Standing with Sderot

NIFI supporter, Stephen Haire, asks Christian Aid and Trocaire to consider his recent visit to Sderot.

Standing up for Sderot: Stephen at the Israeli parliament

How did I end up in the southern Israeli town of Sderot? A place where bomb shelters have to be built in every home, public building and even bus stop – where citizens have no more than 15 seconds warning of a rocket or mortar attack!

I think back to an event I attended at the Ulster Hall, Belfast in 2011, organised by  Christian Aid and Trocaire. Both defended allegations that they were partisan on the Arab-Israel conflict. True enough, their presentation that day was exclusively about the “evils of the Israeli occupation.” However, when challenged by supporters of Northern Ireland Friends of Israel, both charities insisted they were committed to combating injustice “wherever it is found”. They pointed to a concern they shared regarding Sderot, an Israeli town close to the border with Gaza.

I’m not an investigative journalist, but on a trip to Israel I found myself in Sderot to check out what Christian Aid and Trocaire are doing on the ground and how visible their presence is to give comfort as well as practical support to the people who live there. I am afraid I found nothing – despite four days there, I didn’t see anything which suggested Christian Aid or Trocaire had any presence in Sderot.

Christian Aid and Trocaire should certainly be concerned at what is going on in Sderot. It is an entirely man-made disaster. Southern Israel has been hit by over 11,000 rocket attacks from Gaza in the past eight years – over 600 in 2011 alone, an assault on Israel’s civilian population by Hamas and other Palestinian terror groups. Each attack is designed to cause trauma and fear, and to paralyse the economy.

It was in preparation of making  these fruitless investigations that I came across a charity called Hope for Sderot, and mailed the head director, Stewart Ganulin, who not only gave me a brief synopsis of the work which they were involved in, but also invited me to come and stay with him when I next visited Israel.

Being a frequent visitor to the country I never thought I would be shocked as I was. I had been to Sderot before, but just passed through. The first day I arrived was coincidentaly the first day of the Jewish festival of Chanukah, so I was thrown into the deep end, and helped to organise, firstly, a children’s party in the afternoon and then an adult’s party in the evening.

Now it was a very humbling experience to see these children running around enjoying themselves and to bring a smile to their tiny faces. This party took place in a bomb proof Chabad House. In the evening, I was humbled to witness the strength and resolution of the adult residents who face an almost daily bombardment from Gaza, which is only about a mile away. I spoke to residents who have suffered mental and physical injuries but whose resolve is as strong as ever. Young children, hurt, wounded and mentally scarred; parents who have lost children; children who have lost parents. This small token party brought so much joy to an amazing people who were delighted that a person from Northern Ireland would come and support them. I explained to them about NIFI, and they were touched that people so far away were thinking of them.

After a long but very emotional first day I was invited to stay with Stewart in his home. My bedroom was a bomb shelter! I was well rested and by now I had been treated to Stewart’s culinary talents (as a former army chef). I was on my way to the Hope for Sderot HQ beside the Post Office. There I met some of the other volunteers who prepared food parcels for 389 families in a population of less than 24,000 living in Sderot. By the end of this month Stewart tells me they will have reached the maximum they can feed at the moment, which is 400.

We packed the basic parcels which would keep families just barely fed and then I was introduced to Bobbianne who delivers food to the 40 or so families who can’t make it down to the office to collect food. It was so humbling to meet these families, who varied from Orthodox and Secular, Left and Right, Israelis who came as refugees from persecution in the Former Soviet Union, from expulsion from Arab lands, from famine in Ethiopia and I met an Arab man who had worked with the IDF and been ostracised by his family – and who is now helped by  Hope for Sderot to get by. These people reminded me so much of folk back home, those who have next to nothing for themselves offered us tea, coffee and whatever they could, to extend hospitality to us – always with a welcoming smile.

I listened to many stories of hardship and sadness, a life lived under the shadow of Kassam rockets. The reality is that the poorest of Israeli citizens are housed here, while many of those who could afford to, have gone, taking with them their businesses and any hope for employment. Around 4,000 people have left Sderot since Israel completely withdrew from the Gaza strip (Gush Katif) in 2005.  It is ironic that since withdrawal from Gaza the annual rocket count went up from 152 to 1600, a rise of 10 fold.

I made a note of this statistic, to remind the leaders of Christian Aid and Trocaire back home, who believe it is the presence of Israeli soldiers and checkpoints which are the causes of injustice and poverty. The reality is that in Gaza the Israeli pull out was complete. Yet it was seized upon by Hamas to turn Gaza into a missile launching pad to attack Israeli civilians – with disastrous consequences for all.

One Ethiopian family showed me a memorial of two grandchildren killed by Kassams and all around even the bus shelters and children play parks are bomb proof.

The next day I was back at Hope for Sderot HQ to help pack more food parcels and to distribute them to those people who could come down to get the food in person. It was again very humbling to meet these amazing people who live their daily life under the threat of Kassams. The volunteers at HFS are wonderful people too, some from Canada, Italy, USA, England and some Israeli. All had a passion and love for the people of Sderot. All the volunteers live within the town itself and all live under the same daily terror of the Kassam.

During my time there I witnessed three “Tseva Adoms” which are red alerts giving residents of Sderot 15 seconds to get into a bomb shelter. Although there are many shelters, I discovered 15 seconds is not very long to get into cover! The terrorists fire rockets at the times most likely to cause disruption, death and injury, i.e. when schools get out, or rush hour. I also visited the local police station which displays all the types of rockets which have been fired over the last number of years, including  Iranian Grad missiles, Kassams, and improvised rockets and mortars packed with shrapnel. I found this absolutely chilling.

It is ironic that every day when I went to monitor movement at the Kerem Shalom border crossing I saw lorry after lorry bringing tonnes of food and humanitarian aid to Gaza and noticed how they drove past the besieged town of Sderot to get there. This shows the extent that Israel goes to ensure its enemies are supplied with humanitarian aid even before its poorest citizens are properly fed. I believe hardly any country in the world would insist those who wish to destroy it, and constantly bombard it, get fed while its own citizens continue to live under the shadow of  rocket attack on a daily basis.

Meeting both the volunteers from HFS and the residents is an experience I won’t forget. I will certainly be returning again. Anyone who goes to Israel, I would recommend visiting Sderot  to show solidarity with these strong and resilient people and to tell them there are people in the world who think and care for them. I would also encourage you to contact Stewart and his team and a warmer welcome you will not receive anywhere in the world I can assure you.

When I was there I had the pleasure of meeting Koby a young man who came to HFS in 2008 and has had an extremely hard life since being a victim of a Kassam rocket attack. His story can be seen by going on website and clicking the Remember Koby hyperlink. I would recommend reading his story.

I believe that Christian Aid and Trocaire would do well to learn from the visible presence and warmth of HFS in Sderot and wonder if they would ever invite Stewart to speak at the Ulster Hall?


Stephen Haire