Sheltering from the Storm
By Tamar Paluch
I have a shelter. It’s a few steps from my Jerusalem home; they serve coffee and have wi-fi. It’s open nearly twenty-four hours a day. It’s where I am sitting because I can’t go to work today in Ashkelon, some seventy kilometers away. Breakfast was served in Ashkelon with three intercepted Grad missiles. If I would have taken the bus at the usual time, I would have arrived at my regular stop on Ben-Gurion Boulevard just as the Code Red sounded. I don’t know where the shelter is on that stretch of road. I would have had to get down on the ground and cover my head with my hands and pray that the Iron Dome did its job. Precious Australian that I am, the only sirens that I was familiar with until this past year were memorial day sirens.
I work for an organization which is based in Sderot, the most well-known of the rocket-ravaged cities of the south. At our facilities in Ashkelon we operate a sheltered workshop for people with psychiatric disabilities. Being located in an old building, I always laugh that it is technically an unsheltered sheltered workshop. On any one day we have up to one hundred people on-site and, if the siren sounds, we have been instructed to huddle together in the building’s inner sanctum and hope that we all fit. This morning we were instructed to stay shut. We have just commenced work on a new building, and provided that this haslama (escalation) is brief – next summer the sheltered factory will truly be sheltered.
Most Israeli homes and workplaces have a fortified room. Unless you live along a border, this is just another room in your house which you hope will continue to hold your gas masks, children’s toys, and memories of the Gulf War. By law, all new homes and buildings must have a fortified room. However, those living or working in old buildings, such as where I work, have to make do – at least until the money arrives, for these rooms to be built. My colleagues tell of midnight sirens which leave no time to run to the public shelter. They huddle in the innermost room or corridor of their home and hope that the randomness of the rockets will land them in an empty field, though they are well aware that they could just as randomly fall right where they sit.
Speaking with my colleagues and clients from my “shelter” in Jerusalem, I hear the resigned fear in their voices – “Yes, it is awful. But we are used to this.” But what does it mean to be “used to this?” When the Gaza-Israel border flares up, the residents of the southern region brace themselves for punctured sleep and fireworks of the ugliest sort. At times like this, their lives are wholly disabled – sleeping with one eye open, fearful to leave their homes and children, reluctant to go to the bathroom in case a tzeva adom (Code Red) sounds mid-way. Our staff is used to providing top-notch mental health support to our clients, but they themselves are not immune to the vulnerability and fear that rocket attacks create for them and their families. The people of the region know that even once the border calms down this season’s seeds of trauma have been planted.
As we enter the first day of the fragile cease-fire, which has already been breached, nobody can know where we are headed. But we do know that time usually does not heal trauma. Eventually, as life returns to normal, the seeds of trauma will develop and its impact will re-surface. This will manifest in anxiety and depression, hyper-stimulation, sleeplessness and bed-wetting, domestic stress and violence, all of which will interfere with schooling, social and employment trajectories for years to come. A recent NATAL study showed that in Sderot alone, one in three residents suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and one in seven from disrupted daily functioning as a result of living in the shadow ofGaza’s rockets and missiles. The list of people seeking trauma-related mental health support is growing, and this is in the context of the significant funding cuts to the local trauma centers of recent years.
In a world in which we reduce tragedy to numbers and slogans, and color this situation in black-and-white, David-and-Goliath terms, it is easy to forget that the impact of living under an unrelenting and unpredictable siege is as insidious as the shrapnel of fresh ammunition – on both sides of the border. And, alongside the seeds of trauma, the weeds of weariness and animosity plant their roots. Everyday human trauma is indeed one of the most significant things we share, although we would never be so generous as to “credit” this to one another. Certainly the world around us hasn’t found a way to acknowledge this reality from Israel’s perspective. They are busy forgetting that Israel left Gaza in 2005 in order to create a border, with autonomy for the Palestinian population, and that the withdrawal could have been a precedent for further such steps in the West Bank. Except that hopes of a quiet border were quickly dashed, and even the International Red Cross is denied access to Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier kidnapped five years ago by Hamas – the elected government of Gaza. They conveniently forget that the people currently under fire live well within the 1967 borders that the world are so certain that should we withdraw to them, everything will be okay. I am of that school too – but as terror resurfaces, rockets fall and the world is silent, it is tempting to join those who say that this just shows the perverse disregard for our right to be here at all.
The world’s silence in the face of the past days’ events is more deafening than the noise of falling rockets in Israel’s western Negev. And, next month, the noise of the rockets will be drowned out once again – this time with the events which will accompany the Palestinian’s unilateral declaration of independence. And this declaration will be embraced by the world, without demands for dialogue and negotiation, without a commitment to non-violence, and without any expectation that the PA will take concrete steps towards accountability, both to its own cynically exploited people, and to its neighbor.
As for me, I can choose my shelter in Jerusalem over Ashkelon, just as I could – but will not – choose to be in Australia and not here. I can choose to evade the trauma of every day life in the south. But the people on the ground here – they don’t have such a choice. They have lives firmly rooted here – and more importantly, they have a right to be firmly rooted here, even if the rockets and the world’s silence seek to deny them that right. The right to nurse their wounds, to live in quiet, to live in peace, and to store their memories and toys in the rooms that were once shelters.
Tamar Paluch is an Australian olah. She is responsible for special projects at Gvanim Ashkelon, a non-profit organization dedicated to creating community-based employment and housing opportunities for people with mental illness. This article was first published on TeachingIsrael.