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The defiance of Israel’s border towns Residents face hourly attacks from Hamas

Soldiers gather in Sderot (Amir Levy/Getty Images)

Soldiers gather in Sderot (Amir Levy/Getty Images)


November 3, 2023   5 mins

Southern Israel is a region at war. Driving down from Tel Aviv to the border towns on the frontlines of the war with Hamas, I pass a truck with an open back carrying a load of heavily armed soldiers cradling automatic rifles in their laps. One looks up at me, sees that I’m press, extends two fingers, cocks his thumb, and shoots.    

I pass through Sderot. At its closest point, it is 840 metres from Gaza; it has suffered rocket attacks from Hamas for years. Sderot tells its own story of Israel. Founded in 1951 as a transit camp for refugees, it was built on the site of the Palestinian village of Najd that Israel seized in 1948. It became a hub for Moroccan Jews, those considered almost on the lowest rung of the Jews from Arab lands who were dumped in less desirable parts of the country — often onto border settlements designed to defend against possible infiltration. Then came the Jews from the USSR and then from Ethiopia. 

Like so many border towns, Sderot is a mixture of gloom and kitsch. On the way down, I pass a bollard with three poodles painted on it. The city sign is bisected by green: a reference to the Zionist dream of “making the desert bloom”. Inside, the streets are largely empty, and surrounded by dirty beige and white squat, concrete houses. Israeli flags line central street verges. A few run-down children’s playgrounds are scattered around the centre. They would be depressing at the best of times — now that the city has been largely emptied by rocket fire, they are eerie. Hamas appears to be firing rockets every hour. Their thuds echo through the almost deserted streets. This may well be the most attacked city in Israeli history. 

On the outskirts of Sderot, I climb Kobe’s hill, which looks out over Gaza. Three disks of blazing gold burst up. Hamas is firing rockets at Israeli cities. A thick plume of smoke rises from the Strip and unfurls across the sky. Israel’s ground troops are fanning out below; the Air Force is pounding from the skies.

I head out to Ashkelon, another border town that has also experienced sustained Hamas attacks; the sound of jets overhead is ferocious. A kippah-wearing soldier waves us through the checkpoint into the city. Again, the streets are largely deserted. On the pavement by the sea, rows of empty chairs stand forlornly outside shuttered cafes. Cafe Seaview is open, however. Three men, one wearing a kippah, and a woman in an olive-green jumpsuit are sitting outside drinking black coffee and smoking. The man in the kippah is called Gabay and he tells me that the situation today is far worse than the 1973 Yom Kippur war. “Then they attacked our armies. But Hamas are the new Nazis. They target civilians,” he says. 

His friend interjects. “​​We haven’t been aggressive enough. We shouldn’t wait for something to happen to be aggressive. We should be aggressive all the time — like we used to be 30, 40 years ago.” The people around the table blame the internal divisions in the country that followed Netanyahu’s attempted reform of the judiciary for the lapse in security that allowed thousands of Hamas terrorists to stream across the border and massacre over 1,400 Israelis on 7 October. Specifically, they blame “Leftists” for all this, not the man in overall charge. This is Netanyahu country; working class Mizrahim are his people.

“In 1948, the Palestinians were offered a homeland, but they refused and tried to throw us into the sea. [Former Israeli Prime Minister] Golda Meir was right when she said, ‘if we lay down our weapons there will be no Israel. If they lay down their weapons, there will be peace.” The atrocities took place just kilometres from where we sit, and I ask how they can live under such constant threat. Their answer is unanimous. We were born here. Our families are here. We don’t care about the rockets. We are ragu’a! ragu’a! [calm].”

One of them starts singing the Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem. The group links arms and joins in with the first verse. After they finish, Gabay yells “Yallah, Beitar!” Beitar Jerusalem is an Israeli football club associated with Right-wing Zionism and the Likud Party; its fanbase is notorious for its anti-Arab songs. The irony is that, as I look at these Moroccan Jews, drinking coffee and chain smoking, it could be a scene from any of the innumerable Arab countries I have visited across the region. 

Back in central Ashkelon, the air raid siren sounds; explosions cut through the air. After taking shelter, I meet Tony. He works at the power plant in the city, a vital job that means he cannot leave. He was at home with his wife and three children when a rocket struck last week. “I heard the siren and ran to the shelter with my family. You get used to the sound of the rockets. Boom, boom, boom. And that’s it. But this time it was bada boom! We knew it was bad.” The rocket destroyed about five cars as well as uprooting a pillar on the pavement outside and smashing the front of the building. But they work fast here and most of the damage was repaired.

In Shemesh’s cafe I meet Alon and Lior. “We need to eliminate every Hamas supporter,” Lior tells me. “I’m angry because we can’t live by their side because they want to kill us. Is it legitimate to kill children? To do what they did to their parents? What organisation in the world is like Hamas, if not Isis? We shouldn’t negotiate with them because they don’t want us here. Can you negotiate with a wall?” What about the hostages? “The hostages will not come back,” he replies. 

Alon interjects. “Look, we need to separate Hamas supporters and regular Gazans — not every civilian in Gaza supports them,” he says. “What choice do many of them have? The media talks about how we want to kill all the civilians in Gaza, but it’s not true. We are talking about just Hamas.”

“I had a worker from Gaza in my construction business,” he continues. “He couldn’t come to work for five months but I still sent him money regularly.” This is something I have noticed here in Israel and in the Palestinian territories. When normal people from both sides encounter each other in everyday life, they generally get along, at least superficially. Humanising a conflict, giving a face to your enemy, almost inevitably means that much of the political and ideological noise fades away. But this is a conflict driven by extremes on both sides, and swathes of them have no interest in coexistence. 

Soon, fire erupts once more in the skies. This time, though, it is on a different scale: this is the largest rocket attack yet and I am caught in the open. An orange ball streaks across the sky. It is the Iron Dome. I see it strike and the Hamas rocket explode, its threat extinguished. A few minutes later, word comes through that one of the rockets has hit home. Several streets away, I arrive at the scene. A phalanx of white-shirted Orthodox Jews scampers past me to look. Medics thread their way through the crowds. Emergency servicemen carry rifles. I look down a road and see detritus in the street, but we cannot get any closer. A man looks at my press jacket and bearded dark features. “What channel are you from? He calls out laughing, “Al Jazeera?!”

I drive down Menachem Begin Boulevard. On the radio Netanyahu is saying that the country is in a second war for its independence. Israel is a country self-consciously fashioned from history, and it cannot escape history as a result; it was born from trauma and cannot escape it. When I visit Palestinian towns and cities, I hear the same thing: endless references to the 1948 war, which they call the Nakba (catastrophe) and the 1967 Six-Day War, which they call the Naksah (setback).

As the week ended, the IDF announced that its troops had broken through its enemy’s defensive lines and killed dozens of Hamas fighters. Hamas was reporting yet more civilian deaths and boasting that it had killed yet more Israeli soldiers. It made me think back to something Gabay told me in Ashkelon when I asked him what the solution to all this was. “Solution?” he replied. “Believe me, if there was a solution, we would have found it already.”


David Patrikarakos is UnHerd‘s foreign correspondent. His latest book is War in 140 characters: how social media is reshaping conflict in the 21st century. (Hachette)

dpatrikarakos

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Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
8 months ago

I don’t know what the solution is, but talk of a ceasefire is wishful thinking by some and disingenuous rhetoric by others. There was a ceasefire in place during the Oct. 7 massacre. A spokesman for Hamas was on TV this week saying they intend to wipe Israel off the map. Hamas is telling the world it won’t respect a ceasefire, so maybe we should take them at their word.

Andrew F
Andrew F
8 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Still, so many politicians call for ceasefire.
Lenin useful idiots.
As I tried to point out in reply to another article, importing Muslims into Europe is suboptimal strategy.
As recent demonstrations by Muslims and their lefty fellowtravellers in support of Hamas and murder of Jews show, we might end up in Israel scenario only few decades from now.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
8 months ago
Reply to  Andrew F

It seems to be a hate thing no matter what. All you can do is protect yourself from it.

John Williams
John Williams
8 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

The article writer slips this in,

”But this is a conflict driven by extremes on both sides,..”

it is a little known fact that Israeli extremists sneaked into Gaza to rape, murder and burn; before turning on the adult Gazans who were bound and mutilated then dragged into Israel and displayed for the gratification of the mobs.

Last edited 8 months ago by John Williams
Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
8 months ago

There is a solution. Crush Hamas so that it never rises again to threaten the world’s peace. Then we will have a ceasefire, when the last Hamas fighter is cold and dead.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
8 months ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

Unfortunately that appears to be true. They think nothing of murder.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
8 months ago

Brave people and I hope they prevail in their somewhat simplistic fashion. Noble witout doubt, as lions of Zion go in the ground, yet no closer today to leading us to a solution to political Islam.
The answer to me seems clear: we must treat Iran as an even greater problem than Russia and China, isolating this nasty regime politically and economically, working with our regional allies to push towards regime change and set those poor people free over there.

A D Kent
A D Kent
8 months ago
Reply to  Tyler Durden

Unfortunately that’s the policy that’s been enacted by the West for a decade now – and it simply hasn’t worked. The US has been ‘isolating’ Iran economically with sanctions & as is always the case, they only punished the general population. The ruline elites are always the ones who can get around them & otherwise they just promote the criminally inclined. The military interventions have involved using proxies in Syria & elsewhere & has seen US & UK actively supporting Al-Nuzra and other atrocious jihadis in attempts to weaken Iranian influence (Israel has been treating and arming ISIS in this process FFS) – and for much of the Syrian Civl (Dirty) War Hamas were on the anti- Iran side.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
8 months ago
Reply to  Tyler Durden

Trump did that but Biden reneged on it and recently gave them billions. The west seem very weak just now and more concerned with pronouns than defending nations from this madness.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
8 months ago
Reply to  Tyler Durden

Iran was producing 400,000 bpd of oil when Biden entered office. It is now 3.5 million bpd.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
8 months ago

“Believe me, if there was a solution, we would have found it already.” Truer words were never spoken. Hamas is a band of zealots lead by Al Sharpton-ish con men who live in luxury, much like Arafat before them. How do you convince a people who have been brainwashed their entire lives to hate everyone besides Muslims to live with them in peace? Especially when they believe that “martyring” themselves while killing their “enemies” has eternal benefits? These are not rational people and cannot be dealt with rationally.

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
8 months ago

The problem surely goes back to 1948. Britain failed to get an agreement when it controlled Palestine. The UN proposal was not accepted by both side and was not legally enforceable. The Zionists created Israel through a was which they won.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
8 months ago
Reply to  Alan Thorpe

Israel was declared a country before the 48 war and then was attacked on all sides. Before Britain got involved the whole area was under the Ottoman Empire which Britain defeated creating the opportunity for all these new Arab nations which were then developed when oil was found.

A D Kent
A D Kent
8 months ago

Really – who does the headlines around here? The places are mostly deserted, but still ‘defiant’?

dave dobbin
dave dobbin
8 months ago

I appreciate the reporter being in the thick of it and sharing what he sees. Rather brave.

Overall though, am disappointed with UnHerds one sided reporting on this situation.
Where is the insight into the natural gas fields in Palestinian waters that Israel control, and will probably supply UK, US, Western Europe.

No comment on Biden having wrong data on babies killed.

Seems quite unlike Unherd to be follow Biden, Sunak and mainstream media. Give us both sides please.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
8 months ago
Reply to  dave dobbin

It is a difficult thing to do as there is so much deception going on. Israel discovered the oil and were letting Lebanon have a piece near their country but most likely Hesbollah will take this for Iran. Israel is building a pipeline to Egypt and are hoping that some will come to the west from there but the madness around them will try to bring Israel and their oil down.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
8 months ago
Reply to  dave dobbin

Yet yesterday Unherd were censoring pro Israeli posts.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
8 months ago

Armistice Day is the perfect day to march for a ceasefire. And there are marches on Downing Street most Saturdays, so there is probably one the day before every Remembrance Sunday. The Cenotaph is about 100 yards away, so only a very small march could avoid it.

In any case, 12,000 Palestinians fought for Britain in the Second World War. By fighting against us, then the future founders of Israel, and specifically of Likud, were actively on the other side. If you fight against one side in a World War, then you are fighting on the other one. Who told the Stern Gang that it owned the Cenotaph? Britain First, apparently. In joining the three per cent of the population that is strongly opposed to a ceasefire, then such is the company that Keir Starmer has chosen to keep. Not that anyone else would want him.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
8 months ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

It is not our business to be calling for a ceasefire. Israel are fighting for their lives and country. There was already a ceasefire before Hamas attacked again. They broke it.

Kent Ausburn
Kent Ausburn
8 months ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

Seriously, you are suggesting that the Likud, comprised of Jews, were allied with Germany in WWII?

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
8 months ago
Reply to  Kent Ausburn

For all practical purposes, at least. That simple fact was once universally known in Britain.

Frank Freeman
Frank Freeman
8 months ago

The longer the organised murder in Gaza continues, the more the world will be disgusted by the actions of Israel, and the people in the west are already becoming disgusted at their own governments for supplying the weapons. If Israel exterminates the population of Gaza, which it is trying to do, it will be a very Pyrrhic victory indeed. Western Governments are giving Israel enough rope to hang itself, but will hang themselves in the process.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
8 months ago
Reply to  Frank Freeman

Hamas has agency. It chooses not to build bomb shelters for its citizens. It chooses to use citizens as human shields. It chose to break a ceasefire Oct. 7. Ignoring all, what is the proper response then from Israel?

carl taylor
carl taylor
8 months ago
Reply to  Frank Freeman

To claim that Israel is trying to exterminate the population of Gaza is just a straight-out hyperbolic untruth. It had no thought of enacting a war against Gaza until 7/10. Subsequent to those atrocities, why would Israel encourage civilians to leave for weeks before it sent troops into Gaza? Why would it negotiate for aid to enter via Egypt and for sick civilians to escape? Do you think Israel would prevent refugees from entering Egypt if Egypt would agree to it? If you are seeking to persuade anyone to your pov, perhaps lying isn’t the best means.

Anthony Roe
Anthony Roe
8 months ago
Reply to  Frank Freeman

Is that an old photo of ‘Gorgeous George’?