Between Qassams and Poverty, Especially Tough Times in Sderot

Dozens of stores have shut down in Sderot in recent months, leaving an empty space in the town's center.

A man in his 70s picks up one whole chicken, a package of rice, a loaf of bread and fruit and approaches the check-out counter at Super Dahan's grocery store in Sderot. He produces a NIS 100 voucher he received from storeowner Daniel Dahan.

The cashier rings up a total of NIS 240, and the man must return some of the products to the shelves.

The cashier at the next counter catches an elderly customer stealing basic products.

"People are leaving Sderot every day. Those who stay in town are the lowest income earners and now with the rise in food prices they have to steal," says Dahan. He has a drawer full of vouchers he hands out to needy people. "They should come to me and ask before reaching this situation," he says.

Dozens of stores have shut down in Sderot in recent months, leaving an empty space in the town's center. Suppliers are fulfilling fewer orders at local grocery stores, fearing they will not be paid.

Those who have not closed down are hardly making a living. "On days when there's a rocket alert, people stay at home, work goes down by 70 percent at least and business owners know they have no reason to open their store that day," the owner of Cohen spice shop says.

Shimon Edri, the municipal official in charge of business development, says that most businesses should close down, judging by their profits. "But I can't tell them that. People have invested their lives in their businesses. Today the criterion isn't whether you've closed down but whether you make NIS 100 a day. And that's before paying rent, maintenance and taxes," he says.

He says 120 business owners took loans of NIS 50,000 over the past six months. "Another 80 who applied were turned down because their checks had bounced. It's not because of mismanagement but because of the security situation," he says.

Although the cabinet has approved a 50 percent tax cut for Sderot's small business owners, they are still being charged the full price due to red tape and footdragging between the interior and finance ministries. One merchant, Aharon Hugi, tried to lead a "tax rebellion," but his account was foreclosed as soon as he didn't pay up.

Sderot's municipality, business owners' committee and the Industry Trade and Employment Ministry have begun looking for markets out of town. They have set up an Internet site and service hotline to allow consumers from all over Israel to do their shopping in Sderot.

"In the last holiday, Zim Integrated Shipping Services and Haifa Oil Refineries bought 600 Passover food packages for needy families. It wasn't only economic assistance, it helped raise morale as well," says Dahan.

Sderot business owners travel to fairs all over the country and consumer convoys come to Sderot, says Edri. "This solidarity and warmth of the people warms the heart and suddenly things aren't so difficult."

On my way out of Dahan's grocery store, I glimpsed three Jerusalemites shopping in Sderot to show their support.

"What hurts me most is that every time I leave Sderot there's a Red Color alert," says Netanya Ginsburg, of Jerusalem. "I know that I came here and bought things, but you people continue to live with the rocket alerts."