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David Buskila, the mayor of Sderot, Israel, remembers a time when people from the town used to go to the open-air markets in Gaza every day, and people from Gaza would come to Sderot to work in the factories.
“We were like good neighbors then,” Buskila said in an interview with the Beverly Press during his a trip to Los Angeles this week.
Buskila’s parents immigrated from Morocco to the nascent Jewish state in 1956, and Buskila was born later that same year in Sderot, a town on a border with Gaza which had been set up to accommodate the influx of North African immigrants. Like many people in the town, his parents spoke Arabic and French, and Buskila speaks some Arabic as well, which made communication easier on those day-trips into Gaza.
By the time he became mayor in 1989, however, those trips had ended.
“That all finished in 1988, at the time of the first intifada,” Buskila said. “Now it is all closed. Nobody is allowed to go back and forth.”
Still, the town continued to grow. While the first wave of immigrants to Sderot in the 1950s had come from North Africa, in the ‘60s came a wave from Romania, then a wave from Russia and Ethiopia. When Buskila took office in 1989, Sderot had a population of 10,000 people. When he left in 1998, it had more than doubled to 25,000 people.
For the last decade, though, contact between Sderot and Gaza came mostly in the form of rocket attacks. Between 2000 and 2008, Buskila said that approximately 8,000 Kassam rockets were fired from Gaza into Sderot. The town of 25,000 lost a quarter of its population.
Buskila said that during those years, many of the city’s normal activities ground to a halt. Commerce slowed to a crawl, and children’s playground lay abandoned — a hazard not worth the risk. Three-quarters of the town’s children suffered from post-traumatic stress.
Things started to change in the winter of 2008-2009 with Operation Cast Lead, a three-week offensive by the Israeli air force and army against Hamas operations in the Gaza Strip. According to Amnesty International, the offensive killed 1,400 Palestinians, including 300 children.
On the Israeli side of the border, however, Buskila said the military operation has calmed the rocket attacks enough for life to return to normal. In the last two years, only 540 rockets have been launched from Gaza into Sderot, and most of the 6,000 residents who fled the area have returned to the town.
“We can manage normal lives now,” Buskila said. “Not one hundred percent normal. But people can be more relaxed now.”
In addition, in March of 2009, an Indoor Recreation Center opened in Sderot. Built by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), an American organization devoted to developing parks and infrastructure in Israel, the recreation center has had 50,000 visitors in its first 16 months of operation and, quite literally, provides refuge for children amid a continuing conflict.
“From the time a siren goes off indicating an incoming rocket, Sderot’s residents only have 15 second to find shelter,” said JNF President Stanley Chesley. “A generation of children was growing up cooped inside their homes and in fear. With the Sderot Indoor Recreation Center, which doubles as a bomb shelter, JNF wanted to give the Sderot’s youth and families a place to have fun and connect with friends, beyond the conflict. “
Buskila said the recreation center has “brought childhood back to children in Sderot.”
Bouskila became mayor of Sderot again in 2008, before the missile attacks had ceased, because he wanted to bring hope back to the town while residents were leaving in droves. Now that people have started to return, he says he hopes that in his lifetime, the border between Sderot and Gaza will again be open, and they will again feel like “good neighbors”.
“I don’t believe it will happen in the near future,” he said. “But let’s hope it will happen one day.”
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