KIRYAT MALACHI — A strong Eastern wind, carrying rain and dust, was blowing last week through the open façades of what used to be two family apartments in this small town in Israel’s south. Three people were killed here — Aharon Smadga (49), Itzik Amsalem (24) and Mira Sharf (26) — when their building took a direct hit from a Hamas rocket at the height of Operation Pillar of Defense in November. Their apartments still stand in ruins; the survivors are in temporary housing, and Aasm, a Bedouin contractor sent by the authorities, is slowly managing the rebuilding efforts.
“I went everywhere during the last war,” Aasm said, referring to Pillar of Defense. As he spoke, he fed broken olive branches into a makeshift fire he’d started building to warm himself. “Ashkelon, Rishon Lezion, Sderot — any place that the rockets hit, I was there to survey the damage and start working.
“At the beginning of the operation,” he recalls, “wherever we went, people were shouting support for Bibi [Benjamin Netanyahu], but as it continued, and then ended with that cease-fire, they stopped.”
Two months after the latest round of violence with Hamas in Gaza, Israel’s south is tranquil after the constant rocket fire of the last years. Politically speaking, though, it is turbulent. The Likud-Beytenu list, according to various polls, has lost between 4 to 10 Knesset seats during that time. Instead of reaping the rewards of what Netanyahu called a “successful” military operation, the prime minister seems to be dealing with right-wing criticism of having conducted a failed one.
“I’m not voting for the Likud this time, no way,” says David (29), who grew up in this Kiryat Malachi neighborhood and was visiting his parents in his hometown. “I was taught in the army always to get the job done. When they threw rocks at us… when it was dangerous… we always had to get the job done. And Bibi didn’t. He lost the war with Hamas.”
After voting Likud for the past three elections, David explains that Operation Pillar of Defense changed his mind. Now he is determined to vote for Jewish Home, the right-wing party headed by Naftali Bennett that represents the settlement movement and religious Zionism. “I am not alone,” he adds. “Two weeks ago, we did a kind of poll in our one-day army reserve training: 60 out of 100 hands were raised to say they will vote for Bennett. Netanyahu got 10 hands… the same as Labor.”
“Look at this place,” continues David, pointing to a closed shop, its windows covered with layers of posters and obituaries. “This used to be the kiosk of Aharon Smadga. He was working hard for his family. I am not blaming Netanyahu for his death; it’s Hamas. But three people were killed here… families destroyed… and still the job was not finished? Hamas can fire any moment they wish.”
The neighborhood around us, a housing project mainly for Chabad followers, is run down. Rubbish on the ground floor is framed by concrete slabs covered in pink paint, and children’s carriages are crammed into staircases. The photo of the Lubavitcher Rebbe is seen on huge posters between the houses, and even on some select balconies.
Politically, a kind of hierarchy presents itself: Netanyahu is featured on the expansive road billboards; Bennett ads can be seen on the fences lining the streets; and, on almost every telephone box, city billboard or building site is an election poster of Otzma Leyisrael (Power to Israel), a radical, right-wing party that blames most of Israel’s problems on its Arab minority.
“He visited here a lot after the rocket hit,” says Daniel (18), pointing to the picture of Michael Ben Ari — one of the two leaders of the latter party, and a former leader of the banned Kach movement. “He said it was important for him to show his sympathy after the deaths… to care for the families.”
True enough, a homemade sign announces that Ben Ari will visit soon to discuss the Bible and Israel. Daniel, who will be voting next week for the first time, promises the candidate his support in the polls. “Ben Ari knows that now is the time to act — not to think. We are in a war, and we have to strike back,” he proclaims.
Back in the semi-destroyed building, Aasm is spreading warm oil from the roasted olives on his hands, as a kind of protection. He is a Bedouin, from Kuseife, and served in the army. Even though his municipality is famous for having more Likud members than in any other Arab town, he is also disappointed with Netanyahu. “We are a big family in Kuseife, 2,000 people,” he wishes to emphasize first, “and whatever the sheikh says, that’s how we’ll all vote.” But this year, he says, he’s heard there are rumblings as to whether it’ll be the Likud.
Netanyahu has let him down. “Ariel Sharon used to come regularly to Kuseife; his son Omri slept there a few times… so did [former defense minister] Moshe Arens. When did you last hear that Bibi visited a Bedouin town? He never came. Frankly, I don’t want four more years of him… what for?”
“Shas [the ultra-Orthodox political party identified with Sephardi Jews] is coming for a meeting today,” he updates from his smartphone. “I like them,” he says. “Whatever they get for the Jews, we get also.”
Over in Sderot, a 30-minute drive away, the political spectrum seems to widen. Election posters of the Labor Party hang side-by-side with those of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party. And the Hatnua party, led by Tzipi Livni, chooses to prominently portray its No. 2 candidate on the list — Amir Peretz, a former defense minister, ex-Labor leader, and a proud son of Sderot.
“We owe him a lot here,” says 24-year-old Elli Turjeman, who works in a kiosk in the city’s commercial center. “We should thank Peretz every day for Iron Dome” — the missile-defense system Peretz insisted on purchasing when he was minister of defense, which intercepted 84% of the rockets from Gaza that were heading into residential areas such as Sderot during the November conflict. “But he is Left, so I won’t vote for him.”
Turjeman, who voted Likud last time, says Netanyahu didn’t have any other choice but to halt Pillar of Defense when he did. “The Americans forced him to stop. It’s obvious,” he claims.
But the prime minister has also lost Turjeman’s support; he says he wants to vote for a smaller party this time. He is “afraid of the extremeness” of Jewish Home, so he is considering voting for the popular and evangelical Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak’s Koah Lehashpia (Ability to Influence) party. “I love his lectures on the Internet. And Bibi will be the prime minister anyway, so why not vote for someone I like?”