Below Southern Israeli City's ‘Death Building,’ Airless Misery

Amid the harsh socio-economic reality, residents of one Ashkelon neighborhood have the underground bunker blues

Children huddle on a mattress in a bomb shelter, Ashkelon, November 13, 2019
Ilan Assayag

The stuffiness in the underground bomb shelter at 3 Jabotinsky St. in Ashkelon doesn’t seem to bother the 20 or so children playing on some mattresses strewn in the corner. Near them sit a family, everyone staring into their cellphone.

>> Follow live updates of the events in Gaza here

Haaretz WeeklyHaaretz

On this Wednesday morning of an uncharacteriscally warm November, the third rocket siren brings in three women who had been sitting at the entrance. The shelter quickly fills with additional residents of the Shimshon neighborhood.

Shimshon is considered one of the city’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods. Its old apartment buildings, which don't have indoor strongrooms, house immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, along with native Israelis and more recent immigrants. A woman wearing clothes that are too small for her walks toward the shelter and asks passersby for 5 shekels ($1.43).

“The death building,” one woman calls the apartment building. A year ago a rocket hit it, killing two people. Mahmoud Abu Asba, 48, a married Palestinian construction worker with six children from Halhul, in the West Bank, died at the scene. Nina Gnisednova, 74, died in September of her injuries. The building’s tenants have yet to return. The apartments are being renovated by Palestinians from East Jerusalem. Some area residents say they fear them.

The front of the building that was hit by a rocket in Ashkelon.
Ilan Assayag

“They live here in the building, they work here and while they’re firing on us they continue to work here as if nothing is happening,” said Natalia Podotov, who has two young children. “There’s no guard here, and one of them could suddenly decide to hurt someone. I’m sorry that I’m saying this, but it’s happened.”

Avigail Ginat, who says she “lives in a house made of paper,” spent the night on a mattress in the shelter with her 10-year-old son. She came out to get some air. “It’s suffocating, seven families are sleeping next to each other and the fan doesn’t work. I couldn’t stay there anymore.” Havatzelet Ben-Chelouche, who also has a 10-year-old son, says, “I’m asthmatic and the air is stagnant in there. We’re sitting here outside because you can’t breathe in there, but we’re scared to move about. And where’s the municipality?” she asks, bursting into tears. “We begged yesterday for mattresses, for food, for games for the children. The kids were hungry but we are afraid to go to the grocery. Luckily we have a friend with a pizzeria, he brought us seven pies.”

Ben-Chelouche, however, stresses that she has no complaints against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “There’s no one like Bibi,” she said, using the premier’s nickname. “Do you want [Benny] Gantz to bring Hamas helicopters here over our house? It could always be worse.”

A passing elderly woman with a shopping cart wants to know when her National Insurance allowance will be deposited. Because post offices were closed on Tuesday, she couldn’t withdraw money and had to borrow from a neighbor. “I don’t have anything to eat,” she says. “I have no shelter. I live across the street but I’m 70 years old, how can I run to the shelter?”

The Ashkelon Municipality said it “invested many resources in equipping the public shelters under its jurisdiction. However, it is possible that incidents of vandalism harmed the readiness of said shelters.” The city added that it send teams to fix “everything that is possible.”

A young child attempting to sleep on a mattress in a bomb shelter, Ashkelon, November 13, 2019
Ilan Assayag

The tension increases with every new siren. Anxiety about security come bundled with the difficult life in the neighborhood and the feeling that the city neglects them.

“The kids have nothing to do now, but that’s no different than any other day,” says Ben-Chelouche. “The nearest playground is a kilometer from here. The kids play at the site where they’ve thrown the debris from the building next door and run around among the used needles and bongs. There’s nothing here. It’s no place to grow up; only those of strong character will come out good from this neighborhood.” Ginat backs her up. “My son left the neighborhood for Sderot, the difference is like heaven and earth.”

A car stops near the shelter and five young men get out, wearing shirts of HaNoar HaOved VeHaLomed, a left-wing youth movement. They’ve brought a dog, which quickly becomes an attraction in the shelter. One of the youths spreads out a colorful parachute; the bored children happily begin to play with it and the shelter suddenly becomes lively. “We’ve come to try to break the kids’ routine and the feeling that war will break out any second,” said one of the youths. There’s another siren and everyone runs back inside. The dog starts to bark nervously. Afterward everyone comes back out to get some air, while the Palestinian laborers continue to plaster the side of the building.