The Sderot tour our PM avoided

By Shelly Paz and Jessica Elgot, July 17, 2008
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Although Gordon Brown is visiting Israel next week, the Prime Minister has decided to avoid scheduling a trip to the Kassam-ravaged town of Sderot. The Jewish Chronicle — which has long campaigned for more UK awareness of what we have called “Israel’s unreported war” — believes this to be a lost opportunity for Mr Brown to learn first-hand how Hamas rockets have been tormenting the Negev town’s residents.

So today the JC offers Mr Brown this whistlestop guide to the Sderot that he should be seeing for himself.

Our guide is based on tours already experienced by scores of British MPs and peers, which have proved effective in raising awareness of the human cost of Hamas’s bombardment.

Unlike Mr Brown — and Tony Blair, who cancelled his own Sderot trip this week — the 50 or so British politicians of all parties who have visited in the past year are shown schools, homes and kibbutzim damaged by Kassam rockets. Often, the local mayor even sets the scene for them.

 

They join a long roll-call, which includes former US president Jimmy Carter, actor Jon Voight, and US presidential hopeful John McCain.

Some of the trips are organised by the Sderot Media Centre, a loose group of volunteers based in the town, at the request of the political organisations which send MPs or peers.

Others liaise with the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s foreign visitors’ department or directly with the Sderot municipality.

Noam Bedein, of the Media Centre, said: “Most people are overwhelmed when they arrive. Many in Israel don’t even know what’s going on here, let alone the rest of the world.

“They don’t realise the daily realities of living here — but the impact is amazing. We try to give them a full and professional understanding of the reality.”

He said many MPs have visited the mental-health clinics and spoken to psychologists about the effects of living there. This is something that has a marked effect on children.

Visitors are made aware of the daily threat of bombardment.

The signal that a Kassam rocket is on its way is the Tseva Adom or Colour Red alert. The words are repeated over loudspeakers, sometimes as little as  15 seconds before the missiles land.

So real is the threat that the 20,000 locals know not to shower alone at home in case they miss the warning.

Stuart Polak, director of Conservative Friends of Israel, which organises such trips, said: “We always take our MPs to schools, where they are shown how children have only 15 seconds to get into the bomb shelter. They see the shelters and are also shown parts of the schools which have not yet been covered and the problems this poses in that the children cannot really play there.

“These trips are important so that the MPs understand what Israel is facing and see first-hand the people living in fear and terror. It has a dramatic impact.”

Labour and LibDem Friends of Israel have also facilitated politicians’ visits.

One group of MPs witnessed a rocket attack first hand in April this year. And only last week another group spoke of their terror of being close to gunfire between Israeli soldiers and snipers. .

So here is the JC’s rough guide:

1. City Hall

This is the first stop. Eli Moyal, mayor for the past 10 years, greets guests in a conference room where pictures of people who died in a rocket attack adorn a wall. He talks about the security situation, its effects on daily life and the damage to residents, both psychological and physical.

2. The police station

A short walk from the cafes, supermarkets and grocery shops lie the police station and community centre.

Guests are shown a series of exploded Kassam shells, each bearing the date and the place it was found. Many of them on show are often those that were fired earlier that day.

In the first five months of 2008, 1,400 Kassam rockets were fired at Sderot and the surrounding towns.

3. The remains of a house

Visitors are shown the human cost of conflict when they are taken to a property recently damaged by a Kassam.  The family who live there may speak of how they escaped with their lives “this time around”.

4. View towards Gaza Strip

Guests are taken to a viewing point at one of the nearby kibbutzim from where it is possible to see the Strip in such close proximity to the town. Some have even seen a Kassam in flight.

On the way, they will pass bomb shelters, schools with reinforced concrete roofs and bus stops encased in concrete.

5. A nearby kibbutz

Many kibbutzim, such as Nir-Am, Zikim, Netiv Ha’asara, Erez and Nahal Oz, have come under fire. The impact has damaged buildings but also their quality of life, agriculture and industry.

    Last updated: 3:38pm, March 2 2009