For Sderot's new mayor, a trial under fire

David Bouskila takes little comfort in yesterday's lack of rockets in his town.

david bouskila 248 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
david bouskila 248 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
David Bouskila had a long and busy Friday night. The workload and consultations started again very early on Saturday morning. So at about 11:30 a.m., when he finally found a few minutes to rest, he walked into his bedroom and let his hefty body slump onto the mattress. The second his head hit the pillow, IAF bombs hit their marks in nearby Gaza City causing a thunderous sonic boom which shook Bouskila's home. Sderot's new mayor knew it was not a good time to catch some sleep. Bouskila is speaking on his cell phone to the BBC when I catch up with him. "We praise the IDF and the government for acting after having been under rocket attack for over eight years," he says. Speaking in good English all the way through the interview, Bouskila spells out the letters of his name to the BBC reporter on the other end of the line. Moving around the city, Bouskila is always on at least one of his cell phones. Much of the time he is on both: international press on one, local radio on the other. He also takes calls from residents. In this town, many have the mayor's personal numbers. One resident wants the municipality's help wiring up his building's bomb shelter to electricity. The city is only obliged to wire up public bomb shelters, but Bouskila tells the caller to find extension cords and hook up the shelter, and that the city will pay the electricity bill. "Just do it today, and tomorrow I'll take care of it," Bouskila says, asking one of the city's technicians to head over to the man's house on Sunday to see what else he can do. He knows his residents will be facing a barrage of rockets for at least one week, maybe two. The most important thing is to give them the feeling that everything is under control, and that all the emergency systems are operating. The first step to that end is to equip the shelters with everything they need, including electricity. Residents are complaining that there are no mattresses in the shelters. The municipality gave out 360 mattresses to people in the public shelters, but there is still a shortage. "Some of the people took the mattresses we gave them for the shelters [when they went on holiday] to the Kinneret and left them there," a municipal official says. Bouskila has decreed that every elderly person who wants to be evacuated to family members out of Sderot can order a taxi, and the city will pay the fare. But only the elderly and infirm, not children or families. Someone calls him to see if he'll allow children and families to get out of the city for a day. Bouskila rejects the idea, saying he'll only organize buses for families if they want to go away for at least three to for days - anything shorter is "just not worth it." After the BBC interview, Bouskila's driver takes us across town to meet with Channel 1 TV's reporter Amir Bar-Shalom at the concrete-covered parking lot of the Shefa Shuk supermarket. In the car en route, Bouskila is interviewed on Army Radio, which makes him wait on the line for five minutes: "I praise the government and the IDF for carrying out this action that we have been waiting for the last eight years to happen," he tells the newscaster, after informing the producer that it's not right to keep him waiting so long. Bouskila's talking points in all of his domestic interviews throughout the day are not political or ideological; he uses his air time to give out instructions to his residents: "Stay indoors and close to protected spaces, don't gather in public places. The city is ready and rescue services are working." Arriving at the Channel 1 interview, Bouskila looks slightly media-shy. This is only his second round of media appearances since he took over from Eli Moyal a few months ago, and things were calmer then. The new mayor is moved into the frame near Channel 1's Bar-Shalom. Bouskila is wearing a smart, patterned tweed jacket, which the cameraman asks him to take off as tweed doesn't come out well on TV. He has to switch with his driver's oversized black leather jacket. Bouskila didn't know about tweed not working on TV, but he learns quickly; he makes a quick stop home after the interview to switch jackets, shave and put on some aftershave. Bouskila, who was born and raised in this town, really wanted this job. But what is a mayor's job in a city like this, which is effectively run by the IDF Home Front Command and the Israel Police? "I have to see that everything is running smoothly, and I have to remind people to be optimistic, to believe that there are better days ahead," he says. Arriving back at the square near the municipality, Bouskila stops to brief several newspaper reporters, including three of the country's top journalists: Nahum Barnea of Yediot Aharonot, Avirama Golan of Haaretz [who lives in Sderot], and Dan Margalit of Israel Hayom and Channel 1. One of Bouskila's phones crackles out a voice every once in a while from a Home Front Command officer informing him every time a rocket is fired out of the Gaza Strip and in which direction it is headed. Everyone around Sderot is taking hits, with Kassams and mortars falling in communities across the western Negev. By 8 p.m., only four rockets have been fired at Sderot. "We're waiting for them to wake up and remember us," the city's security coordinator Yehuda Ben-Mamman says. Russian-language Channel 9 TV calls - there are many Russian speakers in Sderot. "Dobri vetcher [Good evening]," Bouskila says and starts giving his main messages again. The IAF's bombings shake the city's houses. Some residents are on the lookout points gazing at the Gaza Strip. In the control room they speak of the massive strike in Gaza. Ben-Mamman says the Sderot residents with whom he's spoken are happy the army is finally acting. It's decided that the food market will not be open on Sunday; it's too dangerous, and in any case nobody will come out and shop out in the open. Hamas was arrogant enough to hold a ceremony for its graduating officer class out in the open Saturday, they say here, with painful consequences. The lack of a Hamas response in Sderot is palpable, and many here are surprised at how quiet it is. Despite the relative absence of rockets, the streets are empty, with the city instructing residents to stay indoors. In any case, it's Shabbat, and there's nothing to do in Sderot. The feeling here is that the rockets will likely come later in the evening and into the night - and if not tonight, then tomorrow and tomorrow night. Defense officials here say that at this stage Hamas wants to use its longer-range rockets to hit cities like Netivot and Ashkelon, so that they can sow fear among the Israeli public and at the same time have something to show their constituents in Gaza City. Still, tonight all the residents of Sderot are receiving little electronic devices that will sound the Red Alert warning inside their homes. "It's winter and people close their windows, so they can't always hear the warning," Bouskila says. Sderot's new mayor finishes his interviews and comes into the control room to chair a situation assessment meeting with his staff, and charge his cell phones. Bouskila goes around the table to hear from all department heads. Also in attendance is a senior Home Front Command officer. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has declared a "special situation" in the Gaza periphery, effective immediately and to last for at least the next 48 hours. A "special situation" allows the Home Front Command to instruct local authorities to act to close down factories, keep people in their homes and so on. "Just because there were very few rockets fired at us today doesn't mean that tomorrow will be the same. Keep your phones on at all times and all night. Things can change here in a minute. Be ready to be back here at the control room within 15 minutes of being called," Bouskila tells his officials. Then Bouskila tells the Home Front Command officer that his city's shelters need more mattresses and blankets if residents are expected to stay in them for more than a few days. "It's winter, these things are essential. We need them tonight," he says. And Bouskila wants soldiers outside every shelter. The city is not empty. "During past escalations people used to flee to Ashkelon and Beersheba. Now they realize that there is nowhere to flee to," Bouskila tells The Jerusalem Post. He makes it clear that all city functions will be operating as usual on Sunday. "This includes street cleaning and trash disposal. Tell the street cleaners to clean extra well tomorrow, but make sure they are also close to reinforced structures at all times," the mayor orders the head of the city's sanitation department. The head of the city's education department says she has not been able to reach the man responsible for transporting special education children to their classes in Beersheba. "So far, we've only been able to get his daughter on the phone," she says. Bouskila is furious: "Go around him, talk directly to the drivers. Deal directly with them," he barks. "I need answers, not people who play games. If a person doesn't answer, then he doesn't exist. Send a letter to this person and tell him that he doesn't need to make himself available even after the Hanukka holiday. As Churchill said, the cemeteries are full of people who thought they were indispensable." The Home Front Command officer offers to hand out stay-at-work orders for city officials. During the Second Lebanon War, there were several cities under bombardment whose officials abandoned their posts. Bouskila rejects the offer out of hand. "Tell everyone that we're all working as usual tomorrow. If I feel a sudden loss of manpower, I'll ask for force-work orders," he says.