Life in Sderot under the conditions of war

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Michael Beener and his family (Photo courtesy)

You wouldn’t expect a resident of Sderot, one of the hottest areas, just a few kilometers from the Gaza Strip, to respond that he is fine when asked, “How are you.” Nonetheless, that was the telephone response of Michael Beener who, as everyone else in his city, has spent a fair amount of the last two weeks in his bomb shelter, trying to survive the latest attack upon Israel launched by the Hamas terror organization who is the ruling party of Palestinians living in Gaza.

Michael, congregational leader of “Ir Chaim” (City of Life) Messianic Congregation located in Sderot, recalls exactly when life dramatically changed for him and the other 25-30,000 residents in his small Negev community. It was Jerusalem Day, the annual event which celebrates the city of Jerusalem coming back into Jewish hands as a result of the 1967 Six-Day War. He recalls how on that same day that he went to his mother-in-law’s community of Ashkelon, another southern town bordering the Gaza Strip area, to embark on what was supposed to be a pleasant family outing. It wasn’t until 6 p.m., while on his way back home to Sderot, that he began to experience the nightmare of being stuck in traffic while at the same time showers of rockets were flying overhead. At a time like that, he says, “The only thing you can do is pray for protection and try to escape from the sea of cars which began to pile up as a result of the barricades which were being put in place as cars were already being hit in what could only be described as utter chaos.”

This massive barrage went on for hours – accompanied by the interceptions of the Iron Dome system, designed to stop the rockets in mid-air from doing their intended damage. After traffic had been diverted in several different directions, Michael says he finally got home after more than two hours, ordinarily a 25-minute trip.

Once he got home, the entire family, composed of his wife and two sons, age 8 and 9 ran straight to their bomb shelter and did what they could to, as calmly as possible, endure a night of endless rockets, alarms and massive blasts, all of which made it impossible to sleep. Of course, along with falling rockets were the deafening booms of responses by the Israeli Defense Forces. By 4 in the morning, he recalls that his younger son was beyond exhaustion from not having slept all night, and so he began to pray along with his dad, that the attacks might stop long enough for him to get at least a few hours of sleep. Miraculously, everything remained quiet for at least 4-5 hours. Waking up happy and somewhat rested, Michael’s son knew that his innocent request had been answered.

Sadly, these rocket attacks have become a routine part of Sderot’s residents day and night as they calculate every second of their daily tasks, whether it’s how much time it will take to run from the kitchen, as meals are being prepared, or from the shower into the bomb shelter. Sderot residents have a mere 15 seconds to get to a sheltered area before the actual rocket launch lands in their city.

Michael relates the story of one of his friends who had to grab a towel, wrap it around her still soapy body and run for dear life to her shelter as she heard the siren go off. This has been the unthinkable existence of every one of these residents over the past two weeks.

After almost a year of quiet, Michael says, “We feel as if we have returned to the days of 2014, which was the last time these types of attacks took place under the operation called, ‘Tzuk Eitan,’ (Operation Protective Edge). With most of Beener’s congregants also residing in Sderot, they are able to keep in touch easily, not only by texting or phone but also in person. As he describes the very small town, it takes only minutes to walk from one end of the community to the other.

Like Michael, the 40 congregational members believe that living in Sderot, despite its dangers, is very much a calling. It is also their contention that attacks could happen in most any Israeli city, at any time, since the country is surrounded by neighbors who are less than enthusiastic to have a Jewish presence on their borders.

Yet even after enduring several successive days and nights of what can only be described as the effects of a full-scale war, the vast majority of congregants turned down the many generous invitations to leave their homes and stay with other believing families far away from the daily ravages of these attacks.

While that might be hard to comprehend, their reasons for staying included not knowing whether their host family would have a bomb shelter in their home – something that every Sderot resident does have. This was a particular worry as, mid-way through this conflict, attacks began to happen up north as rockets were also being launched from Lebanon. Those unexpected offensives reached Haifa, Acco, the Galilee and other northern cities, making everyone feel vulnerable. Other reasons for staying also included the uncertainty of being on the road during an incoming barrage of rockets, so most residents, in the end, chose to stay put.

Yet, sleeping in a 10-meter bomb shelter with a family of four is challenging, to say the least – but imagine trying to pile a large family with multiple children into that same space. As far as school is concerned, that, too, came to halt, right on the heels of the last year with its major Covid disruptions into the schooling of Israeli children. While some lessons still have been conducted via Zoom, during this time, many teachers, with young children, had their own hands full, taking care of these kids who were fearful and very needy. Some even chose to flee the city for safer parts. Most factories were closed in the area, so only a small amount of Sderot residents were able to continue work.

To date, it is unknown just how many rockets have fallen in Sderot, but one report by cn.fedweb.org states that more than 250 rockets and mortar shells were fired during the night of May 10-11, alone.

With such attacks, likely numbering into the thousands, Michael is convinced that God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm has surely been on his city despite the devastating news that a 6-year old boy was killed while sitting in his own bomb shelter as a rocket penetrated through the room, hitting him with full force. Yet, when considering the great magnitude of rockets and attacks, relatively little harm has been done to the community as a whole, short of a few lone rockets landing on a couple of cars and courtyards of houses. Clearly, the Iron Dome system did its job, but he also knows that it’s been nothing more than God’s mercy which has largely spared the City of Sderot from unspeakable devastation. This especially hit home as one of his congregants returned from having been a few days in Jerusalem, to find that a rocket had fallen on his car but that, other than that, everything else was untouched.

“Israel needs to do what they can to put an end to terrorism,” says Michael. “Our fight is not against the people of Gaza, who are being used as tools of war but, rather, against the terrorists who hate us and our country. Their goal is to annihilate the people of Israel and cleanse it from any Jewish presence in the Middle East.”

Sderot is a mixed-community of both new immigrants, who expect their government to facilitate safety and tranquility for them, as well as generations of Middle-Eastern Jews from Arab countries who are often fed-up with what they feel is a lack of adequate governmental response. Finally, there is the believing community which looks upward for a lasting solution to all this unrest.

As far as Michael and his family go, they continue to pray with hope and anticipation that their heavenly father will continue to protect them, keep their city from harm and also save those in Gaza who have yet to know a loving and merciful God with the same outstretched arms, ready to extend the very same hope to them. It is, perhaps, this great hope, which enables Michael to answer that, despite all that’s going on, he is fine!