A Day in Southern Israel

January 29, 2009

Rocket remants collected at Sderot police station. 28 January 2009, (c) AI
Rocket remants collected at Sderot police station. 28 Jan. 2009, (c) AI

28 January 2009: We read in the news that a home-made rocket was fired from Gaza to southern Israel by Palestinian fighers this morning, but it didn’t fall near any people. We saw yesterday at Sderot and Ashkelon police stations what these rockets—among them Qassems, Grads, Quds—look like: they are very crude, rusty 60, 90, or 120mm pipes about 1.5 meters long with fins welded onto them. They can hold about five kilograms of explosives as well as shrapnel in the form of nails, bolts, or round metal sheets which rip into pieces on impact. They have a range of up to 20 km, but cannot be aimed accurately. Anybody with some basic chemicals and scrap metal can make them. One can readily get a sense of why these rockets are inherently indiscriminate.

People in southern Israel have been rehearsing how to protect themselves from rocket attacks since the first one was launched in 2001. If there is a siren and an alarm warning, they have 10 to 20 seconds to take shelter or lie on the ground.

Today we travelled to visit cooperative farming and industrial communities, known here as kibbutzes, which lie in the proximity of the Gaza border, in the Sha’ar Hanegev region of southern Israel. As we got closer to the Gaza Strip, we saw evidence of increased Israeli military presence. Trucks transporting tanks and bulldozers used the main road, until we came to a military base facing the entrance to kibbutz Nahal Oz, one of the communities on our itinerary. Nearby is one of the crossings for the transport of fuel into Gaza. Two workers were killed at the Nahal Oz fuel crossing on 9 April 2008 when it came under mortar attack. A little further south is the Karni crossing for commercial goods. In a parking lot off the main road a number of commercial trucks were waiting, perhaps carrying aid or goods which are not allowed in when the crossings are closed, as they were yesterday.

Kibbutz Nahal Oz is a close-knit community of 320 people.  Although they are closest to Gaza and they were the first to come under mortar fire, nobody was injured and none of the houses sustained damage in recent attacks because all the mortar shells and rockets fired in their direction from Gaza fell in open spaces. Some window panes were shattered, but this might have been due to the sonic booms caused by the Israeli fighter planes flying over Gaza.

Mortar attacks are different from the rocket attacks because they are aimed horizontally, which means that there is no time to sound the alarm siren: they can strike without warning. The head of the regional administration, Alon Shuster, told us, “It is amazing how much one can do to protect oneself in 15 seconds. With the mortar shells, one cannot take those measures.” For this reason, the administration of Nahal Oz organized the temporary evacuation of families with small children, comprising about two thirds of the community, during the three week long conflict. For those who stayed during the three-week crisis in Gaza, they organized cultural events in the protected communal room in order to keep up the morale.

Morale was not so high, however, in the neighboring kibbutz of Kfar Aza. One villager, Jimmy Kadoshim, had been killed in a mortar attack on 9 May 2008. This was deeply traumatic for the small community and many decided to play it safe and leave until the danger ceases. They are slowly returning, but not many trust the fragile ceasefire that has brought them quiet since 18 January 2009.

Head of local administration Buki Bart in kibbutz Sa'ad shows Curt Goering (AI USA) where the rocket that damaged the house behind them came from (repaired sections are visible due to the white plaster.) 28 Jan. 2009, (c)
Head of local administration Buki Bart in kibbutz Sa'ad shows AIUSA staff where the rocket that damaged the house behind them came from (repaired sections are visible due to the white plaster.) 28 Jan. 2009, (c) AI

In another community, the religious kibbutz Sa’ad, two apartments were hit by a home-made rocket on 1 January 2009 just after noon. People were having lunch in the communal dining room but one resident was in one of the apartments that came under attack. She heard the siren and took shelter, but the façade of the house and the windows were badly damaged, with large pieces of shrapnel penetrating the room where she had been standing seconds earlier. Many here call these close calls “miracles” but they can also be attributed to the proper rehearsal of protection measures, the availability of safe rooms, and the low explosive power of the rockets.