On the third day of Operation Breaking Dawn, and as rocket alerts rang out repeatedly, Ashkelon’s streets were largely silent. But in some corners of the city, an underground community emerged in municipal shelters.
Occupants of such shelters who spoke to The Times of Israel on Sunday said they would rather be in their own homes. But they were forced to choose between comfort and safety, being among the roughly 40,000 Ashkelon residents who — despite being just some 10 kilometers (7 miles) from the Gaza Strip’s northern border — still do not have access to adequate shelter from rockets.
While several types of shelters provide protection against volleys from Gaza — among them protected rooms within personal apartments, reinforced building stairwells, shared shelters within buildings, and public shelters in neighborhoods — these residents said they do not have appropriate access to any of these options. With only seconds to run for cover once an air raid siren sounds, even the minute it takes to leave an apartment building and run exposed down the street to a shelter may be too long.
Sitting in the corner she had claimed at one municipal shelter, Ksenia, 49, said she had already spent two weeks here last May, during Operation Guardians of the Wall.
“I have asthma, I was in the ICU with coronavirus,” said the Russian native who declined to share her last name. “I can’t run from the fourth floor to the bottom of the stairwell in seven seconds. Also, we don’t have a proper shelter.”
Despite reports Sunday that a ceasefire was close, air raid sirens repeatedly blared across the city, and a constant thrum of Iron Dome interceptions was heard in the region.
At a different shelter, Markab Kiflum, 37, and her two sisters reclined, exhausted, in separate corners. Their collective 12 children ran, crawled and tumbled around them. When a stranger entered, Kiflum’s 4-year-old mistook her for her preschool teacher and welcomed her with a sweet hug around the knees.
“No, I don’t expect it to be quiet,” said Ethiopian immigrant Kiflum.
Ksenia, Kiflum and several others said they had largely stayed in the public shelters, many with their young children, since fighting broke out between Israel and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip on Friday. Sprawled out on foam mattresses, plastic bags of water and snacks surrounding them, stumbling over children’s toys and cellphone chargers, they said they’d pass the conflict here, risking going home only to eat and shower.
They are the residents of a neighborhood called Shimshon, in the older part of this mid-sized southern Israeli city. Many of them are immigrants to Israel, elderly, or financially disadvantaged. According to the Ashkelon mayor’s office, most of the quarter of Ashkelon’s 150,000 residents who lack adequate shelter live here.
Almost 1,000 rockets were fired at Ashkelon during 2021’s conflict between Israel and Hamas, making Ashkelon the most fired-upon municipality during the 11 days of fighting. As of Sunday evening, over 110 rockets had been fired toward the city in the current round, in 30 separate volleys, each of which triggered sirens.
A spokesperson for Mayor Tomer Glam said that several promises for state funding of additional shelters have never materialized, including a NIS 320 million (some $96 million) allocation to improve shelter options in the Shimshon neighorhood. The city and the Israel Defense Forces’ Homefront Command are still weighing what type of shelters to provide, contributing to the hold-up.
According to the mayor’s office, Glam reached out to Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s office after the current fighting broke out in order to push for accelerated funding and an immediate solution.
Not everyone has it in them to live in the municipal shelters, which range in quality and cleanliness. One roadside shelter installed outside a crumbling apartment building that The Times of Israel visited had been repurposed as a squatters’ home, and contained human excrement.
Some families choose to remain in their homes, even if their apartment buildings provide little protection.
“I’m alone with two kids, I can’t even leave and do my shopping. I have to think about whether or not to shower,” said a single mother who asked to be identified only as P.
“We don’t have anywhere to protect ourselves. The shelter here isn’t okay because it’s full of gas balloons,” she added, explaining why she and neighbors were gathering on the stoop in front of the building’s stairwell. With a large, open lobby lacking a door, the stairwell seemed to provide psychological comfort more than any actual protection.
“These are old, ignored sections of the city, and there are buildings even worse than this. Even if they wanted to put shelters in there, they can’t, there’s no space,” P. said.
“It’s stressful,” she added, looking at her two young kids playing under the building’s overhang.
Then she looked over at the apartment building on the corner of her street. In 2018, she said, someone had died in his bed when a rocket struck his apartment.
Shai Naga, 38, moved into that now-rehabilitated building recently, after several families left following the direct rocket strike.
Coming from the rocket-battered town of Netivot, he thinks that Ashkelon’s situation is an improvement, although he added that his wife and kids are still skittish.
Working outside despite the constant hum of Iron Dome interceptions in the distance, Naga gestured to the apartment building.
“They patched everything up here, the entire left side of the building was destroyed. But there you can still see the shrapnel,” he said, pointing to the scarred wall.
While several residents in the under-protected neighborhood said they are “used to” it, or they do not have the means to move, or do not want to leave a neighborhood that is home to their close-knit families, they all said they want the city and the state to improve their safety. And the state of their nerves.
“I don’t think it’s okay, that they fire missiles at us from Gaza and that there is an operation,” said P.’s 8-year-old son, before turning back to draw with his chalk.
Ksenia, reading from her phone, said that her hands had started shaking again.
“Every time I hear a siren, I shake,” she said, adding that it has gotten worse throughout the years since Gaza-based terrorists first started firing rockets at Ashkelon.
“I’d like to have a shelter,” she said.
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