In Sderot, where PM always fares well, rocket-battered residents aren’t shifting
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In Sderot, where PM always fares well, rocket-battered residents aren’t shifting

Says one taxi driver as he goes to cast a ballot: ‘I have voted Likud my whole life. And so did my parents. It would feel like a betrayal to vote for anyone else’

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

A Labor Party activist outside a polling station in Sderot, September 17, 2019 (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)
A Labor Party activist outside a polling station in Sderot, September 17, 2019 (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)

Getting off the train at Sderot, the second sign you see, right after “Exit,” is one that directs you to “Shelter.” That’s your first indication that this town of 26,000 has been bombarded by thousands of rockets from the adjacent Gaza Strip over the past 18 years. When an alarm sounds, residents have 15 seconds to run for cover; as they go about their day, they must subconsciously scan their surroundings for the nearest bomb shelter.

Election day finds the center of town plastered with campaign posters. The majority feature Labor party head Amir Peretz, a resident and former mayor of the city, beneath the words “A social Iron Dome” — evoking the Iron Dome missile defense system, approved by Peretz when he was defense minister, and linking it to his promises to address residents’ social problems, notably poverty. Another prominent billboard features Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu standing next to US President Donald Trump, with the words “In a different league.”

On Tuesday, The Times of Israel spoke to about two dozen passersby in Sderot and at nearby Kibbutz Nir Am, most of whom were happy to say who they were voting for. Four Russian-speakers said Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu had their support. A middle-aged immigrant from Argentina said he was voting for the Democratic Camp (which comprises the left-wing Meretz and ex-Laborites Ehud Barak and Stav Shaffir). Four Sderot residents planned to vote for Labor, four more preferred Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White, and six were voting Likud.

In April, Likud got 44% of the vote in Sderot, where a total of 12,918 Israelis cast ballots, followed by Yisrael Beytenu with 10%. Labor managed just 3%. In Nir Am, where 251 people voted last time, Blue and White scored 54%, Labor 17% and Likud 8%.

A campaign billboard in Sderot features Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alongside U.S. President Donald Trump with the words “In a different league,” September 17, 2019 (Photo: Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)

Not a single person said they had changed their vote from the previous elections in April — apart from Dan, a middle-aged man who voted last time for Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut, a libertarian, pro-cannabis legalization party that is not running this time after Netanyahu promised Feiglin a cabinet post in return for dropping out.

“It’s really a medicine, it’s a medicine,” he insisted of cannabis. “I don’t understand what people have against it.”

“I hate Bibi,” he added of the prime minister. “If he wins, there will be a coronation ceremony at the Western Wall next week. And Sara [Netanyahu] will appoint herself queen. I am voting for Otzma Yehudit” — an extremist party led by self-styled disciples of the late racist rabbi Meir Kahane. “They’re kind of extremist but I see this as a ‘f*ck you’ vote, to shake things up. Actually, I know [Otzma leader] Itamar Ben Gvir, and he’s really not as extremist as Kahane.”

At Sderot’s outdoor fruit and vegetable market, Yitzhak, a 72-year-old Russian-speaker, said he was voting for Yisrael Beytenu because of its pro-secular agenda and opposition to ultra-Orthodox coercion.

“I don’t want the rabbinate to check my blood to see if I am a Jew or not,” said Yitzhak, who immigrated from Kazakhstan in the 1990s. “It should be enough that I tell them I am Jewish.”

He said he also supports Liberman’s pledge to redirect some government funds from ultra-Orthodox priorities. “We need more math and physics teachers, not Torah teachers. I want this to be a secular, developed country,” he said. “If we don’t educate young people, we won’t be the Startup Nation anymore.”

Outside a polling station at Sderot’s Cinematheque, three middle-aged Russian-speaking women were distributing flyers. Two were wearing Yisrael Beytenu T-shirts, while the third was wearing a Likud shirt. Each had a story of a near-miss involving a rocket.

“Eight years ago, a Kassam made a direct hit on my house,” said the Likud activist, Galina. “My grandchildren and husband were in the house and I was in the shower, and everything burned, but miraculously we were unharmed.”

“Netanyahu is wonderful,” she added. “He has done many things. He knows how talk to foreign leaders. And we have quiet here.”

“Really?” this reporter asked.

“Well, sometimes.”

‘I like it here’

“My parents left Sderot because they couldn’t take it anymore,” said Etti Dahan, a mother of two small children, who was standing nearby. Dahan recently moved back to Sderot from Eilat after leaving the city in 1999.

“My daughter is in first grade and my son is in kindergarten and I want them to go to school in Sderot like I did,” she said. “I like it here. We have a social life, and the town is pretty. There are good schools.”

“So far my kids have only had to take cover from rockets twice. They know the drill. I don’t talk about it all the time so as not to scare them.”

Etti Dahan, who recently moved back to Sderot from Eilat, outside a polling station in Sderot, September 17, 2019 (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)

Dahan voted for Amir Peretz’s Labor, she said. “He has done so much for Sderot. He’s the one who built our outdoor market when he was mayor. He was the head of the Histadrut labor federation and he gave dignity to workers and to ordinary people.”

Outside a nearby polling station, Likud activists were chanting “Bibi, Bibi, Bibi” — Netanyahu’s nickname — as voters entered. “There is no one but Bibi,” agreed a cab driver, arriving to cast his ballot.

Asked what he likes about Netanyahu, he replied: “What’s not to like? He is a good leader. People are blind. Life here is good, we have everything we need. There are people who like to complain and whine, so maybe they vote for the left. But look how great the economy is; the airport is full of travelers.”

Even if Netanyahu were to ever disappoint him, which he stressed hadn’t happened, he would never consider voting for anyone else. “I have voted Likud my whole life. And so did my parents. It’s an inheritance. It has never occurred to me to vote for anyone else. It would feel like a betrayal.”

Three men at a dried fruit and nut store nearby all declined to be interviewed. “The media will distort whatever we say anyway,” said one.

But then they changed their minds. “Are you leftist? You look like a leftist,” one of them asked.

“What does a leftist look like?” this reporter asked.

“Ashkenazi,” he said, referring to Jews of European origin.

Another of them man asked: “You’ve been walking around talking to people. How does it look? What are people telling you? I’m really worried Netanyahu won’t make it this time. But I’m hoping Itamar Ben Gvir will [get into the Knesset and help] push him over the edge [to a coalition majority].”

At another Sderot polling station, two local women, Smadar Altar and Moran Madmoni, were trying to persuade voters to put a red slip of paper with the words “Tzeva Adom” (Red Alert) into the ballot box as a protest vote against the ongoing rocket fire from Hamas-run Gaza.

“My son stutters because of all the rockets,” said Altar, “and no one pays any attention to what we’ve been going through here. People are dying. Enough already.”

Smadar Altar (l) and Moran Madmoni try to persuade voters to lodge a protest vote, outside a polling station in Sderot, September 17, 2019 (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)

Rockets and inequality

At nearby Nir Am, a privatized kibbutz adjacent to the Sderot train station, old kibbutzniks mingle with newer residents, many of them urban professionals who have moved to the kibbutz for the relatively affordable lifestyle and strong sense of community.

Einav Baram, a kibbutz member for the last ten years, said her top issue was security and the second most important issue was to close inequality gaps. She said she believed most people on the kibbutz were voting either Labor or Blue and White.

Nearby, two polite and friendly 11-year-old girls, Nelly and Shira, were helping Nelly’s mother get out the vote for Blue and White. “I love this kibbutz,” said Nelly, whose parents work in the tech sector. “I love the holidays, which we celebrate together. On Shavuot, we all go on tractors and throw candy. On Sukkot we build tents all over the kibbutz and sleep in them. Once when my father was guarding the entrance to the kibbutz we built a fire for him and roasted marshmallows.”

Residents of Kibbutz Nir Am campaign for Blue and White on September 17, 2019 (Simona Weinglass/The Times of Israel)

“At our [regional] school, most of the kids support Blue and White,” she said.

Asked if they play video games or watch TV, Shira replied, “Of course we do, but we like to be outside more. We like to do DIY projects, paint and play music.”

“We’re not really afraid of the rockets, but some kids are,” she said. “It’s funny because one day there will be a rocket, and the next day it’s as if nothing happened and everyone goes back to their routine.”

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