In July 2016, two years after the 2014 Gaza conflict, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attended a ceremony marking the completion of a project giving residents of Gaza-area communities increased protection. The speeches at the ceremony prompted a sense of irony.
The project gave funding for reinforced rooms for homes in communities within seven kilometers (4.3 miles) from the Gaza border, but Hamas had already expanded the range of its rockets.
Ashkelon, which has been hit with more rockets than any other city in the current confrontation, is 8.5 kilometers from the border and was not been included in the project. Sources told Haaretz that requests to the Prime Minister’s Office and Finance Ministry for protection in communities more than seven kilometers away from Gaza were repeatedly rejected for financial reasons.
Several current and former officials from the region told Haaretz that the Prime Minister’s Office refused to expand the radius from Gaza because it would include Ashkelon, which would cost the government a lot of money. The city is home to 160,000 residents, about 38,000 of whom don’t have a safe room or nearby public shelter available to them when the siren sounds. Providing such protection would require reinforcement of about 10,000 housing units. Expanding the radius to seven kilometers from the Strip would cost about 1.3 billion shekels ($398 million).
“In the whole neighborhood, there aren’t mamadim [safe rooms] at all,” said Vika Rubinov, who has lived in the city’s Neot Asheklon neighborhood for more than 20 years. “In our building, there’s an underground shelter. Every time there’s action with Gaza and they shell Ashkelon, we have nowhere to run. We live on the top floor of the building. I have a 10-month-old baby. We’ve put blankets near the door and slept there – the whole family, me, my husband, the baby and my mother.
“Every few minutes when the siren sounded, we go to the stairwell,” she added. “My mother-in-law from Sderot has invited us to come to her. She’s right. In Sderot, there is a small public shelter every several dozen meters. There’s no apartment there without a safe room. Our shelter has no rest room and it’s supposed to accommodate all 32 families in the building. They’ve totally abandoned us.”
Roughly 820 rockets were fired at Ashkelon in 85 barrages in the current round of fighting as of Tuesday morning. By comparison, the smaller town of Sderot, which is in the range project’s range, was hit by some 270 rockets in the same period.
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A total of 69 of the rockets fired at Ashkelon exploded, hitting homes and other buildings in the city, as well as a strategic fuel tank. Two women have been killed there by rockets and several other residents have been wounded, including some in moderate or serious condition.
According to the Home Front Command, in the first day of fighting, 64 percent of the rockets fired at Israel were directed at Ashkelon.
Ashkelon Mayor Tomer Glam said he has had difficulty dealing with the government on the issue because his city is much larger than Sderot. “They’ve said that [local] governance is unstable, that the state is being run by caretaker governments, but in the coronavirus [pandemic], we saw that when they want to and understand the size of the danger, they are able to provide funding.”
Another mayor who sought to have the reinforcement project expanded was Yehiel Zohar, who has been mayor of Netivot for 27 years and is considered close to Netanyahu. Despite that, the Prime Minister’s Office has not granted his requests to have his city, which is south of Sderot on the highway to Be’er Sheva, included. “They told me that a decision to add Netivot, which is eight kilometers from the Strip, to the reinforcement program would have an wide impact and that other cities would also demand reinforcement,” he said. Zohar said he thought the prime minister’s staff had Ashkelon in mind.
Senior Home Front Command officials drafted an internal document at the beginning of the week describing civil defense facilities in Ashkelon, along with comments and recommendations.
“The city of Ashkelon is eight kilometers from the Gaza Strip and constitutes a large target, which is exposed to a range of threats from the Gaza Strip,” stated the document, which was addressed to Home Front Command chief Maj. Gen. Ori Gordin. “The days of combat in the south over the past two years exemplify the changing and developing threat from the Gaza Strip front,” the document added, noting that there is growing potential for great harm that demands significant improvement in Ashkelon residents’ security.
The authors of the report recommend reinforcing about 10,000 homes in the city and estimate this will cost 1.4 billion shekels. They also say 30 million shekels is needed to renovate 300 shared shelter facilities, along with two schools and kindergartens, as well as 60 small public shelters that would be placed around the city. Also included in the cost is a remote-controlled radio network that would open public shelters when necessary, and sealing work to be done on 70 public shelters.
The Home Front Command said in response for this article that civil defense reinforcement plans for Ashkelon are included in a work plan approved in 2018 and are nothing new, even though it was not publicized. The Finance Ministry declined to comment for this article. No response was forthcoming from the Prime Minister’s Office.