'The weak are getting left behind'

When Rachel arrived in Israel from Morocco in 1963, she wanted to live in Ashdod or Ashkelon- not Sderot.

kassam photo 298 (photo credit: AP)
kassam photo 298
(photo credit: AP)
When Rachel Ohayon arrived in Israel from Morocco in 1963 with her husband and three daughters, she wanted to live in Ashdod or Ashkelon, where she had family - not in Sderot, where absorption officials insisted on sending her. By the time the officials agreed to let her move, she had made friends and gotten used to the small, isolated town a few kilometers east of the northern tip of the Gaza Strip. In Sderot, she bore three more children, all boys. Ten years ago, Ohayon paid $140,000 for a charming, tile-roofed home on a quiet street next to the city's police station. She invested a great deal of love and another $20,000 to renovate the semidetached house. Today, it has become a death trap. Ohayon and her husband are among 840 families living in houses built in the 1960s to accommodate the first immigrants sent to live in Sderot. Some of the immigrants moved into three- or four-story standard public housing buildings, while others were lucky enough to obtain houses with little yards and red-tiled roofs supported by wooden beams. The problem with the tile roofs, however, is that while they are strong enough to prevent the rain coming in, they do not provide much protection against Kassam rockets. Currently the High Court of Justice is hearing a petition filed by several families who live in these houses, demanding that the government build thick-walled concrete "safe rooms" for them. One of the petitioners is attorney Yosef Pinhas Cohen, the municipality spokesman. Another is Cohen's mother, Esther. "My mother is 82 years old," he told The Jerusalem Post. "Everyone who lives in Sderot suffers from anxiety. So you can just imagine what it is like for an 82-year-old woman who, when something happens, has nowhere to run. Most of the people who live in these houses are the founders of Sderot. They are elderly and often poor and sick. Generally, it's the weak who get left behind." Cohen pleaded his case in the High Court with passion and persuasiveness. The court asked the state to explain why it had failed to prepare a plan for defending Sderot after so many years, and indicated that it expected the state to do so by mid-January. In the meantime - and probably for a lot longer - Cohen's mother, Ohayon and more than 800 other individuals and families will continue living without a real roof over their heads. "A Kassam fell right on our street," Ohayon told the Post. "Luckily it did not explode. I have heart disease and diabetes. I am blind in one eye. When the red alert warning code is broadcast, there's nothing I can do. I go into my room and stand beside the wall." One day, said Ohayon, a Kassam landed across the street while she was sitting in the living room. The chandelier above her began to sway, and she feared that it would fall on her. She said she was terrified. None of Ohayon's children live in Sderot, and they are afraid to come visit. She said one of her sons told her recently he would come to see her by himself, but would not bring his wife and children. Last year, the last of her six children married. The parents bought a home in Sderot for the new couple, but the home is empty; the children moved away to a safer location. "My children say I'm crazy to go on living here," she said. "But I can't live with them. I need my own home, my own little corner." Nevertheless, she said she would sell the house for $100,000 just to get out of Sderot. But even in the unlikely event that someone would want to move to Sderot these days, few would want to buy a house that had no protection at all from Kassams. Would she feel better if the government built a safe room for her? "Yes, I would," she replied. "I would stay in the safe room when I heard the warning broadcast. It would be better. As things are, I cry all the time." According to Cohen, it costs about NIS 50,000 to build a safe room. A handful of families have built them with their own money, but many of the residents cannot afford to pay out of their own pockets. Those who have built are also demanding that the government compensate them. Although the petition focuses on the tile-roofed houses, the truth is that those living in the public housing buildings are not much better off. Although these buildings have concrete roofs, they are not thick enough, and Kassams have penetrated them. Most complexes of several public housing buildings have one bomb shelter for the inhabitants, often above ground. Very few, if any, can reach the shelter in the 20-second interval between the warning broadcast and the rocket explosion. On September 2, an attorney in the prime minister's legal adviser's office informed attorney Lior Eisenfeld, one of the lawyers representing the Sderot petitioners, that "last January, the prime minister gave orders to prepare a plan to fortify houses that do not have a sheltered area. The government plan is still being formulated, but so far the efforts have not [been] consolidated into an operative plan that can be approved for implementation. Accordingly, there is no budget for such a plan." Since then, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has made it clear he will not "shelter Israel up to the gills" and has allotted no money for building safe rooms in Sderot in the 2008 budget. On Tuesday morning, six Kassam rockets fired from the northern Gaza Strip landed in the Sderot area. Four of the rockets landed inside the town, while the other two landed on its northern outskirts. No one was wounded, and no damage was reported.