Sderot, Israel (31.12.09): Hours before the new year, as hundreds of pro-Palestinian and Arab demonstrators gathered at the Erez Crossing chanting "Katyushas on Ma'alot, Qassams on Sderot," while Israeli demonstrators at another Gaza viewpoint a few meters away gathered together to communicate a very different message.
"A New Decade for Hope and Peace," was the theme behind the Sderot Rally for Hope, initiated by Sderot Media Center, a social media organization dedicated to bringing the voices of Sderot residents to the attention of the international community. Over 300 supporters including Israeli youth and international students from France, Australia, South Africa, United States and Canada, were led by the Sderot mayor, David Buskila, and the Israeli Minister of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs, Yuli Edelstein.
The marchers, carrying Israeli and international flags, along with signs that read "Children for Hope, Not for War," trekked up a muddy hill to release white balloons with peace messages that children from a local Sderot Elementary School had written to Gaza children a day before.
Edelstein noted that the there has been a year of relative quiet following Operation Cast Lead, "with only 286 rockets fired at Israel."
Sderot mayor, David Buskila stated on the hilltop that "we want the leaders of Hamas to know, who are unfortunately are still continuing to prepare for war, that Sderot residents come today in peace. And we will never leave this part of Israel." Earlier in the day, Hamas leader, Ismail Al-Haniyeh spoke to Gaza supporters gathered on both sides of the Erez Crossing via Israeli Arab MK Tal A-Sana's mobile phone. Haniyeh stated that Palestinians would never stop fighting for a state and that Hamas had become even stronger thanks to international support. On the Gaza side, 100 participants in the Gaza Freedom March, mobilized by Jewish activist, Medea Benjamin, gathered together to show solidarity exclusively with Gazans.
Other anti-Israel rhetoric that came out of the Gaza solidarity demonstrations were directed from Israeli-Arab MK Jamal Zahalka, who stated in front of international press that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak "enjoys classical music and killing children in Gaza.
Back in Sderot, marchers convened together in the only rocket-proof theater in the western Negev, to hear 22-year old Sderot resident, Moshe Amar perform John Lennon's song, Imagine. Amar also shared his family's harrowing experience following a direct Qassam explosion on their home two years on December 13, 2007, which destroyed their home. Both US President Barack Obama and US Senator John McCain visited the site of the Amars' home during their US presidential campaign in 2008.
"Try to imagine that everything you love, the things that are supposed to be the most secure in your life-- your home and your family-are directly terrorized," said Amar to the audience. "For almost a year, we were left homeless. To this day, that Qassam attack still traumatizes my family-we will never be the same."
The Sderot Rally for Hope also featured a former member of the Zambian Parliament, the Hon. Dr. Saviour Chishimba, who is also the 2011 Presidential candidate for Zambia's United Progressive People's Party.
Mr. Chishimba told the Sderot rally supporters that " There is no single nation in the world that would allow a single rocket to be fired onto her soil and just watch without retaliation. Israel has a right to defend her territorial integrity and the right to exist. Hamas is a terrorist group, which should not be given power to govern anywhere in the world."
"It is time that Africa stand up with Israel," Mr. Chishimba concluded.
Photos Credit: Shlomi Halfon
Video: Ran Tzabari