From his home in Ashkelon – less than 10 miles from the Gaza border – Alan Marcus explains during a phone interview that the warning sirens have begun to blare again, signaling that a missile has been launched from Gaza, and that residents should immediately enter a bomb shelter. “I don’t know if you hear that but we have an alarm now, so I’ll be going to the shelter now,” he says calmly, describing the fortified concrete bunker that serves as an extra bedroom in his home.
A native of Winthrop, Marcus grew up in Framingham, earned his doctorate in Geography from Clark University in Worcester, and made Aliyah after marrying an Israeli law student. He has lived in Ashkelon for 46 years, and for decades played a key role in bolstering the community’s security and welfare during rocket attacks from Gaza – which have targeted the city of 160,000 during several wars over the last 20 years.
Between 1988 and 2015, Marcus served as the director of the Strategic Branch of the City of Ashkelon and in 2008 he implemented a groundbreaking GIS – or Geographic Information System – to digitally map the city, and provide an instant assessment of sensitive populations and public buildings. Up until recently, Marcus oversaw the city’s command center during wars. If a missile hit a certain address, Marcus and his team would know immediately who was hit and what kind of emergency services and personnel were needed to respond.
“I am an expert in what they call geographic information systems – it’s digital mapping. And I developed a system that almost no one else was using almost anywhere in the world where we mapped a whole series of characteristics of the city, not only physical institutions but we also mapped people who had all kinds of problems – whether they may be physical problems or it could be large families,” says Marcus. “We tracked the entire population to their residences. So I had all this information on the maps and I used to sit in the command center and whenever a missile fell I was able to trace it on the map and within a certain radius from the fall of the missile we were able to see right away who was affected, and what kind of special needs they had.
“So, we traced all the different problems: where there were large families. where there were sick and disabled, and people with wheelchairs, and we were able for the first time, anywhere in the world, in fact, right after the attack we were able to inform social workers and medical workers and all kinds of other emergency services people to bring the right people to the right place at the right time. And it really helped us significantly to reduce casualties and provide services … this way, ahead of time, we were already prepared and we had teams already to go and we saved a lot of time and I don’t know how many lives we saved but we certainly made for a stronger resilience for the population, knowing that we were right on the spot to help them.”
Ashkelon has been facing one of the biggest onslaught of Hamas missiles in recent years. Since last week, Hamas has launched more than 3,100 rockets from Gaza into Israel – with over 400 pointed toward Ashkelon. Israel’s Iron Dome has intercepted over 90 percent of those rockets headed toward dense populations, but some have hit homes and buildings in Ashkelon – killing at least two, and wounding many others.
“Last night we didn’t get much sleep.Five or six times we had to get up in themiddle of the night and mosey over to the safe room, and today we’ve also had to do that at least six or seven times,” says Marcus, during a May 12 interview, who believes that one day coexistence can become a reality between Palestinians and Israelis.
Marcus knows what it’s like to take chances and extend a hand to an enemy. In the late 1990s, after the Palestinian Authority and Israel signed their initial accords, Marcus helped create a project that would train university students from Ashkelon and Gaza to act as instructors in special computer classrooms in the two cities. “We started to work towards a good peace process,” he says.
As part of the process, Gaza’s mayor and city council visited Ashkelon, and Marcus, and other leaders of Ashkelon visited Gaza. Marcus traveled to Boston and received funding from a local company eager to boost the peace process, and Boston University agreed to create a master’s program for students from Ashkelon and Gaza. “It was decided that it was more important to do education and economic projects for the people of Gaza instead of trying to kill the people in Ashkelon. So there was this change, a framework on both sides, where people could sit down and see that it was worthwhile.”
The program disbanded after the 2000 Camp David peace talks fell apart and with the advent of a second Intifada.
To achieve peace, Marcus believes it will take moderate leadership on both sides. “It takes a lot of good will,” says Marcus. “People want to live quiet lives and I think if we can manage internally to do that, we can also wind up doing it with our neighbors.”