Ashdod is the Israeli city hardest hit by the past month’s fighting; more than 170 rockets have passed through its skies. Nevertheless, when I visited it on Monday, before the talk of a cease-fire began, it seemed as if city residents were less angry than they were during the last war, more apathetic and tired.
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The Star Center mall, also called Revivo Center, was empty. Yulia, who runs the mall’s branch of the Gentleman clothing store, stood outside, bored and smoking, and admitted that business was “very thin.” A lean young man named Ben-El, representing Golan Telecom, joined us wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “Enough of being a sucker.” Then, suddenly, the siren sounded.
We ran toward the shelter and crowded in along with 10 janitors. They were calm and jocular, aside from Yulia, who looked shattered by the rocket alert, even though she said she had run to the shelter room three times the day before. Ben-El saw that she was crushed and hugged her.
“I’m for wiping them out,” she told me. Ben-El seemed more blase; he wasn’t thinking about wiping out other people.
Later, Yulia repented. “I’m not for wiping them all out, just the Hamas guys,” she said. “I’m not in favor of harming innocents.”
Ilan the photographer and I hastened to the site where the rocket landed. That’s what he’s been doing for the past two weeks. At the scene, a hapless inspector was trying to get about 20 people to leave. As if people’s nerves weren’t already rubbed sufficiently raw, he accidentally activated the siren on his megaphone and had trouble shutting it off.
A crew from the Russian-language television channel reprimanded a bald guy with a Nike T-shirt and a “Mom” tattoo for coming to rubberneck despite the warnings. David, a young man of Ethiopian origin with a small diamond earring in his nose, told me, “This isn’t a summer camp.”
In the background, people were photographing us from their balconies, and we photographed them. The Russian television crew looked for people to interview. They tried me, but I refused, explaining that I was a journalist. I let them talk with David, but they ignored him, perhaps because of the color of his skin.
I noticed that Ilan the photographer had disappeared and realized I’d been in the wrong place for half an hour already: It was possible to go around the building and see all the action. On the other side, the scene was less peaceful. A red car had been totally destroyed, the gasoline was leaking out and the nearby apartment had been damaged. The officers stopped someone with a cigarette from getting too near. “It’s time for a new car,” someone said.
The tree above the car also looked battered. Someone will doubtless draw a parallel between the trees damaged by rockets and the children burned to death in Gaza.
The car’s owner, luckily, was in Tiberias, so his cousin removed his belongings from it before the tow truck came. He took a placard bearing a slogan about Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, which didn’t manage to save the car, and a picture of him with his cousin and stuck them in his wallet. He didn’t manage to tuck in the fake Dolce & Gabbana underpants (I also have a pair) that were sticking out of his pants. In the end, the car was towed, and African street cleaners came to clean up after the wars of the Jews and the Arabs in the telenovela in which we live.
We went into the nearby house, which was also severely damaged. Inside was an elderly woman in pajamas who spoke only Russian. Her daughter translated the questions of the numerous journalists for her. The floor was covered by broken glass.
The house had a lot of style, even though the woman seemed poor. There was a nice chandelier, a grandfather clock and a picture of a pretty girl – perhaps the old woman in her youth, perhaps her daughter. Outside, the photographers were arguing with each other over photographing the hole left by the rocket and accusing each other of blocking it.
I moved on with Nir, a cute teenager with a hint of a mustache who came to see the rocket but arrived too late. “This whole business with the rockets doesn’t frighten me at all; it’s rather interesting,” he boasted. “I’ve gotten used to it. I was afraid when the first missile hit in Cast Lead, but that was it,” he said, referring an earlier round of fighting in Gaza in late 2008.
I asked him about the huge corruption scandals linked to Ashdod. “It’s out of the headlines; it no longer interests anyone,” he said.
One of Ashdod’s leading culinary institutions is Maurice Sitbon’s Tunisian fricassee. “I tell you, that gang of criminals has ruined our mood,” said Sitbon, who immigrated from Tunisia in 1956, standing between some plastic bags that are supposed to scare away flies because they see themselves reflected in them as big and frightening. “It’s as empty as Yom Kippur here. Woe to us if they decide on a cease-fire. I sat with some army guys on Friday and explained to them that we need to go into Gaza for three years to clean it out. We need to remove the young children and bomb it. It hurts about them; aren’t they children? But we have to find a solution.”
Speaking as someone who used to live in Ashkelon, Sitbon said Ashkelon is much more combative and hot-tempered than Ashdod. “Ashkelon is nervous; here, there’s a different mentality. In Ashkelon, they’ll tell you we have to destroy Gaza; here, people are cultured. I say we should clean out the terrorists, not the children and mothers. I see Arabs who are hungry for bread, and they don’t want these things, either.”
I utilized my time in Ashdod to see what had happened to the building known as the “cancer building” that I wrote about two years ago – a building in terrible condition, many of whose residents have developed cancer, which they blame on the asbestos. It turns out the situation has only gotten worse.
“There are holes and big rats, bigger than the children,” said Tomer Zisapluks, one of the residents. “When I leave in the morning, the courtyard is full of the druggies’ needles.”
I went into the shelter and saw soldiers playing cards with the children and drawing pictures with them. The wall was decorated with the children’s creations – “To the soldiers of Israel” and “Win the war,” with a big heart.
But neither the army nor the war will save them from the feeling that they are getting cancer from their polluted apartments. The building’s residents sit on chairs near the entrance so they can reach the shelter quickly. They are upset with city hall, the government housing company Amigur and also with me, as someone who came, made promises and went on his way, while their situation remained just as bad as it was before.
“You only come when there’s a war,” one resident accused me. “Where are you the rest of the year?”
“Everything is the same, except the rats have come back,” another resident, Yosef Atalan, told me. “If a missile lands here, many children will be killed. The building is like something made of cardboard. Only if a disaster happens will people wake up.”
“They made us promises and didn’t keep them,” added another resident, Hila Pinto. “It’s all lies. In the end, we’ll stay here until we die. I want them to help me like they helped the Russians and Ethiopians.”
Pinto said she had tried to obtain public housing, but even though she has a family of seven, they offered her a one-bedroom apartment with a living room. “It’s all because we’re called a weak population; they make light of what we say. If this had happened in Herzliya or Savyon, they would have removed us immediately.”
But in Savyon, they don’t need to raze slums and rebuild them, her neighbors informed her.
MK Ilan Gilon (Meretz) has also been trying to deal with the problem. “They feel like sitting ducks, with no protection,” he said.
The beaches were empty, so I swam alone and got cursed by a lifeguard as “human AIDS” when I mentioned I was from Haaretz. Nevertheless, I asked his advice on what to do about the tar that stuck to my legs (“It’s because you’re a leftist”).
At Gil Beach, which is usually packed, there was a lone surfer in the water, a young man named Ilya who immigrated from Belarus in the 1990s and works as a forklift operator in a wood warehouse. He told his boss he was going to take care of his grandmother and headed straight for the sea.
“It’s the safest place in Ashdod,” he said. “Everyone is nervous at work because of the rockets, and I didn’t want to be with them. I explained to them that today a baby drowned, a man murdered his friend and someone died in a car accident down south, whereas hundreds of missiles over the course of a week haven’t killed anyone. They were driving me crazy with the pressure, so I fled here. This is the best shelter. If a rocket lands it will sink, and there won’t be shrapnel. The problem isn’t the rockets, but the fact that there are alarms that make your heart pound. In my view, they should abolish the sirens.”
At the warehouse, he works mainly with Arabs, and he voiced the most moderate views I heard all day. “The Arabs are our brothers, no? Isaac and Ishmael. We need to get at the source of the terror and plug it up, but it’s important to build hospitals and businesses for them afterward. Imagine what your life would be like if you lived there. When there’s no work or food, I would also fire missiles at Israel if the terrorists gave me money.”