Ashkelon children sent back to school

Parents end strike after minister pledges rocket-protection plan for schools, kindergartens.

beersheba school rocket 88 248 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
beersheba school rocket 88 248 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
Children are heading back to school in Ashkelon on Wednesday following a pledge by Religious Services Minister Yitzhak Cohen to anxious parents that he would seek government action to equip schools with adequate rocket-proof shelters. Cohen, a resident of Ashkelon, met with members of the Urban Parent Committee of Ashkelon on Tuesday at city hall and vowed to submit an urgent request to the security cabinet on Wednesday to provide protection to the 10 schools and 22 kindergartens in the city that have no protection against incoming projectiles. Rafi Sa'adon, deputy head of the Parent Committee, said he believed that was the best result parents could expect at this time, in light of the absence of a fully functioning government during the transitional post-election phase. Parents in the city had been disappointed by a string of broken promises to provide children with a basic level of protection, Sa'adon said. "We've been working for three years to try and obtain the protective shelters. We've had endless meetings with Knesset members and the municipality. "After Operation Cast Lead, we were euphoric, thinking that our trouble was over," he added. "But the rockets resumed." The Parent Committee regained hope after the Home Front Command approved plans to set up rocket shelters outside the schools. But the plans now require government approval, which has so far not been forthcoming. According to Sa'adon, the cost of building the shelters is estimated at between NIS15-20 million. "We thought that, after plans were submitted to build a new house for the prime minister worth NIS 650 million, he could forgo some of the furniture, so to speak, for the children of Ashkelon. We were disappointed again." Sa'adon dismisses claims by the Home Front Command that any of the schools in the city are safe for children during rocket attacks, arguing that only the reinforced shelters "gave the kids a chance at surviving." His view seemed to be supported by the extent of the devastation that resulted from Saturday's advanced Kassam attack on Ashkelon, when the powerful rocket smashed into a school and sent pieces of shrapnel flying through a door and into a room that the Home Front Command had categorized as a safe area, to which children should run after hearing an air raid siren. "As far as the Parent Committee is concerned, all of our nightmares came true on Saturday. Thirty kids were killed and over 100 were wounded. The only thing that prevented this scenario from coming true is 24 hours," Sa'adon said, referring to the fact that the rocket strike occurred on Shabbat. "This was a turning point." In a statement sent to The Jerusalem Post, the Home Front Command said it had presented a plan to protect educational facilities to the Defense Ministry, adding that a decision on the budget and operational aspects had not yet been taken. "Our priorities in terms of protection are safe rooms and bomb shelters... the guidleines for the general population for selecting safe areas has not changed," the statement added. On Sunday, the committee was set to call a strike, but decided to wait 24 hours because Ashkelon's Acting Mayor Shlomo Cohen, was awaiting a reply from Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna'i over government approval of the shelters. Vilna'i's reply, that the plans required further evaluations, set the stage for the two-day strike. For the second day in a row, schools were marked by a low attendance - 45 percent of schoolchildren attended elementary school on Tuesday, according to the municipality. Kindergarten attendance rates were higher at 75%. On Monday, only 40 % of students came to school, along with 60% of kindergarteners. Sa'adon, who has three children, said he told his kids that the strike is a lesson in democracy. Mirai Atlit, a second deputy on the Parent Committee, and who also has three children, added, "I don't have to explain a thing to my children. They understand when they hear the air raid siren. "We don't care who takes power, we merely want them to know that our children are unsafe," Atlit added. It was this lack of security for the city's children that most disturbed Sa'adon. "The real threat to this country does not come from Iran or Syria, but from a failure to foster the young generation. These kids are our future. This is why we have turned our office into a Parent Committee headquarters," he said. Across Ashkelon, many parents took their children to shopping centers and obeyed the committee's call to stay away from schools. "We identify with this struggle," said Noa Uliel, who was with her daughter at the Giron Shopping Center. "The last war didn't accomplish the mission. The children are at risk," she added. "I completely agree with the strike. It should continue until the budget for rocket protection is approved," said Osnat Buchnik. "I also agree with the strike," her eight-year-old son, Gal, said with a smile.