Sderot is a small city about 1km away from the Gaza border, well known because it has suffered many hits from the Qassam rockets that the Gaza resistance has been launching on and off for about 8 years. When we think of residents living under the threat of missiles, hiding in bunkers, it’s quite logical to think that all of them support the attacks in Gaza. However, there is a small group in Sderot called “Other Voice” (www.othervoice.org) that opposes the war and condemns the siege on Gaza.
We interviewed Nomika Zion, a co-founder of Other Voice, a mother who decided to raise her voice against the violence and the occupation. She moved to Sderot 22 years ago and created an urban kibbutz, called Migvan, or “diversity” in Hebrew. She describes the town as “multi-tribal and multicultural” in that “different people, colors, and voices” comprise the population. There are 20,000 people in Sderot from all over the world — Moroccans, Polish, Romanians, Georgians, Ethiopians, and North Africans, as well as right-wing ultranationalist settlers who lived in Gaza until the 2005 disengagement plan. The extreme Zionist-religious faction in Israel, according to Nomika. is “really right-wing and powerful.” The Gush Emunim and Habbath religious movements ask their young members to move to the suburbs of developing cities instead of the West Bank for political reasons. Maybe it is better in this way, thinks Nomika, “it’s really important not to send them in the West Bank any more because the occupation is a bad, bad thing.” Another group in Sderot is the Palestinian collaborators, funded by the Shabba’k, Israel’s Secret Police. “They all have families or relatives in Gaza, they could never go back there, because they are considered traitors, for them this is really an unbearable situation,” describes Nomika. Trying to describe the soul of the city, she declares that what all these communities have in common are “probably the Qassams and the fact that we all love this town,” but she insists that “today Sderot has changed dramatically — over the past 2 or 3 years thousands have left because of the situation and the crisis. This is a complicated city,” she says.
How was Other Voice started?
Three years ago, my friend Eric decided to organize meetings in Beit Jalla with people coming from Sderot, Gaza, and the West Bank. They saw each other once a month to meet and to talk about their lives. One year ago the situation became critical and they couldn’t meet anymore, so he decided to start a blog (gaza-sderot.blogspot.com/) with a friend from Gaza. As “peaceman” and “hopeman” they used to post a message every day describing their daily lives, one under the siege and the other one under the Qassams. They chose to stay anonymous for security reasons.
In January 2008, we had between 20 and 60 rockets per day and the IDF was bombing Gaza and had it under siege. We felt that the blog was not enough and we decided to meet in Sderot. A diverse group of 20 — Moroccans, political activists, youths, settlers, residents — we spoke about the escalation of violence and to find our voice as a group. We all thought that the people in Gaza were not the enemy but human beings just like us. We wanted to build bridges over the heads of our leaders, human channels between civilians. During the weekly meetings we called friends in Gaza — we came to understand how they cannot escape from the Strip, and how they are trapped in a huge prison. This is very sad. Gazans have lost hope, they don’t see any future, and they cannot live their life in dignity.
Have you organized special events during the ceasefire?
We organized a bicycle ride near the border of Gaza on a symbolic day, the 8th of August 2008, when the Olympics started. We arranged with our friends in Gaza to meet near a hill, so that without passing the border, we could see each other and talk, or maybe shout! We had Other Voice t-shirts, with “Hello Gaza, here is Sderot” written on it in Arabic, Hebrew, and English. The children had colorful kites and there was music, but nobody showed up on the Gaza side. We were so disappointed. In September, there were three Jewish holidays, a period of forgiveness for us. At the same time there was Ramadan. Therefore, we decided to do something symbolic: our children made greeting cards in different languages, which we planned to deliver along with candies to Gazans at the checkpoint. That was simply a friendly gesture to our neighbors. But nobody dared to pick it up. This was a lesson for us: we understood that because of Hamas people are very afraid to speak out.
How was your life during the ceasefire?
On the 19th of June, when the ceasefire began, it was the only time when I felt protected by my government and I was happy to be back to my normal life after a long period of stress. Before that period it was very difficult to live here, children were in therapy because of the shock, parents were in constant fear about their children.
There were very few rockets during the ceasefire and they were not launched by Hamas. Israelis do not understand what it means to live under a siege for so long, with no food, medicines, oil, electricity. I think that Hamas and the Israeli Government wasted this time when they could have negotiated a long-term agreement. On November 4th, the IDF entered Gaza to stop arms smuggling: I believe that it should be stopped, but it is not acceptable to punish the whole Gaza population with a siege. That day we understood that we were facing another escalation of violence. We signed a petition begging our leaders to find an alternative solution to violence. We couldn’t go through another crisis as in 2008. We invited the Minister of Defense, he was supposed to come on the 25th of December, but he didn’t show up. Two days later, the war began.
How did you react when the war started?
It was very hard for me to cope with this war, I felt clinically depressed. My heart was split in three. First, I was concerned about me and my community. It was a real shock to come back to the same stress and fears of the past. Second, the Israeli soldiers. They might be husbands, sons, or brothers of friends or relatives. How would they get out of the war physically and emotionally? Even if they survived, their hearts and souls would be polluted by the war. Third, our friends in Gaza. We spoke with them every day, they were so hopeless and helpless. We didn’t even know if the day after they would be alive. It is easier to accept the consequences of a war if you are not familiar with faces and voices. But when you know the people on the other side, and you feel them suffering, it becomes very hard for your heart to bear it.
Therefore you decided to write an article that got full media coverage. You wrote: “Not in my name and not for me did you go into this war. The bloodbath in Gaza is not in my name nor for my security.”
During the second week of the attack I wrote to representatives of different organizations who then gathered here to listen to “Other Voice.” It was a very painful evening, everybody was depressed, we felt powerless. I decided to write an article that was published in the websites of these organizations, then it spread all over the web and was translated in five languages. It was also published on the web site of the most popular Israeli newspaper (Yedioth Ahronoth). From that point my life changed completely: I did so many interviews, I spoke with so many media — everybody wanted to talk to me.
What were some of the reactions to your article from within Israeli society?
On one side, I became an enemy for many Israelis. During war-time, it was not easy to raise different voices because the media and the public discourse were so militaristic, nationalistic, and monolithic. There was a kind of euphoria from the war — it was glorified. It frightened me a lot because I realized that our democracy was getting more and more fragile. I called it a “crawling fascism.” Some friends of mine were arrested while demonstrating in Beersheba with no excuses, no reasons, and they were put under house arrest for ten days. We tried to report this to the media but no one was interested in that. Is this a democracy? I am really asking myself what is going on in my country: two parties banned, growth of racism among the youth, and the support for the extreme right-wing leader Lieberman is increasing.
On the other side, I got so much support from lots of people in Israel and abroad, saying, “You are the echo of our voices and feelings, which we do not dare to express because everybody is supporting the war.” Thanks to that, I felt much stronger, and I realized that I am not alone.
Does Other Voice have relationships with other associations?
We have a lot of contacts with different peace associations, but I want to stress that we are not a political organization; we are just a group with different cultural or political backgrounds. We are experiencing a crisis because of the war, but I think that all the members of our group and even some supporters of the war want to rebuild ties with Gaza’s people. I think that now is not the right time to organize meetings or other activities with them, there are so many people involved in this catastrophe, who are suffering through a trauma we cannot even imagine. We wanted at least to send humanitarian goods to Gaza, but we are afraid that Hamas will take them to make money.
Which step is the most important in solving the conflict?
My only hope is that Barak Obama can impose an agreement on the parties — to stop the smuggling with an international force controlling the borders and to break the siege. Even if Hamas is a dark regime, I don’t believe we should destroy it. Who would replace it? Al-Qaeda? Iran? I believe that it is a pragmatic organization that we should talk with, indirectly at least, to achieve some kind of long-term agreement.
Do you think that a single democratic Israeli-Palestinian state is possible?
During the first meetings of “Other Voice,” people from Morocco told us about their life in the past. Despite the occupation, there were relations between the two sides — they used to go to Gaza for the beach, for shopping, for everything. But look at us now — where are we? I do believe that if the political climate changes, the people from Sderot, who have experienced so much violence, will be the first to enter Gaza and rebuild bridges with people. This is the dream of many people in this area: we share the same piece of land and we want to live our lives together in dignity. These leaders won’t bring us to any peace agreement. We are victims of our government because it has not been able to find another solution, except for military action. I blame my leaders because they haven’t done all that was possible to solve the situation in a non-violent way.
This interview was first published by the Alternative Information Center on 5 February 2009 under a Creative Commons 3.0 license.