We left Jerusalem as though on a class trip – with packed lunches and reserved seats on the bus – and found ourselves, within an hour, at the foot of the blood-stained stairs on Baal Shem Tov St., where a pregnant woman and two male neighbors were killed on Thursday morning, the first three casualties of Israel’s ongoing operation against Hamas and the terror organizations in Gaza.
The trip was organized by the Government Press Office. There was a clear agenda: to show journalists how Israelis suffer by virtue of their proximity to Hamas-ruled Gaza. But the agenda needed no advancement beyond transportation.
The stores were shut, the streets quiet. On a beautiful cloudless day in the south of Israel, the trail of the terrorists’ rockets lingered for many minutes in the blue sky, arched like rainbows. In a playground without children, clusters of Border Police, in their gray-green uniforms, stood out against the bright red playground toys.
According to IDF figures, some 300 rockets have been fired at Israeli civilian centers since the airstrike Wednesday that killed Hamas military commander Ahmed Jabari.
“Even animals aren’t treated this way,” said Efraim Amram, a middle-aged father of four and a long-time resident of Kiryat Malachi. “They intentionally target civilians.”
Amram called Operation Pillar of Defense “a war for our survival” and advocated strongly for the sort of ground operation in Gaza that would topple the Hamas regime. “That’s the only medicine that will work,” he said.
Kiryat Malachi is a small city of 20,000 – and it all too frequently is in the news for the wrong reasons. The current mayor is being investigated for rape charges. The former mayor and president is serving a prison term for rape. And the annual police crime report from 2010 ranks the city first in the country in break-ins per 1,000 homes.
None of this, though, was evident in the grief-stricken pocket of the city known as the Chabad neighborhood.
Neria Shmalov, a Chabad Lubavitch hassid and a native of Uzbekistan, stood outside the wrecked apartment building, leaning on a pillar in the shade, alternating between stroking his beard and pulling on his cigarette.
Shortly after eight in the morning he heard a series of air raid sirens, perhaps as many as 10. His wife had already left for work and he, an employee at a factory that makes wet wipes, remained at home with his four children, aged 3-12. When the Grad rocket that killed Mira Sharf, Aharon Smadga, and Itzik Amsalem, slammed into the building next to his, he felt the ground shake and heard glass shatter. It took him several moments to realize that the shards had fallen from his own windows.
He said that he wanted the “root of the problem” treated in Gaza and suggested something akin to what the Russian army has done in Chechnya. “So that they’ll think not once but a thousand times before firing on us,” he said.
His neighbor, Meni Azriel, also a Lubavitch hassid, heard the two impacts on Baal Shem Tov St. and ran to his motorbike. Azriel is a volunteer for ZAKA, an organization that both treats victims and, in the case of a fatality, ensures that all body parts are brought to a proper burial. In his 11 years of service he has arrived early on the scene of dozens of accidents, he said, but the sights that he encountered Thursday morning, when the Fire Department pried open the door to the apartment on the fourth floor, were the worst he has ever seen.
He did not describe what he saw, but said, in a soft voice, that knowing the victims made the task infinitely more difficult. Aharon Smadga, 54 at the time of his death, was a personal friend. He had tried for years to have children and finally was able to father twins and a little girl. After the first rocket salvo he had gone to warn Mira Sharf to come into the stairwell, where it is safer, but was struck by the rocket while in her apartment. She was pregnant. A mother of three. On break from a Lubavitch posting in India. The third victim, Amsalem, Azriel knew only as a young married man.
At the foot of the stairs there was a blood stain on the earth-colored wall. On the third floor the windows shards had been blown out the door and the Jewish study books had been gathered off the floor and hastily stacked on a table. Wet laundry hung in the poorly lit stairwell. Every stair was stained with blood. And on the fourth floor, where the three people were killed, the apartment was in ruins and though British Ambassador Matthew Gould mentioned seeing “blood on a child’s mattress,” I didn’t advance beyond the doorway.
By the time we arrived in Ashkelon, 22 rockets had been fired at the city, 18 of which had been shot down by Iron Dome, according to a home front defense officer in the city.
A young woman named Paz Azran, 17, who had recently met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and has lived in the city her entire life, said “I don’t really remember what living without rockets is like.”
Just as she was saying that life under rocket fire “is really extremely scary” – her grandmother beaming as she spoke to a gaggle of foreign reporters in admirable English – the siren went off. “You don’t need to run,” said Azran, “you have 30 seconds. Just walk fast.”
The bomb shelter showed all the signs of a city used to life under fire. The floors were made of parquet. The far wall was covered in mirrors. Azran said she had taken ballet lessons in the shelter as a child.
After years of living with rocket fire she said “there is no such thing” as no one injured from a rocket attack. “Every bang on the street sends people running and every slammed door in school sends them under their desks.”
She, too, hoped the current IDF operation would go on for considerably more time and provide a much-needed shift in the status quo.