Defense Minister Amir Peretz on Thursday night leveled sharp criticism at billionaire Arkady Gaydamak's offer to fund a vacation in Eilat for Kassam-weary Sderot citizens.
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"The State of Israel won't allow control by wealthy men and philanthropists over citizens' troubles," he said. "We will prepare an organized program with the authorities' cooperation to relieve the citizens."
He added that it was impossible to simply "order the abandonment [of] and flight from Sderot"; rather, he said, citizens must be allowed "to take vacations in an organized fashion."
Earlier, hundreds of Sderot residents began making their way south for Gaydamak's promised week-long vacation. The temporary migration came as a welcome respite for families who have been under ongoing Kassam barrages for months, particularly following Wednesday's deadly Kassam strike.
However, Peretz was not the first to criticize the venture. The small exodus frustrated municipal officials, who claimed that the initiative to send some 1,000 city residents out of town for the week was a short-term solution that wasn't coordinated with the city and did not serve the city's interests.
Sderot's mayor "made a policy decision not to send children out of Sderot and to have the work of calming the population take place inside the city," one senior official in the city's educational system told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
Gaydamak's generosity was further questioned when scuffles began at Sderot's town hall as residents who had not signed up properly tried to force their way onto the buses, leading to scenes that suggested angry citizens pushing their children and the elderly out of the way in order to escape the town.
Meanwhile, those in charge of the educational system scrambled throughout Thursday to deal with the traumatized children and disrupted school days.
"Sderot's young people are developing a culture of mourning, of suffering," Miriam Sasi, head of the municipal education department, told the Post on Thursday. "The potential of every Kassam to maim, to kill, is in the children's consciousness," she said. "The fear, especially on days when there's a hit, is shaking their resilience."
Sderot's school system, comprising some 4,000 pupils, has been under psychological siege for six years now, with Kassam rockets raining down periodically and disrupting the normal course of life in the city without warning.
"Every time you get the kids back into balance for organized schoolwork, a Kassam comes and throws them to the floor again," said Aryeh Maimon, the head of the AMIT school network in Sderot, which operates some 70 percent of Sderot's educational system.
According to Maimon, all but one of Sderot's eight elementary schools and two high schools have protected areas to which the children can run in the case of a rocket attack.
But the siren that sounds following a rocket launch from northern Gaza only gives a 15-second head-start before an explosion rocks the area. Also, the system doesn't always work in time, sometimes failing to notice a rocket launch entirely.
For this reason, said Sasi, many parents and schoolchildren have opted simply not to go to school. "In the kindergartens, which are more or less fortified, we have 90% attendance," she told the Post. "In the elementary schools, that drops below 60%. In the high schools, where the kids know best what's going on, attendance is at 20%."
Tami Sagi, director of Sderot's Municipal Educational-Psychological Service, told the Post that "the children's situation is not good. Many are resigned, sad. There are all sorts of symptoms of coping problems, such as having difficulty sleeping."
There was even a "plague," Sagi said, of "girls fainting. When a Kassam comes, 10 girls can suddenly faint in one school. There are signs of hysteria, such as wetting. The kids are scared to leave home."
"Overall," she says, "the situation is under control. The schools know what to do." But she admits that the psychological service is stretched thin. With six part-time staff members, the service simply wasn't equipped for such emergency situations.
While neighboring towns were helping out a great deal, the need is still great for psychological services.
Sagi cared for many of the children who were near the Wednesday blast that killed Fatima Slutzker. "After the kids saw the dead, and the security guard with shredded legs, they've been experiencing recurring images, fears, sobbing. It wasn't easy."
Meanwhile, the Education Ministry has come forward with a plan to take some of the town's students out of the city for remedial studies and a short respite from the tension.
Following marathon meetings held into the evening on Thursday, Education Ministry and local council officials, joined by representatives of the IDF Education Corps, developed a plan to help care for the town's schoolchildren.
According to the plan, starting Sunday, schoolchildren from the first to the 12th grade will take turns going on special two-day seminars in youth hostels all around the country and will be offered day-long educational activities in nearby communities.
For students in the older grades, special study marathons will be held to supplement some of the school days lost due to the Kassam attacks, and to prepare the pupils for upcoming exams.
The various programs are intended to provide the schoolchildren with "breathing space" during the tension of daily sirens and explosions that have marked their lives in recent months.
Education Minister Yuli Tamir instructed her ministry to devote special funds to the projects aimed at helping Sderot's schoolchildren during the traumatic period.
Education Ministry Dir.-Gen. Shmuel Abuav even promised that the ministry "will be considerate with them in the matriculation exams."