(photo credit: )
Sunday, 7:30 am - the sirens wail at KKL-JNF's sapling nursery in Gilat, near the small town of Ofakim in the western Negev. "We were in the middle of loading saplings and we abandoned them immediately, to run for cover. But the truth is that I feel safer here at the nursery than at home in Beersheba, because Gilat, unlike Beersheba, is not a target for Kassam rockets," smiles Pablo Chercasky, Gilat nursery manager.
Pablo is one of dozens of KKL-JNF workers in the south who are carrying on with their usual daily routine even under the constant threat of rockets. The bombardments are fired indiscriminately into civilian population centers in the northern and western Negev, yet Pablo has not missed even one day of work. Together with the other staff through the region he is busy preparing for the tree plantings that are planned on an unprecedented scale throughout the whole Negev region for Tu Bishvat, Israel's tree-planting day. However the safety that Pablo feels in his nursery is very relative. "I've instructed all the staff to work only in the areas that are closest to our bomb shelter - not more than 100 meters away - so that they'll have enough time to get inside the shelter when the siren goes off. And even though I personally go out into areas that are farther away, at this period it's always only for a very short time and only when it's really necessary. I don't expose anyone unnecessarily to danger."
The nursery's secretary, Aliza Damari, from nearby Moshav Gilat, clocks into work every day and checks the stocks and the supplies of saplings that have been listed for dozens of educational institutions, local authorities as well as for the forest rangers. But something very basic is now different in her home life. "At the moshav we all go down into the common shelter at about seven o'clock every evening - all of us who live in the moshav. We go into the shelter and don't come out of it till morning! We sleep there the whole night. We have spread mattresses on the floor and the whole community sleeps there together."
"We're trying to lead normal lives, as much as possible," says the director of KKL-JNF's southern region, Ami Uliel, in his office at the Gilat nursery, near Ofakim in what has now become Kassam-land.
For Ami Uliel, the fighting in the Gaza Strip that affects the whole northern Negev is a nuisance that can be endured without disturbing one's work, within certain limits. "We called on our workers to come in to work as usual. We allow them to bring their kids with them to the southern region offices. The shelters we have here are in proper order so children stay close to their parents. This means that often both parents are free to go to work normally. We have had exercises for the kids to practice going into the shelter so everybody knows exactly how to behave when the Color Red warning sounds. In sites where there is no shelter for the staff, we set up enormous concrete pipes from the Mekorot water company and they provide pretty good cover against the rockets."
So in fact KKL-JNF's work in the western Negev is carrying on normally, except at its environmental projects on the border with the Gaza Strip. Ami Uliel says that "because we have excellent cooperation with the army, we have managed to prevent significant damage to our forest areas near the border, in spite of the massive presence of tanks and heavy military vehicles. However, despite these efforts, there has been significant damage to the infrastructure in several places, for example at the historically important camp of the Australian soldiers, who served in the ANZAC forces during the First World War. The IDF really makes the effort to leave places clean and free from rubbish. The people who are really annoying me right now are all the representatives of the media, from Israel and overseas, who are concentrated on lookout points opposite the Gaza Strip, for instance on what's known as Camel Hill, where there's a site that is a tribute to the friends of KKL-JNF in Italy. You wouldn't believe the mounds of rubbish that are being left there...."
Elisha Mizrachi, director of KKL-JNF's western Negev region, confirms this statement. "Nevertheless, since we couldn't plant at all last year because it was shmitta when the ground lies fallow, we decided that this year we would increase the tree plantings and we intend to plant hundreds of thousands of new trees in the Negev. We have also renewed our infrastructure work on a cycling trail in Shomriya Forest. Meanwhile, in the Be'eri area, in order to prevent damage to the eucalyptus forest and to the areas of rare anemones, we coordinated entrance arrangements with the IDF so that they don't use the scenic roads that we have developed but instead move around via the agricultural areas. We have laid new roads for tanks making them especially suitable for heavy vehicles. Eventually these roads will serve the local farmers, but meanwhile the farmers have "donated" their field routes to serve the military deployment."
Elisha Mizrachi is uncomfortable speaking about the distress of his workers and instead he shows us something symbolic: an SMS message from one of his field staff, who wrote 'my kids are home, crying and I'm going home.' "Obviously I let the guy leave his work. We try to do everything without fuss, but with our sensitivity turned high and always with a high commitment to our work - because generally, KKL-JNF workers view their work as a mission."
One of the people whose recent life serves as a demonstration, even an extreme example, of the situation of KKL-JNF Negev staffers, is Danny Gigi, head of Maintenance & Organization in the southern region. "We were on our way back from a weekend in Eilat. We'd gone to unwind from all the tension. On the way home, my youngest son, who's eleven, said to me, 'Dad, I think I need some psychological assistance.' I was amazed at his openness, especially in view of the mocking laughter from his brothers and sisters in the car. But the kid told me that he feels depressed. 'It's not that I'm afraid, but the sound of the siren gives me the jitters and I feel like I'm pressed under a heavy weight,' he explained to me. Look, he's cut off from his friends, he isn't going to his regular hobby groups and activities and he isn't going to school. His daily schedule is no longer his regular routine and apparently the different feelings he had in Eilat made him open up and talk about it."
You could almost say that Danny Gigi and his family are among the lucky ones. Danny and his family lived in Sderot for many years. When the rocket bombardment started, his parents' home caught a direct hit. Nobody was physically injured but they were all in a state of serious shock. Then another Kassam penetrated - right into Danny's own living room, when he was in the shelter with his children in the adjacent reinforced room. That was when Gigi decided he'd had enough and moved with his family to a rented house in Ashkelon, far away from any immediate threat - or so it seemed at the time. But in the last two weeks, the Gigi family is once again inside the danger zone, as the rockets now reach as far as Ashkelon. "You have to take into account that my youngest son has lived two-thirds of his life under a constant threat from rockets. That says it all."
Danny goes on to analyze the present situation. "For us, in Sderot, the feeling arose that we are dependent on indiscriminating terrorists and it is they, and not the government, that determine our lives. The events of the last two weeks have given me a new feeling: that a window has been opened onto a new reality, and now there is an opportunity to change the situation in which we live. Previously we felt that everyone had forgotten all about us here in the south. This fighting brings us together, you and me. It has reintroduced the concept of 'solidarity' into our lives - and for us that is a very concrete thing. I don't want you to be mistaken: I'm not running risks and putting myself in any position that is dangerous. But don't forget that throughout the whole period of the Second Lebanon War a couple of years ago, at least ten members of staff from the southern region here worked up in the Galilee. They volunteered to go up there, right into the zone that was under fire, in order to put out the enormous forest fires. They weren't afraid there, just as they're not afraid here."
For Danny, the meaning of the present war is that he once again has a feeling of "togetherness" with his wife, who is the deputy head of the Sapir Academic College in Sderot. They share all their domestic duties. At present the situation is easier, because no lessons are being given right now at the college, in order not to endanger the thousands of students who normally attend it.
During the evening of that same day, we had a telephone conversation with Yoav Sa'ad, a worker in KKL-JNF's southern region, whose son, Eran, had been injured in the fighting in the Gaza Strip and was due to be released from the hospital on the day of our visit. "Last Thursday I was in Nitzana, preparing for the Tu Bishvat tree plantings that are going to be held in the Negev. My son is an officer in the IDF and that afternoon the commander of his company telephoned me and said he had received information about Eran. Until he said the next sentence, my heart plummeted. I almost fainted until I heard the company commander say that Eran was wounded by a bullet in the shoulder, had been treated in the field, and would soon be evacuated to Soroka Hospital in Beersheba. So I picked up my wife from our home in Moshav Yated and we drove to Beersheba. It was a ghastly feeling. Even though I have complete faith in the army and in the national leadership, I couldn't free myself from the thoughts that were pounding in my head, about life and its cycle. Even though Eran is an officer, for me he is still just my son. We waited for him in the hospital, and then when they brought him in, we saw he was covered in blood, but he was alive and speaking."
Before he was released from the hospital, with his right hand not functioning and in need of many months of treatment before he'll be able to use it again, his doctors gave Eran Sa'ad the bullet that had been lodged in his shoulder. KKL-JNF world chairman, Efi Stenzler, called to ask about his condition and how the family was managing and Yoav's colleagues from work have mobilized to encourage them in a manner that Yoav describes as "totally amazing."
At present other thoughts, all jumbled up together, are disturbing Yoav: "On the one hand, I'm thinking about my son and his health. But at the same time I'm thinking about his eight soldiers, whom I met before the start of the fighting when he brought them all home, to eat and shower. It's terrible to fight without your commander. And I have another worry, about preparing everything for the tree planting enterprise on Tu Bishvat. At one stage someone printed stickers saying 'Saplings instead of Rockets.' We still intend to plant thousands of trees around schools, communities and historic sites. And actually, there's one basic fact that we must never forget - that we are a strong people."
For more information, please visit our website at www.kkl.org.il/eng or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org