(photo credit: KKL)
The Pessah holiday is about to begin for Jews all over the world, but in Israel's Negev region, 750,000 citizens have been sitting in bomb shelters rather than preparing for the holiday. The past few days have seen an escalation in rocket and mortar attacks on Israel from the Gaza Strip, including the firing of an anti-tank missile at a school bus on Thursday, April 7, which left a 16-year-old in critical condition, along with the firing of over 120 rockets and mortar shells over the past weekend. There now seems to be a tense ceasefire, but life in Israel's south is far from being back to normal.
In response to this situation, JNF Australia contacted the city of Sderot, which is located on the border of the Gaza Strip, and announced that they would be funding a trip to KKL-JNF's Nes Harim Field and Forest Center in the Judean Mountains for a group of 50 teenagers. The idea was to provide the youngsters with a respite from the tensions of daily life in a region that is often no different a war zone. Yvgeny Shaulov, a youth counselor who works with teenagers in Sderot and accompanied the group on its three-day vacation, said that once the word got out, fifty youngsters registered within hours: "These are kids from sixth to ninth grade who basically all know each other, but unfortunately, not all the fifty children who registered actually came. At the last minute, when some of the parents heard that we would be visiting Jerusalem, they decided not to allow their children to participate, because of the recent terrorist attack in Jerusalem which left one dead and dozens injured. I tried to explain to them that the threat in Jerusalem is no greater than the threat in Sderot, but they wouldn't listen. I guess the evil you know is better than the evil you're unfamiliar with."The group's itinerary included visits to KKL-JNF sites in the region, such as Tel Azeqa, Masu'ah scenic lookout and Sataf Springs, where the young people learned about ancient agriculture. They also visited the Old City and Western Wall in Jerusalem, along with the more prosaic attractions Israel's capital city has to offer, such as the local shopping center. We joined the group on its visit to the Hess Promenade in East Talpiyot, a KKL-JNF project from which there is a magnificent view of the Temple Mount, Jerusalem and its environs.
Daniel Amirgolov (15), whom we met together with his friends Daniel Ishakov and Reuven Katanov, spoke about what it's like to live in Sderot: "One of the most frustrating things for me is that when I meet people from other parts of Israel and tell them that I live in Sderot, they look at me as if I was some sort of an unfortunate that they should have pity on. I am proud of where I live and don't see myself like that at all, but it bothers me."
Reuven added: "Ever since I was a small child I've lived with Kassam missiles. This vacation is wonderful, although I must say that it has advantages and disadvantages. The advantages are all the incredible places KKL-JNF takes us to, and the girls. The disadvantage is the reality we go back home to when the vacation is over."
Daniel Ishakov was upset that Sderot wasn't given an Iron Dome anti-missile battery: "Why did they get one in Beersheva? They've had much less attacks than we had in Sderot." Reuven answered: "Don't be so angry. The problem is that Iron Dome defends against rockets from a range of 4-70 kilometers, and Sderot is only two kilometers from the border, so it wouldn't help us. I think the army has to do whatever needs to be done to make them stop bombarding us, not just defensive actions. No country would agree to this."
Avital, Maxie, Moran and Lianna are seventh graders who said that one of the nicest things about the vacation was the feeling of being together: Avital: "It was very cold at night, we're not used to Jerusalem weather, but we're having a great time. Yesterday we were learning at the field center about the characteristics of different trees and how KKL-JNF grows them from seeds. It's been wonderful, but I can't stop thinking about my family and wondering if they're okay. People who don't live in Sderot don't know how scary it is when you hear the 'Color Red' alarm go off or when one of those missiles falls and makes everything shake. I almost feel bad that I can relax a bit while everyone I love is so tense."
Lianna: "I can't believe there aren't any Kassams here; I'm not used to such a reality. Every time I hear a door slam, I jump, I'm sure a missile fell, but then I remind myself that there aren't missiles in Nes Harim, just terrorist attacks in
Eden Fredzov, Betty Ashurov and Tair Malka, sixth graders, claimed that they weren't afraid of the Kassam rockets: "We're used to it, that's just how life is," Betty said. "I know there are people who live without 'Color Red', and that living like we do might seem not normal to other children." Eden: "Everyone thinks that now it's okay because it's been quiet for a couple days, but we've had quiet periods in the past, and then they start bombing us again from Gaza. I honestly don't believe the people there want peace. Maybe some of them do, and I know we do, but a lot of them won't rest as long as Jews continue to live in Israel."
Tair added: "It's really nice that people who live in Australia made a contribution so we could have this vacation. I want them to know that with all the balagan (Hebrew slang for tumult), I'm proud to say that I live in Sderot."
In appreciation of their stay at Nes Harim, the Sderot children wrote cards in their best English to the people at JNF Australia. In general, helping to improve the quality of life for the residents of the Western Negev is a top priority for KKL-JNF and its friends and supporters throughout the world. KKL-JNF projects in this region include forests, security plantings, bicycle trails, agricultural roads, security roads, recreation areas, parks, sports facilities, and more.
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