In Central Israel's Hidden Shantytown, 'Powerless' Isn't Just a Figure of Speech

There can be few worse places to spend the warmest day of the year so far than a metal boxcar with no air conditioning - but this boxcar, which acts as a prefabricated house, is the only home the Arviv family has.

Israel's hidden shantytown
Itzik Ben Malki

The air conditioning unit is there, but the entire site has been disconnected from the electricity grid by the public housing company, Amidar, over unpaid bills. The Arvivs' neighbor, Yaakov Elyashiv, is not in debt, but he is still forced to deal with the suffocating heat, the dark and the neglect, the trash strewn everywhere, the overflowing sewer, and the so-called zoo - a population of jackals, boars, rats and snakes roaming freely between the homes.

Or Akiva's "caravan site," a relic of the 1990s, is a mini-third world in the heart of Israel. The site was set up 20 years ago as temporary housing for Soviet immigrants, and over time, poor local families have moved in. Only six families remain, and they have been off the electricity grid for the past week.

"In the late 1990s there were about 200 homes here," says Elyashiv, 60, who immigrated from Azerbaijan and was one of the first to settle on the site, with his wife and two small children. "At the end of the 1990s, most families could afford to move elsewhere. I couldn't. My immigration package was all spent on rent. In 1992-93 I would travel to Haifa to work for a pharmaceutical factory, for 5 shekels an hour. Other times I didn't work at all. The most important thing was to invest in the children, to get them ahead in life."

The children grew up and left the housing site, but Elyashiv remains, with his wife Flora.

Yesterday, she came home lighting her way with a small flashlight, back after a long day at the hostel where her elderly mother lives.

"Mom has an air conditioner, and I suffer from high blood pressure, so I can't stay at home. It's too hot and stifling," she says.

The Elyashiv's are incensed over being punished for someone else's debts. "I've lived here for 19 years, we always paid rent and electricity bills on time, even when I didn't work, but now I'm disconnected because my neighbors owe the company money," says Elyashiv.

The housing company maintains electricity has been disconnected as a result of accumulating debts by the residents. "Amidar paid the bills for the residents for years, to keep them on the grid, but the company can't pay anymore - it just doesn't have the budget for it. So the residents were disconnected," one official told Haaretz.

Four out of the six families don't deny their debts run up to tens of thousands of shekels, but believe the power cut is just another aggressive move "to wear us down and push us out," as one resident, Rafi Gabai, puts it.

"We used to pay 80 shekels rent, and then they suddenly brought it up to NIS 600. How can I, a former drug addict raising 3 kids on a NIS 2,400 guaranteed minimum income check, pay this kind of money?" he asks. "They brought up the rent to get us into debt and kick us out," he says, adding he owes Amidar NIS 170,000.

The residents were recently hosts to Or Akiva Mayor Simcha Yosipov, who spent a night at one of the homes in solidarity.

"It's inconceivable that people in Israel, in 2010, will be living in tin huts without electricity. It's sheer apathy on part of Amidar," he said.

Yosipov believes that the first priority is to get electricity reconnected, find a financial settlement for the debtors, and finally locate alternative housing solutions.

The residents have been offered apartments elsewhere, but declined, saying the new location was too dangerous. "Here we're on our own, far from trouble," says Gabai. "I want change but I'm not going to move my kids to a neighborhood of crime, stabbing and violence."

Amidar says there are no available public housing flats in Or Akiva, and priority is given to candidates with serious medical problems on top of their economic situation. "The housing ministry had bought flats to house people with special needs before, why shouldn't they do it again? It's only six families," one official said.

Municipal officials point out that the site has been exempt from municipal tax for the past four years.

The mayor says that although municipal workers clean the trash from the site regularly, building contractors and other have been using it as an illegal landfill site. Yosipov spoke to the residents about appealing to the courts.

"The feeling is that nobody cares," Gabai says. "Everyone talks about compassion. We took compassion to Haiti, but look at the cruelty we have right here."