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Tent City Provides Southern Haven for Refugees from Israel’s North

August 9, 2006
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On the sand dunes of Israel’s southern coast, a tent city rises like a desert mirage — blue-and-white flags flapping along a shimmering sea, massive white tents housing 5,000 people, outdoor dining halls, a synagogue, soccer fields and children bobbing in the waves. The tent city has become the refuge of last — and for some, the only — resort for some 5,000 Israelis who have flocked here from their homes in the North. Some fled bomb shelters with only a small bundle of clothes and belongings carried in plastic bags, their exit punctuated by falling rockets.

“We hear about the Katyushas and the news but at least here we can move around freely,” says Eti Elul, 48, who came here from Nahariya about two weeks ago, together with her husband and two of her daughters.

“But it is not easy,” she says, adjusting her black T-shirt, one of the only items of clothing she took with her after rocket fire struck all sides of her neighborhood.

Shiran, her 17-year-old daughter, complains of sweating in the relentless heat — and the sand that sticks to her skin.

The Elul family has a row of foam mattresses lined up in a corner of a huge, white tent that houses some 500 people. The tent is the size of two basketball courts put together.

Their 10-year-old daughter lies next to a fan on the edge of one of the mattresses, fighting off a fever and a stomach virus that has plagued her during much of her time here.

Officials of the camp acknowledge that sanitation is a real problem at the camp, and many of the residents complain of the quick spread of viruses that comes from living in such close quarters.

The camp, set up about three weeks ago on the coast between the southern Israeli towns of Ashdod and Ashkelon, is funded entirely by one man — Arkady Gaydamak, a Russian-Israeli billionaire. Wanted in France on charges of illegal arms dealing in Angola, he is well known in Israel and Russia for his philanthropic projects.

Gaydamak hired several production companies, which usually organize festivals and concerts, to build and run the camp, which his staff says, is costing him about a half a million dollars a day.

The 5,000 residents are drawn from all segments of society in northern Israel. They are from Moroccan communities. They are Russian and Ethiopian immigrants, Arab Israelis and even Christian Lebanese, who formerly fought for the South Lebanon Army alongside Israel during the first war in Lebanon 20 years ago and who now live in Israel.

There are almost 800 workers on site, including activity counselors for the children, a medical staff, social workers and security guards. Three meals and two snacks a day are provided every day for free. In fact, everything is free.

Among the services provided are telephones set up in a row of outdoor booths, laundry, sheets and mattresses. The staff has run out of towels, but provides free diapers, sunscreen and hats. At sunset there are volunteers who come to teach yoga and martial arts on the beach.

Large screens have been erected so residents can watch the news every night. For those who have brought pet dogs, a kennel has been set up where the animals are fed and walked twice a day on the beach.

“This is something people have never done in this country — we built a refugee camp in a day,” says Ilan Facktor, who is running activities at the camp.

Faktor, whose production company is among those hired by Gaydamak, says the organizers are now working to provide more community services. They have set up a day care center, army preparation courses for teenagers and a medical clinic.

Many of those at the camp were struggling financially even before the war, and organizers say this is the first time some of the children are being fed three full meals a day.

The children can be seen running together on sandy soccer fields, shooting pool and playing ping-pong. Some take out plastic rafts and surf boards and spend long days at the sea.

There is an odd sense of a beach vacation coupled with real human distress.

“For the children, it is like a festival. For the parents, it is much more frustrating; they are not working, they feel useless,” says Yoni Cohen, 33, a social worker from Kiryat Shmona who started as a volunteer and has since been hired as a staff member at the camp.

Cohen says that he and other social workers are on the lookout for signs of post-traumatic stress disorder and have detected some among many of the adults, symptoms that include difficulty breathing, hysteria and weeping. Among the children, they have seen bed-wetting and regression.

“Some people saw their houses destroyed, some spent weeks in shelters,” he says.

As the war lingers on, the needs of the residents increase, especially for social services.

Organizers said the government will soon have to help out with the running of the camp, including the possibility of setting up temporary schools should the war run into the beginning of the school year in September.

Sami Lazarof, 46, of Nahariya, arrived at the camp last week with his wife and three children.

They had spent two weeks with his sister in a suburb of Tel Aviv but realized they had to move on.

Being away from home is not easy.

“You want your privacy, you want your home,” says Lazarof, his young son leaning against his shoulder as he sits near a fan at the entrance to one of the large tents.

He trusts the Israeli army, he says, and is willing to stay on longer if military action can make real achievements.

At Tent No. 10, Louis Mahara, a former fighter with the South Lebanon Army, passes the days napping, talking to his family and new neighbors and smoking cigarettes.

He came to Israel in 2000 with several thousand other SLA soldiers when Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon after 18 years in the country.

Mahara, who lives in the northern town of Ma’alot, supports Israel’s actions but also worries for his parents who live in a Christian village in south Lebanon.

“Once we would say, ‘If only we could go back to Lebanon.’ And now we say, ‘If only we could go back to Ma’alot. It’s not just we who are suffering, it is all citizens in Israel.”

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