Searching for cover in Ofakim

The “Code Red” sounded shortly after she spoke and within minutes the boys were back in the parking lot kicking the ball around.

Searching for cover in Ofakim 370 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Searching for cover in Ofakim 370
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
A mattress and some throw pillows are the only protection from rockets and shrapnel for Mordechai Assayag, a disabled Ofakim resident living in a drywall and wood house in an impoverished strip of the city’s Shapira neighborhood.
Assayag, 54, who has been confined to his bed since the onset of a severe brain tumor two years ago, is cared for by his wife Rina, who spoke with tears in her eyes on Monday about living in the line of Gaza rocket fire without the proper protection for her and her husband.
Minutes after a “Code Red” siren sounded in the town, Rina Assayag demonstrated her emergency routine, wheeling her husband’s bed away from the window and scrambling to hold a mattress and throw pillows over him as a shield from flying glass and shrapnel.
“I hold it above him like this so he doesn’t choke. This is what I do when there is an alarm. This is what I do for a man who gave everything to this country and has to suffer like this.”
Assayag described her reality as one where she is not considered as living in the “Gaza envelope” – the area surrounding the Gaza Strip – so her life is not considered in enough danger to receive comprehensive rocket protection from the state. Yet without assistance and with fewer areas under protection, in many ways her life and that of others living beyond the Gaza envelope are more dangerous.
Minutes earlier her son, Oren, was standing outside a drab apartment complex next to the town’s central business district. When asked if the buildings had bomb shelters, he laughed and said “You want to see the stairwell? We have a great stairwell.”
A few meters away, a large public bomb shelter sat padlocked and closed to the public.
“It’s not strange, it’s Ofakim,” one of Assayag’s neighbors said when asked about the fact that the shelter remained locked during the security flare-up in the south.
The shortage of access to bomb shelters was a common theme mentioned by residents of the impoverished southern town of around 25,000, located some 15 km. from the Gaza Strip.
When contacted by The Jerusalem Post, a representative of the Ofakim Municipality said the majority of the town’s bomb shelters were open to the public, but that many remained locked either because of water leaks or problems with the electrical supply.
For the most part, safety seems to be provided by the dozens of concrete bunkers and cylinders placed on residential streets throughout the town. Many of the thick concrete cubes were provided by foreign and domestic charities in the years after 2009’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, during which the area came under heavy attack from Gaza rocket crews.
Click here for special JPost coverageClick here for special JPost coverage
When an alarm went off in the early afternoon, several women and children scrambled toward one of the concrete blocks, some barefoot and in house clothes. They huddled in the cube waiting to hear the explosion, and then began arguing over whether it was truly necessary to wait an additional 10 minutes, as per instructions from the Home Front Command.
Beersheba resident Nurit Haddad said she was in town Monday to take care of her elderly mother, who lives alone in a house that lacks a safe room or basement – as do the majority of homes on the street.
“It’s the same in Beersheba. We don’t have a shelter, we just huddle in the hallway where there’s no windows and concrete on both sides, and wait,” Haddad said.
Ofakim is in many ways a classic downtrodden Israeli periphery town: windswept, a bit stuck in time and thick with decaying government housing blocks.
In one complex on Kibbutz Galuyot Street, a group of junior high-aged boys kicked around a soccer ball in a trash-strewn parking lot, passing time during the second-straight day of canceled school.
The only “shelters” in the apartment buildings were basementlevel storage rooms with open windows.
One remained padlocked Monday and another had at some point been converted into a heavily- cluttered and cramped apartment at the bottom of a urinesoaked stairwell. Another deserted bomb shelter was filled with a thick layer of water and did not appear to have been recently used.
One exception was in an adjacent building where three middle-aged women sat on the stoop, within a few seconds’ dash from the cellar.
One of the women, a native of Tunisia who asked not to be named, showed off a cellar she and other residents had cleaned out and filled with plastic chairs, mattresses and a few children’s toys.
“We sit right here, never going more than a few meters away. We want to make sure we are nearby if there is an alarm,” the woman said. She added that while the situation had become routine, they hoped it would pass soon – not only because of the intermittent moments of fear, but due the long hours of boredom as well.
The “Code Red” sounded shortly after she spoke and within minutes the boys were back in the parking lot kicking the ball around.
“What, it’s just an alarm,” one of the boys said, with the typical swagger of a 12-year-old boy, albeit one trying to find a sense of normalcy as the escalation in the South continues.