It was a devastating moment on the first full day of last year’s Operation Pillar of Defense: A Gazan Grad rocket scored a direct hit on a poor neighborhood in Kiryat Malachi, killed three Israelis and left images of destruction on the home front seared in the minds of the public.
A year later, some things appear to have changed in this corner of Kiryat Malachi, but by and large it’s still an impoverished and crumbling neighborhood, with one building in particular still haunted by the tragedy.
A for-sale sign with a phone number hung on the window of the fourth-floor apartment that remains vacant since Itzik Amsalem, 27, died when the rocket struck his living room on November 15, 2012.
On the other end of the line, Itzik’s father, David, answered, saying that he’s tried for months to sell the apartment, with no one willing to move into the home once they hear what happened there, even though it’s been through a floor-to-ceiling renovation.
“People ask me who lived here, whose house it was, and I can’t lie to them,” he said. “I have to tell them what happened. Once I do that, they’re not interested. I can’t rent it, I can’t sell it, I just hope the government will come and take it off my hands, trade with me for an apartment elsewhere.”
David raised Itzik and his two brothers and sister in the apartment, leaving it to Itzik not long before the attack.
Today, he lives with his wife in nearby Ashkelon, where he said one of the recent underworld car bombs went off only a block from his apartment, bringing back the fear and panic of Operation Pillar of Defense.
He added that on the rare occasion someone does call to see the apartment, he sends his wife or daughter-in-law to show the property, since driving down that street makes him panic.
“Every day that goes by it just gets harder, every day we just miss him more,” David said on Thursday.
Directly below the Amsalem household, Avraham and Haya Hager sat in their renovated living room, into which they were finally able to move back, five months after the rocket strike. The rocket that hit Amsalem’s living room pierced the Hagers’ apartment as well, leaving two large holes in the ceiling, with the shock wave launching their belongings across the apartment.
The home today looks brand new, but Haya said something is missing.
“The people who used to live here, they’re missed. When we came back a few months after [the rocket strike], the silence was deafening. It was the quiet they left behind that was hardest.”
The quiet left behind has been filled to a degree by the addition of their daughter Hanna, who was born not long after the Gazan attack, during which her mother was nine months pregnant, hiding in the stairwell with her husband as the building shook and filled with smoke and shattered glass.
Avraham said it took five months to renovate their home, far longer than he expected when then-finance minister Yuval Steinitz stood in his wrecked living room last November 15 and said the government would do everything possible to get them back in the apartment within two weeks.
He said he also found himself locked in a battle trying to get the insurance company to start the repairs.
“On the first day the insurance people speak to you really nicely, they’re very helpful, but then they really make you work for it.”
Though his home looks as good as ever, the two apartments above – where Itzik Amsalem and Mirah Scharf, 25, were killed – remain vacant, with no one willing to move in. He said another family had moved into the apartment where Aharon Smadja, then 49, lived before he was killed by the blast. No one was home at the apartment on Thursday, but a sticker with a picture of the Lubavitcher Rebbe remained on the door, with the words “The Smadja family is waiting for the Messiah” written on it.
Despite the pain that overshadows the building, Avraham tries to see the positive, something that he credits to his faith as a Lubavitch Hassid.
“This was a tragedy, but it was also a miracle,” he said.
“How did all these people survive? You saw what the shock waves did when you were here that day. How did only three people die? It’s a miracle, not just a tragedy.”
As the Hagers were speaking, an incessant hammering rang in from the field outside their balcony. A year ago, the lot was full of dozens of reporters from the Israeli and foreign press as well as police, soldiers and rescue personnel, and for a few hours this neglected block of Kiryat Malachi seemed the center of the Israeli experience.
Today, on that same vacant lot, construction workers are building a pair of two-story four-unit houses, and Avraham said that in the coming years, houses and buildings will go up across the fields across the street, which stretch on toward the horizon in the direction of the Gaza Strip.
Elsewhere, this patch of the neighborhood remains the same, full of derelict apartment buildings littered with trash, with some of them cracked and appearing ready to fall at any moment.
“You were here on the day of the rocket?” asked Shalom Gorelick, head of the building’s house committee, as he shuffled past the entryway.
“And then you forgot about us, just like everybody else?” Gorelick pointed out the date tree and grape vines he’d planted in recent years behind the building, where he’s lived since moving to Israel as a Lubavitch follower from the Soviet Union in 1971.
“Back then,” he said, “Kiryat Malachi was a desert. People thought we were crazy to come here, but this is where the rebbe told us to settle.”
Gorelick said that when the rocket struck he was at morning prayers at a nearby synagogue he had built in memory of his son Yosef, who died at a young age due to a terminal illness. When he returned, he found chaos and destruction encircling his home of more than 40 years.
In the weeks and months to come, he said, the residents were left on their own, with little help from the state or the city, and he worked to clear out the debris left inside and around the building. He also related how not long after the tragedy, on Hanukka, he brought a 90-cm. menorah from the synagogue to Itzik Amsalem’s house and placed it in the open balcony, which was then still gutted and scorched by the rocket. He said he hoped at the time that it would bring some light to the darkness and “show that we are the people of Israel and we’re here to stay.”
The Lipschitz family today lives below the apartment where Mirah Scharf was killed.
Dina Lipschitz said the strike happened two weeks before her and her husband Baruch’s wedding. She had come to the apartment early on the morning of November 15 to oversee some movers who were bringing their furniture, to prepare the home for them to move into immediately after the wedding.
Dina managed to make it to the stairwell with her mother during the strike and was saved without a scratch, though two of the movers were wounded.
Dina said she’s comfortable living in the building where the tragedy happened, though she wouldn’t feel comfortable walking up to the fourth floor, and that she hasn’t been up there since the attack.
She added that while she and her husband have set their lives up nicely in the apartment, for those who were there before them the road back has been much harder.
“We have everything back but the families who lived here,” she said. “The people who knew them say they’re very much missed.”