In Hard-hit Southern Israeli City, a Quarter of Residents Lack Access to Bomb Shelters

'What is an elderly woman who lives on the third or fourth floor supposed to do?' asks a resident of Ashkelon that has been hit with hundreds of rockets from Gaza

Nati Yefet
Nati Yefet
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A rocket fired from Gaza over the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon.
A rocket fired from Gaza over the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Nati Yefet
Nati Yefet

Sigal Simhon does not understand why it is so difficult to replace a faucet. “How much does it cost, 50 shekels?” she asked. Since Friday, she has been staying in a public shelter, and showering standing in a tub, in one of two poorly maintained bathrooms – despite repeated appeals to the municipality of Ashkelon to make the bomb shelter’s shower usable.

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“I live here, on the third floor of the apartment block,” said Simhon, who is in her 50s and lives in the southern Ashkelon neighborhood of Shimshon. “There’s no safe room in the apartment, and the stairwell isn’t protected either. I have poor vision, I’m 100 percent disabled, and I’m here without an aide. The conditions are horrible. Look at the bathrooms, everything is rusted. It’s flooded and the municipality won’t respond. There are 30 people here, the children are bored, and it is very uncomfortable.”

About 40,000 residents of Ashkelon – more than a quarter of the city’s residents – lack safe rooms in their apartments or buildings. Each round of fighting reawakens the discussion about the lack of shelters in the Shimshon neighborhood. After residents protested, the government decided in March to allocate 320 million shekels to build safe rooms for Ashkelon apartments. The cumbersome plan calls for checking whether hundreds of old buildings – home to some 12,000 households – meet the criteria for urban renewal. It also includes loans of up to 158,000 shekels to enable neighborhood residents to build their own shelters, as well as grants for those eligible.

After that decision, developers started advertising in the neighborhood, calling on residents to sign up for urban renewal projects. “It’s absurd, we don’t have decades to wait,” said Oral Shitrit, a student and activist in the neighborhood. The municipality also admits that urban renewal is not a quick solution, and complains that bureaucracy is delaying the funding.“Even if there are public shelters in the neighborhood, there aren’t enough of them, and they are poorly maintained, and concrete blocks stationed as protection around the neighborhood aren’t enough,” says Shitrit. “There are old and disabled people who have no chance of being able to take cover. What is an elderly woman who lives on the third or fourth floor supposed to do – run down two floors in a stairwell that is crumbling in any case?” she asks.

Amos Guetta, a 50-year-old neighborhood resident, says that when the rocket siren sounds, “everyone hides in the stairwell and trembles with fear.” There’s only one shelter under his building, and it’s not close enough to run to, he says.

Nearby in the neighborhood there are two large shelters. Some people have moved in. Simhon has been staying there, with her daughter Odette and Odette’s three children. “The shelter on my street has become a school’s computer room, so it’s closed,” said Odette, in her 20s. “I live in a [public housing] house from Amigour, half of which is constructed from aluminum panel. I have nowhere to hide with the children. One of them split his head open during the previous war while we were running for shelter, and my daughter is being treated for anxiety to this day after shrapnel exploded in our garden. Out of fear, the children are refusing to leave here even for a moment, and I have nowhere to take them, anyway.”

The shelter residents say that despite repeated appeals to the municipal hotline, they received only nine mattresses, even though there are 30 residents there. One of the residents said that when she contacted the hotline she was told that many mattresses had already been sent, and she was even told dismissively that “maybe we should call the police” to make sure that no one steals them.

In response, the city of Ashkelon said that the shelter is private and therefore falls under the building's responsibility: "Despite that fact, our employees went to the shelter in order to provide proper care to the residents."

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