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What a dying business in Sderot looks like, even during cease-fire

by Jared Sichel

August 15, 2014 | 7:24 am

<em>The Agfa Image Center, one of the few stores that remained open Thursday afternoon in this Sderot shopping area, has not enjoyed any economic relief during the cease-fire. Photos by Jared Sichel.</em>

The Agfa Image Center, one of the few stores that remained open Thursday afternoon in this Sderot shopping area, has not enjoyed any economic relief during the cease-fire. Photos by Jared Sichel.

In a narrow alleyway just next to Begin Square in the center of this Israeli city, shops, cafes and bakeries are so tightly packed together that with every few steps brings a new business.

These merchants have, for years, been accustomed to the inhospitable reality of life in Sderot. By virtue of its proximity to Gaza (Begin Square is two miles from the border), normal daily activities are routinely interrupted by a screeching siren that gives residents a 10 to 15 second warning to shelter themselves from a rocket that was fired seconds earlier from within the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

Those interruptions, which have made life here grim, have made doing business here nearly impossible for many shopkeepers. On Thursday, even as the city was enjoying its fourth day of calm—with a new cease fire possibly ensuring an additional five—the sight of gray metal shutters in front of nearly every shop in this alleyway was a stark reminder that this city’s store owners know better than to think that temporary quiet will soon bring customers back.

“I can’t continue like this. It’s hard,” said Moshe Yifrach, 21, who helps manage his family’s image and photography store, “Agfa Image Center.” He was one of the few shopkeepers who decided to remain open into the mid-afternoon and was the only person in the store. But, with little or no business up to that point on Thursday, his decision to keep the lights on may not have particularly mattered.

The Yifrachs produce photographs, create albums and assist with images for passports, weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs. Behind the counter on shelves sat rows of albums and frames in varying colors

Moshe Yifrach helps his father run the family's Sderot store. He said sales have dropped 70 percent this summer.

When life in Sderot is relatively normal, Yifrach said that his family serves between 50 to 70 customers and earns about 3,000 to 4,000 thousand Shekels per day. This summer, though, during Israel’s most recent battle with Hamas, in which nearly 3,000 rockets have fallen in and around Israeli cities, he said sales have dropped by about 70 percent and customers have come in at a trickling pace.

Some residents here left amidst the chaos for some respite in towns further north and many simply no longer feel confident in venturing into the city. Tourism, meanwhile, has plummeted, with most visitors coming from abroad on solidarity missions, not nearly enough to compensate for the many Israelis who no longer travel south for a few pleasurable days in the country’s southern desert region.

The family has two other stores, in Jerusalem and Kiryat Gat, so Yifrach said he, his parents and 11 siblings could get by without their Sderot store.

“We have other places, so we have it easier than others,” Yifrach said. “But the ones that have only here and nowhere else, it’s very hard.”

Even during the height of the war in July and early August, Yifrach’s father kept the store open. When a red alert siren blared, whoever was in the shop would shelter in the doorway or underneath the awning that encloses the alley outside—the nearest shelter is more than 15 seconds from the store, not enough time for him or any customers to safely reach before the Qassam makes impact.

While a cease-fire that produces calm for an extended period would likely improve business for the Yifrachs if residents and tourists begin to return, he sees no long-term relief for his family’s business.

Agfa Image Center

Yifrach, like so many Israelis, particularly in the south, wants the government to order the military to destroy Hamas and end the rocket attacks. That step appears increasingly unlikely, though, following the complete removal of ground troops on Aug. 5 and the moderate progress of truce negotiations in Cairo.

“There’s no solution,” Yifrach said. “If you want to have a cease fire, so for a year it will be fine and everything will be good. [But] slowly, slowly [Hamas] will advance.” He predicts that the terrorist group will use the calm to improve its rocket arsenal to create Sderot-like situations as far north as Tel Aviv and Haifa.

That, Yifrach said, is one reason he sees no point in moving further north. “I don’t think that in the north it’s much better because there too you have Hezbollah,” he said. The quasi-governmental Lebanese terrorist organization has tens of thousands of missiles and rockets and has the capability to reach Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city. In Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah, approximately 15 Haifa residents were killed in missile and rocket attacks.

“I will stay in the south. This is my house and here I’m going to stay,” Yifrach said briskly.

Asked, though, how much longer his family’s store can survive in Sderot under current conditions, he responded, “Half a year, no more.”

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