In Sderot, eyeing Gaza’s Black Sabbath

David Bouskila had a long and busy Friday night. The workload and
consultations started again very early on Saturday morning. So at about
11:30 a.m., when he finally found a few minutes to rest, he walked into his
bedroom and let his hefty body slump onto the mattress.

The second his head hit the pillow, IAF bombs hit their marks in nearby Gaza
City causing a thunderous sonic boom which shook Bouskila’s home. Sderot’s
new mayor knew it was not a good time to catch some sleep.

David Bouskila

Credit: Sderot media center

Bouskila is speaking on his cell phone to the BBC when I catch up with him.
“We praise the IDF and the government for acting after having been under
rocket attack for over eight years,” he says. Speaking in good English all
the way through the interview, Bouskila spells out the letters of his name
to the BBC reporter on the other end of the line.

[IDF released this aerial photo of a Hamas military training camp that was hit Saturday]

army

Moving around the city, Bouskila is always on at least one of his cell
phones. Much of the time he is on both: international press on one, local
radio on the other. He also takes calls from residents. In this town, many
have the mayor’s personal numbers.

One resident wants the municipality’s help wiring up his building’s bomb
shelter to electricity. The city is only obliged to wire up public bomb
shelters, but Bouskila tells the caller to find extension cords and hook up
the shelter, and that the city will pay the electricity bill. “Just do it
today, and tomorrow I’ll take care of it,” Bouskila says, asking one of the
city’s technicians to head over to the man’s house on Sunday to see what
else he can do.

He knows his residents will be facing a barrage of rockets for at least one
week, maybe two. The most important thing is to give them the feeling that
everything is under control, and that all the emergency systems are
operating. The first step to that end is to equip the shelters with
everything they need, including electricity.

Residents are complaining that there are no mattresses in the shelters. The
municipality gave out 360 mattresses to people in the public shelters, but
there is still a shortage. “Some of the people took the mattresses we gave
them for the shelters [when they went on holiday] to the Kinneret and left
them there,” a municipal official says.

Bouskila has decreed that every elderly person who wants to be evacuated to
family members out of Sderot can order a taxi, and the city will pay the
fare. But only the elderly and infirm, not children or families. Someone
calls him to see if he’ll allow children and families to get out of the city
for a day. Bouskila rejects the idea, saying he’ll only organize buses for
families if they want to go away for at least three to for days anything
shorter is “just not worth it.”

After the BBC interview, Bouskila’s driver takes us across town to meet with
Channel 1 TV’s reporter Amir Bar-Shalom at the concrete-covered parking lot
of the Shefa Shuk supermarket. In the car en route, Bouskila is interviewed
on Army Radio, which makes him wait on the line for five minutes: “I praise
the government and the IDF for carrying out this action that we have been
waiting for the last eight years to happen,” he tells the newscaster, after
informing the producer that it’s not right to keep him waiting so long.

Bouskila’s talking points in all of his domestic interviews throughout the
day are not political or ideological; he uses his air time to give out
instructions to his residents: “Stay indoors and close to protected spaces,
don’t gather in public places. The city is ready and rescue services are
working.”

Arriving at the Channel 1 interview, Bouskila looks slightly media-shy. This
is only his second round of media appearances since he took over from Eli
Moyal a few months ago, and things were calmer then.

The new mayor is moved into the frame near Channel 1’s Bar-Shalom. Bouskila
is wearing a smart, patterned tweed jacket, which the cameraman asks him to
take off as tweed doesn’t come out well on TV. He has to switch with his
driver’s oversized black leather jacket. Bouskila didn’t know about tweed
not working on TV, but he learns quickly; he makes a quick stop home after
the interview to switch jackets, shave and put on some aftershave.

Bouskila, who was born and raised in this town, really wanted this job. But
what is a mayor’s job in a city like this, which is effectively run by the
IDF Home Front Command and the Israel Police? “I have to see that everything
is running smoothly, and I have to remind people to be optimistic, to
believe that there are better days ahead,” he says.

Arriving back at the square near the municipality, Bouskila stops to brief
several newspaper reporters, including three of the country’s top
journalists: Nahum Barnea of Yediot Aharonot, Avirama Golan of Haaretz [who
lives in Sderot], and Dan Margalit of Israel Hayom and Channel 1.

One of Bouskila’s phones crackles out a voice every once in a while from a
Home Front Command officer informing him every time a rocket is fired out of
the Gaza Strip and in which direction it is headed. Everyone around Sderot
is taking hits, with Kassams and mortars falling in communities across the
western Negev. By 8 p.m., only four rockets have been fired at Sderot.
“We’re waiting for them to wake up and remember us,” the city’s security
coordinator Yehuda Ben-Mamman says.

Russian-language Channel 9 TV calls there are many Russian speakers in
Sderot. “Dobri vetcher [Good evening],” Bouskila says and starts giving his
main messages again.

The IAF’s bombings shake the city’s houses. Some residents are on the
lookout points gazing at the Gaza Strip. In the control room they speak of
the massive strike in Gaza. Ben-Mamman says the Sderot residents with whom
he’s spoken are happy the army is finally acting.

It’s decided that the food market will not be open on Sunday; it’s too
dangerous, and in any case nobody will come out and shop out in the open.
Hamas was arrogant enough to hold a ceremony for its graduating officer
class out in the open Saturday, they say here, with painful consequences.
The lack of a Hamas response in Sderot is palpable, and many here are
surprised at how quiet it is.

Despite the relative absence of rockets, the streets are empty, with the
city instructing residents to stay indoors. In any case, it’s Shabbat, and
there’s nothing to do in Sderot. The feeling here is that the rockets will
likely come later in the evening and into the night and if not tonight,
then tomorrow and tomorrow night.

Defense officials here say that at this stage Hamas wants to use its
longer-range rockets to hit cities like Netivot and Ashkelon, so that they
can sow fear among the Israeli public and at the same time have something to
show their constituents in Gaza City. Still, tonight all the residents of
Sderot are receiving little electronic devices that will sound the Red Alert
warning inside their homes. “It’s winter and people close their windows, so
they can’t always hear the warning,” Bouskila says.

Sderot’s new mayor finishes his interviews and comes into the control room
to chair a situation assessment meeting with his staff, and charge his cell
phones.

Bouskila goes around the table to hear from all department heads. Also in
attendance is a senior Home Front Command officer. Defense Minister Ehud
Barak has declared a “special situation” in the Gaza periphery, effective
immediately and to last for at least the next 48 hours. A “special
situation” allows the Home Front Command to instruct local authorities to
act to close down factories, keep people in their homes and so on.

“Just because there were very few rockets fired at us today doesn’t mean
that tomorrow will be the same. Keep your phones on at all times and all
night. Things can change here in a minute. Be ready to be back here at the
control room within 15 minutes of being called,” Bouskila tells his
officials.

Then Bouskila tells the Home Front Command officer that his city’s shelters
need more mattresses and blankets if residents are expected to stay in them
for more than a few days. “Its winter, these things are essential. We need
them tonight,” he says. And Bouskila wants soldiers outside every shelter.
The city is not empty. “During past escalations people used to flee to
Ashkelon and Beersheba. Now they realize that there is nowhere to flee to,”
Bouskila tells The Jerusalem Post.

He makes it clear that all city functions will be operating as usual on
Sunday. “This includes street cleaning and trash disposal. Tell the street
cleaners to clean extra well tomorrow, but make sure they are also close to
reinforced structures at all times,” the mayor orders the head of the city’s
sanitation department.

The head of the city’s education department says she has not been able to
reach the man responsible for transporting special education children to
their classes in Beersheba. “So far, we’ve only been able to get his
daughter on the phone,” she says.

Bouskila is furious: “Go around him, talk directly to the drivers. Deal
directly with them,” he barks. “I need answers, not people who play games.
If a person doesn’t answer, then he doesn’t exist. Send a letter to this
person and tell him that he doesn’t need to make himself available even
after the Hanukka holiday. As Churchill said, the cemeteries are full of
people who thought they were indispensable.”

The Home Front Command officer offers to hand out stay-at-work orders for
city officials. During the Second Lebanon War, there were several cities
under bombardment whose officials abandoned their posts.
Bouskila rejects the offer out of hand. “Tell everyone that we’re all
working as usual tomorrow. If I feel a sudden loss of manpower, I’ll ask for
force-work orders,” he says.

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