In Israeli City, Residents Fight for Their Right to Flee the 'Cancer Building'

Ashdod's Pladot residents believe asbestos is the cause for the illnesses suffered by many of them.

As evening falls, local residents fill the courtyard of the Pladot building in Ashdod's Het quarter, staring with fear at the gray building across the way. Part of it was built with asbestos and they believe that is the cause for the illnesses suffered by many of them. Further out, near the colorful playground, one can see two mounds; the inhabitants claim they consist of asbestos debris. One resident, Galit Fitousi, told municipal officials that if it isn't asbestos, then, fine; she'll bring a bulldozer herself and flatten the mounds. She says her threat scared people.

Pladot was constructed in the 1980s as a hostel, an absorption center. At the present 84 families live there, mostly of Russian and Sephardi origin.

Inside the building I encounter a tattooed man who is reluctant to be interviewed, but says, "My kid already got it." I don't understand. "The disease," he says, and then disappears into the oily corridor.

By the time my visit is over, I will hear the phrase "the disease," so many times that it will almost lose its meaning. Fitousi and Michelle Alkalai, two tenant-activists who are demanding that Pladot's residents be evacuated, show me broken asbestos planks, which according to regulations must be cleared away.

"Personally, I don't care how large the apartment I move to will be, as long as I get out of here," says Fitousi.

Two months ago the two women transformed the building's courtyard into the headquarters of their struggle, and declared a hunger strike; bits of the signs are still there. But nobody came to talk to them. Their failed strike which lasted a few days interested no one except the local press, which has covered the "cancer building" for years now. The desperate women even went out to block the meager traffic outside, to no avail. Disrupting the municipal council meeting didn't help either. City officials told them it would take eight years to demolish and rebuild the structure. The timeline was later reduced to four years, but nobody wants to stay there for four more years.

We enter A.'s apartment in the building and find damaged asbestos boards in the kitchen. "Apart from the asbestos, we have cockroaches and mice," she says. I try to bring her back to the asbestos issue, but it seems that it is only one symptom of many that make me conjure up the clicheed term "weakened population."

"Nothing here works," A. continues. "I'm an epileptic and my daughter is pregnant and ill. This whole building is polluted - everyone, young and old, suffers from lung diseases."

Michelle immigrated from Paris to Ashdod in 1985. "I'm sorry I came, but that isn't relevant anymore," she says sadly. "I already have three children here, and there's nowhere to run to."

Svetlana Woscow, 61, immigrated from the Ukraine. "I suffer from every possible disease," she says. "My father got cancer here and committed suicide by jumping out the window. My mother died here."

Woscow's home has wet asbestos planks, and she was told they could be inspected only after they dry. "I'm glad my daughter left, you can't raise a baby here," she says.

"My son has cancer," says another tenant. "I don't know if it's from the asbestos. He was healthy when we moved here."

Numerous illnesses

Despite the numerous illnesses, a laboratory report determined that the asbestos level at Pladot is actually higher than allowed. The tenants raged against the report, and a new one is being written.

Last Thursday, a report of the Health Ministry district supervisor determined that "there are pests, including rats, among the asbestos boards, some of which are cracked. The boards constitute a serious hazard to the health of the tenants."

The activists are especially angry with Yehiel Lasri, Ashdod's mayor, who came to the building to win their votes before the last elections and hasn't been seen since.

"They all ignored our hunger strike, Lasri didn't come to talk to us," says one tenant. "Even if I collapse he won't care. He isn't interested in the residents, only in building new plazas."

One of the only people who has tried to help the transparent residents of Pladot building is MK Ilan Gilon (Meretz ), who lives in Ashdod. Gilon suggests that instead of demolishing and rebuilding the place, which could take years, residents should be given grants so as to be able to rent dwellings in other areas. Their relocation should be immediate, he says.

"It's not only the asbestos, it's also the crime," says another resident. "We have nine year olds who smoke - not only cigarettes. There are drug-selling stations here, and the dealers influence our children."

"This building has all the problems possible," says Fitousi. "If something isn't done immediately, it will collapse. The ceilings are made of Styrofoam. Local firefighters told us that in case of a short-circuit, we won't see a spark, we'll only smell something. And that we should flee immediately, because the electrical wires can catch fire and burn down the place."

Municipality council member Helen Gleber has sent numerous letters on behalf of the tenants to various ministries. "They say I'm a nudnik, that they can't stand hearing from me any more," she says with pride. "The building can be evacuated today. Fourteen tenants have already got cancer. Some of them were evacuated to help them recover. And what about the Home Front Defense Ministry? If a tiny missile hits the building - everyone will perish."

An Ashdod municipal statement said: "The mayor has asked for the opinion of experts to find the legal venues possible for reducing the timetable [for rebuilding] and has requested the Housing and Construction Minister to promote the establishment of a joint steering committee ... Finding alternative housing for 84 families is not practical. This is a 20-year-old building, which has only attracted attention in the past three years. The municipality is aiding the residents: We've planted gardens, added playgrounds and initiated activities for children."