An honorary delegation of heads of JNF UK renewed the deep commitment of Friends of KKL-JNF in Great Britain to the welfare of residents of the Western Negev in general, and residents of the city of Sderot in particular. The delegation also included heads of the One Family Fund for aiding families of terror victims that operates in close cooperation with Friends of KKL-JNF in the United Kingdom
Still jetlagged from their overnight flight, the delegation, headed by JNF UK Chairman Samuel Hayek, met with people who remained on the front lines of Hamas' inhumane terrorist acts from the Gaza Strip during the past eight years and particularly since last Hannukah. The members of the delegation came with a message of encouragement and support, but quickly found that they themselves were the recipients of support and encouragement throughout all of their meetings.
The delegation first met the "right arm" of the IDF - Lieutenant-Colonel Hami - the man responsible for the daily activities and action on the complex naval front of the Gaza Strip during Operation "Cast Lead." The meeting took place at the naval base in Ashdod. The navy has ships positioned permanently from the border with Egypt up to Ashkelon to prevent weapons' smuggling and terrorist activities at sea, and patrols the remainder of the sector up to Herzliya north of Tel Aviv. This small but effective unit is responsible for protecting the State of Israel along its Mediterranean coast.
Operation "Cast Lead" not only offered the navy an opportunity to prove its capability and essentiality for Israel's security, but also to prove its skill and determination - as shown to members of the government through combat films taken over the past few weeks. The members of the solidarity delegation listened with excitement to descriptions and recounts of the human elements of the difficulties of military service in the navy described by Lieutenant-Colonel Hami. "Our way of thinking consists of the need to give our soldiers a welcoming environment in which they serve as much as possible, despite the fact that the base is located on the beach and presents physical conditions that offer little possibility of offering a more inviting environment such as that offered by bases of the corps on land and the air force."
The delegation had an especially exciting meeting with Lieutenant Shai, the commander of one of the Israeli-manufactured Dvorah patrol boats. Lieutenant Shai talked about the routine of the small ship's crew aboard the sophisticated craft that is manufactured entirely in Israel far from the seacoast at a factory in Beersheba. "In actuality, we only know the quality of the production and its reliability when we first launch the new boat here at the Ashdod Port," the young officer explained.
The close encounter with the young people who stand at the front of the country's existence continued shortly after that on the campus of Sapir College in Sderot, where several of the students awaited the delegation. Sapir College was directly hit numerous times by qassam rockets in recent years. A sign was still hanging on the bulletin board in the protected room where the group met with the following instructions: "When the "Color Red" alert sounds students must remain in this room." This is one of the less pronounced signs of the everyday routine that prevailed at the college throughout the eight long years of rocket attacks. The more blatant sign was the destruction caused by one of the homemade rockets that was visible on the third storey of the building where the meeting took place.
The Dean of Students at Sapir College, Alon Gayer, explained, "We had a "tsunami" of qassam rockets here since Israel evacuated our communities by the Gaza Strip. We are located two kilometers from the strip as the crow flies, and operate the largest public college in Israel with 7,500 students from all over the country. Among them are hundreds of new immigrants who are alone in the country. 90% of the students are the first generation in their families to receive higher education.
One of those students is Dotan Segal from Kibbutz Tzora near Beit Shemesh, who came to Sapir College in 2006. "All of us here found ourselves in an insane situation. Sixty students were sitting and writing one examination among many, and during the exam we had to leave everything three times and rush to the protected area because of "Color Red" alerts. We are trying to cope with the abnormal situation in various ways. Dealing with it involves many values that are implanted within us that range from Zionism to our desire to obtain an education. But for most of us, the main reason for our decision to study here is the high level of studies in the college," explained Dotan Segal, who also serves as the spokesman for the Sapir College student union.
Four students volunteered to share their feelings with members of the solidarity delegation and to answer the unavoidable question: Why - with all the numerous alternatives available in Israel - did they decide to study here, in the middle of the danger zone? Michal Leibeh a student in the Faculty of Communications who has been living in nearby Kibbutz Dorot during her studies - a community that was not a primary target of the Hamas rockets - talked about her feelings. "The alarm itself is much more frightening than the explosion of the rocket when it lands. When you hear the explosion, you get a feeling of relief." Her classmate, Ravit Levi from Tel Aviv, went to live in Beersheba when she began her studies at the Sapir College. "All in all, you get used to the sounds of the alarm and the explosions. During the fighting when the college was closed I left Beersheba and went back to my parents' house in Tel Aviv. Now that everything has calmed down again I'm still a bit confused and haven't returned to a normal routine. It's as if the quiet is only temporary."
The third student, Tarin Simchi, spoke about her first encounter with a qassam rocket landing. "I ran like mad to the protected room and after the explosion I was shaking all over for the next ten minutes. I learned very quickly that there are protected facilities all over the college campus so that everyone can get to a protected area in less than 15 seconds." Shirley Cohn, a student who was born in Iran, expressed her doubts, together with a significant amount of determination. "I have no doubt that our (Palestinian) neighbors in Gaza are suffering. Something has to be done about it, but I don't see anyone (Palestinians) wanting to cooperate. They want all of us to leave Israel and go back from where we came, but I don't believe that the president of Iran, Ahmedinijad, would be pleased to take my family and me back again. I'm not optimistic, and I don't think that the ceasefire will hold even until the end of this academic year - my final year here."
Zohar Avitan, head of the preparatory program at Sapir College and a resident of Sderot never thought of leaving - even for one day. Avitan, who was greeted with thunderous applause from members of the British delegation, stated, "The Sapir College has cooperated in the past with educational factors in the Gaza Strip. We ran a special program for Palestinian students. We live here in the periphery, isolated from the centers of government and centers of economic influence. The people who live here are convinced that we can live peaceful lives alongside our neighbors. We are still continuing to talk with residents in the Gaza Strip every day using cellular phones, and we both understand the mutual suffering. But to anyone who asks how we agree to continue to live here, I answer that I myself never asked a resident of Florida or California how they agree to live in danger of hurricanes or severe earthquakes.
"Most of the students here envision student exchange programs with Gaza University in the future," said Dotan Segal, while summarizing the atmosphere in the college.
From the college the delegation continued to the city of Sderot for a warm and affectionate meeting with Mayor David Buskila and members of the municipal council. The first contact between the city of Sderot and JNF UK Chairman Samuel Hayek began ten days before the visit of the delegation. The first cooperative project between the Friends of KKL-JNF in the United Kingdom and the city of Sderot was initiated at record speed as a result of a courageous decision made by Hayek to build two parks for the benefit of the city residents and their children. "Recently hundreds of visitors have come to Sderot from all over the world, wanting to help us in every possible way, but until now I have not experienced such warmth and such a strong desire to help as you have given me," said David Buskila in his greetings to the delegation. "Only ten days have gone by since our first meeting and the construction of the parks has already begun. This is the most significant testimony of how much you care. I am proud to be your friend, Samuel Hayek, and all of you."
David Buskila briefly described the hardships that the city of Sderot and its residents have undergone. During the last 8 years the city has been hit with 7,500 qassam rockets out of approximately 9,000 that were fired in the direction of the city. "During the past few days people have been arguing a lot about the disproportionate response of the IDF in the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead. From my standpoint, whoever fires 7,500 rockets at a city intends to kill at least 7,500 residents," explained David Buskila, and added, "The people killed in Gaza, just like those killed in Sderot, are on Hamas' conscience - if they have a conscience. Who would not be sensitive to the sight of the body of a small child? Judaism sanctifies life, but extremist Islam sanctifies death. It is very difficult to conduct a cultural dialogue in the shadow of such a large fundamental gap."
Buskila talked about the severe psychological damage along with the physical injury and destruction of property. "The full depth of the psychological damage is still unclear to us, and the time required to rehabilitate the injured is also not clear. We have to take all the psychologically injured, from the children who wet their beds at night to the adults who suffer from constant anxiety, and pursue a long journey of rehabilitation. Now - after eight years under fire - we have to begin eight years of rehabilitation."
At the site of one of the two parks that are to be built, around one of the main squares in the city, the mayor David Buskila and Samuel Hayek removed the veil from a sign designating the site of the park to be built by UK JNF in Sderot. "The first stage will be completed at the beginning of April, in record time," announced the mayor. Buskila and Hayek also signed a pact which stated, among other things, that "The contribution of members of JNF in the United Kingdom, and their true partnership with Sderot, who in recent years have symbolized the efforts of the People of Israel to live in peace and serenity in their land, will be written in gold letters in the chronicles of the city."
In the courtyard of the police station in Sderot, opposite the growing piles of the remains of rockets that have been collected from the city over the years, members of the solidarity delegation began to understand just how much their decision to come and offer encouragement and support had been the right one. The most exciting expression of these feelings was exhibited by their host, the mayor of the Sderot, who presented the head of the delegation Samuel Hayek with a steel rose sculpted from the remains of one of the thousands of qassam rockets that had fallen on the city - a symbol of humanity striving to live in peace.
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