Did you come to see the house that was hit by the rocket?” asked a little Ethiopian-Israeli boy. “The whole world’s already been here,” The child ran off to play soccer in a run-down courtyard nearby and I continued to the site of the attack that claimed the lives of three Israelis two weeks earlier.
This is Kiryat Malachi, a humdrum town of around 20,000 people in southern Israel. Optimistically named after Los Angeles, it does not share the glitz or wealth of its namesake. While nearly a month ago it garnered headlines around the world, now it’s already all but forgotten of little interest to the media or policy makers in Jerusalem.
(The Amsalem family home in Kiryat Malachi, hit by a direct rocket strike on the first full day of the operation. Photo credit: Ben Hartman)
In a sense the rocket attack is another tragedy in a long line of setbacks for the star-crossed town, which was made famous by native son Moshe Katzav, the former mayor and later president of Israel driven from office and now serving a seven year prison sentence for a litany of sex crimes including rape and sexual harassment. The town came into the limelight again when current Mayor Moti Malka was arrested on sexual assault charges, also of a former employee. The charges were later dropped and the city fell from the headlines again, until a grad rocket took the lives of three local residents on November 15th the first morning of Operation Pillar of Defense.
Having covered the rocket strike for the Jerusalem Post three weeks earlier, I headed back to see what had changed in the neighborhood in the short time since the attack and saw that some baby steps had already been taken to help prepare the town for the next round of rockets, which many people think won’t be far off.
Though on the day of the rocket strike the basement shelters in the half a dozen buildings that make up the apartment complex were either locked or trash-strewn private basements and illegal apartments, two weeks later most had been cleared and repainted, with the trash and old furniture that had been stashed inside now stacked in piles behind the buildings.
Yossi Peretz, the Kiryat Malachi municipality spokesman, said that in the two weeks after the attack the city placed nine portable shelters across the city, and has requested a further 25. The shelters, which are made of concrete almost a foot thick and are about the size of a large walk-in closet, were supplied by private donors and the IDF Home Front Command, he added.
Peretz said the city would need to deploy around 500 with dozens on each street in order to assure that people can reach one in the 45 seconds it takes for a rocket from Gaza to hit the city. He added that the only real solution is for all residents of detached houses to build their own personal safe rooms in their houses, and that the city will award tax-free building permits for residents building their own in-house shelter.
Though the city had managed to place a handful of the shelters around town, little appeared to have changed inside the building where Itzik Amsalem, Aharon Smadja, and pregnant young mother Mira Scharf lost their lives. A young Russian-Israeli security guard was posted outside the building, and said he was sent the day earlier by the municipality to try to ward off looters. On the top two floors of the building there were stickers reading “building condemned”, and the apartments on those floors were all deserted, with cellphone numbers stuck to the doors with the residents’ cell phone numbers so they could be reached in case of emergency.
In the Amsalem apartment, the very top right unit, nothing seemed to have changed since the attack. Behind the wooden plank sealing off the front door, a pile of clothes and books, dishes, concrete and dust stood a couple meters high in the living room, while assorted belongings lay tossed asunder in a thick layer across the floor of the entire apartment. The smell of decay inside was overpowering, even worse than the day of the tragedy, when the apartment bore a powerful odor of death and smoke, trash and cinder.
Baruch Landov’s apartment across the hallway shared a wall with the kitchen of the Amsalem’s apartment. When the rocket struck his wife Livi was crouching in the stairwell, and managed to escape without harm.
Landov said this week that a building engineer who came after the strike said that he and his wife can continue to live in the apartment, but that due to the serious structural damage caused by the rocket blast, the entire top two floors of the stairwell will have to be replaced.
Regardless, the Landovs aren’t waiting for the stairwell renovations to begin for them to move out. Since the rocket strike they’ve been staying with Baruch’s parents elsewhere in Kiryat Malachi, and don’t plan on moving back anytime soon.
“It’s not just because of the damage to the stairwell, we’re not capable mentally or emotionally. I went there last Friday to pick up some of our belongings and the whole top floor smells like something is rotting, you don’t know if it’s food left in their refrigerator since then or what, it’s impossible. It’s also that you know in both of those apartments there were people killed, it’s very difficult.”
He added that he’s spoken to other residents of the building, and that most of them, even those on the bottom floor and in a neighboring building say they’re just waiting for their rental contract to run out, at which point they’ll leave.
“They knew the people who died, they don’t want to live here any longer.”
On that morning two weeks ago Itzik Amsalem did what many Israelis do when the Code Red siren goes off: He headed for the balcony of his apartment, which faced south towards Gaza, and held up his smart phone to try and photograph the Iron Dome anti-missile system intercepting the rocket. His mother began to plead with him to head for the stairwell, the only part of the building that offered any protection, and her shouts were heard by neighbor Aharon Smadja, who came into the apartment to check on the commotion. Moments later, a grad rocket slammed into the fourth floor of the building, killing Itzik and Aharon, and Mira Scharf, who was in the apartment next door.
The grad rocket, packed with ball bearings and an 18 kilo warhead, devastated four apartments on the top two floors of the apartment, and seriously wounded Mira Scharf’s husband Shmulik and blew two fingers off the left hand of the family’s three-year-old son Yosef Yitzhak.
The strike was Israel’s most deadly rocket attack since August 6th 2006, when in the thick of the Second Lebanon War, a Katyusha rocket fired by Hezbollah killed 12 reservists awaiting orders next to the cemetery outside Kibbutz Kfar Giladi.
By mid-day the apartment building and the vacant lot south of the complex had become a full-on pilgrimage site, crammed with local residents, police, rescue personnel, and journalists from every outlet in Israel, jockeying for space with dozens of foreign reporters.
Like every recent round of escalations between Israel and the Palestinians, the body count was heavily lopsided, with as many as 177 Palestinians and Israelis killed according to IDF figures. Though Hamas fired over 1.500 rockets into Israel during the eight days of fighting, with some hitting the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem areas for the first time, by and large Israelis could seek safety in the network of public bomb shelters in the south of the country, and the Iron Dome anti-missile system which shot down nearly 500 rockets heading for populated areas. Though the Iron Dome’s success earned it accolades and praise from an admiring Israeli public, it failed to hit its target as much as 15% of the time, including on the morning of November 15th in Kiryat Malachi.
For a mini-war like Operation Pillar of Defense, in which the disparity in the death toll between Israelis and Palestinians shape much of the media coverage, the Kiryat Malachi attack was a clear example of the lethality of Iranian-supplied rockets fired by the hundreds and thousands into Israeli cities, and the spokesman on hand from the Israeli government, police, and the IDF scrambled to ensure that the scene was photographed and reported in dozens of languages in real time, and burned into the public record of the latest round of hostilities.
Looking at the faces of the residents and the crumbling state of the public housing blocks in this corner of Kiryat Malachi, the feeling was that the victims of the deadliest rocket attack in years were among the weakest of Israelis. All around that particular block of the “Chabad neighborhood”, so-called because of the high number of followers of the Lubavitch rebbe who call it home, stood decaying apartment buildings thrown up by the Amidar public housing company decades earlier, and now inhabited by single mothers, poor Haredi families, and Ethiopian and Russian immigrants. Behind corrugated steel fencing across from the apartment bloc, a separate complex lay deserted and condemned, set for demolition after engineers determined it is in imminent danger of collapse long before the rocket struck in mid-November.
In the building next door to the one hit by the grad rocket, widower Alice Gan-Ezer spoke with fury about the decrepit state of the Amidar building she received a subsidized apartment in after her husband passed away 16 years earlier. Gan-Ezer pointed to the mold and mildew rotting away at the support beams of the stairwells, and a wooden electrical cabinet full of pigeons and excrement. The stairwell, which for people who lack access to their own personal bomb shelters was like many in public housing blocs in poor neighborhoods across southern Israel; wide open and exposed to the elements providing no defense from the rockets.
“I had two sons who used to live here with me, but once they were able to leave hakirya, they got out, they don’t want to live here and I don’t want them to live like this,” Gan Ezer said.
A similar sentiment was voice by a teenage resident standing in front of the building on the morning of the rocket strike, who summed up the situation well.