Ashkelon, Israel — Last summer, when the Gaza conflict was raging, I traveled to Sderot, Israel, on the Gaza border to see for myself what was happening. And boy did I see it.
A volley of about 25 Kassam rockets rained down around me while I was on the roof of a Yeshiva, peering into Gaza itself. The Iron Dome missiles tore into the sky one after the other from multiple launchers, but they could not catch them all. I took cover behind a rooftop wall and one rocket landed about 40 yards away, sending a grandmother into hysterics as she scurried to cover her grandbabies running around in her yard where the missile landed, sending jagged, molten-hot shrapnel through the walls of the surrounding houses.
Things are much quieter now; however there are still missiles being routinely fired into Israel. The Gaza border town of Ashkelon has been the recipient of many of the Kassams recently. So once again, I’ve decided to see for myself. Once here, I was fortunate to be introduced to a remarkable woman who owns a small art studio in Museum Khan, only a short ways from the Gaza border. The studio is located inside a stone stable built inside the ancient walls of a old hotel dating back to the crusades. Ashkelon has a 5,000-year history and the recent discoveries from multiple civilizations are on display.
Ella Rozenberg greets me warmly when I arrive and serves rich black coffee. The studio is cool and quiet, sheltered from the outside heat, and the hustle and bustle of the town. I can see why she chose this spot, it has a sereneness that is comforting. “People come here to rest and paint,” she says in a heavy accent, somewhere between Hebrew and Russian. “The donkeys used to live here, but now it’s mine.”
Art, in various stages of completion, adorns the walls and is placed delicately around the floor. I ask about the rockets. “Last summer, we had at least 15 a day,” she says. “Sometimes much more. It was very scary. On certain days I have up to 15 children here and we have no shelter. When the rockets come, we go to the bathroom in the hallway and wait ‘til they stop. One landed right near my house. The whole house jumped like an earthquake.”
“Do you still have them?” I asked.
“Now we only have two or three a week. The military doesn’t respond as we don’t want to start another war. We try to ignore them.” As we speak, a Russian woman brings in her son for an art lesson. The blond-haired boy looks to be about 11 years old. Ella sets him up with supplies and leaves him alone. He furiously begins to draw. “He is one of my best students and has been coming here for a long time. He doesn’t need any help. He knows what he wants to draw.” The mother leaves the boy in her care.
Ella’s family is from Ukraine. She herself immigrated from Tbilisi, Georgia, to Israel in the early ‘90s, once the Soviet Union collapsed. “I always wanted to come to Israel,” she says. “When the Soviet Union let our people go, I went!”
There have not been any injuries due to the recent resurgence of rocket fire into civilian neighborhoods from Gaza. Although, one teen-age girl was taken to the hospital, suffering from a panic attack. Hamas says the rockets are being fired by Salafist, extremist, jihadists in Gaza. A jihadi group called the Omar Brigades, has taken responsibility for recent rocket fire into Ashkelon. The group is protesting arrests of their members by Hamas and the associated crackdown on Islamist militants in Gaza. Israel holds Hamas responsible for any rocket fire into their country as Hamas is the controlling authority.
The jihadists in Gaza have pledge allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. “ISIS in Gaza really scares the government and the people of Israel,” said one local contact in the Israeli defense establishment. “They like for Hamas to crack down on them.” There seems to be somewhat of a civil war going on in Gaza between Hamas and the Salafist movement. Israel is caught in the middle. ISIS fires on Israel to restart the war. Israel has been showing some restraint with only token strikes as a symbolic response.
Meanwhile, Ella teaches her students to paint. The mother comes to pick up her son. Soon after, an older woman arrives. She seems more interested in relaxing in the cool environment than painting. However, soon Ella points out the woman’s portrait of an Israeli military woman on the floor that is unfinished. The woman proudly starts to work on it, aware that I am taking pictures. The museum director brings me a cool cup of water. I am given a tour of the museum and the ancient artifacts. “He opened just for you,” says Ella.
Ella shows me a painting she finished a couple years before 9/11. It is a rendering of the twin towers with the two arms of a scale overlayed. One weight is white and one is black. The black weight is tipping the scale. “The white represents good, the black evil. So far, evil is winning,” she says.
Ella’s work can be seen and she can be contacted on Facebook.