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It was the 17th day of the war in Gaza. All the communities in the northern and Western Negev are under Kassam and grad rocket fire from the Gaza Strip. Most schools in the area are still closed and traffic on the roads is unusually light since many parents have not gone to work preferring to keep their children close to home and to the shelters.
The communities in the Bnei-Shimon Regional Council are mostly small agricultural settlements scattered throughout the open areas of the Negev between Sderot, Netivot and Ofakim to the west and the suburbs of Beersheba to the east. All are within the "Russian roulette" of the rockets aimed at densely populated areas but which often land far from their targets.
This large expanse of land on the border of the desert is under the jurisdiction of the Bnei-Shimon Regional Council. Like any other regional council in the Gaza Strip area they have been coping with the need to provide regular services as well as emergency services for residents despite difficult conditions. How do they accomplish this in an area in which there are many young families with small children as well as many elderly "first generation" who live in simple houses in the moshavim scattered throughout the northern Negev?
Our visit to the area of the regional council together with Shalom Norman, former emissary of the KKL-JNF in Australia, began in the offices of the Bnei-Shimon Regional Council near Kibbutz Beit Kama on the road leading to Beersheba. "KKL-JNF Australia has been in close contact with Moshe Paul, head of the regional council, for more than three years to develop projects to improve the quality of life and the environment for residents of the area. This has continued throughout these difficult times when rockets are falling in our communities. Even today there is a water shortage in the area. There is a shortage of water generally throughout Israel and in this area it is particularly acute. KKL-JNF Australia took upon itself - among many other projects - to help establish a reservoir for agricultural needs and for the residents, among whom there are also evacuees from Gush Katif who have been resettled in local communities."
Regional Council workers arrive at work each morning from the northern Negev and the closing of schools has left many of them without a solution for their children. Moshe Paul approached the "Avshalom" potato packing house through which local farmers export large quantities of choice potatoes to Europe. The modern packing house was built in recent years and has an emergency shelter for workers. The factory had agreed to convert the shelter into a center for children of regional council employees during the past two weeks and the children remain there during the day with volunteer counselors and teachers - safe from rockets and close to their parents.
"We call these children 'the potato children'," explained Moshe Paul, while he showed us the large shelter filled with children who were busy drawing and playing while outside the sophisticated packing machines continued to operate, filling more and more cartons with potatoes for export to Great Britain. The shelter is bustling with activity - children draw, paint, play, talk and read and the atmosphere is relaxed. All the children know why they are here and why they have not gone back to school after the Hannukah vacation. Some of them are too young to understand or to be afraid but the older ones are aware of the overall danger and know how to count the seconds from the moment the alarm sounds until the noise of the exploding rocket. Here they are far safer than in their schools or kindergartens - six of which have already been directly hit by rockets during the past weeks.
The same experiences that the city of Sderot has undergone for eight years on a daily basis have now reached a much larger population of over a million people who are under threat of Hamas terror directed explicitly against civilian populations.
"We wanted to bring the voice of local residents to Friends of KKL-JNF in Australia and we are amazed to see how much the war influences the residents in every area of life," noted Shalom Norman. "The first half of February will be marked by the traditional "Green Sunday" event of KKL-JNF Australia for Tu Bishvat and I am certain that the answer of Friends of KKL-JNF to the rockets that are falling will be massive tree plantings."
On the morning we visited the area, the head of the regional council, Moshe Paul, left his home in Kibbutz Hatzerim near Beersheba. "I left home a bit later than usual to visit some of the regional high schools on the way, wherein we permitted some classes to be held in protected areas. I wanted to make sure that everything was in order and that the students who were preparing for matriculation examinations were getting everything they needed from both the aspects of personal security and education. I managed to go a short way when the siren went off in the Beersheba area. I pulled over and ran for cover when I saw a young woman who had stopped several meters from me trying in desperation to take two small children out of her car. I rushed to her and took one toddler in my arms while she took the other. We lay on the ground and heard two Grad rockets explode several hundred meters away. We got up after a few minutes. I brushed the dirt from my clothes, gave the child back to his mother and we continued on our way. That's what a normal morning is like here."
Moshe Paul spent the rest of that "normal" morning touring the schools. It was the first day that attempts were being made to return to partial school activities. Most of the sixth grade students at Nitzanei HaNegev School at Beit Kama had arrived and their classes were held in protected areas within the school. Each bus carrying children to school is accompanied by a soldier from the Home Front Command whose job it is to help the young passengers find cover nearby if an emergency arises. The pickup points in the communities have been changed during the last few days so that students are collected next to public shelters instead of waiting in groups at the bus stops. In this way they are close to a shelter if the siren goes off. When they arrived at school this morning the children met with an IDF officer who took the first few minutes to explain what the students should do if the siren sounded.
South of Beit Kama at the Mevo'ot HaNegev School in Kibbutz Shoval, twelfth grade students will be completing their high school studies and matriculation examinations and will begin their military service in a few months. We found the literature teacher attempting to return her students into their normal routine amidst a strange atmosphere in one of the school shelters. All live in kibbutzim and moshavim in the Bnei-Shimon Regional Council area or in the Bedouin town of Rahat located near Kibbutz Shoval. Both Jewish and Arab students attempt to concentrate once again on their studies. The students are a little perplexed when they are asked about their feelings. All are supportive of the military campaign in the Gaza Strip and all burst out laughing when one of their friends declares, "We lost a lot of school hours. No matter, we'll make it all up."
Ido Argaman, a member of Kibbutz Mefalsim on the border of the Gaza Strip, now under fire, is principal of the school. This morning he rushes about the school area where soldiers from the Home Front Command wearing florescent flak jackets stand out. Together they check security measures for the students and hold discussions with the IDF Home Front Command to ensure that those who are in school are fully secure.
"We are operating a "virtual campus" for the rest of the students using a computer network that we set up during the last few hours. All the students have laptop computers and are connected with their teachers who are working from home. There are study programs, forums and a site where students can get help," explains Ido Argaman. The computers were purchased by the regional council and by the parents at discount prices.
In one of the classrooms we met a group of teachers who returned to school to prepare themselves - primarily psychologically - for a gradual return to class.
"Right now we are mainly letting off steam," explained Ruthie, head of the workshop and a tenth-grade teacher from Nir Moshe, a moshav near Beit Kama. Ruthie explained her unease. "The main problem is my own children. The little ones can only go out on the lawn next to the house near the protected room. My older daughter is very active and is climbing the walls because she cannot see her friends who live in other communities. Every issue regarding transporting children to activities away from home is very problematic. The situation is not like it is during summer vacation. These four walls are driving the children crazy - and add to that the constant news from the television and the radio."
Rachel, another teacher from the community of Meitar north of Beersheba, is busy working with her 12-year-old students through the computer network. "I correspond with them on the various forums that we have opened and I see a lot of expressions of fear and insecurity. One student told me about his sister's anxiety and how it is expressed in her behavior at home. Another student told me about the tension in her family because his elderly grandfather has difficulty moving and is not always able to reach a protected area within a half a minute. Another student said that his neighbor dug a hole under his house to create some sort of shelter for his family. There are also those who don't feel comfortable expressing themselves on forums and they send me personal emails. I have to cope with all of this as well as directing some sort of study activities."
Another teacher, Ilana, a resident of Kibbutz Dvir, talks about three of her students, all of whom are Bedouin girls from the Bedouin city of Rahat. "Two of them freely admit that they are afraid just like most of the Jewish students. One of them, however, claimed that "we are Arabs, we are not afraid." What about Ilana herself and her family? "I have a son in the army who is fighting in Gaza now. I'm very anxious!"
Everyone is tense, even the head of the regional council, Moshe Paul. "Right now all my activities are related to only one thing: security, and more security. I began this part of our lives by finding a solution to the question of continuing to provide services to residents of the regional council under dangerous, uncertain conditions. I found the solution of "the potato children" to enable regional council workers - most of whom are young parents who must care for small children - to come to work as usual. We operate a security hotline with the Home Front Command and the Border Patrol, manned by civilian volunteers and soldiers who provide immediate solutions for everyone who calls. There is constant and excellent contact with the army each day. Each community has an emergency crew that deals with the unique problems of the community itself. Small businesses in the area of the regional council are undergoing tremendous difficulties and the large factories also have problems. I expect that the government will eventually reimburse us for the tremendous financial expenditures that landed on us with the rockets. I am not hiding the fact that I am also asking for help from Jewish people throughout the world. There are activities going on to help us such as those of KKL-JNF and their friends in Australia that must continue. In matters of cooperation with KKL-JNF, from the environmental standpoint, the Bnei Shimon Regional Council consists largely of open semi-arid areas that require preservation and development of sources of water. There is an annual rainfall of only 180 millimeters even during rainy years and perhaps only 100 millimeters in a dry year such as this one. Everything depends upon water. Without water nothing can be done with the large agricultural areas upon which the communities depend."
We traveled out to the western areas of the Bnei Shimon Regional Council: Eshkol and the small moshavim of Brosh, Tidhar, and Tashur that lie west of Ofakim in close proximity to the Gaza Strip. Each moshav is home to dozens of families and each has a neighborhood of houses of residents and children of the first generation of settlers who want to live here.
Itzik Abutbul - head of Moshav Tidhar Committee and one of the most successful farmers in the area - is in his office in the regional packing house for agricultural produce. On his desk is the tail of one of the Kassam rockets launched from Gaza that landed in the moshav. The tail, which bears the word "Jerusalem" in Arabic, is decorated with a large onion from the last yield - a symbol of the strange reality. "A large portion of the houses here were built at the beginning of the 1950's and have no protected area for the residents. There are a few shelters in the moshav, but what does an 80-year-old do, who has to run 300 meters from the house to the nearest shelter in fifteen seconds? Four rockets have landed around Moshav Tidhar alone and meanwhile no one has been hurt, thank God. I have four daughters and one son. My oldest daughter, who is 17, is fearful. Each time the alarm sounds she hides behind the closet. She suffers from stomach-aches and bouts of crying from fear. I try and find temporary solutions mainly for the elderly members those who are still planting their fields and harvesting small yields for their livelihood. One of them went down to the shelter, but couldn't get back up the stairs again after the rocket fell. We had to carry him back up!"
When we arrived at the kindergarten shared by the three moshavim some of the children had already returned. The kindergarten is located next to one of the shelters and the children practiced going down to the shelter with their teacher, Orli Hajaj.
"Not all the children came today," explained Orli. "Some of them are on a trip to Jerusalem, and others are still at home because their parents are reluctant to bring them. But I sat and talked to those who came this morning. I asked them if they knew why they had not been in kindergarten for so long. There were some that said that "We were on vacation," perhaps because their parents tried not to make them anxious during all this time. Others knew to say that Kassams are falling and that there is a war going on. We experienced the last siren this morning at 7:30. My daughter, Tohar, is here with me despite the fact that she is already in first grade. My assistant's son is among the thousands of reservists who have been called up."
Orli Hajaj explains how her six-year-old daughter Tohar "discovered" the name of Gilad Shalit, the kidnapped IDF soldier who has been held in captivity by Hamas in Gaza for over two years. "Several days ago she asked me who Gilad Shalit is and if he was a soldier who was killed in the war. I told her about his abduction and since then she has not stopped thinking about him. Last Saturday after the prayer for safety of IDF Soldiers in the synagogue she got up and declared, "I pray for the safety of Gilad Shalit so that he will come back home quickly."
Orli's sons all study in the Bnei Akiva Yeshiva in the nearby town of Netivot that is also within rocket range. "I sent them to the Yeshiva today and only told them "Enjoy your day - just as I would tell you - and stay safe."
Within the small group of children in Orli's kindergarten, one small girl stands out. She is alone in a corner playing an educational number game on a computer. This is four-and-a-half-year-old Amit from Moshav Brosh. She is immersed in her game and very introverted. As long as she is asked to tell her name and how old she is she cooperates. But if anyone asks her if she prefers to be at home or in the kindergarten, she returns to her game and continued "popping " colored bubbles with numbers according to the rules of the game and without mistakes. Amit does not want to tell what is gong on in her mind.
As we leave Moshav Tidhar we hear several dull explosions. We did not hear the siren in the car, but the radio reports that another two rockets have fallen in Sderot northwest of Tidhar beyond the exposed hills upon which the wheat has already sprung up, waiting for rain to fall
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