1709100573 Wartime voting at the gates of Gaza We have 20

Wartime voting at the gates of Gaza: “We have 20 seconds to get to the shelter” | International

Married couple Rachel and David Edry survived for 15 hours in their home in Ofakim alongside five Hamas attackers on October 7. She cooked for them, sang to them and communicated with them in her rudimentary Arabic. Police and civilians then searched the chalet. “If we die, we die together,” she thought at that moment, according to her statement to local media. The armed Islamists were destroyed and the couple escaped unscathed, making her a national hero. This Tuesday, an obituary posted at the gate of the house, whose walls still show wounds from fierce gunfire, announces that David died the day before. Neighbors regret that he survived the massacre and was buried less than five months later.

This Tuesday is local election day in Israel. In Ofakim and other cities, the faces of election candidates form a shocking mosaic on the streets next to the ubiquitous faces of the 240 hostages the Islamists brought to Gaza. In the Ofakim district of Mishor Hagefen, the atmosphere remains tense. Edry's death is just another drop in the midst of boredom and pain. “We are the same as we were that day.” “We are far from getting away,” sighs Ilana Bugnik, 60, who lives two houses away from the Edrys. When asked about the elections, she answers cautiously. “I don’t feel like voting. If anything, later,” she says, more focused on saying she has support from a social worker and that neighbors are demanding more help.

“We have become sad people. “We live in great fear and have no desire to do anything,” adds Mazal Yosef, 38, next to her, pointing to her apartment in the opposite block. On that unfortunate Saturday, when the war began and around 1,200 people were murdered by Palestinian Islamists, hell reigned in this area for hours. “Our hearts mourn the dead and we thank those who saved us,” says Josef, who also did not exercise his right to vote.

The image of current mayor Itzik Danino, who is running for re-election, can be seen on screens on almost every street. His chief of staff, Asaf Maze, 42, optimistically defends his wartime management. “October 7th changed everything. People assume that life goes on and we want to emerge stronger from it all. Voting helps us look to the future and fight the pain,” she emphasizes, trying to hold on to the path of normality that the residents of the Mishor Hagefen neighborhood see so far away. But it is not easy. Smadar Dahan, 55, says he still has nightmares when he remembers the encounter with Hamas fighters. “It was like watching a movie,” recalls this woman, who also rallied around Danino.

A poster with one of the hostages kidnapped in Gaza as well as pictures of candidates during the local elections in Israel this Tuesday in Ashkelon.A poster with one of the hostages kidnapped in Gaza as well as images of candidates during the local elections in Israel this Tuesday in Ashkelon.Luis de Vega

Ofakim, 25 kilometers as the crow flies from Gaza and with a population of about 25,000 people, was the furthest point from the Palestinian enclave that Hamas was able to attack on October 7. Local elections scheduled for October 31 were postponed first to January and then to February 27 due to the necessity of the race. Although thousands of residents fled, Ofakim was not officially evacuated, unlike other towns closer to the Gaza Strip and on the border with Lebanon, where mayors and other officials are not elected until November.

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In the rest of the country, the elections took place in a relaxed atmosphere. Nowadays everything is occupied by war, so the call to vote has faded into the background. As of 7:00 p.m. local time (6:00 p.m. Spanish peninsular time), voter turnout was 41%, eight percentage points less than at the same time in the previous election in 2018. However, in Israel, election day is declared a public holiday. Many have preferred taking the opportunity to go to shopping centers or sheltering at home from the rain and cold outside. Another example of the anomaly of the situation is that Israeli soldiers were able to cast their vote even inside the Gaza Strip using a system called “double envelopes,” which is also used by diplomats and prisoners and is counted in the final vote.

Participation is particularly low in large cities. In Tel Aviv and Haifa, for example, it is not yet 30%. There have been fears in recent days that the Lebanese militia Hezbollah would use election day to fire rockets into the center of the country. In addition, the forum, which represents the families of the approximately 130 hostages still in Gaza, has sent activists onto the streets to insist that the apparent normality of holding elections does not mean that they will be forgotten. “We elect the hostages” was the slogan they wore on their T-shirts.

Sderot, the Israeli city closest to the Gaza Strip, is one of the places where elections will have to wait. Despite everything, the population is starting to return, cranes can be seen working on buildings under construction and the shopping center in a city almost bordering the Palestinian enclave has reopened. The first houses are just over a kilometer away. Elsayaf Levi is a military reservist who was turned into a tank commander by the Hamas attack. During these four long months he fought in Gaza but did not return to his homeland of Sderot. He is taking advantage of a few days off from uniform to accompany his wife and collect some belongings from home, but for now they will continue to stay with relatives.

Commemoration near the Gaza border to commemorate one of the victims of the Hamas attack on October 7, 2023. Commemoration near the Gaza border in memory of one of the victims of the Hamas attack on October 7, 2023. Luis de Vega

In Ashkelon, a coastal city a dozen kilometers north of the Gaza Strip, they are already used to living under the threat of rockets fired by Hamas even before the current armed conflict. They have a well-oiled security protocol that they don't need to consider on an election day like this. According to the authorities, more than a thousand rockets were fired from Gaza into this city in the first ten days of the war alone.

“If they shoot and the alarm goes off, we have about 20 seconds to get to the shelter,” says Yosef Kooper, 18, pointing to the left at the ORT Adivi school, one of the voting centers. The young man, wearing a fluorescent vest, is one of those helping voters figure out which table to cast their ballot at. The flow of voters is constant, but without crowds. Before entering the classrooms where the ballot boxes are located, they pass the faces of those abducted by Hamas hanging on a tarpaulin in the schoolyard.

The black sky triggers a downpour that is nothing short of welcome for those entering and exiting the center. They know that the rain could have come from rockets. You will be warned if an attack occurs that would require voting to be interrupted. “When the sirens sound, we run to the shelter, approach a wall or simply fall to the ground,” explains Robert Sufaru, who was born in Romania 75 years ago and came to Israel at the age of three. “We are calm. “Life must go on,” he emphasizes. “I'm not afraid, but I don't want to remember that we are at war,” says Seagal Shalom, a 53-year-old woman who, like Sufaru, is campaigning for the re-election of current mayor Tomer Glam.

As you follow the asphalt south, around the Gaza Strip, the clouds provide some respite. For a few seconds, the sun's rays illuminate the buildings of the enclave, where almost 30,000 Palestinians have already lost their lives in the current conflict. Military checkpoints are piling up, drones and helicopters buzz in the sky, tanks rumble every now and then, leaving a trail of black smoke in the air. Some curious onlookers, equipped with binoculars, stop the car to contemplate the spectacle of war for a few minutes. A man armed with a rifle addresses about twenty visitors at a gas station at the entrance to Kibbutz Kfar Aza, barely 1,000 meters from the fence that separates Israel from the Palestinian strip and is one of the sites of the Hamas massacre. “… and that happened on October 7th,” the leader concludes amidst the silence of those present.

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