Color red! warning a way of life for besieged Sderot residents

There’s nothing like experiencing a bombing to convince you that Sderot is a dangerous place.

There we were, an American group of journalists on a tour of Israel’s beleaguered city earlier this month, when the siren went off.

“Tseva adom, tseva adom,” the siren repeated on and on.

Translated, it means “Color red.” And when you hear that announcement, it’s time to run.

Some say you have 10 seconds to take cover before the Kassam missile hits, others say you have 20. In either case, there’s no time to think, only to run to a shelter — if one exists. Many homes and buildings in the Sderot vicinity have no protection.

Israel is able to sound the warning announcement because an unmanned blimp overhead senses when a missile is fired. Unfortunately, there is no way to shoot down the primitive projectile.

Within a minute of an alarm being heard, a missile will hit in or near Sderot. The Kassam not only creates a crater where it lands, but also emits bullets, nails, shrapnel and explosives that are effective in injuring people near where it strikes.

We were lucky. We had just emerged from Sderot’s community building, where one small room has been reinforced with concrete and is used whenever the alarm is sounded.

We turned back and ran into that room.

A minute later, with the danger gone, we left the shelter and took our seats on our press-mission bus. But before the driver could start the engine, “Tzeva adom” sounded again.

We piled off the bus so fast you’d think that free ice cream was being offered to cool us from the 100-plus degree heat.

Once again we ran to the shelter.

Finally the scare ended, but only for us. Residents of Sderot, as well as 24 nearby kibbutzes and 12 moshavs, would have to continue enduring these missile-warnings, as they have for the past seven years. It was thought the danger would end when Israel evacuated Gaza two years ago, but the bombs continue to rain down unabated.

Since 2000, Sderot and its surrounding communities have been hit by more than 6,000 Kassam missiles. Luckily, because they are so inaccurate, only 11 people have been killed, but 4,000 have been injured.

More than 40,000 people, including those in Sderot and surrounding communities, live within range of the missiles. Another 1,000 people enter the region daily for jobs or to take classes at Sapir University.

Some days are worse than others. Shimon Peretz, director general of the municipality of Sderot, said about three months ago the area sustained hits of 40 missiles a day for about three weeks.

He is thankful for the aid supplied by the Israel Emergency Campaign while at the same time disdainful of what little the Israel government has done for Sderot.

“For us and all of those who love the state of Israel, it is important to act or Sderot will be followed by Ashkelon, Ashdod and other cities in the range of rockets … and people will leave,” he said.

He wouldn’t talk about how many people have left Sderot, but others said as many as 10 to 20 percent of the city’s population of 24,000 have gone. Peretz did admit that of Sderot’s 450 businesses, only 80 still operate.

Clearly what’s keeping many from leaving is that they can’t sell their houses, and fear they will have trouble finding jobs elsewhere. The Sderot area has a number of hi-tech plants and little unemployment.

Some say the economics have nothing to do with their decision to remain in Sderot. Rather, they don’t want Palestinians laying claim to the land where many of them were raised.

“The people of Sderot are fulfilling the Zionist dream by staying here,” Peretz said.

But social worker Aaron Polat, who with his colleagues visit homes following every missile attack, said, “Many people can’t take it anymore that any minute your life can be taken.”

Polat has seen it all, from families where the husband wants to stay and the wife wants to leave, to single-parent families where a catatonic mother can’t care for her children.

And what about Polat’s own family? He lives on a kibbutz outside Sderot and doesn’t know what to do. He said a rocket fell in the living room of a neighbor’s house.

“I don’t know what will happen to my house and to my family,” he said.

Eleanor Saliman, 66, lives on a nearby kibbutz with her husband, Dan. She tells her children, who live out of the area, “Please do not bring our grandchildren to our house.”

She admitted, “It feels horrible to have to say that.”

The constant bombing “takes a little bit out and a little bit out … “

Recently she was “constantly shaking inside” and went to a clinic, where a doctor told her she wasn’t depressed, she was stressed.

Jonathan Angel, 62, has every reason to run, not walk, away from the Sderot area.

He was a maintenance worker at Sapir University when, on June 11 of last year, a Kassam hit. It tore into his lungs, his upper intestines, his lower intestines and into his abdomen. His injuries were so severe that doctors had to put him into an induced coma for seven weeks, and they weren’t sure he would live.

After numerous surgeries during a four-and-a-half month hospital stay, he now walks around, smiling and quite content with life, despite the fact that his skin-grafted and enlarged stomach hangs out under his belt because there is nothing to hold it inside his body. He needs another operation to close his stomach cavity.

But when asked if he is ready to move to a safer area, he said, “No, I’m staying in Sderot.”

It’s almost impossible to understand why Angel would tempt fate again by living in range of more missiles.

But it becomes a little more comprehensible when you talk to 86-year-old Nissan Nir, who was born in Haifa in 1929.

In perfect English he explained, “We want to live as other citizens do in other countries.”

He’s upset that the government hasn’t made the Sderot area safe. But that doesn’t deter him from staying. “We have to be optimists,” he said.

But then Dan Saliman, who made aliyah from Denver 37 years ago, enters the conversation. He says if he knew then what he knows now, he never would have come.

It was shortly after talking to him and having a quick lunch that we first took cover after hearing “Tseva adom.”

While the siren strikes fear in some, for others it has simply become a regular part of life.

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