In the Line of Fire

The pleasant sunny weather belied the tension and foreboding that has gripped Israel’s south this week. Hundreds of families have suffered physical injury and debilitating emotional trauma as whole cities – Sderot, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Beer Sheva, Kiryat Malachi, Kiryat Gat and others as far north as Yavneh, as well as the farming communities of the Eshkol, Sdot Negev and other regions in the northern Negev – have come under incessant rocket attacks in the past few years.

Thankfully, things have been very quiet the past few months. But as Y. from Sderot told me last week, “This is when I am most afraid. I almost wish that a couple of rockets would hit the ground here so that I would at least know I had to run. When it is quiet, I never know when things will change.”

In the past week, over 200 rockets have been fired at Israel by terrorist forces in the Gaza Strip. 31 people have been injured – all in the first 36 hours of the attacks, simply because the quiet had caught up with them. They were caught unprepared when the alarms began sounding and the explosions started happening all over again.

That is one form of post-trauma: the fear of letting go of the constant hyper-alertness that has characterized the residents of these communities for the past few years.

Another form of post-trauma is what can clearly be seen on the face of G., a 61-year-old woman in Netivot. Until 2008, G. had been the manager of a trucking company, responsible for the coordination of a dozen truckers throughout southern Israel. Her husband C. worked as a civilian employee of the IDF. They each earned respectable salaries and were able to support themselves and help their children with dignity and pride.

But when a rocket exploded outside their home in December 2008, killing their neighbor in front of G’s eyes, their life exploded with the rocket. For the past three years, G has sat at home, slowly rocking back and forth in her chair with a gaunt, “spooked” look on her face. It’s as if the image of her neighbor’s face frozen in death is still right in front of her eyes.

C. told us that things have been very difficult for his wife this week. She has lost all control of herself and is not even aware of her surroundings. When we walked into their home, the case worker asked G. if she remembered him. “Of course,” she said, “You came to visit me today.”

“I’ve been married to her for 43 years,” said her husband. “We married when we were 17 years old, and she is my whole life. But now she just isn’t there anymore. I have to take care of her. I am her doctor, her psychiatrist, and her babysitter. I do her laundry and her cooking, and I make sure she is not alone or afraid.”

Following his wife’s injury, C was able to take early retirement from his job so that he could devote his time to her care. “The past few days have been really difficult. Every time there is an alarm, I am afraid she will stop breathing. If I allow myself to feel even a little fear from these rockets, I am afraid I will lose her. At least she is still alive.”

C himself is suffering yet a third form of post-trauma. His life as he knew it before the attack will also never return. He seems to be very strong, but in his words, “Of course I am strong. I have to be. If I am not, my wife will disappear.” The fear that grips C, that he will lose everything in his life, is a very real fear, and it is one he has very little control over.

A couple of hours after visiting Netivot, we were given a small taste of what that fear is when the “Tzeva Adom” alarm was sounded in Sderot. It caught us in the parking lot of a shopping center, and we were able to run into a store for cover. We couldn’t stand near the door in case the incoming rocket exploded outside, so we had to move farther inside. After the requisite 15-second wait, there was no explosion. So we continued waiting another half-minute just to make sure it was safe, and then ventured outside again. But our steps were that much more tentative and our glances that much more hurried. The lack of an explosion was disconcerting: could it have been a false alarm? A dud rocket that hadn’t exploded yet? Or a misfire? If it was a misfire would they try again, forcing us to run for cover at the last moment? Or would they launch two to “make up” for the one that didn’t get through? It was the quiet that had become stressful.

It took me a couple of minutes to realize that, for victims of terror, this is a constant truth. It is the terror – the gripping, immobilizing fear – that remains with them every day. It is the memories, the flashbacks, the constant what-ifs that plague these people non-stop. When the bombs are exploding the tension becomes too great. And when it is quiet, as the line from the movie goes, it is too quiet.

Such is life for a million Israelis in the line of fire.

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