Email and text keep neighbours in Gaza and Sderot in touch

As Israeli bombs slam into Gaza and Hamas rockets strike southern Israel, a handful of people on both sides of the front line are doing everything they can to stay in touch.
Text messages, emails and -- when electricity in the Gaza Strip permits -- the occasional phone call allow friends on either side of the border to get first-hand updates on what is happening just down the road.

Since Israel's onslaught began on December 27, contact has been limited, says Eric Yellin, a businessman who has lived in the southern Israeli border town of Sderot for 20 years and who co-writes a blog with a Palestinian friend from Gaza City.
"Hope Man" Yellin and "Peace Man" in Gaza have been blogging for more than a year on a site called "Life must go on in Gaza and Sderot."
The Gaza war has so far killed more than 900 Palestinians and wounded thousands. Peace Man has posted just twice since it began, and it has been difficult to reach him by phone.
The 29-year-old from Shejaiya district was studying for his MBA in Europe but ran out of money 18 months ago and returned to raise funds so he could complete his studies. Since then, he has not been permitted to leave.
Contacted by text message, Peace Man said he was unwilling to be interviewed.
With Gaza City surviving on just a few hours of electricity a day and people relying on generators to charge their mobile phones, going online has become something of a luxury.
"It is hard to describe what is going on in Gaza, a terrible disaster, where the aircraft do not distinguish between civilians and military and children, no water, electricity and difficult to get your needs," wrote Peace Man in his most recent post on January 7.
"We didn't have electricity since 6 days, and today was the first day to have it, that's why I have chance to write this quickly."
The situation in Gaza is horrifying, says Yellin, who tries to call his friend most days.
"Peace Man has been telling me that the population feels Israel is targeting civilians. He was telling me how a helicopter shot at a Hamas-owned house but the house next to it collapsed and killed a family of eight," he says.
"This is what they are going through on a daily basis."
Yellin also talks and writes about the terrifying reality that has plagued Sderot for the past eight years -- about the fear, the frustration and the 15-25 seconds people have to find safety when the sirens sound.
Since militant rocket attacks began in autumn 2001, 21 civilians have been killed inside Israel and many hundreds wounded.
"In that time, no-one has done anything to solve the problem. People are definitely suffering here, both mentally and physically," he says. "Over that time there has been an ongoing escalation of hatred, suspicion and distrust."
Yellin is a founder member of Other Voice, a grassroots organisation of people from Gaza and Sderot who believe people on both sides should be friends, not enemies.
He knows there will eventually be a ceasefire, but wonders at what price.
"If you look at the energy and money put into this war -- on both sides -- if just a hundredth of the effort were put into finding some kind of agreement, we might have been able to avoid this."
In the south, signs of support for the military action in Gaza are everywhere: bikers with giant Israeli flags fluttering behind them roar through communities along the border.
Youngsters distribute Israeli flags at the main intersections as a giant billboard proclaims the right-wing Likud party's unwavering support for "soldiers of the Israel Defence Forces and the citizens of the south."
In Israel, showing any sympathy for the people of Gaza tends to be seen as an expression of contempt for Israelis in the south who live within range of militant rockets.
Julia Chaitin, a lecturer in psychology at Sapir College in Sderot, knows well the reality of life in southern Israel, but she also opposes the war in Gaza.
She keeps in touch with a handful of friends in Gaza, including 23-year-old journalist Samih Habib in Gaza City.
"Sometimes you can get through, sometimes not. Sometimes I see him on Facebook," she says. They talk in English.
"I dread calling them because I just don't know what to say. Everything sounds so empty. I feel guilty when I don't call, but what can I say?"
On the eve of the massive campaign in Gaza, Chaitin jointly published an article with Habib called "Waiting to Drink Coffee Together in Sderot or in Gaza."
It took them two weeks to agree on what to write, and it was not an easy process, but in the end they did it.
"I had a heated discussion with Samih. He would say: 'The rockets don't do anything,' but I told him the rockets were terrorising hundreds of thousands of people.
"I wasn't going to apologise for the fact that more people haven't been killed or wounded. We fought over it and we negotiated and in the end, we did it," she said.
"It's not easy but it's possible."
Image of Israeli army reservists crowding a coffee shop in the southern Israeli intersection of Yad Mordechai by Marco Longari.

Thursday, January 15th 2009
Hazel Ward

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