Photo: Basel Yazouri, July 8, 2014
I WENT YESTERDAY to Sderot, the largest Israeli town that borders the Gaza strip. I had been there once before and had noticed the strange abstractness of the place, and been creeped out by it. All crappy suburbs feel abstract, presenting more the idea of living — houses, streets, schools — than the messiness and uproar of actual life, but Sderot’s sterility goes deeper, accentuated by the cement bomb shelters attached to every dwelling, and the public shelters at bus stops and in parks. All of them, in their concrete and often graffitied shabbiness, are devoted to the protection of “life,” bare life, or something like it — something that feels a lot like death. Which makes life — this sweating, pulsing, vertiginous thing — feel somehow insufficient, obscene, undeserving of these squat, sepulchral monuments. Which is perhaps why the local kids feel compelled to spray-paint them, drink beer in them, break bottles and pee in the corners. Life finds a way to revolt.
Yesterday there were rockets falling in Sderot. A couple of times an hour the sirens would sound and the few people in the streets — paunchy old Russian men, sulky, skinny-jeaned Ethiopian teens — would scurry to the shelters. Few took the trouble to stand all the way inside. From the open doorways you could crane your exposed neck and search the sky for contrails — not only from the rockets launched in Gaza, but from the missiles launched by Israel to knock them from the air. When the two collided, the white trails of the rockets terminated in little puffs of smoke. A moment later, you heard the impact: not a blast but a gentle, popping thud.
The rockets themselves are more like the ones you might have learned to build in high school shop class than any sort of 21st-century artillery: thick metal pipes with fins welded on, an engine at the base, a few pounds of explosive at the head, the latter usually insufficient for much by way of destruction. What little damage they do is caused mainly by the momentum of their impact. I saw a pottery studio in a nearby kibbutz that had just been hit: there was a hole in the roof, some scattered concrete, but no blast, no sign of char or flames. The ceramic pots on the shelves and the windows on the other side of the room remained intact. Once the rockets have cooled down, the Sderot police pick them up and store them in rusting heaps on shelves behind the station. Most, even after detonating, remain bent or torn but basically intact. They would, in other words, have to hit you nearly spot on to do you much harm. This is why, although the IDF reported that more than 570 rockets had been launched from Gaza since Tuesday (life finds a way to revolt) not a single Israeli has yet been killed. One of the only two serious injuries came this morning, when a rocket chanced to fall on a gas station in Ashdod, causing a fuel tank to explode. Most Israelis who have been hurt have suffered, per Haaretz, “light injuries caused when running to shelters.”
Then why, you might wonder, is the Israeli media reporting on nearly every tin-can rocket that tumbles from the sky? Why is much of the Israeli public in a sustained state of panic, fear, and rage? Why is much of the US press reporting on the ongoing tragedy in Gaza as if it is only Israelis whose lives are in danger? These questions are worth asking, and answering with bluntness: some lives remain abstract, Palestinian lives (but also — see Murrieta or Chicago — black and brown lives generally) remain, in the press, in some minds, invisible and without value. When they are mentioned at all, they are either rendered ghostly or demonic. Such abstraction takes a great and concerted effort to sustain, the willpower, conscious and not, of entire societies. Not only Israel’s but our own.
Rockets piled behind the police station in Sderot. (Photo by the author.)
There is one other thing that makes Sderot feel so painfully abstract. I could also hear, a few times each hour, a more distant thudding sound: missiles, fired from Israeli fighter planes, drones, and warships, exploding in densely populated Gaza, a few kilometers to the west. As of this writing 102 Palestinians have been killed, the majority of them children, women, and the elderly. More than 600 have been injured, many of them grievously. I couldn’t see them, but I knew, abstractly, that with each thud I heard someone had likely died, or had a limb hewn off, or lost a father or a sister or a child. Some residents of Sderot, famously, sit out each renewed bombardment in lawn chairs on a high point on the edge of town, cheering with every distant blast and cloud of smoke. I saw them up there on the hill. They had a tarp to shelter them from the sun.
Ramallah, July 11
Ben Ehrenreich is the Middle Eastern correspondent for LARB.