Business is still dismal, but Sderot residents are 'hanging in there'

How the southern city is adjusting to life without the Kassams.

sderot woman 248.88 (photo credit: Ron Friedman)
sderot woman 248.88
(photo credit: Ron Friedman)
At Café Pele things are quiet. According to the readout on the cash register, things have been quiet all day. "I don't bother starting up the Slushy machine anymore. It's not worth the power I use up to run it," said David Schlaffman, the owner of the small establishment in Sderot's Neot Eshkol neighborhood, earlier this week. "Look, the fridge is empty too," he added, banging on a metal ice cream refrigerator. "The Kassams chased people out of the city and now they're not coming back. People got a shock and now they're afraid," said Schlaffman. "I think it'll take a long time for Sderot to recover." Schlaffman, who is more concerned about the water rationing the government has imposed than the threat of a new attack by Hamas, said many people are still afraid to spend time outside. "Before the rockets started, people would go out shopping and to drink coffee. Now they stay indoors. I could close up now and go home and it wouldn't make any difference. It's not like I have any customers." Schlaffman, who lives in Sderot with his wife and mother-in-law, said that if he were younger, he would move to Ashdod. Next door to Café Pele is Mini Market Ya'acov. The owner, Ya'acov Adjiaschvilli, has operated his store there for the past 21 years. "Back in '95 or '96 I used to sell 500 loaves of challah every Friday. People would wait at the door for me and rush me the moment I put the key in the lock. Today, I sell maybe 20 challahs a week. That says everything," said Adjiaschvilli. "Come, sit here for a while and have a cool drink. You'll see how many people come in," suggested the store owner. The lone customer was a young man who dropped in to buy an energy drink. "Ya'acov, your drinks are the coldest in town," said the man, slapping NIS 5 on the counter. "Maybe it's because the bottles stay in there for so long," quipped the proprietor. Adjiaschvilli works alone in his store 16 hours a day. He used to employ two workers when things were busy, but now he said he can't afford to pay the salaries. In his opinion the slowdown is more the result of unemployment than the rockets. "I used to sell on credit, but people wouldn't pay back their debt, or instead of the NIS 500 they owed, they'd pay 250 or 300. Eventually I gave up trying to get the money and stopped offering credit altogether. People don't have jobs. People are in debt. They can't really afford to do anything, so they stay at home." At Tnuvaleh, one of the few restaurants that remained open in the city, things are pretty quiet. Though it's lunchtime, there's only one table occupied and the bar stools stand empty. Tnuvaleh is a local pizzeria and ice cream shop. Its owner, Elraz Azran, has been managing the place for 15 years. "As you can see, people don't go out much, they're still too scared to go outside for long periods of time." Azran said his business manages to stay open despite the shortage of customers, but he had to let five of his six employees go. Sderot has seen its share of "periods of calm," but he said he doesn't believe the truce will hold forever. "Hamas is still licking its wounds after we let them have it, but they'll go back to the rockets sooner or later." Azran said he was the last of his group of friends who grew up together in the city to remain behind. "It's common knowledge that there was a mass exodus from the city, but I can't leave, I've got the business and my family here," said Azran. "In general there's a real feeling of fortification, people are buttressing up and waiting for the worst." Not far away, at the shoe store around the corner, Yaniv Tahar said things are actually looking up. "There have been ups and downs over the years, and since Cast Lead things have changed for the better. There will always be those who complain, but we're hanging in there," he said. At Ketchup, a clothing store in the heart of the commercial center, a large sign takes up the entire display window. "Insane sales," say the big black letters on the neon green background. Inside Moshe Lev and his assistant were arranging T-shirts on the shelves. "The sales are because it's the end of the season, not because we're closing or anything," said Lev. "In fact, in the last few months the atmosphere has been improving. We've also seen a rise in sales." According to Lev, people have stopped feeling sorry for themselves. "We forget quickly. The moment things become quiet, everything changes," he said. Shay LaTinok, a colorful shop that sells baby products, opened on January 20, two days after Israel announced the ceasefire ending Operation Cast Lead. The proprietor, Miriam Hagbi, said although the store is new, she and her family have lived in Sderot all their lives. "I live here and I will stay here, Kassams and all," she said. Hagbi said the family atmosphere has returned to Sderot. "It comes across in things like cultural activities and concerts. You see people going out and having fun. You see that people aren't scared over whether or not there will be a Kassam, not knowing what they should do. You see that people aren't shut up in their homes, escaping or hiding from rockets. Instead you see peace and calm," said Hagbi. But she doesn't believe the peace will last. "The Kassams will be back in six months or a year. Anybody who thinks otherwise is deluding themselves," she said. At Dudi Levi's barbershop there were no customers at three in the afternoon. "You should go for a walk later on. People go out after the weather cools down," said Levi. Levi said that from what he could tell, things have been improving around Sderot. "There's a new housing project going up in the new neighborhood. Two years ago you could have given apartments away for free, and nobody would have taken them. Today, 180 bids went out for 45 units." Levi said the big problem was not security, but unemployment. "The economic crisis has hit us hard. Some factories have closed down, some have cut back to four workdays a week," he said. Levi said his brother was out of a job, but that at 49, he couldn't find any work. "His wife works two jobs and his five children are constantly urging him to find a job because they need all sorts of things," said Levi. "He's willing to take pretty much anything at this stage, but so far he's had no luck." For Levi, business is tightly linked to the security situation: "It came in waves. At first, when the rockets fell on Sderot alone, people from the city and the nearby communities simply did their shopping and errands in Netivot or in Ashkelon, which aren't far away. When the range of the rockets grew and those places were also fired on, people figured there was nowhere to run to and returned to doing their business here," he recalled. Levi said his 11-year-old daughter recently came up to him and told him that she felt there was something missing in her life. "She told me, 'I know it's weird, but I miss the Tzeva Adom (Color Red rocket warnings),'" he said. "She grew up with the sirens. There's comfort in things that are familiar."