August 30, 2012

Sderot, Israel - "Rocket City" opens new school

UPDATE: This morning, I read this headline:
Gaza rocket hits home in Sderot, causes damage to property
Qassam hits home in the the southern Israeli city, no one was wounded; rocket later lands in open field in Sha'ar Hanagev, no injuries or damage reported.

Sha'ar Haganev is the location of the new school complex. Are they specifically targeting a school?

New high school in Sderot

Sderot, Israel - few people have ever heard of it. The new headlines are not focused on this - there are too many stories about all the other crises in the region. The only ones who take note of events in this small town on the Israel-Gaza border are those of us who closely follow events in the Middle East. We call it "rocket city."

Sderot sits within Qassam rocket range of the Gaza Strip - less than a mile from the Gaza border and about three miles from the favorite launch positions inside the Gaza Strip at Bayt Hanun. Rocket attacks are not unusual here - they have become a fact of life - since Israeli forces withdrew from the Gaza Strip on September 12, 2005. The rocket attacks began that very afternoon and have been almost daily occurrence since. They are measured not in the hundreds, but in the thousands. Almost 450 have been fired this year to date.

I visited Sderot in 2009 in the aftermath of the confrontation between Hamas and the Israeli armed forces early that year. Here are a series of my photos to give you an impression of life in a city that has experienced daily rocket attacks since the Israeli withdrawal. The residents have adapted their homes and schools - even their bus stops - to defend themselves against the rockets.

When the residents hear the loudspeakers announce in Hebrew tsevah adom (color red), they have as little as 15 seconds to get to a sheltered location. Their buildings reflect the need for immediate safety.

Looking into Gaza from Sderot
The area by the trees is Bayt Hanun, favored for rocket launches

Old school with anti-rocket add-ons
Steel awning over school play area
Reinforced bus stop/shelter
Concrete bomb shelter in town 
IDF officer with typical homemade Qassam rocket

The new $27.5 million school complex features concrete walls, reinforced windows and a layout designed to absorb and deflect rocket fire. When there is an "color red" announcement, the students no longer dash for bomb shelters - they now remain in their protected classrooms.

I applaud the city of Sderot for their dedication to their children to build a secure facility for their education. What parent would not support that effort? That said, perhaps a better solution would be "curing the disease instead of treating the symptoms."

The real issue should not be constructing armored school buildings to protect students. The real issue is to stop the Hamas-backed 'Izz al-Din al-Qassam (the cleric for whom the rockets are named) Brigades and Islamic Jihad from launching rockets into Sderot.

The Israelis tried in 2009 and stopped short of the goal. Why? World opinion - they felt that continued military operations in Gaza might turn public opinion against them. Maybe, maybe not. Many of us who have children do not want to have to build an armored school so our children can get an education.

At some point, the base issue will have to be addressed. Hopefully, that will be via diplomacy - both sides will sit down and decide that Palestinian children and Israeli children should attend school in peace.

Unfortunately, history is not on my side. Most of these situations eventually are resolved through force of arms. I, as a retired military officer, wish it were not so - I did this for a living - but I fear we will have another round of violence before the children of Sderot go to school free of rocket attacks.