Alon Davidi is the mayor of Sderot, an Israeli city of 28,000 that’s located about one kilometre east of the border with Gaza. Beginning in 2001 with the Second Intifada and intensifying after Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, Sderot and the surrounding area has been bombarded with thousands of rockets and mortars from Gaza. Davidi was in Canada recently, as a guest of the Jewish National Fund (JNF), which has subsidized a number of community projects in Sderot.
Tell us about your visit to Canada.
I have come to Canada something like eight times and I am so happy to come, because I meet the Jewish community all over – in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, in Winnipeg. This is one of the most Zionist communities in the world.
Canadians share with us. They want to help us to continue the mission to stay in Sderot, to develop Sderot. It’s very important. Not just for us, but for all the world.
What is life in Sderot like now?
I’ll give you an example. If we in this office looked for shelter, we wouldn’t find anything. When I come to a school in Canada and ask the students, ‘Where is your shelter?’ they do not understand what I mean. If I would come to a house when someone invites me for Shabbat and ask them about their shelter, they’ll say, ‘I don’t know what you mean by shelter.’
We have a lot of shelters in Sderot. Why? Because we need to save lives. Every time we hear the sirens, we have just 15 seconds to save our lives. I have seven kids, five of them born into this situation. Most of the children suffer from post-traumatic stress.
What sort of support do you receive from JNF Canada?
We built a beautiful children’s park and a tennis centre together. We are now raising money for the animal therapy centre, so children can go there and work with therapists and animals, to work out their personal problems, because they have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
I know it very personally, because my daughter, Emunah, who is seven, suffers from PTSD. She in the past never wanted to go to outside, she wanted to sleep with us. Many times when we would go to the park, she would take my leg, or my wife’s leg, and say, ‘Father, mother, I’m very frightened.’
So we created this centre. When Emunah comes to the centre, she chooses an animal and the therapist works with her. Emunah chose a dog and she has had one year of treatment. Now, we adopted a dog.
Three months ago, the Arabs sent more than 500 rockets in two days into a civilian area. In the past, when Emunah heard the sirens, she would freeze. But now, she goes to the dog and takes the dog to the shelter and says, ‘I will take care of you.’
So Emunah has overcome her fears.
What has happened in the last few months in Sderot in terms of attacks from Gaza?
Four months ago, in two days in November, they sent more than 500 rockets into the area. A few of the rockets landed in our town and it was a big mess. One missile took out the electricity in one neighbourhood. So for 24 hours, no electricity. Another missile hit a bakery and there was a big gas fire there for 48 hours.
We get calls from a lot of families who feel they need help. More than 250 families asked to go to the “resilience centre,” so someone can work with them on their problems.
A few of the citizens got hurt, no one killed.
In Israel, the prime minister and the government feel they have to protect us. Because of that, they build shelters. The army does a very good job, a moral job, to help us and defend us.
On the other side, if you go to Gaza, what will you see? When Israel attacks Gaza because they shoot rockets, Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas, as well as ISIS and Islamic Jihad, leave everybody above ground and they go hide underground.
I think this is a bad regime. Hamas brings death and evil to the area and makes the lives of the citizens of Gaza miserable.
Last year, we in Canada heard about the Palestinian March of Return. It was described as non-violent and its supporters said Israel was using too much force against it. You were right there. How did you see it?
The border is long. They sent thousands of people and they hide terrorists among the simple people of Gaza, and when they come to the fence, they throw bombs and put explosives on the border to kill the soldiers and to try to kidnap the soldiers. You think this is an honest regime? They tried to make tunnels underground and four years ago, they succeeded and tried to bring terrorists to Sderot and to the villages.
Have a lot of people left Sderot in the last few years?
No, we’re growing. We’re growing every year by more than 1,000 people.
Where are they coming from?
First, young families who left Sderot in the past come to Sderot. Sderot is like a paradise – 95 per cent paradise and five per cent hell.
My job is to create a good system of education, to create a good place where people want to live. In 2017, Sderot was ninth out of the 10 fastest-growing cities in Israel.
What about the economy? I imagine if you have the risk of bombs falling on your offices or factories, you might not want to invest there.
In the beginning, Sderot was a place with low-tech factories, like food, plastic, things like that. But in the last years, many factories have come. You can see companies like Amdocs, a big high-tech firm, and Elbit, the camera company. The whole industrial area is packed.
Are they receiving financial incentives?
They receive lots of benefits from the national government. If you feel that you can overcome the problem of the rockets, it’s a beautiful place to be.
Do you feel that the story of Sderot is getting enough international attention?
I think that the people who blame Israel are not honest people. I think that whoever blames Israel and says Hamas makes the right decisions and is the hero of the story is a very stupid guy.
What’s happened with Hamas? Hamas is an organization like Hezbollah, like Islamic Jihad, like ISIS. They are part of the Iranian ideology to control the world.
I think that every man and woman needs to understand that we are doing the job for you. Because if Hamas will win and Hamas will destroy Sderot, they will go to Ashkelon. In the end, they will go to Jerusalem. And if they have the chance to blow up Toronto, they will do it. If they have the chance to blow up Paris, they will do it.
And I feel that me and my citizens are your ambassadors of this battle and we feel that we are on the front line and we feel we have a big mission. This is not our personal mission. This is a mission of all the people of the free world who believe that people need to do whatever they want and no one should control them with ideology.
And second, see what they do to each other. They kill each other. When Hamas took control of Gaza, you know what they did? They took the PLO representatives to the highest building and threw them off the roof.
You saw that yourself?
Yes. We have the pictures. So please, I ask people, don’t blame us for protecting our children. See what they do to each other. See what the Arabs do to other Arabs in Syria. See what they do, Arab to Arab, in Yemen, Iraq and Iran. We are not the bad guys in this story.
What can the Canadian Jewish community do to help Sderot?
Pray for us. I ask you to pray for us because we are on the front line. And when you come to Israel, come to Sderot, to say to the people, ‘We love you and we know you’re in a very tough place and we appreciate what you do.’
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.