Rise in Number of Unemployed, Needy in Ofakim

Fourteen-hundred people unemployed, factories closing, businesses losing thousands of shekels a month, and residents in need of food donations. Such is life in 2009 in the hardscrabble city of Ofakim.

Employment Services statistics for the city show it tops the unemployment list of predominantly Jewish cities; the rate of residents seeking help finding a job has risen to 8 percent.

Haaretz has learned unemployment in the city is expected to rise in March and April to a record 2,000 people.

Over 100 local factory workers were laid off in the past two months. The factories in the kibbutzim surrounding Ofakim that were once primary employers of its residents no longer need extra manpower, and the Employment Services remains powerless in the face of mounting stacks of employment requests.

Yaakov Cohen is a social activist in Ofakim who has distributed food to needy residents for over a decade. Every week he visits the nearby kibbutzim and moshavim to collect surplus foodstuffs.

In recent years 300 local residents used to make use of his services. Today he feeds some 800 people, and the line gets longer every week. "I think the government is neglecting weak people in Israel, and doing it consciously. There are families in the city of Ofakim which live on 1,050 shekels a month. Every week four more families are added to the needy list," he said.

Cohen is pessimistic about what the future holds for his city, which he believes is in for the most serious economic crisis it has ever faced.

In his view, its bitter fate is due not only to the global economic downturn but also to a lack of stable municipal leadership. "It's unacceptable that in a place that has been suffering in recent years, and particularly last year, due to the economic crisis, there's no stability in government," he said. "The Interior Ministry switches mayors here like shoes."