Reporter's notebook'I've never fled. I'm not about to start now'

In Netivot, poverty compounds the problems of a battered border city

Thousands of the frontline city’s residents are riding out incessant Hamas artillery, citing faith, defiance — and lack of better options

Canaan Lidor

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Aviel Zaguri, left, and his brother Meir stand outside their yeshiva in Netivot, Israel, on October 15, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)
Aviel Zaguri, left, and his brother Meir stand outside their yeshiva in Netivot, Israel, on October 15, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Standing on rubble under the blackened façade of her apartment building in Netivot, Liora Touito watches neighbors load two suitcases into a car.

The site took a rocket hit that killed three neighbors and torched Touito’s yard.

The mother of four would have liked to join the stream of locals who have temporarily left this city of 35,000 residents situated only 11 kilometers (seven miles) from the Gaza border. But Touito is so strapped for cash that she can’t even accept the offers to host her for free courtesy of municipalities and private citizens who are putting up the temporarily displaced.

“The 10th approaches,” she said on Sunday, referencing the date when her credit card bill is due. “I work at a supermarket, and I barely make ends meet as it is. If I don’t work, I can’t pay rent or feed the kids.”

At least 1,300 Israelis have died in the ongoing hostilities with Hamas in Gaza, most of them during a shock incursion by some 1,500 terrorists who on October 7 murdered Israelis en masse, perpetrating atrocities that have shocked the world. Israel has unleashed its artillery and air force on Gaza, killing at least 2,000 people according to Palestinian sources, amid anticipation of a ground invasion to destroy Gaza’s Hamas rulers.

The blackened facade of Liora Touito’s building in Netivot, Israel, eight days after a rocket hit it, killing three people on October 7, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Touito’s predicament is not uncommon for how the poverty of many in the battered cities of the western Negev has compounded their suffering during the region’s 22 years under threat from Gaza rockets. Yet these challenges have neither stopped the city’s growth nor broken many locals’ spirit and faith.

Raphael Fahimi, left, Netanel Maskelchi and Raphael Meir Maskelchi. (Courtesy of the Maskelchi family)

The death of Touito’s neighbors – Raphael Fahimi, his son-in-law Netanel Maskelchi and Maskelchi’s 14-year-old son, Raphael Meir Maskelchi – may have had something to do with poverty, too, Touito says.

“Because of thefts, many here keep butane tanks for cooking in their balconies instead of outside. The rocket ignited the butane. That’s what killed them,” said Touito, whose eldest daughter is suffering from PTSD.

The blackened facade of Liora Touito’s building in Netivot, Israel, eight days after a rocket hit it, killing three people on October 7, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

The building where the rocket hit has a shelter but it’s unusable because the residents have turned it into a storage place.

“People have large families here and they store and hoard for years things like furniture and mattresses to avoid having to buy new,” Touito explains. “I want them to clear the shelter but they won’t listen to me.”

Touito and her children sleep at her boyfriend’s home, which has a shelter.

The shelter of the building of Liora Touito is full of furniture eight days after a rocket hit the building, killing three people on October 7, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Netivot, where the average monthly salary of about NIS 9,500 ($2,380) is roughly 30% lower than the national figure, has some more affluent neighborhoods composed of semi-detached houses and modern apartment buildings. Unlike the projects in the city’s center, the fancier neighborhoods have emptied out, according to Aviel Zaguri, a 27-year-old father of four.

The aftermath of a Qassam rocket’s fall on a street in Netivot on October 10, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

People in richer neighborhoods tend to have relatives who can host them, cars to get to work with, or jobs they can do remotely. “It’s pretty empty in the nicer neighborhoods,” Zaguri said while standing in the city’s dusty center, which has been echoing for days with the thuds of ballistic launches on both sides of the Gaza border.

Thousands of people from Sderot, Ofakim, Netivot, Ashkelon and beyond have left their homes amid the countless Hamas rocket attacks that have pummeled Israel over the past nine days, killing several people.

Jews attend events commemorating the death of the Baba Sali at his grave compound in Netivot amid heavy police presence on January 5, 2022. (Flash90)

Some Netivot residents say the city enjoys divine protection as it’s the burial place of Yoram Michael Abargel, a rabbi who died in 2015. He is revered by thousands of disciples who pray regularly at a synagogue in his memory built near his grave. Even now, it draws pilgrims and worshipers at all hours.

So does the Netivot grave of Israel Abuhatzeira, better known as the Baba Sali, a Morocco-born rabbi whose followers say he performed miracles before his 1984 death.

Blood from a terrorist covers the bedroom of Rachel and David Edery in Ofakim, Israel on October 11, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

“Netivot could have easily had a situation like they had in Ofakim,” Yehuda Oshert, 57, said. He was referencing the slaying on October 7 of dozens of residents in a nearby city. “But the saintly sages confused the terrorists who wanted to enter Netivot and [protected] us,” Oshert, a father of three, added.

Oshert and his wife are staying out of principle. “I’ve never folded, never left, never ceded an inch to those animals, and I’m not about to start now,” he said defiantly.

An IDF soldier stands amid destruction caused by Hamas terrorists in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, near the Gaza border, October 15, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Netivot, which is surrounded by kibbutzim and moshavim, underlines the juxtaposition of what some call “first and second Israel” — the predominantly Ashkenazi, cultural elite and the largely Sephardic, underprivileged urbanites. The divide extends to the religious and political realms, with “second Israel” being more devout than the other group and generally likelier to vote for right-wing, religious parties.

The 10-month-long wave of protests against the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accentuated those divides. But the terrorist attack of October 7 has “set aside” those differences, Oshert said, reflecting the mindset of many on both sides of the internal divide.

“This is a sign that divided, we will fall,” he said. “When I pray at the gravesite [of Abargel] I pray for everyone: Tel Aviv folks, Netivot folks, even kibbutzniks,” he said with a wink, referencing the stereotype of the staunch secularism in that demographic.

Yet the differences linger, and they are being revisited even as families from across Israel — first and second — bury their dead and prepare for a long and deadly war.

David and Rachel Edery, left, arrive at their home in Ofakim, Israel on October 11, 2023 for the for first time since Hamas terrorists took them hostage there. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Rachel Edery, a woman from Ofakim who became a national icon for how she used her instinct for hospitality to survive being taken hostage with her husband by five Hamas terrorists, verbalized what many have been thinking.

“We were punished by God. They disrupted the prayers of Jews on Yom Kippur, like savages. So we got savagery paid back one hundred times over,” she told a neighbor, referencing a row over public Orthodox worship in Tel Aviv that had polarized Israeli society in the days leading up to the attack.

Survivors on the other side of the political debate are also politicizing the tragedy.

“Where are all the people who called us traitors?” Sofie Berzon MacKie, a survivor from Kibbutz Be’eri, an epicenter of the wholesale murder of Israelis during the Hamas terror onslaught, asked in an interview on Channel 12 on Wednesday.

Sofie Berzon MacKie speaks to a Channel 12 reporter on October 11, 2023. (Channel 12. Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

“We the leftists are the traitors?” she asked, repeating a frequent slur used against the anti-judicial overhaul protesters and leftists in general. “They are the traitors, the people whose salaries I pay and left me to die,” Berzon MacKie, an artist who was born in the United Kingdom, said as she cried.

Back in Netivot, Aviel Zaguri is staying put. He didn’t flinch as inbound rockets that hit a few miles from Netivot send loud thuds across the plains of the western Negev. He stood at sunset outside his yeshiva and looked up at the spectacle that lit up the desert sky over Netivot each night: Iron Dome rounds hunting and destroying rockets bound for the area’s Israeli towns.

“My wife thought about going to Jerusalem, but we decided it’s not much safer. And frankly, it’s such a hassle moving in with relatives when you have four small kids that staying under fire feels easier.”

Zaguri’s children are accustomed to the alarms and the thuds, he said. “We’ve raised our children into this. Our twins, age 5, asked what the thuds are. I told them: Arabs in Gaza want to kill us but God will watch over us if we watch over ourselves and His commandments.”

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