Southerners Rely on Local Support Networks Rather Than National Gov't

Netivot Mayor: The Lebanon war taught us politicians are irrelevant to the lives of the citizens.

As Israel's ground incursion in the Gaza Strip was underway yesterday, MK Shai Hermesh of Kadima was sitting in his unprotected living room in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, near the Gaza border, attempting to assist the residents asking him for help as the sound of exploding shells mixed with that of warning sirens. But Hermesh said his status as a Knesset member has nothing to do with his status as the local problem-solver.

"It's clear to me that they're turning to me because I am from the region and served for 15 years as head of the Sha'ar Hanegev Regional Council, not because I'm a Knesset member," he said. "I have no role as a politician, and as an MK I have no added value in this war. An alliance has crystallized between the local authority and the military system, in which Knesset members have no role to play."

Indeed, the Second Lebanon War, during which many felt the national government abandoned the country's citizens, has taught the residents of the south to rely more on local authorities - or even on better, on themselves - rather than the national government.

"I personally don't rely on the central government," Netivot Mayor Yehiel Zohar said. "That's also my lesson from the Lebanon war. I provide the city with everything that's needed, and I'll work out the bills afterward. The politicians are irrelevant to the lives of the citizens. This can be summed up with the words: 'Where there's no government, there is a municipality.'"

Yesterday, more than a week after city resident Bebert Vaknin was killed in a rocket attack and a day after a rocket struck a wooden house in Netivot, the southern city had a lot of work to do. Netivot has several hundred wooden houses - an anomaly in most of Israel - that were meant to provide a quick housing solution for immigrants in the 1990s. Though a wounded Rivka Cohen survived the collapse of her house Saturday, the combination of termite infestation and Grad rockets is proving potentially fatal.

The more than 2,500 people living in wooden houses - most of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union - are hoping to avoid Cohen's fate by moving into public bomb shelters, and large cranes have been placing mobile shelters in Netivot. "All the Russians are willing to sit in shelters as long as necessary in order to assure that there will be quiet in the future," said municipality official Iliya Ettinger, also a Russian-speaking immigrant.

Other national representatives of Russian-speaking immigrants confirm that they aren't as busy this time around as they were during the Second Lebanon War.

When MK Sofa Landver of Yisrael Beiteinu, who lives in Ashdod, paid a recent condolence call to the family of local rocket victim Irit Sheetrit; she was told residents were willing to take whatever was necessary to ensure quiet in the future. During the Second Lebanon War she was besieged by requests, she said. Now, though, there is virtually no one knocking on her door, leaving her to deal with her own loss; her husband died of a heart attack two weeks ago. The rocket barrage began during the week-long mourning period, and when she left her home for the first time after his death, she returned to find that the force of a rocket landing nearby had affected the audio system of her digital photo album, causing her to hear her late husband's voice echoing in the empty home.

MK Marina Solodkin of Kadima credited the leadership of the new mayors in the south with the fact that her phone isn't ringing off the hook. "I checked with my activists in the south, and there are almost no complaints," she said from her Ashkelon home. "Immigrants are also left with the social network that was built during the Lebanon war, and the people feel less alone. This is the war that should have been in 2006."