OpinionIsrael at War

We are all Sderot

My twin sons, a soldier and the parakeet at the elementary school.

An Israeli police officer stands guard outside of a police station in the southern Israeli city of Sderot, Oct. 8, 2023. Photo by Yossi Zamir/Flash90.
An Israeli police officer stands guard outside of a police station in the southern Israeli city of Sderot, Oct. 8, 2023. Photo by Yossi Zamir/Flash90.     
Gidon Ben-Zvi
Gidon Ben-Zvi contributes to The Algemeiner, The Times of Israel, The Jerusalem Post, CiF Watch and blogs at Jerusalem State of Mind.

The city of Sderot is located less than a mile from the Gaza Strip. Some 90% of the town’s 30,000 residents fled on Oct. 7 after Hamas invaded southern Israel. My wife’s cousin Ilan is currently stationed with his Israel Defense Forces’ infantry unit in what was until recently a Sderot elementary school. The happy, high-pitched yelping of children has been replaced by the metallic sounds of assault rifles being taken apart, cleaned and reassembled by soldiers.

We were visiting Ilan’s family in Nahariya, Israel’s northernmost coastal city, when his mother told us that she had just gotten off the phone with him. Ilan had been given a 48-hour pass, was on a bus with a few fellow northerners from his platoon and would be arriving in a few hours.

Since me, my wife and our four children needed to catch the final train to Haifa before Shabbat kicked in, we weren’t sure we would be able to see Ilan. Sderot is in the western Negev, a good 200 kilometers from Nahariya.

But as we were packing our things and saying our goodbyes, in walked my wife’s cousin. Ilan, wearing a wrinkled combat utility uniform, had picked up a farmer’s tan down south. His hair had grown shaggy. As we embraced, I saw how bloodshot his eyes were.

My twin sons had never seen Ilan in army fatigues, much less slinging an M-16 over his shoulder. When the two 7-year-olds started to pepper their 27-year-old relative with questions about what he was doing in Sderot, Ilan kept his answers pleasantly vague. My boys’ eyes lit up when he told them about the green parakeet that greeted him and his army buddies when they got to the school.

When one of my sons asked him what kind of food he was eating where he is stationed, Ilan told him that Netivot, a city not far from Sderot, has the best hummus and pita in Israel.

The day Gaza-based Hamas terrorists infiltrated Israel, murdering 1,200 people and kidnapping another 240, Ilan was a full-time civil and environmental engineering student at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, one of Israel’s top universities.

Now he was showing my sons the inside of his M-16, explaining to them where the 5.56 mm cartridge went, how when the pit hit the round it ignites the powder inside the round, the explosion creating the gas pressure needed to push the bullet down and out of the barrel.

This conversation about the inner workings of a weapon between a sergeant first class and a couple of second-graders was a testament to the vital role of the army in Israeli society. Ilan, along with 300,000 other civilians, was drafted in response to Hamas’s attack on Israel. As they fight to free Israel from the constant threat of annihilation, their lives, loves and livelihoods are in a state of suspended animation.

I had to cut the boys’ interrogation of Ilan short as we had to huff it to the train station.

Back home, we lit a ninth Chanukah candle. This year, many Israelis decided to extend the “Festival of Lights” by one day. The traditional Chanukah prayers include a recitation of previous attempts to destroy the Jewish people—Pharaoh in Egypt, Haman in Persia, the Babylonian kingdoms, the Seleucid-Greek monarchy. Now, there is also a call for the destruction of Hamas and the safe return of all the hostages.

Since their meeting with Ilan, our sons have been boning up on Sderot. When their stream of questions exhausted their parents’ patience, the boys broke out the maps, becoming pint-sized experts on Sderot’s geography and even topography.

Yet no matter how far Sderot down south is from our home up here in Haifa, there is no real distance between the two cities. On Oct. 7, Israelis from every corner of the country became citizens of Sderot, Netivot and all the other southern communities.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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