Its 130,000 residents put Ashkelon in last place among Israel's larger medium-size cities - after Ashdod, Be'er Sheva, Petah Tikva, Holon, Netanya, Bnei Brak, Bat Yam and Ramat Gan. Located 54 kilometers from Tel Aviv, it is also the most peripheral of these cities. In fact, Ashkelon is also the most peripheral in terms of the city itself - it's a scattered metropolis without a center.
In Ashkelon, distant and recent history emerge from its sandy hills. Winds from the land of the Philistines sweep through sycamore trees and abandoned orchards. Ruins of Arab villages peep out here and there from among ancient mosaics. Vast expanses of uncultivated farmland stretch between drab public housing units, spacious neighborhoods, long apartment buildings known in Israeli slang as "trains," "Jewish Agency" housing units and a very large number of apartment buildings. To the west, you can see marble pillars breaking through the cliff of Ashkelon's southern beachfront. Directly under the houses, in what was once a secluded, charming coast, sprawl a marina and a new, ugly promenade, as well as villas and apartment towers.
Ashkelon is a city that is trying very hard to take off and reach new heights of achievement. Its area of jurisdiction totals 48,000 dunams (12,000 acres), almost the same area as Tel Aviv, which is far more densely populated and still far away - despite the new highway.
The social reality in Ashkelon is gradually becoming increasingly ugly. In last year's reports of the Central Bureau of Statistics, Ashkelon was placed last on the socioeconomic list of Israel's major cities. In the most recent report of the State Employment Service, Ashkelon appears on the list of "pockets" of unemployment - communities that have a serious unemployment problem - with a 10.5 percent jobless rate. That figure refers to last August, which used to be the height of the tourist season but has since vanished. The statistics also establish a link between Ashkelon and southern Israel's smaller and more remote towns. A note accompanies the statistics: "After a long period in which the list of `pockets of unemployment' consisted solely of communities inhabited by members of Israel's minority groups, the list now includes communities like Dimona, Kiryat Gat, Ashkelon, Kiryat Malakhi, Yeruham and Sderot. We estimate that this trend will continue in the coming months."
The report's figures ignore the major differences between Ashkelon, founded in 1949 as Israel's first development town, and the other towns established later. The connection made with "communities inhabited by members of Israel's minority groups" is a reminder that Ashkelon started out as one of those communities: It originally consisted of the houses of the city Majdal, whose last Arab inhabitants, 2,400 in number, were "transferred" to Gaza, Lod and Ramle - an unusual step even at that time.
Majdal is now Migdal, once the city's business, commercial and leisure center. Today it is a pathetic and neglected cluster of streets between Ashkelon's new neighborhoods, which were built to bridge the gaps both between Migdal and the city's older areas and between one older area and another. Some of the residents of the new streets have no idea where the entrance to Migdal is located, and for some, even the name "Migdal" means very little.
From a city of 63,000 in 1990, Ashkelon has nearly doubled its population and absorbed some 40,000 new immigrants. These immigrants of the '90s got much better homes than residents of the ma'abarot (immigrant transit camps) of the past, and better than those who lived in the public housing projects that replaced the ma'abarot. The new immigrants were provided with homes constructed in a postmodern style translated into contemporary Hebrew: graduated balconies, a lot of color, stone, mosaics. There are many such homes throughout Israel. Here only a thin envelope of cost-cutting in the exterior finish of the walls and a certain amount of negligence in design distinguish the homes of the weak neighborhoods from those in the relatively strong neighborhoods. The population groups in this city tend to be distinguished by ethnic affiliation: There is a separate Russian district, a separate Ethiopian district (alongside the older socioeconomically disadvantaged public housing projects), a separate Georgian district, and so on.
The strong and the weak
In Ashkelon, physical separation blends with the artificial distinctions that have existed in this city since its earliest days: "strong European neighborhoods" versus "weak Sephardic neighborhoods." Unlike the development towns that it has joined on the list of "pockets of unemployment," Ashkelon started out as a sort of old-new city: a chain of separate, unique neighborhoods that represented a broad social hierarchy and a constant situation of social gaps that tended to reflect the impact of ethnic origin.
The differences between the older neighborhoods did not stem from any difference in floor area, because all the housing units were small and all the apartment buildings were simple and uniform, but rather from the number of persons per room and from the size of the investment in these units. Ashkelon's first inhabitants were new immigrants and recently demobilized soldiers who took up residence in Majdal in homes that had been abandoned during the Israeli War of Independence or which were evacuated after the war to make room for Jewish occupants. The Arab residents of these homes were transferred to a narrow "ghetto" district, which even then was called a ghetto.
Adjacent to Migdal, three immigrant transit camps were established in 1949 and 1950 for new immigrants from Islamic countries and from Romania and Poland. Northwest of Migdal and the immigrant transit camps, thousands of dunams belonging to the abandoned Arab village of Al-Jura were transferred to entrepreneur Zvi Segal, one of the signatories to Israel's Declaration of Independence and the Revisionist Zionist Alliance representative in the Provisional Council of State that preceded Israel's parliament, the Knesset.
Segal was to establish the film city of Barnea - an Israeli version of Hollywood - that was to include a neighborhood of prestigious villas. Through the mediation of labor minister Golda Meir, a larger tract of land south of Barnea, between Migdal and the Mediterranean, was handed over to the trusteeship of the South African Zionist Federation, which created the neighborhood of Afridar, whose name was derived from the federation's name.
The initial plan for the new city was drawn up in South Africa according to the garden city model that had been popular in the Anglo-Saxon world ever since the start of the 20th century: a cluster of residential sections consisting of small homes with yards, a neighborhood center and a large number of parks. The hub of this garden city would be a joint urban center that was to be established north of Migdal.
In accordance with the plan, Migdal, which now began to be referred as Ashkelon's Old City, was surrounded for many years by a broad ring of orchards. The plan was adopted by government planning agencies and also appeared in Israel's master plan for 1952.
The Barnea neighborhood developed slowly, while Afridar grew by leaps and bounds. The first homes in Afridar were built as early in 1951 in pairs with 53 square meters for each family and with a rather spacious yard. Their uniformity and simple design were softened with a tiled roof and an arch over the front balcony. The yards were clustered together the length of a broad road, which included a spacious park and a small shopping center, with a clock tower in the corner.
Afridar residents were new immigrants from South Africa and South America as well as Israelis who worked in various municipal agencies and in the newly established tourist and government manufacturing facilities in a special zone in northern Ashkelon, beside the main highway (leading to central Israel).
To the south and north of Afridar, the residents remaining in the immigrant transit camps - primarily immigrants from Islamic countries - lived under harsh conditions of poverty and unemployment. The first public housing project for former residents of the immigrant transit camps was created in 1952. It was called the Southern Hills Project (Hageva'ot Haderomiot) or Zion Hill (Givat Zion). Both the construction and the evacuation of the immigrants from the camp proceeded at a very slow pace and were accompanied by protest demonstrations by the camp residents.
Construction work on the Shimshon (Samson) or Atikot neighborhood began in 1955 and in 1958 residents began to move into their new homes there - after a stormy demonstration by the residents of the large Immigrant Transit Camp C. Here as well, the housing units were tiny, even smaller than those in Afridar - although the families were much larger than those in Afridar. The style of construction was that of the public housing projects that became the accepted format for development towns: long, gray apartment blocks, with an abundance of concrete and with a large number of apartments in each building.
A promising community
Adjacent to Shimshon, the Barzilai Medical Center was constructed, as were City Hall, the city's police station and the central bus station. However, Shimshon continued to be a socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhood that lacked adequate community services.
Unemployment problems and other difficulties dating back to the period of residence in the immigrant transit camps were not solved and the situation deteriorated even further when additional new immigrants arrived from North Africa after the Sinai Campaign of 1956. In the late 1950s, villas were built in north Afridar and working-class public housing projects in the neighborhood's southern section. A casino was established in Barnea and a few large lots were sold for the construction of villas; however, the idea of a film city died. Only in the 1970s did Barnea become an ordinary neighborhood, for a "strong" population, as a continuation of the Afridar neighborhood.
A decade or so after its creation, Ashkelon looked almost like a typical Israeli city for that era and seemed to be, relatively speaking, a promising community. Israelis joined the "strong" immigrants in Afridar and Barnea, while the residents of south Ashkelon's large neighborhoods remained primarily a "weak" population, which was also a cheap labor force for industry and tourism. No new urban center was built and Migdal functioned as the place for entertainment and shopping, as well as for local private business ventures large and small.
The physical situation of Migdal and the public housing projects was drastic even then. The master plan drawn up for Ashkelon in 1968 states that the "districts requiring renewal can be found in three of the city's four neighborhoods. Thus, Migdal will have to undergo a process of overall renewal while the two other neighborhoods (Shimshon and Givat Zion) will undergo only partial renewal in order to improve their housing conditions, as is planned for all of the city's quarters."
Migdal never underwent a face-lift, except for a municipal museum in the city's old khan, while Shimshon underwent basic renovations in the context of the national Project Renewal program.
Near Ashkelon's beachfront, hotels and a French holiday village were constructed, while to the south, the site of an expansive national park was established. A number of factories were set up in the city's industrial zone, and on the Mediterranean, an oil port was created. Ashdod, founded to the north of Ashkelon, began to supply work for the city's residents. The Six-Day War of June 1967 and the occupation of the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip turned Ashkelon into a preferred residential area for Israel Defense Forces officers and civilian employees. At this time, the city lost its status as a Class A development area.
Immigrants bring expansion
Over the next few years, development in Ashkelon entered a deep freeze. In the job market, the Arabs of Gaza became fierce competitors of the residents of Ashkelon's "weak" neighborhoods; municipal growth came to a standstill and the immense energy displayed during the city's early years of development simply vanished.
The major wave of immigration in 1991 dramatically changed the situation in Ashkelon, as was the case in many other communities in Israel. The wave of development that came in the wake of the immigrants included not only the construction of new neighborhoods around Migdal, but also the establishment of new residential districts that surrounded Shimshon and Givat Zion and which enabled some of the residents of those two neighborhoods to move to a new apartment or even a villa close to their former neighborhood. The foundation was laid for a tiny shopping center featuring all the symbols of post-modernist architecture, which was located alongside a large tract of uncultivated farmland. In some of the old apartment blocks, the original modernist facades were broken through and covered with a variety of additions, accompanied by the expansion of the tiny apartments.
The expected railroad upgrade next year will connect Ashkelon even more closely to central Israel and provide the city with the key to suburban happiness. As has been the case in the other train stations, here as well there will be a reduction of the need for intensive urban activity. Even today little remains of the local urban spirit. As if nothing has been learned from past experience, during the last wave of development as well, construction work focused solely on residential units, without providing any option for other kinds of utilization. Fields of apartment buildings have sprung up, and close to the beachfront there are now "prestige" areas that are easily recognizable in Israel's real-estate landscape thanks to their typical height discrepancies: towers beside villas and an optimal exploitation of both expensive land and "brand name" residential fashion styles.
Over the past few years, large shopping centers, a cultural center and a college have been constructed: the usual Israeli blend that has, as in other places in the country, replaced the old streets of entertainment and shopping - in this case, Migdal, the only district in Ashkelon that had existed as a traditional city that had everything: commerce, light industry, restaurants and residential facilities.
What remains today of Migdal looks very much like a war zone, as if there had never been a vibrant way of life here after the evacuation of the neighborhood's last Arab residents. There are various theories about the reasons for the deportation of the Arab residents. The assistance that the Arabs of Majdal gave to terrorist infiltrators led to surveillance and limitations on freedom of movement, to the setting up of a barbed-wire fence around the area remaining to them in Majdal, and apparently to their deportation as well.
An additional reason is connected to the serious job shortage of that period. In 1950, the Jews of Majdal already numbered 3,000 and some of them were desperately in need of the jobs in Ashkelon's immediate vicinity that were being held down by Arabs. Geographer Arnon Golan argues, in a collection of articles entitled "Ashkelon: Bride of the South," published in 2002, that the vicinity of Majdal was perceived as a first opportunity for the establishment of a development town - thanks to the immense potential offered by its landscape and location. In his opinion, another reason for the deportation was the government's desire to create a development zone in a remote area that would provide homes and jobs for thousands of new immigrants and not for an Arab population.
However, the deportation and the waves of "strong" immigration of past and recent years have not strengthened those who have been and continue to be "weak." Furthermore, unemployment has once more reared its ugly head and this time is dealing savage blows to many of the immigrants of the 1990s. Physically, Ashkelon looks very much like other Israeli cities, with its new neighborhoods, which surround the older ones and hide Migdal, and with the marina that has suddenly ended the uniqueness of the Afridar beachfront.
Of all the neighborhoods, Afridar appears strangely sleepy, even more than the Shimshon neighborhood with all the various additions to the old apartment blocks. New villas have been built close to the marina; however, within the neighborhood itself, time seems to have stood still in the small homes, many of which have hardly changed. Only here and there can you see evidence of rejuvenation and new blood from "strong" residents, in the form of a large, heavily ornamented villa standing out and looming over the tiled roofs and the trees.