Rockets on the Negev Don't Wreck Be'er Sheva's Spirit of Social Protest

Protesters in tent compound heed to Israel Defense Forces and police request and move activities to bomb shelter number 17.

Somebody sprayed the words "the people of Israel live" on the concrete wall that protects Be'er Sheva's number 17 bomb shelter. The message seemed particularly intriguing since the shelter has been hosting people from the Negev city's various populations groups.

It has hosted veterans of the poor Dalet neighborhood, students who rent flats in the area, people living in the nearby protest tents, and members of a group that works for Arab-Jewish cooperation who coincidentally use the shelter as a makeshift office. People from these and other neighborhoods congregated in the shelter yesterday, taking refuge from the rockets.

Israel protest continues, Be'er Sheva - Ilan Assayag - August 10 2011
Ilan Assayag

On a day when a rocket crashed into a school sport facility in Be'er Sheva, nobody was in a mood to play down the dangers. A city of a quarter million residents slowed down its pace, but life was not brought to a complete halt. The municipality canceled all late-summer events, and owners of event halls and restaurants reported a number of cancellations for this week.

Still, plenty of businesses stayed open. And in the early evening, when reports of an impending cease-fire circulated, many residents left their homes and acted as if the acts of violence were behind them. As the sun set, traffic began to move and residents took their dogs out for a walk. Activity in Be'er Sheva was far from routine, but the city had not shut down.

Protesters in the tent compound decided yesterday afternoon to heed an Israel Defense Forces and police request to refrain from sleeping in unprotected tents over the next few nights. "We're here to stay," protesters said, noting that their activities would take place in the coming nights in the number 17 bomb shelter, a two-minute walk from the tent compound.

"We haven't come here to struggle against the municipal authorities or the police," said Aryeh Meir, a mathematics and economics student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He's also a leading activist in the local protest movement.

He said that this is "a key moment, a test of the struggle. And I think we'll come out of this feeling stronger. After all, when [the rocket attacks] disappear, we'll realize that the security situation has strengthened our movement. I think we'll be able to return to our activities in another day or two .... I myself am an officer in the IDF reserves, and if something happens, I'll report for army duty. We're not demanding that anyone stop talking about security matters. We're here so that there will also be a discussion of social problems."

Before last week's attacks, keys to the number 17 shelter, in the heart of the Dalet neighborhood, had been sent to the Negev Coexistence Forum for Jewish-Arab cooperation in the region. Chaya Noah, the forum's director, says members of her group had renovated the shelter, installed air conditioners and spruced up the facility for cross-cultural meetings.

She insists that her group will continue its work in the shelter. "We're here, and we have a commitment to the communities around us," she said.