Paul Eisen

Paul Eisen

Thursday, 10 January 2013

After Rocket Attack, an Israeli City Seems Resigned to More in the Future


Rina Castelnuovo for The New York Times
In interviews, residents said a long-term solution to the conflict with the Palestinians was unlikely in their lifetimes.



RISHON LEZION, Israel — For the seven years she has been selling real estate here in Israel’s fourth-largest city, Ahuva Madmoni has had clients with the usual range of priorities: view, high floor, square footage, proximity to good schools. “Today,” Ms. Madmoni said, “the first question of the couples is, ‘Does the apartment have a safe room?’ ”
Residents in Rishon LeZion, a Tel Aviv suburb that was attacked in November.

Such a demand was hardly imaginable here before a rocket struck a building in the western part of town on Nov. 20 — the first fired from the Gaza Strip to ever directly hit a residential area in the populated center of Israel. It may be the most discernible effect of the volatility of the last two months.

In that time, Israelis were confronted with an eight-day conflict with Gaza; the Palestinians’ status upgrade at the United Nations; international condemnation of Israel’s settlement push in East Jerusalem; and an election campaign in which candidates seem to be trying to out-conservative one another.

All of the political activity has certainly increased conversation about “the situation,” local shorthand for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But if the intense fighting with Gaza heightened concerns about safety, its aftermath seems only to have renewed many residents’ resignation to what they see as the unlikeliness of a long-term solution in their lifetimes.

In conversations with 30 people — most around a downtown park or inside the popular Ikea cafe — many said their focus had quickly returned to more mundane concerns about jobs, children and apartment rents. Some talked of leaving the troubled country or worried that their children might — in line with a recent poll for the newspaper Haaretz indicating that 37 percent of Israelis were considering doing so. And in the interviews here, at least half said they did not see anyone worth voting for on Jan. 22.

“People are looking after their personal factors — they’re so skeptical about the global changing, they say ‘Oh, I’ll worry about my survival,’ ” explained Ayal Sheffer, 43, a publishing executive with three young daughters who was having lunch at Ikea after shopping for a bed.

“I just want quiet for my children and my country,” he said. But as for the Palestinians, he added, “I don’t think any contract we’d do with them would give us quiet.”

“We want to pay the price, but we don’t believe in the other side,” Mr. Sheffer said.

Rishon LeZion, about seven miles south of Tel Aviv, was founded in 1882 by European Jews. Its middle-class population has doubled over the past two decades, including a large community of Ethiopians and an even larger contingent of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. There is a wide beachfront path filled with walkers and joggers at sunrise, a skyline of tall apartment blocks and cranes building new ones.

The first blue-and-white flag with a Star of David was raised here in 1885, according to city officials, and in 1887 a local resident, Shmuel Cohen, combined the poem “Hatikvah” with a European melody — which later became Israel’s national anthem. In the last national elections, in 2009, Rishon voted in slightly higher numbers than Israel as a whole for the two leading parties, Likud and Kadima, as well as for the Russian-dominated Yisrael Beiteinu, but gave less support to the ultra-Orthodox Shas and far-left Meretz parties.

Mayor Dov Zur, 57, said that as a child growing up here, he “was quite a believer in the peace process,” but “then, like most Israelis, I abandoned this belief.” His former confidence returned after meetings between Israeli mayors and their Palestinian counterparts in the West Bank.

“People are living on both sides of the border, they want good life on both sides,” he said. “The position of mayor, never mind if it’s in Israel or Palestine, it’s a make-decision work. What we find in this discussion is to be practical about the solution to our problem.”

In many ways, the interviews here reflect several recent statewide surveys. A December poll by Da’at showed that 12 percent to 14 percent named peace as their highest priority, a drop from 17 percent in January 2012, 19 percent in 2008 and in 1998, and 24 percent in 1992. A separate poll on behalf of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs found that 83 percent of Israeli Jews do not believe that a withdrawal to the 1967 borders and a division of Jerusalem would bring an end to the conflict. And a poll for the pro-peace group Blue-White Future, a group that supports Israel’s taking unilateral steps to force a two-state solution, found that support for a two-state solution was higher among older respondents.

“It’s sometimes worse, sometimes better,” Sofia Turgelan, 34, said of the conflict she has known all her life. “Now it’s quiet, but maybe in six months or one year, it all comes out again.” 

Ms. Turgelan and her husband were at a downtown playground with their 4-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter. He works in construction; she is unemployed after battling breast cancer. They rent a three-bedroom house for about $1,300 a month because they cannot afford to buy. Recently, she applied for a resident visa, or green card, in the United States.

“If I have a chance to leave this country, I would,” she said. “Everything here is busy, busy, busy. Everyone has to work a lot of hours to live a normal life.” Looking at the children, she added, “I don’t think they have the relaxation to study, to enjoy.”

Nearby, dozens of older Moroccan and Russian men were playing chess, backgammon and cards for cash on wooden tables near where two Israelis were killed and 50 wounded in a suicide-bomb attack in 2002. George Aizenberg, 62, a doctor from Belarus who came in 2001, said he did not worry about security but was concerned “that our country seems to be slowly losing support from countries where we used to have it.”

“If we stay a democratic country, then in several decades there will be an Arab majority and then we may turn into an apartheid state — that worries us,” Dr. Aizenberg said. “We’re not afraid. The military situation doesn’t worry us — we’re willing to sacrifice our children to go to the army — but the democratic process, that could destroy the country.”

Shulamit Hafif, 62, said that when the oldest of her four children was born 44 years ago, she imagined that by the time he turned 18, “there won’t be wars.” Now, she is watching her 11 grandchildren inch toward army age.

“There’s no way to trust them,” Ms. Hafif said of the Palestinians. “They need to be there, and we need to be here. That’s it.”

She added, “They were able to lob missiles at us, and the whole country was in a dilemma.”

The long-range rocket that hit Rishon in November landed at 6 p.m. on a Tuesday, destroying the top two floors of a seven-story building. Most residents sat it out in safe rooms, but two were lightly injured.

“Shrapnel from stones hit me in the shoulder and hip, and I had large bruises,” recalled Kfir Rozen, 26, who lived on the second floor and was standing on the balcony with his brother despite the warning bell. “We were very scared at first — this is not something you experience every day.”

But weeks later, Mr. Rozen’s only complaint was that Israel had agreed to a cease-fire the next night rather than pushing forward with a ground invasion, something echoed in other interviews around town. “You can’t get to a certain point and then go back — you end up achieving nothing,” Mr. Rozen said. “In the end, we will be dragged into another cycle. At some point, this will repeat itself.”

Mr. Rozen, who works for the city, said 26 families that were evacuated after the bombing spent about three weeks in a hotel in neighboring Bat Yam, paid for by the state, which is also picking up the tab for their destroyed belongings and apartment repairs. He said his family had found another apartment to rent — in Rishon. “We didn’t see any reason to move anywhere else and feel safe here,” Mr. Rozen said.

The new apartment is smaller, four rooms instead of five. No, there is not a safe room. But the building has a communal shelter, Mr. Rozen said, “and our apartment is close to it.”