and the Former Soviet Union. I found musicians and artists that are incredibly talented and interesting people. Now they are my friends, and I am experiencing the Qassams along with them. The music is amazing, and its really powerful to listen to what comes out of this situation.

Thirteen people have died from the ongoing attacks over the last seven (almost eight) years, and its impossible to count the number that have been injured. A huge problem is the terror and fear that the Qassams create. An Israeli warning system, the “Red Dawn Alert System” detects when a rocket was fired and residents of Sderot hear the air raid, “Color Red. Color Red. Color Red…..” You have fifteen seconds to get to a bomb shelter, and there you wait to hear the boom.

One of the most heart-wrenching interviews I have conducted is with Doctor Adriana Katz, the chief psychiatrist here. Over three thousand people are being treated for serious psychological disorders caused by the qassams. And the saddest thing is to see children who don’t know that life can be any other way.

The fear is different than the fear that you have of suicide bombings. Because its not about going out to a market or cafe or being on a bus. Its the fact that rockets are literally falling out of the sky, and no where is safe.