The 10 Sderot victims of the Qassam rocket attacks have become insignificant statistics when comparing the numbers of those killed in Gaza. Oshry Oz, Shirel Friedman, Afik Ochaion-Zehavi, Yosifov Michael, Kas’houn Yuval, Binsah Dorit-Gento, Ella Abukasis, Yaakov Yaakobov, Fa’ina Slozker, and Roni Yechiye, were all killed in the past eight years by indiscriminate rockets launched from Gaza. Here in Sderot, these people are not forgotten.
The eve of Israel’s Memorial Day 2009, as opposed to previous years, is deeply significant to the unique character of this nation’s collective memory. In a remembrance ceremony that took place in Sderot in marking those who fell in the various battles in Israel and those killed in terrorist acts including Qassam attacks, one can understand the importance of memorials. Sderot resident, Chanan Yaakobov, a mature 15 year old, spoke in the ceremony of his father who was killed by a Qassam rocket that exploded in a chicken factory just one week before the first cease fire in November 2006.
“I barely remember you…” Chanan says of his father to the audience. “Days have gone by and I am growing up without a father, I barely remember what you look like, and it is only the photographs that remind me of my childhood with my father, and that is why we have a memorial day in order to remember, and not to forget…”
The children of Sderot understand the importance of memories and their special significance. In the Memorial Day ceremony that took place in the Alon Science School, the children asked in their naiveté, “Is the siren that will be sounded in the city on Memorial Day the same siren as the red alert?” How can one expect a nine year old child that is born into the reality of rocket fire and doesn’t know any other reality to understand that the siren for Israel‘s Memorial Day is different from the Color Red siren warning of rocket attacks.
There was an exemplary silence during the Memorial Day siren- the children stood at steadfast attention; no voice was heard; there was no chirping or giggling.
Leora Fima, the school principal, related later on that “the children in first grade today understand that the deaths in Sderot and of those soldiers killed in Israel’s wars emphasize the importance of life in our country in general and life in Sderot in particular.”
The critical significance of the holidays in the past month is the basis of the fundamental collective memory in the various periods of Jewish history: Passover, where we remember the Exodus from Egypt, the Exodus from slavery to freedom; Holocaust day, with the memory of millions of Jews that were killed for merely being Jewish; Memorial Day, for the victims of Israel’s battles, who with their heroism enabled us to go on in the state. In their merit we live today in the state of Israel.
The words “freedom,“ “liberty,“ and “national Jewish and Israeli pride” take on a special meaning here in Sderot, where for over eight years rockets have terrorized a civilian population. In a reality that would be regarded unacceptable in any other part of the world, these words hold great meaning for the residents of Sderot, the western Negev and approximately a million citizens that live in the south of Israel.
The last time that the city of Sderot looked like a city that celebrated Independence Day was during the period of Operation Cast Lead that began on the 27th of December and continued until January 18. The entire city– every alley, street and neighborhood was decorated with Israeli flags. Except for the fact that the streets were empty, parks dormant, and people remained inside in bomb shelters, it felt that the residents of Sderot were celebrating Independence Day early.
Dr. Adrianna Katz, the director of the Mental Health Center in Sderot, diagnosed hundreds of trauma victims during the battle period in Gaza and assigned a “new” syndrome to Sderot victims of PTSD- “optimistic anxiety”. The optimistic anxiety victims were diagnosed as having no anger. Dr. Katz explained that this was the first time in eight years that the residents of Sderot felt as if they were part of the state of Israel. They were beginning to experienced the feeling of potential independence from eight years of rocket shooting.
“There was finally a feeling of euphoria – for the first time the residents saw the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Katz. This feeling continued for three weeks – during the entire time of the battle.
Tonight the State of Israel celebrates 61 years since its founding. Four months have passed since the fighting in Gaza where more than 200 rockets have been shot at Israel; hundreds of tons of ammunition and weapons have been smuggled into Gaza through underground caves; Gilad Shalit has not been released and the legitimization of the Hamas terror has increased worldwide. As a result, the feeling of independence as a national autonomous and legitimate state today carries a question mark.
Our conscious memory of the Sderot and western Negev rocket reality, as Israelis living outside of Sderot, is almost non-existent. Because there is relative “quiet”, with only some individual deaths, we have forgotten the fact that we disengaged from Gaza based on the formula of “land for peace”. Yet, since that day, more than 7000 Qassam rockets have been fired at Israel. At least once a week since the ceasefire, Sderot residents experience the Color Red siren.
Today we are in the midst of the third cease fire in the last two years. During each of these periods, hundreds of rockets have been fired towards Israel. Iran has become part of the equation in the Gaza-Sderot conflict and is very close to home – right in Sderot’s back yard. When we do not remember, our consciousness is the recipient of the routine reality, a routine that provides legitimization for terror, and raises the question of our basic right to live as Jews and Israelis freely in our country.