Sunday, March 09, 2008

Guest Post by Talia

I don't usually write these kind of emails; foreign correspondant reporting from the field. Firstly, I'm aware that my experiences pale in comparison to other people who live here. Secondly, I don't want my identity to be defiined an Israeli in proximity to newsworthy events. After a difficult week, however, I could no longer contain this letter.

I was supposed to go to Jordan next week. An all expense paid trip, thanks to a student grant, to participate in the American Association of Cancer Research conference and present an abstract. It was going to be the first real conference that I participated in. Preparing my abstract, I put in 18 hour days to meet the deadline. When other group members voiced concerns about traveling to an Arab country, I shrugged them off. Going to Jordan was part of the charm of this conference. It would give me an opportunity to see this new country from the neutral ground of a Sheraton hotel and an international science conference.

I began to realize that this might not be possible when the military operation in Gaza started. I pushed this thought to the side. In three weeks a lot could change, I told myself. That's the beauty of the volatile Middle East. The wind changes direction and all of a sudden we're drinking bottled water and eating pretzels around the negotiating table.

Last Friday I went to Sderot for the day. Sderot is a development town in the South of Israel about three miles away from the Gaza Strip. Over the past few years thousands of rockets known as kassamim have been fired on it from Gaza, however there has been a significant increase in the frequency over the last few months. Because the town is located so close these relatively primitive rockets can hit it, as well as several neighboring kibbutzim in the area. The town has a population of 20,000 but thousands have deserted the city recently.When you hear of the constant rocket attacks on the news, you wonder why anyone would stay. Although there are some who stay for idealogical reasons, a visit to Sderot reveals the truth. Those who stay are those who have no place to go, not enough resources to start again. To combat this notion a campaign has started in the past month "kniot neged kassamim" (shopping against rockets). Every Friday Israelis from all over the country drive to Sderot to do their shopping and bolster the local economy.

When we arrived a volunteer organization briefed us on the "local customs". When you hear the warning siren, a calm lady's voice repeating "tzeva adom, tzeva adom" (color red, color red), you have fifteen seconds to reach a secure location. If there is a cheder mugan (reinforced room, required in all new apartments constructed) you should go in there. Otherwise seek protection in the innermost room, away from windows and preferably a lower floor. Rockets will be coming from the southwest, so try to go to the northeast room. When driving a car do not wear a seatbelt so that you can get out quickly in case of an alarm. After one minute you can come out. Rocket hits can be traced by the sound, loud for a direct hit nearby, and the plumes of smoke. Resume routine until the next warning.

I only experienced three tzeva adoms in my three hour visit there. First one, walking down the street towards the pizza shop with my friend, Shana. Ran into the nearby restaraunt, where everyone was rushing into the kitchen, the inner most room. Most of the patrons were visiting from the center of Israel to support the economy and had never experienced a tzeva adom before. The cook joked around that anyone who wanted to help with the dishes was welcome to stay. When we left the kitchen the waitresses showed us the plume of smoke to identify where the rocket had landed. Around one kilometer away in an open field.'"Bshetach patuach, ein nifgaim v'lo nigram nezek". ("In an open area, no injured and no damage was caused", the phrase used to describe such incidents on the hourly news.) The next two I was in a building. We all gathered silently in the stairwell. Tobie, my sister, got separated from me and I turned around panicked to find her sitting five stairs up.

It was in the middle of this trip that I realized the absurdity of visiting Jordan. As if the security situation was a factor in planning a trip, like making sure there wouldn't be a cold spell for the beach holiday. I remembered that line from Catch-22, where Yossarian exclaims "they're trying to kill me!". It's not just a political situation or struggle for power. The third rocket landed half a kilometer away, a direct hit on a house. One woman was lightly wounded. They're trying to kill me.

After that third rocket it was more difficult to be in Sderot. As we drove in the car looking for a grocery store all I could do was evaluate the surroundings for a good place to jump out and seek shelter, trying to orient myself so we could hide on the northeast side.

You forget and you don't forget. The week after home in Rehovot, a safe fourty minute drive away from Gaza, the everyday sounds of the city sounded like rockets exploding in the distance. The fear that they've brought in better rockets that can do the extra 50km and soon my life will be like the life of those people in Sderot.

I wrote a polite letter to the AACR explaining that I would like to withdraw my abstract due to the difficult security situation. I included a link to the Israeli National Security Council website instructing Israelis not to travel to Jordan.

There was another email I wanted to send instead. I wanted to to yell at them for living in their fantasy world where Middle East peace is only an international conference away, where dialogue and coming to understand the other side is the only solution. For some reason the AACR conference symbolized for me the United Nations, Europe. All those groups who are so quick to condemn but don't give a damn that they're trying to kill me. I know it's obscene to be a Western state and to have a more developed military with modern technology and to believe you have a right to exist despite the European origins of most of your citzens. The world should have thought of that sixty years ago when they decided to give the Jewish people its own state. I'm sorry, I really am. I don't know if this was the best way for history to have been written. When Palestinians tell me how they feel torn away from their land and locked into villages, I wish there was another option. I want to tell the AACR, the UN, those people in conservative suits and coordinated ties who believe the world has evolved past warfare and dialogue is the only solution, they're trying to kill me. Look me in the eye and tell me that you really understand that.

We all are angry at someone. Some turn their anger to Hamas, others to the Israeli government, others at God. I'm angry at the World. And if we are angry long enough and loud enough, we hope to drown out the pain.


Yoni said...

poor tobie, i'm sorry...

Miri said...

Tobie is fine. it's the people in Sderot I'm worried about.