As rockets rain down, many vulnerable Ashkelon residents still lack adequate shelter

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On the third day of Operation Breaking Dawn, and as rocket alerts sounded repeatedly, the streets of Ashkelon were largely silent. But in some corners of the city, an underground community has emerged in the municipal shelters.

Occupants of these shelters who spoke to The Times of Israel on Sunday said they would rather be at home. But they were forced to choose between comfort and safety, being among the approximately 40,000 inhabitants of Ashkelon who, despite being only about ten kilometers from the northern border of the Gaza Strip, did not have still no access to adequate rocket shelter.

While several types of shelters provide protection against the robberies from Gaza – including protected rooms in personal apartments, reinforced stairwells, shared shelters in buildings and public shelters in neighborhoods – these residents have said they had no access to any of these options. With only seconds to take cover once an air raid siren sounds, even the minute it takes to leave a building and run exposed down the street to shelter can be too long.

Sitting in the corner she had claimed in a 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 intensive care 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 adequate shelter.

Despite reports on Sunday that a ceasefire was near, air raid sirens sounded repeatedly in the city and a constant buzz of Iron Dome interceptions was heard in the area.

Children who moved into a municipal shelter in Ashkelon during Operation Breaking Dawn, August 7, 2022. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)

At another shelter, Markab Kiflum, 37, and her two sisters lie exhausted in separate corners. Their collective 12 children ran, crawled and tumbled around them. When a stranger walked in, the 4-year-old from Kiflum mistook her for her preschool teacher and greeted her with a gentle hug around her knees.

“No, I don’t expect it to be quiet,” said Ethiopian immigrant Kiflum.

Ksenia, Kiflum and several others said they had remained largely in public shelters, many with their young children, since fighting erupted Friday between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. . Lying on foam mattresses, surrounded by plastic bags filled with water and snacks, stumbling over children’s toys and cell phone chargers, they said they would spend the conflict here, risking not returning home only to eat and shower.

They are residents of a neighborhood called Shimshon, in the oldest part of this medium-sized city in southern Israel. Many of them are immigrants to Israel, elderly or financially disadvantaged. According to the Mayor of Ashkelon’s office, most of the quarter of Ashkelon’s 150,000 residents who lack adequate housing live here.

Nearly 1,000 rockets were fired at Ashkelon during the 2021 conflict between Israel and Hamas, making Ashkelon the worst-hit municipality in the 11 days of fighting. As of Sunday evening, more than 110 rockets had been fired towards the city during the current round, in 30 separate bursts, each of which triggered sirens.

A spokesman for Mayor Tomer Glam said several promises of state funding for additional shelters never materialized, including an allocation of 320 million shekels (about $96 million) to improve shelter options. shelters in the Shimshon district. The city and the Israel Defense Forces Home Front Command are still considering what kind of shelters to provide, which is contributing to the lockdown.

According to the mayor’s office, Glam contacted Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s office after the current fighting broke out to push for accelerated funding and an immediate solution.

Ksenia, who moved into a municipal shelter in Ashkelon during Operation Breaking Dawn, August 7, 2022. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)

Not everyone wants to live in municipal shelters, which vary in quality and cleanliness. A roadside shelter set up outside a crumbling building that The Times of Israel visited had been converted into a squatter’s house and contained human excrement.

Some families choose to stay in their homes, even though their apartment buildings offer little protection.

“I’m alone with two children, I can’t even go shopping. I have to think about whether to take a shower or not,” said a single mother who asked to be identified only as P.

“We have nowhere to protect ourselves. The shelter here is not good because it is full of gas balloons,” she added, explaining why she and her neighbors were gathering on the porch in front of the building’s stairwell. With a large open hall devoid of a door, the stairwell seemed to offer psychological comfort more than real protection.

“These are old, overlooked parts of town, and there are even worse buildings than that. Even if they wanted to put shelters in there, they can’t, there’s no room,” P. said.

“It’s stressful,” she added, watching her two young children play under the building’s overhang.

Then she looked at the building on the corner of her street. In 2018, she said, someone had died in her bed when a rocket hit her apartment.

Shrapnel scars on an apartment building in Ashkelon, after the building next door absorbed a fatal direct hit in 2018, seen August 7, 2022. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)

Shai Naga, 38, recently moved into this now rehabilitated building after several families left following the direct rocket attack.

Coming from the rocket-bombed town of Netivot, he thinks Ashkelon’s situation is improving, although he added that his wife and children are still temperamental.

Working outside despite the constant buzz of Iron Dome intercepts in the distance, Naga gestured towards the building.

“They patched everything up here, the whole left side of the building was destroyed. But there you can still see the shrapnel,” he said, pointing to the bruised wall.

A painted mini-shelter outside an apartment building in Ashkelon, August 7, 2022. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)

While several residents of the underprotected neighborhood say they are “used to it”, or that they cannot afford to travel, or that they do not want to leave a neighborhood that is home to their close-knit families, they all say that they want the city and the state to improve their security. And the state of their nerves.

“I don’t think it’s right, that they’re firing missiles at us from Gaza and there’s an operation,” P.’s 8-year-old son said, before turning to sketch at the chalk.

Ksenia, reading on her phone, said her hands started shaking again.

“Every time I hear a siren, I shake,” she said, adding that the situation has worsened over the years since Gaza-based terrorists began firing rockets into Ashkelon.

“I would like to have a refuge,” she said.

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