The kassam rocket fire on Sderot and Western Negev communities continues. The "Color Red" alarm disrupts the lives of local residents several times every day. Fifteen seconds is all the time children, old people and adults are given to find cover from the current rocket salvo.
We went to meet KKL-JNF staff who live and work in the Western Negev in daily routines that exists nowhere else in the world. "Today we were supposed to work in the forest in the Nir Am area and in Zikim, but we didn't get permission from the defense authorities," explained Yossi Hamias at the meeting in KKL-JNF's Ibim Recreation Area, just a few hundred meters away from the outlying houses of Sderot.
The delightful Ibim Recreation Area has stood almost totally empty in recent rears. The shed used by KKL-JNF workers stands at its center, next to a concrete cube that provides them with cover in the event of a Color Red alert. The improvised security room at the site, built with help of Friends of KKL-JNF, Canada, is an older model that does not provide complete protection against newer upgraded qassam rockets. "That's what we've got," says Yossi Hamias, the forester in charge of the surrounding woodland, who has suffered a 15% disability ever since he personally experienced a qassam attack in the course of an apparently ordinary working day. "On 8th May 2006, while I was on my way to meet a group of KKL-JNF staff members working in the Mavki'im area, south of Ashkelon, I was injured by a qassam that landed on the road. When you're in a car, you can't hear the alert. I'm still receiving medical treatment."
It was in Ibim Recreation Area that Yossi Hamias encountered the first qassam, over seven years ago. "The rocket fell fifty meters from where we're sitting now, and we didn't have a protected room at the time. When the rockets kept falling, Sderot fire service asked us to deal with the forest fires in the area so that they, with their insufficient manpower, could concentrate on the fires inside Sderot itself. As a result we found ourselves putting out fires next to the industrial zone, while salvos of rockets continued to fall. We were working unprotected under fire, because in a situation like that you don't think of anything beyond the need to save lives." Yossi, 47, married with three sons and a daughter, has been working at KKL-JNF for twenty years. He, like many others, moved to Ashkelon in search of a more peaceful life for himself and his family, ironically, but he has not moved away from his job, which becomes ever more dangerous.
Elisha Mizrahi, Director of KKL-JNF's Western Negev region, added that the constant state of uncertainty makes it difficult to maintain and manage KKL-JNF land: "I'm not talking about a situation of the kind we had in the Galilee region two years ago during the Second Lebanese War, where the effort to minimize damage had to be sustained for a limited period of time. Here we are talking about a continuous, ever-increasing effort that wears people down. We don't have the tools to do this. We have no clear answers, and we do not get any explicit instructions. We can be told that the situation is calm and under control, only to have everything start up again a second later. Look, we can be sitting here in an atmosphere of pastoral calm next to a concrete building donated by our Friends in Canada, then, suddenly we've got fifteen seconds at best to take cover.
The rockets caught Yossi while he was pouring concrete seats in the Yad Mordechai Recreation Area, which was donated by KKL-JNF America. A few weeks ago a group of cyclists were trapped in Beeri Forest, which was carpeted with millions of anemones. All three of us have attended funerals. The sister of one of our workers, Vladimir, was killed when a rocket hit Sderot. Those of us who heard Vladimir shouting over the walkie-talkie when he heard the news while on duty in the watchtower, will never forget the experience. The effort is beyond our emotional capabilities. Whenever Yossi calls me, the first thing I ask him is 'Where did they fall?' and it's not until I discover that he just wants to talk to me about an everyday work-related issue that I calm down."
Danny Gigi (46) married and father of four sons aged 10-23, lives in Sderot and has worked for KKL-JNF for 23 years. After his house suffered a direct hit from a qassam rocket, he decided to move to Ashkelon - and then, on 4th March, 2008, his parents, who had lived in Sderot for fifty years, sustained a direct hit to their home. "On 26th November, 2006, at 5 a.m., a missile came to pay us a visit in our living room, just shortly before another 'ceasefire' was supposed to come into effect. It happened just a few minutes after I had been woken by the alert, and we had gone into the protected area of the house. I went back to bed and turned on the television, and then, just a few minutes later, there was another alert. I took my wife and one of the boys (the others were sleeping in other rooms and I didn't have time to wake them) and pulled them into the protected room. Just as we were locking the security room door, I heard the rocket crash through the roof into the living room. There was a tremendous thud and a great explosion of breaking glass as the windows overlooking the inner courtyard shattered. We left Sderot, because the boys had in many ways suffered irreparable harm: anxieties, fears, scars of all kinds. Last year the boys really didn't learn anything. I can see how much catching up they've had to do."
Two weeks ago Danny Gigi's vehicle was damaged by a Grad missile that fell in Ashkelon. "I'm constantly trying to deal with the combination of working in Sderot and the fact that rockets are falling in Ashkelon and there are telephone calls back and forth the whole day. I asked my parents to leave after their house was hit, but my father is stubborn. He's been here for fifty years, and he is staying in Sderot," says Danny, as we tour his parents' devastated apartment, which, like the buildings around it, is in the process of being rebuilt.
Danny takes me to the well-cared-for house that was once his, which was hit first, and which he sold in order to move to Ashekelon for a bit of a break. "There, just a few hundred meters away on the other side of the road, is the Gaza Strip. It's right on our doorstep." The house next door still bears shrapnel scars.
Danny, Yossi and Elisha sit together, listening to one another, completing one another's accounts, as if a single person were speaking: "It's as if we were living in a military outpost, with red, amber and green alerts, like you have in the army. It's an overwhelmingly aggressive and inescapable situation that follows you around every minute of every day, from the moment you get up in the morning, and as you take the children to school. My wife works at Sapir College, where a Qassam also fell, killing a student," says Danny Gigi. Yossi Hamias adds. "At the moment the countryside is still green. But when the vegetation dries up and the brush fires and forest fires start, we will be working while qassam rockets fly overhead. KKL-JNF workers are very conspicuous by their presence out there, where it's happening, and are noted for their self-sacrifice."
Danny continues: "What people don't understand, either here at home or abroad, is the intensity of it all, the genuine exhaustion suffered by civilians who don't have the resources or the knowledge to deal with the situation. There was a time, in the past, when you could distinguish between the front line and the home front. Today all these distinctions have become blurred."
Opposite Danny's parents' home in one of Sderot's long-established neighborhoods lives Yaakov Mashiah (21), a native of the town who is studying business administration and public policy at Sapir College. Yaakov is coordinator of the college's Green Course environmental organization, many of whose activities overlap with KKL-JNF operations in the area. Yaakov's home, too, was damaged, and he, like many others, is in the process of carrying out repairs, especially to the second floor and the roof. Yaakov has not left home, even though his parents moved away some time ago to live near relatives in Ramla in central Israel. "My parents insist that I should move, too. No way! I've been living with qassams since tenth grade. I come from a background of scouting and social activism and I'm continuing this by working for Green Course. Look, I've just finished drawing up the work allocation plan for a Green Day event in two weeks' time, and I've put asterisks wherever necessary. Each asterisk indicates that the event in question will be moved from the college's open plaza into a protected building.
Two months ago I brought 100 student activists here. I didn't want to be responsible for their safety, so I put them up in Kibbutz Ruhama, further to the north. We organized an Environmental Week for the scout movement, and then dozens of qassams rained down. As a result, only one girl out of 120 scouts dared to turn up for the activities. Nonetheless, we continue to hold our monthly excursions in the area. Fellow students of mine who don't live locally think I'm crazy. When the rocket fell opposite my house, a friend from college sent me a sms saying 'you're such a fool to stay'." Yaakov was actually sitting with a friend in a local cafÃ© when he saw the rocket that hit his home and that of Danny Gigi's parents. "Suddenly I saw a light in the air, like a firework, and heard a loud boom. This time it was my house and the houses around it."
That is the reality of life today for all residents of Sderot, including KKL-JNF staff. Things are no different for those who live in the nearby kibbutzim and moshavim adjacent to the border fence with the Gaza Strip, whose members are now bringing in the potato crop under fire. KKL-JNF workers are still busy pruning in forests, to reduce the risk of fires and maintaining the deserted recreation areas and woodland cycle paths. A few more days of hot easterly winds, the seasonal vegetation will dry up. Forest fires will soon follow, and KKL-JNF staff will remain in the area, torn between the need to protect themselves from injury and the necessity to care for the beautiful green environment they have created here through long decades of hard work.
Friends of KKL-JNF Support Residents of the Western Negev
KKL-JNF has been involved in settling and developing the Negev for decades, coming to the aid of local residents time after time, in response to their needs and appeals from the Israeli government. In this present difficult time, too, when residents of the Western Negev are subjected to daily rocket attacks, Friends of KKL-JNF worldwide have joined forces to offer every kind of help possible, from providing the embattled population with respite activities at KKL-JNF sites to the construction of new communities and safer ring roads.
In a touching display of solidarity, Friends of KKL-JNF Italy expressed their concern for Sderot residents at a special "Miles for Life Campaign" event held in Rome to raise funds for the construction of a Gaza peripheral road that will provide protection for those who live adjacent to the border with the Gaza Strip.
Friends of KKL-JNF America have been dedicated to Negev development for many years now and in recent years they have been focusing their energies on several projects to aid and protect residents of the Western Negev. Just recently a 250-strong group of students came here on a visit from the US and Canada to build terraces for farms in the new Negev communities; gather surplus crops from the fields for donation to soup kitchens and food pantries; retrofit KKL-JNF parks to make them disabled accessible; celebrate Purim with the aged and work with disadvantaged populations in the Negev, all this during their week-long spring breaks.
After years of living under a continual hail of qassam rockets, families especially children in the Western Negev are showing signs of strain, and Friends of KKL-JNF America quickly organized breathing spells out of missile range for the local residents. Throughout the year - and over the summer holidays in particular - they have been helping to provide parents and children with breaks that include relaxing activities and summer camps at KKL-JNF sites throughout Israel. So far 10,000 children have taken part in these activities.
The distressing situation of residents of the Western Negev has triggered an impressive wave of support among Friends of KKL-JNF throughout the world and Friends in the US, Canada, Switzerland, Australia, Germany, France, Mexico, Belgium, Chile, Uruguay and many other countries are all engaged in special activities on their behalf. They are helping with projects designed to promote the safety and well being of Western Negev residents, including new communities for immigrants and Gush Katif evacuees; parks in Sderot and neighboring communities; a children's playground in the embattled Kibbutz Nir Am; roads that provide safe alternative routes; reservoirs and fire-prevention lookouts; disabled-access recreational areas; the preparation of land for agricultural use and much more.
Residents of the Western Negev and the Friends of KKL-JNF who support them worldwide are providing a decisive response to the rocket fire: they are getting on with their lives, planting trees and building the Land.
For more information, please visit our website at www.kkl.org.il/eng or e-mail [email protected]