It was early afternoon, a bright, crisp Friday in mid-January on the hilltop that lies between Route 34 and the Gaza border, maybe half a mile from Sderot. At the base of the hill lounged journalists and TV crews in foldout chairs, taking advantage of a midday lull in the bombardment. Pop music sounded from one of their dish-mounted vans. No one seemed to take much notice of the locals who came and went overhead — couples, amateur videographers, a man in a wheelchair, taking up positions under an overhanging copse of pine trees.
Avi and his wife had come down from Ashkelon. “We were hit by rockets today and it is safer here,” he explained. “For almost one year we have been hit by missiles. Every day, near our house. It’s been going on like that for almost seven years.” “Eight years,” his wife corrected him.
No one thought much of the ceasefire. “The rockets never stopped,” avowed Avi. “At least two or three every day even when the ceasefire was in force.” The problem is that the government went soft, explained Iran, a teacher in his early thirties who lives in Kibbutz Or Ha-Ner, just north of Sderot. “When we took out our settlements, they kept firing, again and again, and we didn’t attack. So they thought they could keep doing it.”
“You also have al-Qaeda in there,” added Avi. Al-Qaeda? “Of course! Gaza!” Everyone chimed in. “They are together with Hamas,” began Avi. “They enter through the Sinai, through Iran, get military training there, and then come back.” A lull in the conversation followed, as Avi gauged my reaction. “To people from the outside,” he said, finally, gesturing across the border, “it doesn’t look good, I know. But you have to understand.”
Things had been different before Hamas took over, remembered Avi. “We used to go over there,” he said, “and they used to come over here and work. It was, you know, like family.” Otherwise, he didn’t know much about the people in Gaza. The Arabs who left Ashkelon in 1948 were “something like Bedouins,” he said. “They left by their own choice. Some of them are still here, you know? Like in Jerusalem. They have Israeli IDs. We understand each other.”
According to Avi, the people of Gaza don’t really like Hamas and are actually terrified of the movement. “If someone says a word against Hamas over there, they will kill him. They can do nothing.” Earlier in the day, Amir from Beersheva had read in the centrist Yediot Aharonot that a Palestinian man named Ahmad had called the Israeli government from the north of the strip. “Please, don’t stop, finish your job and finish Hamas,” Ahmad had apparently said, related Amir. “They are like hostages,”
Avi concurred. “It’s an impossible war. You know, before we send missiles at a building, we call them and tell them to leave the building, two hours before, three hours before. But Hamas tells them that if someone leaves the building we will kill him.” Avi also knew that Hamas doesn’t let people go out for food during the midday lulls. He got this information through a friend who was in the army.
Throughout the exchange, the man in the wheelchair had refrained from joining the conversation, keeping his eyes on the strip. Avi nudged me forward. “You should meet him,” he said. “You know, the Qassams did this to him.” The man introduced himself as Ya’acov from Sderot. A rocket took his legs, he confirmed in a low, grave voice. It was in June 2006, and this was his first time on the hill. He used to come here as a child to play, he explained, and wanted to see what it was like.
“It doesn’t make me feel so good,” said Ya’acov of the view. “But what can we do? We are living a reality that requires us to do this.” Before, Ya’acov used to work in construction with Arabs, he said, building things together. He still sends packages of food to people he knows in Gaza, but not money, because Hamas could take it. “The biggest pain is understanding that most of the population there want peace, just as we do.”
Avi felt that Ya’acov spoke for all Israelis. Personally, he felt “horrible, horrible,” about the war. But sometimes these things can’t be helped. “When terrorists take over schools, in Israel, in Russia and India, the army comes to free them,” he explained. “But citizens also die.” He looked at me. We consider the view together. Over there, nothing seemed to be moving.
Iran explained that in Arabic a ceasefire is called a tahdi’a and that Arabs enter into one when they are not strong, to buy time in order to attack again when their chances are better. He didn’t quite know why they broke the ceasefire at this particular time, but didn’t think it mattered. “There is no reason,” he offered. “They just don’t want us to be here.”
“You see, it’s a war between cultures!” exclaimed Yehezkel, an elderly late arrival on the hill. “Two cultures, the cultures from the West and the East.” Yehezkel works in a factory during the day. Otherwise he is a hobby lecturer in Israeli history and felt it all began with the Ottoman siege of Vienna, in 1683. He also talked about Alexander of Macedon, and Napoleon.
“Muslims are Muslims are Muslims,” he hammered home. “There is no extreme Muslim or moderate Muslim. All of them are divided in 60 and 70 groups, but they all have one goal and one enemy and that is the Jews and the Crusaders.” The irony was too much for his wife. “And we gave them money and food,” she said. “We gave them autonomy. We gave them guns!” “You know the electricity for Gaza came from here,” added Yehezkel, growing louder. “From here! And then when we decided to reduce the electricity a little bit all the world screamed.”
And so it went. Though I stopped asking questions at some point, I did think to press Ya’acov about the ceasefire, having run out of luck with the others. Did he recall a period when there were only a few rockets, like a couple a month? Because the Ministry of Defense statistics say that in October, for instance, only two missiles were fired. He interjected quickly, shaking his head. “No, no. It wasn’t quiet at all. In a day, on average there were between 13 to 17 missiles.” The others looked on with puzzled expressions, everyone in agreement.
Later Yehezkel sought to put things in context, again. In the end he would vote for the liberal Meretz party, he told me, of which he is a regular member. “I want a two-state solution,” he explained. “But. But. I am talking to myself. I believe in a peace in which two sides speak in the same language. When someone speaks English and I speak French, we can not communicate with each other, and we cannot make peace.” Avi, meanwhile, will vote for the far-right party of Avigdor Lieberman. “But on this,” Yehezkel said, pointing across the border, “there is no disagreement.” Avi nodded.
I didn’t have a chance to ask Ya’acov who he would vote for, though I did later find him on the Internet. There was a picture attached, so I could recognize him. His last name is Swisa and in May 2008 the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem interviewed him for a case study on the “life of a family in Sderot under the threat of Qassam rockets.” It tells the story of an invalid with the use of only one leg who, as of a few years ago, could walk with a prosthesis. On November 6, 2007, he heard the city missile siren go off while outside his house, and rushed back in, losing his balance on the stairs, so breaking the other leg. And so it is still a sad story. It is just not the story that was told during the war.