The Border

Red Alerts At A Sderot Hair Salon

Orly Halpern reports from an Israeli town on the border with the Gaza Strip, a frequent target of rocket fire.

At Chen's Hair Salon in "downtown" Sderot, three women shot the breeze until I showed up and told them I'm a reporter who had come from Jerusalem to hear how they felt about the "situation." "Ahhh, have a seat," said Riki, a tall woman with cropped bleach-blonde hair, as she pointed to a chair next to Linda, the owner. Both Riki and Avigayel, who sat in the styling chair, were unemployed and spent a lot of time hanging out at Linda's salon.

The ladies bemoaned the economic and security situations. But when I asked them about a solution to the rockets a debate broke out in the small smoky hair salon."We need a tsunami on all of Gaza. Every pregnant Arab woman has a terrorist inside her," said Linda.Avigayel and Riki lept in: "Noo, Linda, noo. Not all of them. Oyoyoy, Linda.""Yes, all of them," LInda said, adding: "I speak from pain."Riki and Avigayel explained: "She is a Gush Katif evacuee"—one of the 8,000 settlers removed from Gaza when Israel unilaterally disengaged in 2005.

Later, I asked them again. Riki looked at me and shook her head thoughtfully. "I really don't know what is the solution," she said, pausing. "The solution is peace." Riki Edri was born in Sderot. Her parents came in 1956 from Morocco. Her father raised sheep and goats and sold them to Arabs from Gaza. "The Arabs used to come and visit us here, eat with us, drink with us," she recalled. "I even remember their names... Abu Atiya, Ahmed...I've been to Gaza a million times. We used to go shopping there every Shabbat."

Linda Kabouli, 52, came to Sderot with her parents from Algeria at age one. She spent her army service in Gaza and after she married and had kids she moved to Nissanit settlement in Gaza where she lived for some 17 years until Israel evacuated them in 2005. All that time she commuted to her hair salon in Sderot.

The town of some 20,000 people was created by the State next to the Gaza Strip in the periphery of the country in the 1950's as a place to house immigrants from north African countries. Like other development towns, it is far from the economic hubs, poor in cultural opportunities and high in unemployment. The day I traveled to Sderot, the mayor was in Jerusalem camping outside the prime minister's residence on his fifth day of hunger strike. Over the week, rockets had fallen in the area. But he wasn't calling for bombing Gaza. He was demanding financial aid for his debt-ridden town.

For the Jewish world, Sderot is all about suffering. The town is the Israeli government's PR symbol. Through Sderot, Israel can still be the innocent victim, the people who live in existential fear, but remain resilient in the face of the Terrible Other. But in Sderot, there is nuance. Some people don't blame all the Palestinians or even all the Gazans and some even blame their own leaders, admitting there is mutual responsibility for the violence.

"Their leaders are stupid," said Riki. "Ours? Where are our leaders? Where is Menachem Begin? Yitzhak Shamir?"

Linda interjected: "Begin wanted peace." Someone's cell phone rang. "There's a red siren alert at Ashkelon beach," said Linda, and everyone fell silent.

I told the ladies I have an appointment with Zohar Avitan and they immediately told me what a special man he is and how much they respect him. I was surprised. Zohar, who heads a program at the local Sapir College, is a well-known member of the local "Different Voice" group, which advocates finding a peaceful resolution to the conflict and keeps in phone contact with Gazans.

When Zohar and I met at a falafel joint around the corner, I told him about Linda's reaction. "She was evicted from a nice house by the sea where she was protected by the military," he said. "I understand her anger. It's a response from pain, from fear."

Zohar, a white-haired soft-spoken man who arrived from Morocco at age one, blamed "both sides" for the violence. "Some governments are served by hatred of the Other. There is a politics of fear and that is what the present leaders are using...Those who don't want an agreement with the Palestinians don't look for other ways." He added, "Their goal is to prevent dialogue."

While he was quick to name Hamas, he avoided naming the present Israeli government. "What's the point in accusing?" he asked. "I'm telling you both sides are guilty. Our responsibility is to try to achieve a sane life."

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That evening, I drove back to Jerusalem and discovered I had probably crossed paths with the mayor. The government approved the financial aid and he broke his fast and went home. The next day more rockets rained down (after Israel killed two more Hamas militants). I called Riki. "You should have been here," she said. "We had two 'Red Siren' alerts." But she had some good news: a job interview the next day.