SDEROT, Israel – It was 1:30 p.m. on Friday in Sderot, and Ido Avigal, 5, was laid to rest a few miles north. He had been killed two days earlier in what officials called a freak when a rocket from Gaza hit the building next to his aunt’s apartment where he was visiting with his mother and older sister.
When that missile hit Wednesday night, he was protecting himself in a fortified security room to protect residents from this exact threat. But a piece of splinter managed to pierce the shelter’s thick steel lock and glass window, fatally injuring the boy. Ido’s mother and sister were also injured while in the room.
It was the first such death in a fortified security room that military officials could remember.
“So shouldn’t we trust the safe space now?” asked 38-year-old Andrei Mardachayev, who lives in a building about 250 meters away and came with his wife Irit and their three young children to see the damage.
“No, no, don’t say that,” said Ms. Mardachayev, aware that the children were listening. “We have to go in when the siren goes off.”
In the current round of fighting, which began Monday, militant groups from the Gaza Strip fired at least 2,000 rockets at Israel, more than 600 of which were aimed at Sderot, the Israeli military said. Israel has hit Gaza with hundreds of air strikes and artillery fire.
On Friday, Palestinian officials said 120 people were killed in the attacks, including 31 children in Gaza. On the Israeli side, seven civilians, including Ido, and one soldier were killed, Israeli officials said.
In the early 1990s, after Israel was attacked by Scud missiles from Iraq, all newly built homes had to be built with reinforced concrete with a safe room. The shelters were built according to technical specifications that have been improved over the years. They are designed to withstand explosions and splinters from conventional weapons and offer some protection against chemical and biological attacks. These rooms have windows as they also serve as a functional part of the house.
As an additional level of security, Israel developed the Iron Dome missile defense system to intercept missiles aimed at populated areas. This, coupled with incoming missile alerts people received on their cell phones, has minimized the number of civilian casualties in missile attacks.
Lt. Col. Moty Dayan, deputy chief of the southern district of Home Front Command, the civil defense division of the Israeli military, said safe rooms have saved many lives, adding that others have turned up “without a scratch” on Mishol Struma Street.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict
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An initial investigation revealed that the security room Ido was hiding in had been built to the correct specifications, according to Colonel Dayan. The splinter’s penetration was likely caused by the angle at which the missile hit, he said, adding that the only new recommendation for now is to settle in safe rooms below the window line.
The apartment building where Ido’s family lived was built around 2015. The modern, airy accommodations have open plan living areas and balconies. A safe space in each unit doubles as a bedroom.
When the siren went off on Wednesday evening, Eli and Gitit Botera stormed into the security room of their apartment on the sixth floor with their little daughter Adele. The room that serves as Adele’s bedroom contains another bed and some Jewish prayers hanging on the walls.
Seconds later, a missile struck the fifth floor, creating a gaping hole in the front of the building and starting a fire that destroyed the apartment below. Fortunately, this family wasn’t home. But shrapnel were blasted everywhere, including in the safe room where Ido and others in the building next door were hiding.
When the boteras opened the door to their security room, their apartment was filled with smoke. They went down the stairs.
“It’s a miracle we survived,” said 43-year-old Botera. “If the missile had hit one floor up, I wouldn’t be here to tell you.”
On Friday they packed a small suitcase. They went to a hotel in Tel Aviv to decompress for a couple of days.
The afternoon was punctuated by thuds from Gaza and the occasional sharp boom in the blue sky. Sderot, a city that has seen rocket attacks for 20 years, is so close to the Gaza Strip that sometimes rockets fall here or are intercepted by the Iron Dome before the siren sounds.
Meir Manor, 63, had hit the impasse where Ido was killed from a rural village three years ago “to show solidarity with the people here,” he said.
He said it was important that people stay and be present.
“If everyone runs away, we might as well close the country and leave,” he said. “We have to be brave and strong.”
At Ido’s funeral on Friday, his father Asaf Avigal praised him. Ido’s mother, badly wounded in the attack, was still in the hospital.
“I’m sorry I didn’t take the splinter in your place,” Avigal said, according to Israel’s N12 news channel. “A few days ago you asked me, ‘Dad, what if the siren goes off while we’re outside? ‘I told you, as long as you are with me, you will be protected. I lied.”
Another rocket siren pierced the air during the funeral, which took place in Kiryat Gat, 18 miles away. The grieving and vulnerable mourners protected themselves as best they could by lying on the ground.