Five young Israeli soldiers -- nineteen- and twenty-year-olds stationed in Sderot, a small town bordering the Gaza Strip -- say Americans have much to learn. These members of the Israel Defense Forces should know: part of their job is to protect and comfort the traumatized youth who live here in the city where Kassam rockets fall from the sky.
The "Red Dawn" alarm bell sounds whenever a rocket has been shot into the air from Gaza, a Palestinian-controlled territory just a few kilometers away. When they hear the siren, people jump out of their cars, flee the roads, and hide behind bomb blast walls, trees, or the north faces of tall buildings. They cover their heads with their hands and wait for the homemade Kassam rocket to strike. These sirens usually go off early in the mornings or around two in the afternoon when kids are going and coming from school, or workers are commuting.
I meet with soldiers from the Home Front Command, which prepares communities for natural and man-made disasters, and the Education Corps, which tutors youth in need. In Sderot, the former mainly comfort panic struck children while the latter help educate delinquents.
I ask these young soldiers what their experience in the military working with the youth of Sderot has taught them about confronting terror tactics and raising kids not to hate. What about lessons would they share with Americans?
All five emphasize how routine terrorism is here. Rockets fired blindly into the sky from Gaza rain down randomly on Sderot, terrifying its residents. An Education Corps member named Yuval Etziony from a Kibbutz (communal house) near Jerusalem says the only way to avoid breeding hateful kids in this environment is "to explain to children that the main damage [of the rocket attacks] is not breaking walls or causing injuries or deaths, but...breaking communities apart. So the answer [to terrorist attacks]" is not to grow angry or fearful, but "to build up your society," and be engaged in your community "in a constructive way."
"Terrorism is a fact of life here," says Yuval's twenty-year-old commanding officer, Rehut Eisenberg. Unlike Americans who recently suffered one big attack at home, in Israel, "We don't wonder when or if an attack will happen, we just worry about where it will happen."
Americans are only beginning to realize what they're up against, Inbal Nachum of the Home Front Command says forebodingly. "Americans don't understand -- you don't understand -- what it is like… [when terrorism] just is...just is the reality."
"All the time we have peace committees, things like Annapolis," Inbal says, unenthusiastic. "They're continuing to talk about peace. But then this happens and that happens….Attacks keep happening....Of course I have hope. You have to. But…"
Rehut finishes her thought: "But the situation in Sderot has been bad." For seven years, hundreds of rockets have struck Sderot, falling on a regular basis. They've 'only' killed two people this year, but that still devastates the 20,000 person community. This is a less-spectacular terrorism, one that "doesn't make CNN," explains Rehut. "It's easy to focus on headlines" and forget the smaller, everyday attacks and their more subtle consequences in daily life, she says.
These soldiers say America has yet to grasp terrorism's full implications, or to feel its presence in the way Israelis have: police checking shopping bags and backpacks at malls, a voice in the back of your head telling you to avoid crowded spaces, and lengthier interrogations at travel hubs.
The question in Sderot is: How do you maintain community and a sense of security in the face of this? How do you avoid fostering fear or hatred in youth?
These young Israeli soldiers face these questions everyday -- and they suggest that Americans consider them too.
"With a professional army all the way in Iraq," says Yuval, it's easier for Americans to forget the psychological damage such violence causes. When -- or perhaps if -- terrorism strikes American soil again, America should do more than retaliate, they should also build up a community capable of bouncing back time and again.