Southern Businesses, Farmers Find Themselves in Dire Straits

"This war is a deathblow to businesses," said a jewelry store owner in the center of Ashdod's business district yesterday, looking around at an empty town.

The situation in the city's big seaside mall was not much better. Even though children were enjoying the last day of their Hanukkah vacation, only a few kids and their parents were out and about, and many shopowners were sitting around with nothing to do. Signs directing people to the nearest shelter and how to act when the Color Red rocket alert sounds were everywhere.

Some stores shuttered their glass display windows, leaving only the door open so they could close the store quickly. "Forty-five seconds from the warning to the hit is nothing," said Hani, the manager of a store in the mall. She said it took four minutes yesterday morning to get all the customers out and into the shelter, and to lock up.

Most store owners are trying to project optimism and a lack of fear, but they admit that the alerts and rocket hits have kept their customers at home. The owners said they were committed to keeping their stores open during the mall's regular opening hours, but doubted it would be worth it.

Others put their hopes on Russian-speakers, who are still buying in advance of the New Year holiday, though they said there was no comparison to last year.

The real estate agents have almost completely closed down, at least temporarily. Out of 24 offices TheMarker visited in one area of Ashdod, only two were open yesterday. One agency owner said there was zero business, and the phone had not rung all week.

Farmers in the Eshkol Regional Council, whose fields border the southern end of the Gaza Strip, are under what can best be described as an economic curfew. The farmers look helplessly at their rocket-bombarded fields, which are empty because the hired hands are staying away - whether due to the danger at work or the fear of leaving their children at home. The stores, bed and breakfasts and other businesses are empty.

In addition, the farmers were already hit by low vegetable prices and are now left with thousands of tons of unpicked vegetables, flowers and spices. The little that has been picked is stuck in exposed greenhouses or fields and cannot be moved as truck drivers are afraid to pick up the produce.

"When there are warnings all the time work slows down," said Erez Yifrah from Moshav Ohad in the region.

Most of the communities near the Gaza border make their livelihoods from agriculture - 12 of the 14 in the region are considered so close to the border, within 2 kilometers, that their farmers are not being allowed into the fields.

Businesses are suffering also from the flight of residents, many of whom fled for the center of the country immediately after the news of the attack by the Israel Defense Forces on Saturday.

Many basic goods are in short supply, said one local grocery store owner, because suppliers are afraid to enter the region. The roads have been closed in some areas and the delivery trucks are staying away.

Tourism, both Israeli and foreign, has taken a particularly hard hit. This should have been a strong season because the anemone flower is spreading red carpets across the landscape, but the Qassams have put a complete end to any tourism.

Bed and breakfasts are empty and there are no cancellations because no one made any reservations in the first place amid the tension that already plagued the region.

Factories in the Asheklon region are also suffering, their regular work routine interrupted.

Many plants have inadequate shelters for the rocket threat and cannot afford to build new ones. Even when all the workers show up, work is slowed as employees regularly have to take shelter during production, often ruining the products in the process.

Others complain that their competitors in the center of the country are taking advantage of the situation, and are worried they will lose business even if things return to normal. Others have moved production elsewhere.