Ashkelon parents call strike to protest unfortified schools

The Ashkelon Parents Committee late Sunday night called on the city's pupils to stay home Monday to protest the government's failure to fortify 130 schools - with 26,000 children - from rocket attacks. It exempted special education pupils and high school students who are studying for their matriculation exams from the strike. The committee voted on the measure, just one day after an advanced rocket launched from Gaza slammed into the courtyard of a technical high school in the coastal city, destroying classrooms and peppering walls with shrapnel. Had the rocket fallen at 9 a.m. on a school day, instead of Saturday, when the building was closed, pupils would likely have been killed in the attack, according to the city's deputy mayor, Shlomo Cohen. "When there is a warning siren, there is nowhere to go," he told The Jerusalem Post. Still, he opposed the committee's decision, which he called premature, even though some 20 advanced Kassam and Grad rockets have fallen in his coastal city of 122,000 people in the last month - including one that hit south Ashkelon on Sunday. The continued rocket attacks in the aftermath of Israel's 22-day military operation against Hamas designed to stop them, Operation Cast Lead, surprised no one who was interviewed by the Post on Sunday, including Cohen. With respect to the parents' decision, he said, "I can understand their position, but I cannot condone their call for a strike." He added that the city schools would be open, and he urged parents to send their children to school on Monday. There are parents who work and do not have the luxury of keeping their children at home, said Cohen. On top of that, he said, quite a number of families do not have access to safe rooms in their homes, so the pupils are no safer at home than they are at school. But that did not keep Cohen from fighting on Sunday, as he has for the last few months, to gain approval of alternative NIS 15 million plan to fortify 32 of the "worst" schools when it comes to rocket protection. A city-wide plan to fortify all the schools could cost upwards of NIS 2 billion, said municipal spokeswoman Anat Weinstein-Berkovitz. Understanding the complexity of such a project, for the last several months, the municipality has pleaded with the Defense Ministry to approve the NIS 15 million program to protect 8,000 pupils in those 32 schools. This is not a complex plan, said Weinstein-Berkovitz. It called for a series of immediate concrete steps that are not too costly and would be simple to implement quickly. Cohen said he cannot stop imagining what would have happened if Saturday's rocket attack had occurred on a school day and the pupils had simply followed orders and gone to the safe area. "They would have been hit with shrapnel," he said. These small shelters would give the pupils a chance to survive in the next attack, he said. Hopeful that Saturday's near miss would have proved their point, the parents waited all day Sunday for news that the funds had been approved. Instead, they discovered at the day's end that the Defense Ministry had yet to move on the matter. Defense officials told the Post that both Defense Minister Ehud Barak and his deputy, Matan Vilnai, had held consultations on the matter, but that the budget had to be considered within the context of an overall plan for homeland security in the area. It also needed cabinet approval, the defense officials said. But Cohen said the plan had already been approved by the Home Front Command and the municipality. Approving these funds, he said, was "a decision that even a transition government can make. Otherwise, it is running away from its responsibility to its citizens." The schools are the city's lifeline, he said, and added that protecting them was worth every shekel. He said he intended to continue to fight for the funds, but the parents' committee was less patient. Its chairman, Enon Gibley, said Ashkelon's children could not afford to wait. The government did not have to adopt the full protection plan at this stage, he said. But it did have to take this minimal step of giving the city NIS 15 million for the schools most vulnerable to attack, he said. Roni Hagaj, a parent who lives next door to a technical school, did not wait for the parents' committee to call for a strike. Since their apartment had a safe room, he said he had permitted his 10-year-old son to stay home from school. When it came to their 14-year-old daughter who wanted to go, he and his wife debated the matter until 8:30 a.m. Sunday before they decided to let her leave for class. According to Weinstein-Berkovitz, 86 percent of the city's pupils showed up for school on Sunday. But Hagaj was forced to stayed home from work to deal with workers and damage assessors who came to help him repair his apartment, whose windows and shutters were damaged in the attack. One piece of shrapnel crashed through the kitchen window and made a bullet-size hole. "We still haven't found the shrapnel," he said, as he sat at his dining room table. Behind him, his son lay on the sofa and watched cartoons. When the rocket struck the outside of a wing of the one-story stucco high school spread out on a small campus located just outside his apartment, his family was home. He, his wife, and two children ran to the safe room. "We heard one explosion and then 20 seconds later, a second one. It felt as if it had hit the apartment," he said. When they came out of the room, the air in their small first-floor apartment had been filled with smoke and a burning smell, he said. Upstairs, Michael and Alexandra Friedman, Hagaj's neighbors in this immigrant area of Ashkelon, where Amharic and Russian is heard as frequently as Hebrew, were calibrating the miracles that occurred. A shift in the wind could have sent the rocket into their apartment building, where they slept that morning along with their three-year old son Daniel. They had just awoken when they heard the siren and quickly moved their son out of bed and into the hallway. Although they have a safe room, the couple, who immigrated from the former Soviet Union, said they didn't trust the shelter because it had an exterior wall. So instead, as they often do in these moments, they cowered in the hallway. What shocked them was not that a rocket had been fired, but where it had fallen. "It still surprised me that it feel so close," said Alexandra. In spite of the close call, she said that he had no intention of leaving the city - and is even planning to repaint her apartment for Pessah. Downstairs, Hagaj also seemed surprised at the question of leaving. "Why would I leave?" he asked, "Is Tel Aviv safer?"