Inside Israel

Six months after Gaza conflict, battered Ashkelon no better protected from rockets

More than six months after the Israel-Gaza conflict known as Operation Guardian of the Walls, Ashkelon — the southern city targeted most by Hamas rockets — is still no better protected against rocket fire from the Gaza than it was during the hostilities.

Tens of thousands of city residents still have no access to any kind of shelter, including public shelters, in-house missile-protected rooms (known in Hebrew as a mamad) and portable shelters. And some damaged buildings have yet to be repaired.

“We’re not asking for favors or generosity,” Ashkelon Mayor Tomer Glam told The Times of Israel last month. “We demand what we deserve by law” — for the government to take steps to protect residents in time “for the next round of fighting that we all know is going to come.”

During the conflict, which raged from May 10 to 21, some 4,000 rockets were fired at Israel in total. Ashkelon was the most heavily hit city: 75 rockets landed there out of more than 950 rockets fired toward it. Two women were killed on May 11, in a barrage of hundreds of rockets, and 295 injuries were reported during the conflict as a whole. Some 700 calls were made to panic-attack hotlines.

At the time, Glam said that as many as a quarter of the city’s approximately 150,000 residents lacked access to shelters. No substantial action has been taken to improve the situation since then, despite promises from both the government in power at the time, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, and the one that took office in June under Naftali Bennett. Several portable shelters have been placed at street corners, a spokesperson for the Ashkelon Municipality said, but they are “not a solution.”

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Some infrastructure damaged by Hamas fire has still not been fixed. “The damaged homes in some areas were never repaired after the war,” said Dani Bodek, a student living in Ashkelon. “The electrical transmission towers that fell because of rocket hits were never fixed; some buildings still have broken windows and many houses have shrapnel lodged in the walls.” He said there is also damage that has gone unrepaired since earlier rounds of rocket fire from the Hamas-controlled Strip. The mayor’s office did not respond to questions from The Times of Israel about unfixed damage.

Unrepaired damage from rocket fire in an Ashkelon building, December 2021 (Dani Bodek)

Bodek’s sister’s family moved in with him and his parents during May’s conflict because her family had no access to a shelter; a neighbor of his sister was one of the women killed, he said. “We’re lucky that we were able to host my sister’s family, but it isn’t easy to have a family with children and pets move in to a three-bedroom apartment just because they have no protection at all in their homes.”

The main vulnerabilities are in the city’s older neighborhoods — known as the Atikot (“antiquities” in Hebrew). These consist of housing projects built quickly by the state in the 1950s to house large numbers of immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East. Not only are these buildings not protected from rocket fire,  but they also do not comply with regulations on earthquake and fire protection. Many of them are also sinking.

While there are proposed solutions on the table, most come with their own set of problems. The state could invest in building new shelters in the Atikot, at a cost estimated by the mayor’s office at NIS 1.4 billion ($440 million). But the buildings are supposed to be demolished for urban renewal projects anyway — although the state has yet to allocate funds for such projects — and new shelters might exacerbate the sinking issues.

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In theory, the city could fine the residents for not having shelters, but the largely low-income families have no money for shelters or fines, and “it’s also not their fault that Ashkelon is getting bombarded,” a security source said.

Unrepaired damage from rocket fire in an Ashkelon high-rise building, December 2021 (Dani Bodek)

The situation is “a disgrace to the State of Israel,” Glam said at a council meeting last month, soon after the 2021-22 state budget was finally passed in the Knesset. “All the Knesset members from Likud, Blue and White and other parties came here during the operation to spend time in our shelters and claim that they support us. But none of them had the guts to stand on the Knesset podium and say they wouldn’t pass a budget until enough funding was allocated [to Ashkelon].”

“I feel better protected in Sderot,” said Dani Bodek, referring to the Gaza border city that has been bombarded from Gaza for years, and where the government has spent heavily to try to maximize protection for residents.

In June 2018, the security cabinet approved NIS 5 billion to be spent between 2019 and 2030 on infrastructure to shield buildings across the country under rocket threat.  But the funding was never directly allocated. Furthermore, the plan’s very name, “Northern Shield,” indicated that the priority was northern cities under threat of Hezbollah rocket fire from Lebanon.

Israel take cover in a safe zone of a supermarket as rockets are fired from Gaza at Ashkelon, May 16, 2021. (Avi Roccah/Flash90)

In the latest budget, NIS 250 million was allocated for the infrastructure plan. But again, to date, no specific arrangements were made for the distribution of the funds.

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Alex Kushnir, head of the Knesset Finance Committee, leads a meeting in the Knesset, on June 23, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Knesset Finance Committee chair Alex Kushnir said the funding represented an “unprecedented step for the south.”

But mayor Glam said he anticipates receiving “maybe NIS 30-38 million of the NIS 250 million” — not enough for substantial improvement.

“Who will I be able to actually protect?” he asked. “One family in the Shimshon neighborhood? Another in Ramat Eshkol? They think they’re doing us a favor?”

While Ashkelon awaits state funding, the IDF’s Home Front Command has been drawing up plans to use whatever monies come through. Some of the money will be spent surveying and then repairing some 1,000 privately owned communal shelters in the city, a security official said.

A firefighter extinguishes a burning vehicle in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon following a rocket attack fired from the Gaza Strip, on May 16, 2021. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Other funding will go to a pilot program first announced in last month’s “National Resilience” exercise, to bolster the staircases within the city’s older apartment buildings with reinforced concrete. The official explained the economic sense, estimating that reinforcing a staircase will cost some NIS 30,000, compared to NIS 150,000 to build a new shelter. Internal staircases are considered the safest area in an apartment building if it lacks a purpose-built shelter, and residents are instructed to hasten there in case of missile attack.

If the Ashkelon pilot proves successful it could be replicated in other vulnerable older buildings nationwide, the official said.

Investigations conducted by the Home Front Command prove that most injuries and deaths from rocket fire occur on the way to a shelter, suggesting that well-protected staircase areas, which people could reach quickly from their apartments, could provide a significant boost in protection.

Ashkelon Mayor Tomer Glam (Courtesy)

Glam said his city is ready to back the government in whatever measures it approves to try to put an end to Gaza rocket fire, but that it must have the funding to ensure its citizens are protected. “Give us the power to remain resilient,” he urged.

“Give us the resources to solve the problem of inadequate shelters we’ve been facing for decades. Give us the peace of mind to know that we have the funds we need to treat the traumatized children and the rest of the shell-shocked residents. And you’ll get all of the backing needed from us to end the rocket threat from Gaza once and for all.”

Residents of Ashkelon “knew what we were getting into when we moved here, and we’re happy to be here,” said Dani Bodek. “But we’re shocked again and again after each operation.”

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