Fear and Loathing in Tel Aviv's Wild South'

Natan Street in Tel Aviv's Hatikva quarter looked like it had been hit by an earthquake yesterday. Solidiers from the Home Front stood on the rubble, up until 4 A.M. yesterday morning home to four families, drilling into the concrete blocks, stopping every now and then to try and discern some human sounds.

A crane stands at the corner of the street, a robot Gulliver towering over the tiny homes of the Lilliputians, with their shaky balconies and impossible overcrowding. A neighborhood where people live beyond the law and without any hope. Illegal housing, illegal residents, pirate gas canisters, it really is the wild south, as one of the residents put it.

Curious onlookers crowded on to the roofs of surrounding houses, ignoring the signs put up by the municipal engineering warning that surrounding buildings were weakened by the blast. Others leaned against the blue barriers put up by police around the scene, holding glasses of water and coffee, overseeing the rescue efforts, listening in and sounding off.

Every now and again an African worker would dare to show his face, despite the swarming masses of police, looking for friends, family. One even asked the police to allow the community to hold a memorial service for those who had perished and not arrest the participants.

Two versions of events could be heard yesterday in the cramped alleyways and yards of the neighborhood - one from the foreign workers and one from the veteran residents. The common factor between them was the immense sense of sadness.

Yolanda from Nigeria told of how she heard the huge explosion and ran to investigate. She immediately realized that her pregnant friend was trapped inside.

Rachel from Israel told of how well she knew Ayala Hamdi who lived on the top floor. The house was left to her and her brother by their parents. Foreign workers and Israelis rented out the bottom floor.

Yolanda, her family and friends crowded into their tiny house to try and explain why they remain in Israel despite the constant fear of deportation, terrorism and landlords who charge astronomical rent - $500 for a 30 square meter pit.

"We haven't saved any money," says Yolanda, "We work just to survive. Every time I call home, they say to me, `you know your classmate died while giving birth?' There is no comparison between the infant mortality rate in undeveloped countries like ours and the mortality rate in developed countries like Israel. That's the reason we are here," she says pointing at the twin sons she gave birth to two-and-a-half-years ago and her newly swollen stomach.

It is also the reason why her friend was killed in the ninth month of her pregnancy.

Rachel, her family and friends came together at the entrance to their home on Natan Street and tried to explain why they still live in the neighborhood, despite the drug addicts, the rehoused Palestinian collaborators, the prostitutes, the foreign workers, the neglect and desolation. "My parents bought this place with most of their money in 1942 ... Once this was more fashionable than Sheinkin. Over the years they've put all the welfare cases in here, made us the nation's garbage can. What, the municipality doesn't see, it doesn't know? The old people die, the real estate agents come in, the brokers buy up the houses, rent them to foreign workers, single mothers, stuff them into rooms like sardines, all for money," says Rachel.

Rachel may have saved her children by sending them to the good schools in Tel Aviv where they are top of the class, but she does not have anywhere to go and besides, she does not want to leave her home and beloved yard. "I want someone to bring about some order here, to get rid of the scoundrels who put in the dangerous gas canisters, the drug addicts, the illegal workers. I don't use illegal workers. Why don't they send them to live in Ramat Aviv where they use them?"