Tel Aviv — December’s close brought with it the end of an unwritten, Egyptian-brokered cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, and six months of relative calm on the Israel-Gaza border. Now, as rockets explode once again in the Israeli border town of Sderot, and Israel contemplates its response to the assaults, both sides, ironically, stand militarily strengthened from the truce.
For Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza after winning a 2006 election there, the cease-fire was a chance to stockpile its arsenal, increasing the number and capability of its rockets. On December 21, two days after the cease-fire ended, Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, reported to Israel’s Cabinet that it believes Hamas now has rockets that can reach a 25-mile radius from Gaza. This would mean they could hit the outskirts of Beersheba, Israel’s fourth largest city. It also brings the port city of Ashdod into range.
“Hamas had half a year to build up its supply of rockets, as well as to train and to recruit,” said Eyal Zisser, a terrorism expert at Tel Aviv University. He noted that the cease-fire also strengthened the organization politically. “Gaza is the only place in the Arab world where Islamists are in power, and they have shown themselves able to rule and to successfully negotiate and benefit from a cease-fire.”
For Israel, the lull gave the army a chance to practice its range of possible responses to Hamas rockets, from targeted killings to a full-scale operation in Gaza. Security experts say it was a period of intense preparation. “The [Israel Defense Forces] will have prepared intelligence and used the chance for the training of troops,” said Ely Karmon, former adviser to the Defense Ministry and senior researcher at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.
But on the home front, there is a feeling that the lull was a missed opportunity.
In Sderot, the most notorious target for Hamas rockets, residents complained long ago that their homes lack bomb shelters, which the residents do not have the money to build. Six months later, this remains the case. There is a widespread belief that although the military preparation should have gone
hand in hand with a serious effort to prepare them for the storm after the calm, it did not.
“Nothing happened during this time,” Yigal Levi, a shelterless Sderot father of four, told the Forward.
Before the cease-fire, the plight of the town’s embattled residents dominated Israel’s national agenda. Last February, angry Sderot residents protested and stopped traffic in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. They waved banners that declared “No security, no shelters, no government.”
One of the residents’ complaints was that while communal bomb shelters exist, they take far longer to reach than the 10-20 second warning they receive. Most Sderot homes lack the shelter — actually, a reinforced room — that must be present in all new buildings. Senior government officials began paying regular visits to the town and promising to improve life in Sderot. Then, in June, came the cease-fire.
The reason that the cease-fire was not used to reinforce the homes is simple, according to the Defense Ministry: “a money problem,” spokesman Shlomo Dror told the Forward.
Though there was a budget for protection along the Gaza border, Dror claims that at $130 million, it was only enough to fortify public buildings and provide shelters in the street.
He said that moves to protect private homes were hampered by the government’s opposition. “From the point of view of the government, when you build this shelter, you add another room to the house. The value of the house goes up,” Dror said. “The Finance Ministry says that we should not give money to homeowners that, when he sells, will not go back to the government. The Defence Ministry feels that the government should take responsibility for this issue and put up the money and not leave it like this.”
The failure to protect their homes has left some Sderot residents questioning what good came out of the public attention their town secured in the months before the ceasefire.
“Whenever there are rockets, everyone wants to assist Sderot,” said Odelia Ben-Porat, a mother of three. “But when the rockets stop and we’re off the news, people say, ‘Everything’s fine in Sderot and back to normal,’ and all the assistance stops.
“Maybe the government thought during the cease-fire, ‘now Sderot is safe’ and that it’s not so urgent. But on the contrary, it should have been building shelters,” Ben-Porat said.
Levi, a social worker, is typical of shelterless Sderot residents — 70% of the local population, according to some estimates. Most, like him, are unable to pay from their own pocket the $20,000 a shelter costs. He has an option of laying out the money himself and trying to reclaim some of it. But there is widespread confusion about how this procedure works and what percentage of the cost can be refunded. Even Dror said he is unclear about the details.
In any event, most Sderot residents lack the resources to front such a sum on their own. Even if they could, uncertainty about reimbursement procedures and rates make this seem a big risk. Reports abound of people who, if they receive anything back at all, receive a sum far short of what they laid out.
Yael Shushan, a Sderot factory owner, is one of the lucky ones: Her home was built with a shelter; her parents could afford to build one themselves. But she is angry that such protection hinges on a person’s financial situation. “Everyone’s life is worth the same,” she said.
Businesses also lack shelters. Shushan says this is shortsighted, as all efforts should be made to stop sources of employment from moving away. Unless she receives assistance, she will have to pay $20,000 to build a shelter at her factory, leaving a large hole in her company’s finances.
One of the central arguments of the Sderot campaigners who took to the streets last February was that, ironically, it is the low socioeconomic level of Sderot that makes it possible to ignore the demands for shelters. Levi is a strong believer in this theory.
“The socioeconomic level here is low, and we are on the periphery of the country,” Levi said. “Most people are focused on surviving [economically] from day to day, and don’t have the lobby in government or the media. If this was Tel Aviv, Jerusalem or somewhere in the center of the country, it would be very different.”