Termite-stricken Families in Ofakim Prefabs Say Gov't Defrauded Them

Houses, provided by gov't and promised to last 50 years, are now crumbling before the sad eyes of their owners.

Lydia Zilberstein came north from her home in Ofakim, Sunday, to bring a jar to the Volcani Institute of Agricultural Research at Beit Dagan. Inside were microscopic mites to be examined at the institute. She had collected them, a recent addition to other pests eating away her walls, from her disintegrating home in Ofakim. They had already chewed through the plaster, penetrated the seams of her clothes and settled in her respiratory system.

For the past five years, Zilberstein, who came to Israel a decade ago from Kazakhstan, has headed the Home and Family Association. The group represents 11,000 families, mostly new immigrants from the Commonwealth of Independent States, who bought prefabricated homes from the government, which had difficulty finding housing for all the immigrants at the time. The houses, which were promised to last 50 years, are crumbling before the sad eyes of their owners.

Over the past year, a plague of termites has begun destroying their houses from the inside. In some, the kitchen cabinets have fallen off. In others, the termites finished off the door frames, chewed into the floor, bored large holes in the walls and ceilings and consumed the furniture. They have left electric wiring exposed, turning houses into fire traps.

After attempts to renovate the homes that cost the Housing Ministry NIS 42 million, Home and Family decided to step up its struggle. It submitted a class action suit against the state, demanding compensation for 200 families of NIS 280,000 per family. "The state took advantage of the ignorance of the immigrants when they first came to the country," the lawyer representing the group, Arkadi Fogatch, said. "They didn't know the language or the laws. The marketing of these houses to the immigrants was organized fraud. The structures are not fit for human habitation [and] the state has to compensate these people so they can rebuild their homes."

Zilberstein and another association member, Paulina Karpivin, a building engineer, say they feel cheated. Zilberstein remembers how the Jewish Agency representative took them on a tour of development towns, and then real estate agents came to their Hebrew language class to encourage them to buy homes. Many were charmed by the attractions of a house with a yard.

Zilberstein paid $75,000 for her 60-square-meter house, and is paying off a monthly mortgage of NIS 1,750 - a huge sum for her family. Karpivin also has a burdensome mortgage. But she also has a dream, that in another 28 years, when she has finished paying off the mortgage, she will have a house to live in and not just a concrete frame, the only thing the termites can't chew through.

The association members tried to bring the termites, whose existence the state does not officially recognize, to a recent meeting of the Knesset Absorption Committee, but security guards, who classified the insects as "biological weapons," insisted they not be taken into the building.

At the meeting, an engineer for the Shikun Upituach construction company explained how they should treat the bathroom floor, instructing them not to get it wet, but only to wipe it down with a damp cloth. "The houses would last 50 years," Karpivin said sarcastically, "if we treated them like a museum. The problem only starts when we want to live there."

Experts also suggested introducing poison gas into the ground under the houses, which Zilberstein and Karpivin discovered on the Internet could penetrate the ground water. The two women say they have learned that the only way to solve the problem is to burn everything.