Middle Israel: Murder in the heartland

Ofir Hisdai lost his life under a shopping mall, where he was quarreling with another driver over a parking spot, when the man drew a pistol and shot Ofir twice.

ZAKA MEDICAL personnel attend the scene where Ofir Hisdai was shot dead during an argument over a parking spot at the Azrieli Mall in Ramle on Sunday (photo credit: FLASH90)
ZAKA MEDICAL personnel attend the scene where Ofir Hisdai was shot dead during an argument over a parking spot at the Azrieli Mall in Ramle on Sunday
(photo credit: FLASH90)
Ofir Hisdai died the way he lived: wrestling with the devil’s merciless pursuit.
At 40, he spent his nights in guard shifts so he could spend his days caring for his wife, Dikla, who suffers from muscular dystrophy, as does one of their nine-year-old twins, who lives in a wheelchair, unlike the couple’s 10-month-old baby, who was born with cerebral palsy.
Hisdai lost his life under a shopping mall, where he was quarreling with another driver over a parking spot, when the man drew a pistol and shot Ofir twice, with Dikla and two of their daughters still seated in the car from which their sole breadwinner had just emerged, before collapsing into a pool of blood.
The incident that unveiled the rude, selfish and lawless Ugly Israeli we routinely meet driving recklessly on the highway, leaving a trail of garbage in the park, or shouting from this end of the airplane to that, also unveiled his inversions, the charitable Israelis who in this case raised NIS 1.7 million in a crowdfunding drive joined within 48 hours by 10,000 people who had never met Ofir or Dikla.
Most people saw this tragedy as a psychological tale, a parable about human character, both bad and good. In fact, it has a governmental layer, hidden in this story’s forgotten hero: Israeli space.
BEYOND THE parking spot by which Ofir lay dead lurked the two Israeli ailments: substandard public transportation, which makes millions use cars rather than ride trains; and the dearth of parking spots, which the cars we are made to use demand.
Wedged between these predicaments, sprawls the overcrowded and gridlocked Coastal Plain, in which Ofir lived and died.
Ramle – the working-class town east of Tel Aviv where Dikla and Ofir inhabited a shoebox apartment – is part of the overpopulated Coastal Plain’s backyard.
Built 13 centuries ago by the Land of Israel’s Muslim conquerors, the only Arab-founded city in today’s Israel was a regional capital that combined fragrant markets and a handsome aqueduct with monumental landmarks like the White Mosque, whose 30-meter turret overlooked the surrounding urbanity’s sprawl.
The tower remains intact, 300 meters from the Azrieli Mall where Ofir hoped to park. The mall’s modern glitz, like the medieval spire’s endurance, is as misleading as the city’s Arches Pool, the underground pool where tourists row boats between medieval pillars, à la Venetian gondoliers.
In fact, like Venice after Columbus, Ramle has long lost its centrality – first, when the Ottomans moved the regional capital to Jerusalem, then when Israel moved the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway to the Ayalon Valley.
The marginalized Ramle thus became, along with crime-infested Lod, nearby Tel Aviv, Modi’in and Shoham’s stepsiblings, a pair of slummy towns whose 170,000 inhabitants’ average income is 20% lower than the national average.
Yes, they may be paupers, but they and the millionaires of Herzliya, Savyon and Ramat Hasharon inhabit the same urban monstrosity that makes the Israeli Coastal Plain one of the most densely populated strips of land in the entire world.
With 3.8 million Israelis dwelling between Ashdod and Netanya along a belt 60 km. long and 20 km. wide, and with another million in greater Haifa and Ashkelon – more than half of Israel’s population is crammed into its narrow coastal strip.
One town along that stretch, Bnei Brak, is among the world’s 10 most crowded cities, with more than 27,300 people per square km., in league with Mumbai (28,500) and Kolkata (24,200), a would-be Manhattan (28,100), minus the charm, wealth and subway.
Unlike the setting of Murder in the Heartland, the 1993 TV series about American spree killer Charles Starkweather, the heartland in which Ofir Hisdai lived and died is not remote Wyoming or sparsely settled Nebraska, where the disturbed Starkweather murdered 11 people. Ofir died in the region where most Israelis live, work, race, sweat, step on each other’s toes and breathe down each other’s necks.
This would be anomalous even if parking and public transportation in our coastal strip were adequate, but it’s all the more absurd considering that southeast of our demographic time bomb sprawls the vast, pristine and mostly unsettled Negev.
THE NEGEV has changed dramatically since the IDF reached Eilat on the last day of the War of Independence.
Beersheba became a city of 210,000, sporting labor-intensive factories, hi-tech start-ups, a university, a hospital, parks, malls, a highway to the Galilee and a railway to Tel Aviv. Eilat has become a resort town with a cargo seaport and international airport, and Dimona, where no one lived in 1948, is now a town of 35,000.
Still, the Negev which covers 60% of pre-’67 Israel holds hardly 15% of its population. No, the Negev is not empty, but it is widely available, the perfect inversion of the dangerously overpopulated Coastal Plain.
Israel’s demography is famously fed by its fertility rate, 3.1 children per woman, by far the developed world’s highest. With Israel’s nine million people forecast to cross 10 million next decade, and 20 million by the middle of the century, some – led by Tel Aviv University professor of public policy Alon Tal – warn that this demographic growth constitutes an environmental threat.
It doesn’t.
With a fast train to Eilat and new cities in the Negev, fed by desalinated water and powered by solar panels and sea-to-sea canals, it is up to us to settle the Negev and offset our geographic distribution, in the spirit of David Ben-Gurion’s vision. This is, of course, besides there being no excuse for our lack of subways, trams, proper bus services and ample parking spots where we currently crowd.
This is the senselessly killed Ofir Hisdai’s will to the Jewish state.
The writer’s best-selling Mitz’ad Ha’ivelet Hayehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sfarim, 2019) is an interpretation of the Jewish people’s political history.

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