A plea from Israel’s South: Gimme shelter

A plea from Israel’s South: Gimme shelter

Fares Alhozael says the Israeli government has failed to provide a bomb shelter near his home on the outskirts of the Bedouin city of Rahat.     
Fares Alhozael says the Israeli government has failed to provide a bomb shelter near his home on the outskirts of the Bedouin city of Rahat.     

OFAKIM, Israel — At 6 p.m. Sunday, as war raged just over the border with Gaza, the brick-paved plaza surrounded by stores and restaurants in central Ofakim was nearly empty. Shuki Matok, a local florist, said business has suffered because people are afraid to venture out.

Rockets fired from Gaza regularly set off “red alerts” in Ofakim, a development town 12 miles from Be’er Sheva, where residents already struggle with underemployment and relative isolation.

But residents of the Jewish town also say the state has let them down. Ofakim has four times as many shelters as the neighboring Bedouin village of Rahat for half the population, but the owners of shops on the ground floor of Ofakim’s city hall say they have nowhere to run. In the early days of the conflict, a shelter was available, but they say it has since been moved.

Now when a siren sounds, the shopkeepers stay inside. Employees of a barbershop said they lie on the floor during rocket fire. Municipal employees, meanwhile, have relocated to a protected complex in another neighborhood.

“If the government wants us to be protected it should help us be protected,” said Margo Kadosh, who owns a clothing shop below city hall with her husband, David. “There are shelters, but you can’t get there in time.”

Ofakim spokesman Maor Zabari acknowledged that the city does not have enough protection and said more shelters had been requested from Jerusalem. But, Zabari said, “outdoor shelters are not the issue,” and that in advance of future conflicts the city should focus on long-term investments like outfitting buildings and houses with protected rooms.

Ofakim residents are among the thousands of southern Israelis who lack ready or adequate access to bomb shelters. Two weeks into the latest outbreak of fighting in Gaza, in which a barrage of Hamas missiles has rained down on Israeli cities, many southern Israelis say they hold slim hope for protection during this go-round. They only hope the state answers their requests before the next battle starts.

The gaps are being filled, as with other services, in part by North American philanthropists. Ofakim is a partnership community, through the Jewish Agency for Israel, of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. Its supporters have given the town a center for children and youth, an integration program for Ethiopian immigrants, enriched school day and nutrition programs, a center for women, and outreach to girls at risk.  

This week the American Jewish Committee announced it was giving a grant through its Heilbrunn Humanitarian Fund to help Ofakim build a shelter attached to the G’vanim paramedical center for children (see related story, this page).

But in some Bedouin towns, like Rahat, in the south, officials say they can’t count on either the government or philanthropy from abroad. 

Only about half the houses in Rahat have protected rooms. For the rest of the city’s 60,000 residents, there are only 33 shelters, almost all of them in local schools. If schools weren’t closed for the summer, students would fill the shelters and leave no space for other residents, according to Ahmad Alhozael, head of the city’s security and emergency division.

“The situation is intolerable,” said Hassan Alhozael, Ahmad’s cousin and the local public school vice principal. “There’s trauma for the Bedouin children. The siren sounds and they have no place to hide. The state turns its back. The government needs to do well by us.”

Security isn’t much better in Rahat’s city center, which features a drab city hall, a modern community center, and a traditional open market where merchants sell food, clothes, and housewares piled on the ground.

Some of the newer buildings have protected rooms, but only three small mobile shelters serve the market’s customers. One of the shelters stands in the middle of a parking lot surrounded by trash and flies, its entrance blocked by bags of garbage. Inside, the shelter is filled with torn-up cardboard boxes and an intolerable stench.

“I complain all day and they don’t answer,” said Ahmed Alhozael, pulling up a record of e-mails requesting 15 shelters that he has sent daily to Israel’s Home Front Command. He hadn’t received a response.

The lack of shelters in Bedouin communities has already led to tragedy. One Bedouin man — Ouda Lafi al-Waj, 32 — was killed and four of his family members were injured after a rocket struck their home in a Bedouin village on July 13. The village had no shelters.

Last week, Israel’s Supreme Court rejected a petition filed by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel requesting shelters for exposed Bedouin neighborhoods. The judges wrote that the state has limited means of defending its citizens and that the choice to leave certain communities exposed was not a result of ethnic discrimination.

“We trust and are certain that if circumstances change in a way that would justify moving shelters from their present location” to the Bedouin neighborhoods, the government would do so, the judges wrote.

Another cousin of Ahmad Alhozael, Fares Alhozael, doesn’t want much from the Israeli government.  Fares, 55, hasn’t worked in more than two decades, since he injured his leg in a produce factory.

But he doesn’t seem to mind. Indeed, he sings the government’s praises and waves off criticism of Israel’s current military operation in Gaza, saying, “We need to destroy the entire Islamist movement, whoever raises his head.” 

All he wants, he says, is a bomb shelter.

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