Forgetting the South

Having survived another barrage of rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, one of Israel’s most deprived areas is still struggling to get back onto its feet. Despite the cessation of headlines, the emotional and economic strains of this tumultuous region are still being felt

Sderot resident 370 (photo credit: Courtesy, Sderot Municipality)
Sderot resident 370
(photo credit: Courtesy, Sderot Municipality)
On November 14, Israel was yet again engulfed in fighting on its southern border. The IDF launched Operation Pillar of Defense in response to the barrage of rockets from the Gaza Strip that were Sderot, Netivot and Ashkelon. The nation looked on as the IDF began its widespread campaign, targeting military structures and operatives throughout Gaza. In response, Hamas shot over 1,400 rockets into Israel, reaching as far as Tel Aviv and the outskirts of Jerusalem.
The sirens wailed day and night, and the South shut down. Residents of Ashkelon, Kiryat Gat, Kiryat Malachi and Beersheba fled to their shelters, a familiar routine for those living closer to the Strip.
Sderot residents had long since become familiar with the “Red Alert” warning them of imminent attack, but for cities located up to 40 km. from Gaza, the operation came as a shock.
“One minute we were in mourning for my mother-in-law, and the next we were shoving the grandchildren under the stairs because we had no shelter,” recalls Miriam Hadad of Merkaz Shapira, near Ashkelon. “For one week we simply waited. Unable to leave the house and unprotected, we listened as the rockets flew overhead and prayed that they wouldn’t hit us.”
Factories closed, transportation ceased and citizens took cover. Six Israelis were killed, 269 were wounded, and houses, cars and businesses were damaged. For the South, which contains some of the most economically disadvantaged areas in the country, the operation was yet another blow to its fragile economy.
The sides declared a cease-fire on November 21 at 9 p.m., and there has been an almost complete stop to the rockets since then. Mission completed, declared the IDF, and the buses of journalists packed up and returned to the unending stream of stories stemming from the wider region.
But as the shelters once again gather dust, the South is still struggling to get back on its feet both emotionally and economically after years of poverty, distress and neglect.
ELRAZ AZRAM is a proud resident of Sderot.
“I’m 35 years old and have lived in Sderot for 35 years. This is my home,” he says. “But life is hard here. My fiveyear- old child sill wets himself at night due to the panic caused by the wailing sirens and rocket fire.”
Azram is one of the lucky ones. His son is receiving psychological help to deal with his trauma. Shalom Halevi, a spokesman for the Sderot Municipality, says that many adults and children do not have access to psychological help, as “there are simply not enough psychologists to help everyone who needs it.”
In the past decade, the number of NGOs dealing with psychological trauma from the conflict in the South has dramatically increased, and there has been a renewed interest in studying the effect of prolonged exposure to trauma.
Roni Lior is the project coordinator for the Israel Trauma Coalition, a partnership of the key NGOs working in the field. She says that when Operation Pillar of Defense began, for those in the affected area it was simply the peak in yet another escalation of rocket fire.
“Peaks in rocket fire undermine the basic feeling of safety and security that all people should be entitled to feel,” she explains.
Due to the increased incidence of trauma during the operation, the Health Ministry opened emergency psychological care centers, and the ITC’s five Resilience Centers saw a sudden rise in those requesting treatment.
“We continue to treat southern residents as we have always done, but now we are working treating special populations such as new immigrants, children under six, and the elderly,” Lior says.
Esti Fredrich is the head of community services for trauma organization NATAL, a partner in the ITC. She coordinates a team of psychologists, therapists and social workers who travel around the country teaching workshops on how to deal with trauma and posttrauma.
Her team spends a great deal of time in the South, close to the Gaza Strip, working with families in their homes to give them the tools to develop resilience and coping strategies.
“Just last week, I was in an Ashkelon supermarket, and a child started screaming for his mother, shouting, ‘Mom, there is going to be a siren, where are you?’” she recounts. “The rockets have stopped, but fear persists.”
Fredrich says that although Pillar of Defense ended over two months ago, the effects of trauma are still evident, both in populations that have experienced prolonged trauma (as in Sderot) and those who experienced the sudden trauma of the operation (as in Ashkelon and Kiryat Gat).
“Trauma affects the whole family,” she points out. “If a mother is panicking and suffering from trauma, her children will be affected. First we teach the mother to cope, and then she is able to help her children.”
NATAL also offers a toll-free hotline for those who are suffering from the effects of trauma.
In addition to the psychological damage from the rocket fire, the trauma of economic distress complicates treatment.
“Research shows that economic worry can cause traumatic symptoms, which then become an additional, secondary trauma, accentuating symptoms of panic already being experienced,” says Fredrich.
ACCORDING TO the Central Bureau of Statistics, in 2001, 31 percent of the South was classified as “poor.” The research used a new indicator to measure poverty: It defined a person as poor when his physical existence and needs distracted him every minute of the day, and therefore most of his economic resources were allocated to food consumption and residence.
“I look around me at other cities bringing in money, and no matter what I do, I cannot seem to make my business survive,” says Edward Saidov. Born in the former Soviet Union, he moved to Sderot 20 years ago. He owns a little jewelry store close to the city center and is struggling to keep up with his bills.
“For years, we have been bombarded with rockets, and people just stopped going out,” he laments. “Even during the latest military operation, I worked every day, but not only did I have no shelter near my store, I had no customers, either.”
He says he has been told that the government will be paying compensation for loss of earnings due to the conflict, but he has yet to hear how much this will be.
“I want to work, I want to make a living,” he says. “I just want a little help to bring my business back to life.”
Ben Bsaad, meanwhile, who owns the city’s Pizza Roma, says his business survived the rocket-fire-induced recession due to the generosity of Anglos in Israel and abroad. An initiative was started to order pizzas from his shop and have them sent to families in the region.
“I would receive anonymous phone calls simply ordering a pizza to be sent to someone in a shelter,” he explains.
“Without these donations, I wouldn’t have gotten through. Now I am finally feeling a lot more positive about what the future has in store for Sderot.”
HALEVI CRITICIZES governmental policy for the continued economic struggles in his city.
“There is work in Sderot, and the factories surrounding the city have really boosted our economy, but governmental outsourcing harms our residents,” he says, explaining that many governmental services are outsourced to contractors who pay low wages and offer workers little job security and no benefits.
“When Operation Pillar of Defense hit, workers being paid by the hour suddenly found themselves with no wage coming in. Compensation is on its way, but until it is received, people are struggling,” he says.
Economically the situation in Sderot is slowly improving. Housing prices are rising, and the latest operation stood in stark contrast to 2008’s Operation Cast Lead, in which residents had no shelters, were hit by heavier rocket fire and suffered from a lack of preparedness.
Now all residential buildings and schools are reinforced, compensation packages have been streamlined, and there are new parks, play areas and healthcare centers being constructed in the city all the time.
But governmental cuts, short-term incentives and reliance on external donations still contribute to the economic uncertainty in the region.
“We have suffered for 12 years living under terror,” says Halevi. “We just want the government to give us a few years to recover without continuing to make cuts as soon as the situation [improves]. It’s an absurd situation.”
THIRTY KILOMETERS away from Sderot lies Kiryat Gat. During Pillar of Defense, rockets sent residents running for shelter, and this already poverty-stricken city was plunged further into darkness.
“The economic situation in Kiryat Gat is unstable. The operation made it worse; people didn’t leave their houses,” says resident Maya Naim, whose house was hit by one of the rockets from Gaza. “My business suffered, my house was damaged and my disabled son’s car was destroyed.”
Naim has received compensation for the damage to her house, but the car was not included in that sum. She is now spending hundreds of shekels each month on taxis so her son can get to work.
The city’s residents struggle to provide for their families’ basic needs, with the average wage there being more than NIS 4,000 below the national average and unemployment rates running high. Still, there are organizations and individuals making a difference in this troubled community.
Esther Richtman is one such individual.
Richtman, who recently received the “Citizen of the City” award at a ceremony in the city center, arrived in Kiryat Gat in 1964 from Romania with her husband Avraham, and their first child on the way. Following a long career in the textile industry, the couple decided to spend their retirement giving back to the people of the city.
Locally known as “Savta Esther” (Grandma Esther), she has become something of a local celebrity. Relief organization Meir Panim operates two Power of Giving warehouses in the South to distribute furniture, clothes and other necessary household equipment for those who cannot afford to purchase them at regular prices, and she began volunteering at the Kiryat Gat warehouse, sorting items and mending donated clothes.
“I saw the good that Meir Panim was doing by supporting the poor, but more importantly, how they did it with dignity,” she says. Customers pay a nominal fee for each item so it does not feel like they are receiving a handout.
Eight years ago, during her volunteer work, she overheard that Meir Panim was looking for someone to run its after-school facility for some of the poorest children in the city, and she jumped at the chance.
“Within a week, Meir Panim had located premises for me, provided me with national service volunteers, and we had decorated the club to feel like a home,” she says. “We are dealing with children whose parents cannot afford to feed them healthy meals each day, who are left to their own devices and who simply continue their parents’ cycle of poverty.”
Together with the organization, she is working to break this cycle of poverty.
The children turn up to school prepared because she delivers school supplies at the beginning of the school year. The children are able to study because they receive two hot meals a day, and they get homework help from the national service volunteers.
“I’m so grateful that Savta Esther came into our lives eight years ago,” says Hagit Hazan, the mother of two participants in the after-school club. “I work long hours in an old age home and try to support my children on my own, but without Savta Esther and Meir Panim, I don’t know what we’d do.”
Hazan says there are parents and children queuing up to be admitted to the after-school club.
THOUGH BOTH Sderot and Kiryat Gat are trying to get back on their feet now that peace has returned to the area, it is not easy.
“When the rockets stopped falling, southern Israel slipped off the media radar,” says Goldie Sternbuch of Meir Panim. “But for those of us who witness this poverty daily, it is clear that help is needed now, as much as ever before.”
The organization is building a nutrition center in Kiryat Gat that aims not only to produce thousands of hot meals for the poor, but also to provide a much-needed boost to the city’s dwindling economy.
While challenges remain for these two southern cities, they go hand in hand with hope and renewal for the hardworking people determined to make a difference in their communities.