KIRYAT MALACHI, Israel — They pick through the tangled foliage, Orthodox men with long beards and black kipot, wearing white gloves and bright yellow vests, searching for body parts.
A few yards over and four stories up, construction workers drive drills into a bombed apartment building. They speak to each other in Arabic. Can they read the Hebrew banner hanging one floor above them vowing to exact a price for Jewish blood? Or the sign on the other side of the building calling on Israel to conquer Gaza?
Noon has just passed on Friday — a little more than 24 hours after the apartments on the top floor had taken a direct hit from one of Hamas’ Grad missiles, killing three people. By early this week, the dead here were Israel’s only fatalities since the launch of Operation Pillar of Defense on Nov. 14. Close to 100 Palestinians had died in Gaza.
In Kiryat Malachi, the ill-fated apartment building, like others in the low-income Har Chabad neighborhood, contains aging apartments and a peeling yellow exterior. Now its highest floors look like a scene out of 1980s Beirut: a bare skeleton of concrete framing a gaping hole where people used to live.
“Can you get a ladder?” yells Chaim Shteiner, one of the men in a yellow vest. Maybe the remains of the dead are stuck in the next tree, inside clothes that hang from burnt branches.
Shteiner is Kiryat Malachi’s deputy mayor as well as a member of the city’s haredi Orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch community, founded about 30 years earlier to reach out to a growing population of Russian immigrants here.
As Shteiner picks through leaves, 22-year-old Moshe Zackles stands next to a small table on the building’s other side, offering a pair of tefillin to passers-by. Now Chabad needs some outreach as well. Two of the three victims — Aharon Smadja and Mira Scharf — were Lubavitchers. Along with her husband, Scharf had been a Chabad emissary in New Delhi, India, where four years earlier to the day terrorists had killed the Chabad emissaries in Mumbai, Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, as part of a broad terrorist attack.
Shteiner says he feels shaken but undeterred.
“This is holy work,” he says. “We feel we are on a mission. When you’re on a mission, you get strength from the people who sent you and from above.”
Minutes later, a siren blares across the neighborhood, growing louder as the seconds pass. Shteiner and his crew leap over a ledge and press their backs against the building’s rear wall, taking cover under an overhang. For the moment it is the safest place they can find.
After half a minute that feels like 10, they hear the boom, nowhere near them. Shteiner exhales.
“They don’t give us rest,” he says. The crowd is already dispersing. The third victim’s funeral begins in 10 minutes.
The slow procession to the cemetery brings together Lubavitchers in suits and young Sephardi men in T-shirts and jeans. Elderly religious women wearing headscarves walk alongside secular Russian immigrants. More than 100 residents pack a small, exposed building to mourn 24-year-old Itzik Amsalem, a newly religious yeshiva student.
Men sob on each other’s shoulders in a tight embrace. A woman walks arm in arm with a girl, lamenting the “hit after hit, hit after hit,” that southern Israel has absorbed in the days and years before that Friday afternoon.