Maryland graduate reflects on Birthright Sderot visit during Arab-Israeli conflict

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By Peter Garber
For the Mitzpeh
@petegarber

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In August 2013, after 19 years of never crossing the Atlantic Ocean, my time had finally come to visit the homeland. At first, the constant on-campus recruiting and deluges of emails to join the Birthright experience, for which rich Israel-supporting donors fund trips for young American Jews, felt pretty sketchy. I thought their main goal was for me to experience Israel and hopefully commit aliyah, or move to Israel for good to boost the country’s economy. However, since I heard from my friends that it was a “life-changing” experience, I thought I’d stop being so cynical and try it out. I expected to see a bunch of glorification and propaganda with all the negative things about Israel meticulously blocked out from my experience. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

After six jam-packed days involving gorgeous views of historic landmarks such as the Western Wall and the Temple Mount, partying, and a lot of hummus, my tour group boarded a bus to head south. Nadav, our Israeli tour guide, got up from his seat while the bus was en route to our next destination to give us the lowdown of the day’s plan. As soon as he got on the microphone, everyone always listened. The girls were in love with him, and the guys looked up to his confident and suave demeanor. He spoke with an unusual, somber tone, one we hadn’t heard the whole trip. He informed us that we were headed to Sderot, a western desert city in the Southern District of Israel.

“Today, we will be exploring an area that has been a ehh, big topic in the news lately,” he uttered in his deep Israeli accent. His next sentence got everyone’s attention quickly. “It is less than a mile away from the Gaza Strip.”

Suddenly, everyone on the bus looked at each other with worry and anxiety in their eyes.

At the time of the trip, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was in a lull, but missiles were sporadically launched all over the southern region, especially into Sderot. We had heard about rocket attacks near the border just a month ago.

As the bus drove through the Negev desert, I looked out into the blend of beige sands and brush whizzing by me. I remembered the scene from You Don’t Mess With The Zohan, where Adam Sandler’s character talks to his mother about the conflict between the Arabs and Israelis, asking her when it will end. She responds with, “They’ve been fighting for two thousand years, it can’t be much longer.”

I shook my head. The conversation about the danger of rocket attacks and the conflict sparked massive chatter among the crowd on the bus.

Someone turned to me and said, “All that fighting over some land, can you believe that shit?” I said nothing, mesmerized by what I saw outside my window. I thought about how surreal it was to actually be here, rather than safe in my suburban home watching CNN’s Anderson Cooper on location with his bulletproof vest and helmet.

 

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The Birthright group enters a police station in Sderot as a part of their tour. Photo courtesy of Peter Garber.

When we got to the city limits, the landscape changed drastically. A lot more trees and bushes mixed in with the Negev dirt. The suburban desert community’s benches, bus stops, and light poles were all painted in bright blue. Graffiti was plastered all over building walls. Some surfaces looked like mural paintings with deformed faces, while other parts were more stereotypical, just like you would see in New York City.

Most blocks had these small structures on the sidewalks that resembled public bathrooms. Nadav pointed one of them out and said that it was a bomb shelter. As soon as I stepped off the bus, I could tell we were in a city filled with a different kind of danger than any I had known. We strolled past simple clay suburban houses to the downtown area, full of restaurants and shops resembling bodegas. But in the 15 minutes it took, we hardly saw anyone on the street. The few people we passed walked with a purpose, not leisurely the way we were strolling. Nobody loitered. At home in New York, even the scariest blocks are loud with everyday noises. In this Negev city, all I heard was unsettling quiet.

We finally walked up two flights of stairs into a visitor’s center, where another city tour guide met us and gave us a quick overview of Sderot. She told us about the musical talent that comes from the area, the manufacturing businesses that support the economy, and about the 14 schools with 3,500 students. But the last thing she told us was the most horrifying.

“Just so you are all aware when walking around the city as you shop and eat, there was a rocket that landed in the area a couple of weeks ago,” she said. “No one was hurt, but you should all know that if you hear the sirens go off, please find the nearest air-raid shelter.”

Everyone looked at each other blankly After the presentation, we had an hour of free time to explore the city and get some delicious street lunch, which of course included hummus. I walked down the narrow street with my friends from home, Alex and Dean. There were cafes and art shops, all with plastic-covered overhangs that flailed with any slight breeze. Palm trees lined the dividing border of traffic directions. They reminded me of paradise in a place that could look like a war zone within 15 seconds. That’s the amount of time it takes a rocket from Gaza to reach Sderot, a distance about the width of the Hudson River between Jersey City and Manhattan.

We decided to peek our heads into a clothing store. The store clerk, a short man in his mid-40s gazed at us with a slight sad grin. I could see in his eye the same look of stress and worry that I’d seen on all the other faces that day. I don’t remember seeing many children, but Nadav had mentioned that 75 percent of them had suffered from post-traumatic symptoms after being exposed to the threat of war for so long. The loud engine of a car driving by outside the store startled me as I reactively looked back out to the storefront. Nothing could be heard now but the jingling of bells outside the store. Normally, in America, this sound is welcoming; instead I was reminded of The Hurt Locker, a movie that portrays the silence and tense environment before an explosion perfectly.

After our free hour ended, we headed to the local police station. The back parking lot gate opened up, and I saw a bunch of Toyota police cars, with the typical desert dust covering their hoods and windshields. Just behind them was a sight no one expected to see. On metal shelves right there in the lot were remnants of rocket shells that hit the city, stacked up on top of each other. The pile was higher than me, and I’m around six feet tall. I scrutinized the rusted shells, with scrap metal bent out of the cylinder sides like a peeled banana. Each rocket was a different shape, size, and length. The Arabic writing that I could make out on some of them, probably produced by Hamas, sent chills down my spine.

When our tour guide told us that here 15,000 missiles had hit the region of Sderot, we instinctively gasped and covered our mouths.

 

The students examine rockets and missiles, stored in the police station parking lot, that were fired at Sderot. Photo courtesy of Peter Garber.

The students examine rockets and missiles, stored in the police station parking lot, that were fired at Sderot. Photo courtesy of Peter Garber.

I walked by and brushed my hand against the surface of the rockets and saw the dates marking when they were found scribbled on the shell. Nadav brought us here and showed us reality. I didn’t think the tour would be so honest with us. Of course I knew what had been going on in Israel, but I always suspected the media of hyperbolizing the conflict. After six days of non-stop enjoyment, I zoned out in the lot for a minute.

Our next stop was a dirt hill lookout near a semi luxury-style apartment complex, where we could see Gaza. The view was underwhelming, as it was hard to make out the territory a mile away other than some generic-looking buildings. There was a busy highway just below the hill. Although nothing visibly awful could be seen from where we were standing, my stomach felt sick as I imagined the situation the young children, women and men there had to go through. During a critical point of the conflict in 2009, 1,034 Arabs died compared to nine Israelis, but statistics always vary depending on the source.

Every couple of minutes, our tour group members would look up at the sky to make sure they didn’t see any streaks in the air. The city tour guide pointed at the territories, marking off where the refugee camps were just across the border in Beit Hanoun. I was lucky to be standing on the other side, the safer side. Our loud-mouthed bus driver, Benny, who usually cursed at drivers who cut him off and laughed along with our hilarious inside jokes, had a grave look on his face.

“Nadav, they must be back on the bus in 15 minutes, not too long, not too long,” he said. I could tell how uneasy he was, a northerner unused to this kind of worry.

Our final stop before we were off to Tel Aviv was in the outskirts of the city. I got off the bus one last time before we left Sderot as Nadav pleaded with Benny to give us 10 more minutes so he could show us a playground that was covered with brown dirt and cemented walkways. We approached a large, 30-foot hollowed-out capsule that was painted to look like a caterpillar to fit a playful image. The tour group walked inside to a disgusting smell of trash and rusted paint. One by one, we entered the tunnel, which was dark everywhere except for a light on the other end. The echo as we spoke reverberated in our ears. We were in a bomb shelter that was disguised as a playground. We walked through the tunnel-like structure all the way to the other side of the opening while Nadav told us about how children would be hurried into this place by their parents when the sirens go off.

 

This playground in Negev includes a hidden bomb shelter, which the group went inside with their tour guide. Photo courtesy of Peter Garber.

This playground in Negev includes a hidden bomb shelter, which the group went inside with their tour guide. Photo courtesy of Peter Garber.

I walked back onto the bus 10 minutes later.

“Why do people stay here? Why don’t they just leave?” I asked Nadav, but I realized I already knew the answer. He shook his head.

“This is their home. They won’t let this get in the way of their lives,” he said.

Dean, whose grandparents lived in Jerusalem, had told me about the resilience of the residents and the suffering they lived through daily because of  fear of terrorist attacks in the country. I never thought I would get to experience the worry and fear firsthand.

In our Tel Aviv hotel that night, I paced back and forth, thinking about how much more I was drawn to Israel, but confused as to why. This trip had shown me every side of this multi-faceted country. Oddly, despite the conflict, the homeland still felt like home.

 

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