One issue Sderot's mayor doesn’t like to talk about is the number of residents who have left the rocket-battered southern town. Only talking about it, Eli Moyal believes, causes many people to leave.
In difference speeches and conventions he reiterates that the residents are strong and are not abandoning the city, but are only "stepping out to relax."
In an honest talk, however, he is forced to admit that 10% to 15% of the city's residents – about 3,000 people – no longer live in Sderot, according to his estimates. Aid organizations present higher figures – up to 25% of the population.
It's not easy to obtain accurate data on the number of people who have left the city. Municipality officials explain that a significant number of those who leave don’t officially change their address, for tax considerations and in order to continue receiving benefits.
In one of the recent waves of escalation, Moyal told visiting Defense Minister Ehud Barak
that every such wave caused dozens of additional families to run off away from the Qassam range.
The almost accurate rocket fire and the heavy damage caused by the Qassams have managed to crack a part of this sorrowful city's public strength. The economic distress has only worsened the problem.
"We must admit that those who can afford it financially have left the city. Most of the population left behind is the weaker population," says Sasson Sara, chairman of the local parents' committee, who owns a grocery store in the city.
"Everything I say in regards to this issue is only an estimate, and all those presenting figures are not being accurate," says Moyal, who is waiting for the Central Bureau of Statistics' 2009 report in order to get the real picture. "That would be the most reliable datum."
"The big bang," as far as he is concerned began with the escalation in May 2007. "I saw it as mayor, but also as a resident. You suddenly see your neighbors leaving, friends leaving. There is a kind of movement."
One way to examine the trend is through the number of schoolchildren. According to the head of the city's education department, backed by Mayor Moyal, a drop of 9.8% was noted in the number of students at the beginning of the school year.
Municipality officials have said in the past that these were only students who moved to secure schools, but now they admit that these children's parents have apparently left the city.
"It's not easy, but this is what we have to deal with," says Moyal.
Those who take to the city's streets cannot ignore the hundreds of "For Sale" signs. About a month ago, members of the Yedid association appealed to the Knesset to discuss the residents' inability to meet their mortgage payments, as many have rented an apartment outside the city while continuing to pay the mortgage on their Sderot house.
Residents hide as rocket hits city (Photo: AP)
Yedid Associate Director Ran Melamed is considering filing a petition with the High Court of Justice against the supervisor of the banks.
"One must understand that people are leaving Sderot and living in distant places. About 25% are in problematic situations.
"Only this morning I received a phone call from a woman who moved to Ein Tzurim and wants to return to Sderot, but won't do it at the moment because she is worried about her children. In any case, she cannot meet the mortgage payments anymore and cannot pay double."
Melamed blames the government for the situation. "They don’t want to be seen as abandoning Sderot and sending the residents outside. This is a political answer, and the result is clear. Those who can afford to stay outside Sderot do it. Those who remain 'screwed' are those who have always been screwed."