Give me shelter

IFCJ installs new bomb shelters in southern Israel during Gaza fighting

Organization also delivers toys to Israeli children forced to stay in bomb shelters; Jewish Agency chief visits new immigrants, people harmed by rockets

The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews has installed 10 bomb shelters in southern Israel in the past two days, five of them in the heavily battered city of Ashkelon, in the wake of the ongoing fighting between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist group in the Gaza Strip, the organization’s president, Yael Eckstein, told eJewishPhilanthropy.

“During times of emergencies – the same way that we work with the war in Ukraine, for example – we focus on providing whatever is needed, even if it’s outside of our budget, outside of our work plan, outside of what we were expecting,” Eckstein said on Friday. “We donate it immediately, and then we have these incredible donors who always step up, who enable us to cut that bureaucracy and get the aid where it’s needed. So that’s the situation here as well.”

The bomb shelters in question are mobile concrete structures, which are built in a factory and can effectively be placed anywhere. 

“We said to [the Israel Defense Forces’] Home Front Command, every shelter that you have, we will take. We don’t want shelters sitting in the factory when they could be used right now. Just place them, and we’ll deal with the budget later,” Eckstein said.

In the predawn hours of Tuesday morning, following dozens of rocket attacks from Gaza in the preceding weeks, the Israeli military launched surprise air raids targeting three top Islamic Jihad terrorists, dubbing the mission “Operation Shield and Arrow.” Ten Palestinian civilians were also killed in those initial strikes, which destroyed the buildings where the terrorist leaders and their families were sleeping.

Following a tense day of waiting, on Wednesday, the Islamic Jihad launched retaliatory rocket attacks, primarily targeting cities and towns in southern Israel, but some reached as far as the Tel Aviv metropolitan area. Fighting intensified on Thursday, with the IDF targeting Islamic Jihad rocket launchpads and other facilities, as well as senior commanders in the terrorist group, and Islamic Jihad firing barrages of rockets and mortar shells at southern and central Israel, killing an Israeli woman in the central city of Rehovot. In total, five people in Israel have been wounded by the rocket attacks and another 16 have been injured while running to bomb shelters, according to the Magen David Adom ambulance service.

At least 30 people in Gaza have been killed since Israel launched the offensive, according to the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza, and at least 93 more injured. The Israeli military says that at least half of the people killed in Gaza were terrorists but acknowledges that some were civilians, though IDF spokespeople stress that the military takes great care to avoid killing noncombatants.

This round of fighting again highlighted the shortage of bomb shelters and other fortified areas in Israel, including in areas that are often the hardest hit by rocket fire from Gaza.

“Our primary objective at this time is to minimize the remaining civilian areas that don’t have adequate sheltering options in place.  Particularly in Ashkelon, where the response time to incoming rockets is extremely small, we know these shelters will be instrumental in giving the local population a sense of increased confidence that they are being cared for and have the necessary options when they hear the siren,” Lt. Col. (res.) Safwan Marich, the director of IFCJ’s safety and emergency response division, said in a statement.

Eckstein said IFCJ has been working for years to help shore up Israeli defenses, from installing bomb shelters to fortifying the NICU and labor wards in Ashkelon’s Barzilai Medical Center to providing bullet- and shrapnel-proof armored vehicles to the head security officials from each of the communities in the Gaza periphery. In total, she said, the organization has donated $70 million in recent years toward security programs.

In the case of the bomb shelters installed this week, Eckstein said that effort is meant to supplement work already being done by the Israeli government.

“We work in close coordination with the Home Front Command to identify where the most strategic and meaningful locations are to place them. So in the past two days, we’ve placed 10 shelters we’ve placed in places like [the Bedouin town of] Rahat and Ashkelon,” she said.

Eckstein said her organization provides shelters in areas that are outside the government’s focus. For example, the government is meant to ensure that all buildings and homes in the southern town of Sderot have a fortified room. “But where doesn’t the government put bomb shelters? The park. So we put six shelters in parks in Sderot,” she said, referring to a past IFCJ project.

In addition to these fortification efforts, Eckstein said her organization has also worked to raise the spirits of Israeli children in the towns most hit by rocket fire.

“We realized that kids have been sitting in shelters for three days, so they need some sort of entertainment and joy. The parents also need help with their kids. We wanted to support the local economy so we went to a toy store in Sderot that’s had to close [because of the fighting], and we packed dozens of boxes with toys and entertainment for kids. We’ve been delivering it shelter by shelter to children’s families,” Eckstein said.

Jewish Agency Chairman Doron Almog visits an absorption center in southern Israel on May 11, 2023.

Jewish Agency Chairman Doron Almog has similarly been making the rounds to bomb shelters in southern Israel, visiting new immigrants in absorption centers and senior citizens living in the Jewish Agency’s Amigour housing in Beersheva. “Many of these olim [new immigrants] have recently arrived in Israel and are facing rocket fire for the first time,” the Jewish Agency noted in a statement.

In addition to these visits, Almog and the Jewish Agency, through its Fund for Victims of Terror, also delivered aid to people who were injured or whose homes and businesses were damaged. The fund, which is made up of donations from Jewish Federations of North America, Keren Hayesod and other donors, will “provide immediate financial support to families who were directly hit by rocket fire and help them with their urgent needs,” the Jewish Agency said.

“This is an expression of the unconditional love that the global Jewish community has for the State of Israel and its citizens both in times of normalcy and emergency,” Almog said.