One week of Operation “Guardian of the Walls”
Last Monday at 4pm we were informed of the start of a state of emergency in Sderot and the Gaza envelope communities, just a moment after I brought Amalia (my 6 month old daughter) home from day care.
The roads in the area were immediately closed. We started calling all of our students, program participants, and kibbutz members who weren’t at home, trying to help everyone get home safely. This took about four hours.
I coordinate counselors who work in the kibbutzim of the Shaar Hanegev region near Sderot, and they had to quickly shut down all activities and go home. “Rinat, I need you to help me,” one called me after being left alone in a protected room after all of her students went home to their families. “I am here alone and the explosions are really loud. I have no way of getting home.” I called the local council’s office, whose security officer sent a security vehicle with special permission to take her home. There were situations like this for most of the counselors.
Meanwhile, at home we started getting organized and into emergency mode. We prepared a warm meal and open arms for our friends who were stuck on traffic-clogged roads taking an hour and half to get home instead of the usual 20 minutes.
My friends got home, we opened the door and just then IDF soldiers arrived to our building and asked for a key to the roof. They needed to use our roof as a look-out point towards Gaza. We immediately helped with whatever they needed, and also provided coffee and ice cream.
And then it was Amalia’s bed time. It was clear to me that she needed to sleep in the protected room instead of her usual place in our room, but what about her bath? Should we even give her a bath? What if there’s a siren in the middle of her bath? Would we make it to the protected room in the allotted 10 second? What’s more dangerous – running to the protected room when she’s wet and we could slip, or taking her bathtub into the protection room? And would she even manage to fall asleep with all the booming explosions?
It started to get dark, and from our new home on the 10th floor of an apartment building on the first row of buildings in Sderot facing Gaza, we saw and heard everything very well – maybe too well. All of the rockets launched into the center of the country, the Iron Dome interceptions, the arson balloons and the fires they set. Over the next few days, we would call the police and city hotline to report the fires, and call Magen David Adom to a house near ours which was hit directly though no siren sounded.
Phone calls rolled in from friends in Israel and abroad, and everyone offered us a place to stay. Everyone thought that the right thing would be to leave the area with Amalia.
That night, it was already clear that there would not be daycare in the morning and that most workplaces would be closed. We debated what would be the right thing to do. I have been living in this city for 12 years, and it has always been clear to me that during emergencies I stay here. I stay to work with kids and to run the Situation Room which coordinates the educational volunteers and to take kids and families for trips outside the city. But now I’m a mom… how can I do that now? Where would my daughter be? Where would my friends in the educators’ kibbutz be?
By Wednesday morning it was clear that all our previous plans were no longer relevant. In Sderot and Shaar Hanegev, every morning we reassess the situation together with the municipality and local council, security officials and the departments of education and welfare, in order to understand what we can do and what we can’t. So what are we doing now? We organized who would stay home with the kids during which hours and everyone else went out to work on the ground – to establish educational teams to run programming in the shelters, to talk with the residents in the neighborhoods and map their needs, to find places that can host kids and families for an unknown amount of time, to train ourselves again to give mental health first aid to the people we meet.
If you had visited me during the day, you would have heard a lot of phone calls and read a lot of messages that go something like this:
“Hi Rinat, I heard that you could point me in the right direction – I have some toys and games to donate to the shelters.”
“Rinat, my kibbutz isn’t letting me take the kids out for activities, and they just can’t stay on the kibbutz any longer. What can I do?”
*Siren – run to the nearest protected space.*
“There’s a Russian-speaking couple that both have disabilities who have stayed in Sderot all alone. Someone needs to go visit them and buy them groceries and other essentials.”
*Security alert: Everyone must enter a protected space and stay there until further notice.*
“Hi, we want to offer to host 50 families from the Gaza envelope.”
*Siren – run to the nearest protected space.*
“My regular team can’t work under these conditions. I need to recruit new volunteers.”
*Siren – run to the nearest protected space.*
“We just arrived at the ____ family home. The mother is having an anxiety attack and can’t look after her kids. They have nobody to watch them. You have to send a volunteer.”
After running around the whole region for hours (of course in accordance with security regulations), at night the members of the educators’ kibbutz meet together. Wow, what a day we have had…
Amalia had a hard time falling asleep with all the noise from the explosions and missile launches. All night long, we went into the protected room and closed the door every time there was a siren, which woke her up every time. One of the times, the power and water in the building went out. I’m not sure how long it was, but it felt like much too long to be in our 10th floor apartment in the dark, unable to leave.
I went outside to the porch to get some air and I see a rocket landing in the street near me. No siren had preceded it. I saw the explosion, the fire and the screams that came after. Another rocket hit a neighboring home. That night, there were seven direct hits on homes in Sderot. They injured a number of people and killed one little boy. The little boy was in his protected room but was killed nonetheless.
It’s so, so very sad.
And hard to process.
I walk over to Amalia and kiss her. I feel the fear on her, on us, on all of the people I know and love. I feel the awful suffering of so many people on both sides of the fence.
Thursday morning was rough, We had planned all kinds of educational activities in the shelters throughout the city, but the whole city was in mourning after the previous night. In Shaar Hanegev, they want to send as many people as possible outside the area.
Around noon, a government minister comes to visit and wants to hear about what we’re doing. Every hour here feels like a week and there’s so much to tell and so much more to do. We told him about our activities in the city and about the situation right now. “I have no idea how other cities are managing without people like you,” said the deputy mayor to conclude the meeting.
In the afternoon I return home. Tomorrow is Shabbat, with very little activity planned. I asked myself – what should I do now? Should I stay? Is it good to be here now?
I talk to my mom who lives in Ramle and she tells me how she got stuck in her car within sight of a violent demonstration in the city which stopped traffic. They had seen demonstrators throw stones, stop cars and beat people up. It took her a few hours to get home.
Talking with friends in other educators’ kibbutzim in other places in the country, I heard about terrible experiences of other kinds – an attempted lynch near our building in Akko, fires set on the fence of Eshbal, riots in the streets…
“I won’t be quiet about my country changing its face,” goes the song by Ehud Manor. But what can I say? Where is there to go now? What should I do when my land is burning?
We decided that it would be a good idea after all to take a short trip to recharge and come back with renewed strength for the coming days.
Before leaving, we debated what to do about the soldiers staying on our roof. “Dear neighbors,” we wrote to the building’s Whatsapp group, “For the last few days, we have been hosting the soldiers on our roof. We are going away for the weekend and wanted to see if anyone else could help take care of them while we’re gone. Hoping for a quick return to normal, Rinat from the 10th floor.” Not even three minutes passed and we already had a number of messages from our neighbors in the building. I divided up the soldiers between three families and we set out northwards.
Over the weekend, we received many amazing offers to stay with people, and everyone wanted us to stay for just a few more days away from the fighting, and that it was just too dangerous to go be there. We again debated what we should do….
Alongside all of the violence, rioting and schisms during these times, I also saw beautiful decisions people made which demonstrated solidarity and concern for those around them.
AD Gordon wrote, “There can be no victory of the light over the darkness unless we uphold one simple truth, that instead of fighting the darkness we need to increase the light.”
Despite the fear, we decided to return home, with so much educational work ahead of us.
Wishing everyone peaceful days, and for us to never lose hope.