Southern Discomfort: Living and Working Under Fire in Israel's South

For residents of the Negev, the protected room has become the focal point of their lives for the last three weeks - one at home and one at the office or factory.

Eyal Toueg

Like many Israelis, Nissim and Betty Swissa have a small room in their house with reinforced concrete walls and a reinforced ceiling that serves as a bomb shelter. It’s in a nice neighborhood in Ashkelon, but the room itself is stifling.

It’s filled with shelves containing all sorts of old things: schoolbooks, tools, tape, documents, heaters and cleaning supplies. There’s one of these rooms, a mamad in Hebrew, in every home built after 1992. If the whole family squeezes in, it’s just about big enough to hold everybody.

The Swissa’s mamad was briefly famous when their home was hit by a rocket in the first week of Operation Protective Edge. The mamad saved the life of their 15-year-old daughter Anat, the only one at home when the rocket crashed into their yard. About an hour later, the very same room sheltered Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his Norwegian counterpart Borge Brende, who were visiting the house when warning sirens went off again.

When a reporter visited, the Swissas were standing near a pile of broken glass that was once their living room, trying to digest what happened. They weren’t allowed to touch anything — then the police came, the army and the tax authority.

The property-damage assessors are now arguing whether the tiles on a wall in Betty’s clinic fell because of the explosion or earlier. When can you touch what until recently was your property? The assessors don’t say.

“I’m dealing with exactly that these days,” said Nissim, who heads the Ashkelon municipality’s environment department. “My work has suddenly become part of life.”

A pediatrician, Betty’s clinic in the basement near the mamad was completely destroyed. Broken glass, tiles and concrete cover the floor, the couches and the treatment table. “Imagine if there were children here,” she says.

As Nissim put it: “We’re not sleeping here tonight, no way.” The blast broke all the windows and knocked the doors off their hinges. Much of the house was destroyed. I had a shack, my city of refuge — a sauna and a library. The missile destroyed it completely,” he said.

“I don’t know who’ll deal with all this,” added Betty, trying not to cry. “We’re not worried about the property, it will be fixed. We’re simply happy nothing happened.”

Two days earlier a rocket fell near a neighbor’s house, and Betty went to check if everyone was all right. Now the same neighbors have come to check on her. “What calms me is that it’s only us and no one else was hit,” she said. “We’ll make do. We’re strong.”

Productivity down 40%

At a polyurethane plant on Kibbutz Zikim, department manager Moshe Binyamin was finding it hard to work. He said he was worried that what happened to the Swissa family would happen to him — or worse.

The previous day there were sirens every 10 minutes, making it very hard to relax, he said. It’s one eye on the phone in case something happens at home and one eye on the sign for the mamad, which happens to be the women’s bathroom.

“Should I tell you I’m scared when I’m working? I’m scared,” Binyamin said, adding that the 20 employees under him were having just as tough a time. “Productivity has fallen by 40% at least. No one’s head is in their work, only to take shelter,” he said.

“You look at the door, wait for the sirens and then throw everything down and run. You look at the sign over the door, make sure the passageway is empty, and that’s that. My boss is on my case, but it’s impossible to concentrate.”

In addition to the sagging productivity, the fighting and rocket attacks have led to canceled orders, lost customers and employees too scared to come to work — and of course the physical damage to property.

They will be compensated for some of this by the government — only some of it. Meanwhile, many of the workers live near Gaza. Like Binyamin, they need to deal with the missiles-at-home, missiles-at-work situation and still try to work productively.

Businesses in the south are doing what they can to avoid closing down altogether. At the Rav Bariach factory in Ashkelon, which makes steel security doors, a few pregnant women have moved their offices into the mamad; it’s kind of hard negotiating narrow stairs while running to the shelter. Since the protected room serves as a synagogue for the whole industrial zone in normal times, these women sit amid pews and under signs announcing prayer times.

“We work here, eat here, don’t get up, try not to go to the bathroom. No air? That’s not terrible, it’s better than not breathing,” said Lilach, who works in the collections department. “Normally she yells at customers,” said Vice President Eli Shmini. “These days she mostly says ‘when you want to pay, pay.’”

Plenty of shrapnel

Being in Ashkelon’s southern industrial zone, Rav Bariach is right under the spot where Iron Dome missiles intercept Hamas rockets aimed at the city. Shrapnel falls on the factory regularly. “It’s scary,” said Shmini. “Lights fall down. The walls shake. Shards fall on cars.”

Productivity has fallen 40% there too, and the night shift is almost empty. Fifty of the plant’s 240 employees aren’t reporting for work. Some have received emergency call-up orders from the army; others simply refuse to show up.

“Many suppliers won’t come because of the situation, many visitors who were supposed to come aren’t coming,” he said. “From our experience from the previous war, even when it’s over it isn’t over. It’s a new start.”

At Kafrit Industries in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, which produces raw materials for the plastics industry, CEO Nadav Goldstein is determined not to waste a minute of work. The goal is not to lose a single customer, contract or employee.

Since Operation Protective Edge started three weeks ago, the factory has suffered minimal damage. The clerical staff work in mamads that were converted into offices hours after the fighting began. Dozens of others work from home.

A tour of the factory only a half hour after the latest air-raid warning showed no sign of anything but an ordinary work day. Every mamad has a bathroom, an Internet connection and computers.

Goldstein, meanwhile, has to ensure that 160 employees have work and can collect salaries while not being put in unnecessary danger. “Trying to balance these conflicts of interest is super-complicated, but that’s how we live,” he said.

Goldstein says the company has been practicing for war since shells and rockets began landing in the area 14 years ago. The staff go through emergency drills.

“Instead of going to the dining hall we get meals here. Production managers work from the mamads. They have bulletproof vests and helmets in case they need to walk around outside the mamad,” he said.

“Everyone today is talking about business continuity even if there’s a fire, an earthquake. Here the security risk is the largest, so we’ve prepared accordingly. During the first two days we had a bit of a mess in organization, but we lost very little.”

The factory was hit by a rocket during Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012, forcing it to shut down a production line. Back then the mamad was far away, so other protected spaces were set up inside the plant itself.

“The goal is to continue to manufacture, not to stop,” Goldstein said. If he tells a customer he can’t supply the goods because of the security situation, the customer will simply find another supplier.

“Most of our operations are intended for export,” Goldstein said. “And the world isn’t interested in what’s happening here.”

Eyal Toueg
Eyal Toueg