For the flagship university of southern Israel, sirens replace bells

Beersheba’s Ben-Gurion University has been closed since last week because of the fire from Gaza, a reality that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago

The campus of Ben-Gurion University (Times of Israel/Matti Friedman)
The campus of Ben-Gurion University (Times of Israel/Matti Friedman)
In the absence of humans, the Ben-Gurion University campus in Beersheba has been taken over by cats (Times of Israel/Matti Friedman)
The campus of Ben-Gurion University, Sunday (photo credit: Matti Friedman/Times of Israel)

The campus of Ben-Gurion University, typically full of students rushing to class or conversing on the lawns, was bizarrely empty Sunday, its classrooms quiet and its open spaces taken over by roving bands of stray cats.

The university, the most important institution in the southern city of Beersheba, has been shuttered since Wednesday, a move the administration says has affected 15,000 students and 3,000 employees. The closure is a type of damage that is not as visible as a damaged house or a burnt-out car, but nonetheless demonstrates one of the important effects of this latest round of fighting between Israel and the rocket squads of Gaza: It is another blow to the lives of many thousands in a major Israeli city, something that would have been unthinkable four years ago and which is now seen as so routine it is barely worth reporting.

The university can close for a week without forcing a major rescheduling of the academic year, said Prof. Rivka Carmi, the president. But the continuation in the coming months and years of the steady drip of rockets this university has experienced since Beersheba was first hit nearly four years ago, she said, was a real danger.

“This is a kind of routine that an institution like a university can’t live with,” Carmi said. “If we can’t reach some kind of sustainable agreement, it will continue and this routine is what worries me.”

In addition to Beersheba’s college students, some 40,000 children from day care to high school are currently at home, according to the municipality. That means that many of the city’s 210,000 residents are not working, even if their places of employment are functioning, because they are taking care of children.

No one has been killed here and damage has been relatively light. But the city, like much of southern Israel, has effectively been shut down.

The success of the Iron Dome anti-missile system has been a reason for some happiness in Israel during this round of violence; the system is said to have a 90-percent success rate and has almost certainly saved numerous civilian lives. But though that success is significant, it has not prevented swaths of the country, like this city, and institutions like this university — Israel’s third-largest — from being paralyzed by a small number of terrorists in the Gaza Strip.

On Wednesday afternoon, the military informed the university’s administration that the air force had just assassinated Ahmed Jabari, the head of the Hamas military organization in Gaza, after a spike in rocket fire aimed at Israeli civilians. The military, expecting Hamas retaliation, ordered the university to cancel all classes and send everyone home.

The security officers at Ben-Gurion sent out emails and text messages to all students and staff, according to security director Rafi Sarussi: Classes were halted mid-lecture, and the thousands of people on the campus quickly filed out the gates. Most out-of-town students departed for points north. Not long afterward, Gaza rocket squads began to pummel Israel, including Beersheba, a barrage that had not let up by Sunday evening.

Two hours before the interview with Sarussi, a Palestinian rocket scored a direct hit on a Beersheba house a few minutes’ drive from the university. As the interview ended, two critically wounded Israelis were rushed into the trauma unit at Soroka Medical Center, just across the street, after a missile hit a car in the nearby town of Ofakim.

The streets of Beersheba outside the campus, usually lively, were sparsely populated Sunday. On the highways leading south from central Israel, there was a notable presence of Humvees and military transporters carrying tanks and armored vehicles toward the army’s staging grounds outside Gaza, part of the preparations for a possible ground incursion. Truck stops were full of soldiers in transit.

The university has become so central to the life of Beersheba that its closure is immediately felt across the city, Sarussi said: “This is a joyous place, and when it’s shut you feel that the routine and the real happiness here have been cut off,” he said. On Sunday, Sarussi was running campus security without a third of his staff — men who have been summoned by the military reserves — from a small office on the top floor of an otherwise deserted building.

The violence has raised concerns that students will prefer to choose other universities, as this one becomes associated with the dangers of Israel’s south. But Sarussi says that is not likely to happen.

“The past proves that the public is stronger than we give it credit for,” he said. “After terror attacks, people get back on buses and go back to restaurants. When the university reopens, everyone will be back.”

Beersheba has always been a marginal city, a poor urban center in the desert battling a past of neglect still very much present in the stretches of town that consist of crumbling apartment blocks. But in recent years, under the stewardship of an energetic young mayor and with the university at the center, the city has been clawing its way upward, undertaking renewal projects and drawing some investment.

The rocket fire threatens those fragile achievements.

“The city is in a sped-up phase of development, and these events don’t help,” said Amnon Yosef, a spokesman for City Hall. He said the city had $750 million in development funds at stake.

Nonetheless, he said, the municipality and the mayor want a permanent solution to the rocket fire that has become part of life in Beersheba, and give “full backing to the prime minister and the military to stop the shooting, no matter how long it takes.”


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