While driving through the Israeli town of Sederot, Noam Bedein always makes sure to turn off the radio, roll down the windows and unbuckle his seat belt — just in case.
One ring of the citywide siren means that he has to drop everything and race to the nearest bomb shelter. Struggling with his seat belt could mean the difference between being injured or killed by a rocket, or escaping to safety.
"You've got 15 seconds to run for your life," said Bedein at an event sponsored by the Greater Philadelphia District of the Zionist Organization of America and co-sponsored by the Philadelphia chapter of CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.
The uncertainty has become a way of life in Sederot and the Western Negev, where 3,601 rockets or mortars have landed since Israel's disengagement from Gaza in August 2005, according to the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip last June, some 838 rockets and 937 mortar bombs have been fired at the region, according to the ministry.
After living in Sederot for a year-and-a-half, Bedein is fighting back — not with violence, but with outreach. The 25-year-old founded the Sderot Media Center, providing video clips, photographs and programs to the media — and anyone else who's interested — to help bring awareness to the situation.
As founder of the center, Bedein, who was born in Israel but has family in Philadelphia, has written news stories about Sederot for The Jerusalem Post, and said that he also served as a guide for a reporter from The New York Times who wrote a front-page story on the situation.
During the event at the law offices of Wolf Block in Center City, Bedein showed video footage depicting a normal day at a kindergarten in Sederot, with a group of children playing outside. After hearing the siren, the students instantly ran inside the school, down the hallway and into a room used as a bomb shelter — all within 15 seconds.
"Once they reach the secured room, they start having a countdown — 15, 14, 13," reported Bedein. "When they get to zero, they start singing out loud, so they won't hear the explosion."
An Israeli response to the attacks has been the source of much debate. Sederot residents argue that no other civilian population in the Western world has to deal with such a barrage of attacks, and no right-minded government would allow blatant attacks on its people to pass without some sort of response. However, Israeli countermeasures are tricky, given that 97 percent of Kassams are fired from civilian areas in Gaza, said Bedein.
"My personal point of view is: Hit the target itself, hit the target before it's going to come to you. Israel has to do what's right for its own people," he said. "The more we wait, the worse it's going to get."
Attacks and Countermeasures
The situation played out this past weekend, when Israel hit Palestinian rocket squads, killing more than 100 people, according to The New York Times. Israel said that the casualties were mostly militants. The Palestinians have contended that half were civilians.
The Israeli offensive has led to condemnation from the European Union, Turkey and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who accused Israel of using excessive force, according to the Associated Press.
The first time Bedein was personally in the immediate vicinity of a rocket attack, he said that he was in synagogue on Shabbat. A rocket exploded just 100 feet away.
"Once you experience a rocket slam nearby, your life is simply changed from that moment," he said.
The experience taught him firsthand about the psychological effects residents are facing, something he said is only mentioned in passing in news stories about Israel.
"You try to explain to people that once you've experienced a rocket slam nearby, the next time you hear that siren going off, you're sure that a rocket is coming right toward you," he said.
He also described some of the little things that become necessary parts of life under such uncertain conditions: Bomb shelters are "absolutely everywhere," markets do not play music or make announcements over loud speakers, and teenage girls tend to wear running shoes for a night on the town, only changing into high heels when they reach their destinations.
"I heard a teacher talking to [kindergartners] about snails," Bedein began. "The teacher was asking, 'Why do you think that a snail has a shell?' And all the kids answered, 'So they could be protected from the Kassams.' "
The program began with ZOA's executive director Steve Feldman asking for a moment of silence for Roni Yihye, a 47-year-old father of four killed the day before in Sederot during a rocket attack.
"It's a matter of time until one of these rockets is going to explode into a classroom, into a family," said Bedein. "That's going to break all those statistics of casualties, and that's going to light the entire fire in the Middle East."