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"On my way here, we passed by the historical site of Tel Lachish. I have seen Tel Lachish many times, but I never really climbed it, so I asked my motorcade to stop and I went up to the top of the hill, from where there is a magnificent, panoramic view of the entire region." Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was speaking at the dedication of the new Atzmona elementary school and Talmud Torah at Shomriya, a village in the Negev that has been resettled by Gaza Strip evacuees. The building of the school was made possible thanks to a gift of JNF United Kingdom.
The ceremony took place on Monday, August 10, marking four years since the evacuation of Atzmona and Gush Katif, in the presence of many distinguished guests, including the Prime Minister, KKL-JNF World Chairman Efi Stenzler, KKL-JNF Co-Chairmna Avraham Duvdevani, JNF UK Chairman Samuel Hayek, Minister of Science and Technology Professor Rabbi Daniel Hershkowitz and the Head of Benei Shimon Regional Council - Ms. Sigal Moran.
The building of the school is one of many KKL-JNF projects on behalf of the Gush Katif evacuees, which include: Land preparation, water reservoirs for agriculture, greenhouses, security roads and many environmental projects. All this has been made possible by the help of KKL-JNF friends worldwide, including JNF America, JNF Canada, JNF UK, JNF Latin America, JNF Australia, KKL-JNF Italy, KKL-JNF France and Belgium.
The Prime Minister continued: "One of the people with me said, 'Look, the land is so desolate, no one lives here.' I replied, 'This land is being settled and will be settled, because it is our land.' Sanhereb the king of Assyria was here, he conquered the region, and he eventually fell. We were conquered, but today, we are back and once again settling the Lachish region. As Simon the Hashmonite said, 'It is not a foreign land that we have conquered, it is our own country.'
"There is no future without the past. On the way here, we made a decision to restore the remarkable sites from the past located in the Lachish region. I spoke with Samuel Hayek about the next project that British Jewry will be supporting in this area. And although there is no future without a past, we also need to address the present that fills the space between these two poles. Sometimes, present reality involves difficulties and suffering, as has been the case for the Gaza Strip evacuees. We cannot deny that mistakes were made when the Israeli government decided on unilateral evacuation. We received neither peace nor security. Instead we must deal with a terrorist entity that bombards our southern region with missiles, something we will not tolerate under any circumstances. We desire peace with our neighbors, but peace must be based on recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, and our security needs must be met.
"The Lachish region is beautiful and has a great deal of potential. I am committed to developing it, not only new villages like Shomriya, but also the older communities. I would like to thank KKL-JNF World Chairman Efi Stenzler, who has been of great assistance to me in promoting settlement of the Negev and other areas of Israel. It is an honor for me to be invited for the dedication of the elementary school, and please don't forget to invite me when the next stage of the school is built in the near future."
KKL-JNF World Chairman Efi Stenzler addressed the trauma of being uprooted from one's home by force: "I know that you wanted to make your homes elsewhere. In the book of Mishlei (Parables) it says, 'The righteous man falls seven times, yet rises up again (Mishlei 24:16).' I would say that the righteous rise up again because when they fall, they touch the ground, where they draw strength from the earth. The greatness of the people of Israel is its ability to know when to dream and when to take action, and how to be reborn from the ashes like the phoenix.
"KKL-JNF represents the entire Jewish people and has no political bias. We have accompanied you since the evacuation; we know your feelings and were with you during your most difficult moments. One of the small things we did was to dig up some of the trees of Gush Katif and replant them next to your new homes. This was a symbolic gesture, and in addition, with the help of our friends all over the world, we have invested tremendous resources in helping to build your new communities. We have prepared land infrastructures for living and agriculture in Halutziyot and Mavki'im. In Shomria, with the help of our friends from Great Britain, the United States and Australia, we are building a water purification plant, sports facilities, playgrounds and public buildings. I would like to thank the Prime Minister for coming here today, and I can promise you that in the future KKL-JNF will continue to develop the Negev and accompany the Gush Katif evacuees on a daily basis."
JNF UK Chairman Mr. Samuel Hayek told the audience about Ruth and Harry Lewis of Hove, England who bequeathed a donation to JNF UK that helped building the Shomriya elementary school: "Ruth and Harry were exemplary Jews who, in the 1980s, rented an airplane at their own expense to bring Jewish immigrants from the Former Soviet Union to Israel. They had no children of their own, so we decided that the best way to honor their memory would be to use their contribution to build a school for children. I am proud to be a partner to enabling the dedicated people who were evacuated from Gush Katif, take root in the soil of Shomriya, and assure you that we will continue to support you."
Ms. Sigal Moran, head of the Bnei Shimon Regional Council, said that when the idea to resettle the Gush Katif evacuees in the Bnei Shimon region first came up, the predominantly secular local population was fearful that the ideological gap between the two sectors would be too great to bridge: "We discovered that our shared values are greater than that which divides us, and that it was possible to respect each other's differences. Shomriya now boasts a population of 700, and the new school is an additional stage in the community's development. We are proud to be residents of the Negev."
The rabbi of Shomriya, Rabbi Gabi Kadosh, noted that this was the first time since the founding of the state of Israel that a prime minister was present at the founding of a Talmud Torah: "The children who will start first grade in the new school building were born in Gush Katif. We are not afraid of challenges and difficulties. I can promise you that the children who will learn in this school will be taught to love the land of Israel, the people of Israel, the Torah and the importance of a Jewish sovereign state in our ancient homeland. We have arisen from the dust and are dedicated to continue the pioneering tradition that was responsible for Israel's rebirth."
We were surprised to see MK Haim Oron, head of the leftist Meretz party, at the dedication ceremony. "Why are you surprised to see me here?" he wondered. "First of all, I am a member of Kibbutz Lahav, so the people of Shomriya are my neighbors, and secondly, I support Jewish settlement on this side of the Green Line. It's only natural for me to be here today."
At the conclusion of the ceremony, two local children presented the Prime Minister with scissors for the traditional ribbon-cutting ceremony. Yossi Yered, the father of nine year-old Ariel, one of the two children, told us why his son was chosen for this honor: "When Ariel was one and a half years old, he was critically wounded by shrapnel from a Palestinian bomb that landed directly on our house in Gush Katif. His entire little body was filled with the shrapnel, including his brain, and the doctors didn't give him much chance of living, let alone of being normal. But here he is, literally a walking miracle. His right arm is partially dysfunctional and there are other problems, but he will be starting fourth grade together with the other children at the new schoolhouse."
Ariel smiled. "I tell people that I left my right arm at Gush Katif, but the rest of me is okay and happy at my new home, Shomriya."
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