Southern Israel frustrated under rocket fire

This article was originally published on Al Jazeera English on July 11, 2014.

Sderot, Israel — The Israeli cabinet is under mounting pressure to launch a ground invasion of Gaza, and much of it comes from towns like this, where residents say they want an end to the bi-annual salvos of rocket fire from Gaza.

Over the past ten years, hundreds of rockets have landed here, just a few kilometres from the Gaza border. The Israeli government has spent about $150m to build a network of bomb shelters, at a cost of more than $6,000 per resident. There have been no injuries or serious damage here during the current round of fighting, partly as a result of the costly infrastructure.

The town has become something of a showpiece, a popular destination for journalists and foreign dignitaries, who are regularly bussed in to meet with the mayor and other locals. Residents, though, say they’d prefer to be known as something other than a target.

"I’d prefer a highway to Tel Aviv," quipped Ofir Steinberg, standing in one of the bomb shelters that dot the road every few hundred metres, as sirens wailed around town.

It is hard to draw a straight line between the rocket fire and the economic situation in the south, which has long been poorer than the centre of Israel. But some residents feel that spending on bomb shelters has crowded out more beneficial investments, and that the government has a double standard. "Imagine if this was Jerusalem, or Tel Aviv, or even Haifa. They wouldn’t endure this for a decade," Steinberg said.

The cabinet met for more than six hours on Thursday at the defence ministry in Tel Aviv to discuss the campaign in Gaza. The meeting ended with no firm decision; troops are slowly building up around the border, though still far below the numbers required for any major offensive.

Government sources say Netanyahu is still reluctant to approve an invasion, which would likely entail heavy casualties. There is also no clear endgame for a ground offensive: A West Bank-style occupation would be costly and unpopular, and there are no real alternatives to Hamas rule in Gaza, aside from unrealistic dreams about the Palestinian Authority resuming control.

The voices inside Israel are fed up with this situation, with a war every few years. So I cannot rule out the biggest possibility for this operation.

In Sderot, though, there was support for an escalation, which many residents have come to see as the only way to ensure a long period of quiet.

"The voices inside Israel are fed up with this situation, with a war every few years. So I cannot rule out the biggest possibility for this operation," said Ya’akov Amidror, a retired general who was Netanyahu’s national security adviser until recently.

Further north in Kiryat Malachi, a city of 20,000 near Ashkelon, the mood was equally critical. It was home to three of the four Israeli civilians killed during the 2012 war, who died when a rocket slammed into their apartment building.

At the time, residents called for harsh retaliation against Gaza. On Thursday the mood was similar, with an added hint of frustration that high-profile rocket strikes on Jerusalem and Tel Aviv have attracted more interest.

"The [news] channels don’t even send me an alert when a rocket is fired here," said Hili Dayan, gesturing to her phone. "If one person died in Tel Aviv they would probably flatten the whole [Gaza] strip."

The feeling of discrimination is widespread in the south, where residents feel there has been far more attention to a handful of ineffective rocket attacks on Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Places like Sderot are known locally as "development towns", built hastily in the 1950s in order to absorb new Jewish immigrants. Many of their earliest inhabitants were mizrahim, Jews of Arab descent who faced discrimination from the predominantly Ashkenazi (European) founders of Israel. During the 1990s, the south also became home to large numbers of Jews from the former Soviet Union.

"They were set up to grab land in places where there were no [Jewish] settlements," said Barbara Swirski, who studies and advocates for disadvantaged groups in Israel. "They were supposed to develop, but they never did. There’s a lack of good jobs and economic opportunities, and a lack of government policy aimed at fixing the problem."

Both of these groups, the mizrahim and the Russians, remain economically disadvantaged, as do their cities. The average family income in Tel Aviv was 18,618 shekels per month ($5,429), according to a 2012 report from the Central Bureau of Statistics. In Be’er Sheva, it was 12,962 shekels ($3,780), nearly one-third lower.

The bureau does not track salaries in smaller localities, but economists say those are lower still; wages in Sderot have typically been about half the national average. "Whatever we speak about, whether health indicators, monthly salary, or educational achievement, the south has less of it," Swirski said.

The residents of these predominantly Jewish towns nonetheless fare better than those in Al-Sayyid, a Bedouin village in the Negev desert, near the city of Be’er Sheva.

We don’t have water, we don’t even have electricity, except what we get from the sun. How would they run the sirens?

About half of the Negev Bedouin—totalling more than 200,000 citizens—live in unrecognised villages, which receive no municipal services and are subject to routine home demolitions. Al-Sayyid was officially recognised in 2004, but residents say they have seen little improvement since then.

Today, their homes offer little protection from possible rocket strikes, and the government has not installed any municipal shelters nearby.

"Yes, we have sirens, we have bomb shelters, just like we have the roads they promised," said Abd al-Salam al-Sayyid, gesturing to the rutted dirt track outside the mosque where he had just finished midday prayers.

"We don’t have water, we don’t even have electricity, except what we get from the sun. How would they run the sirens?"

An elderly resident of the village, Moussa al-Sayyid, tried to make light of the situation. "I’m not afraid," he said. "We have a siren at the airport," referring to Nevatim, an air force base about 10km from the village.

"You can hear that?" Abd al-Salam joked. "Of course the people here are afraid. When rockets fly above our heads, we are all the same, we are all human beings. We are worried."