Foreign Ministry opens branch in Sderot

Office to coordinate foreign news coverage, facilitate fact-finding and solidarity missions in the town.

Livni 224.88 (photo credit: GPO)
Livni 224.88
(photo credit: GPO)
It took more than seven years, but the Foreign Ministry on Sunday opened an office in rocket-plagued Sderot, in an effort to coordinate foreign news coverage and facilitate fact-finding and solidarity missions in the town and other communities under fire from the Gaza Strip. "It took us a while to get the fax machine here today and the phone line hooked up, six or so years too late, but better late than never," Hannan Godar, one of two Foreign Ministry officials who will be staffing the office, told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday. The two public diplomacy and media experts, who do not live in Sderot, will work in shifts during "normal times" - when there is no major barrage of the town - and will receive reinforcements during times of greater violence. The office in the Peretz Bonei Hanagev complex is not fortified against Kassam rockets. "I've been advised not to close the office window completely, so that if it shatters the glass won't go flying everywhere," Godar said. The office will be manned by ministry representatives working together with Sderot municipal and Eshkol Regional Council officials. The idea is for the Foreign Ministry officials to accompany foreign guests around Sderot and point out the "unbearable and impossible daily routine of the residents," the Foreign Ministry said. The officials will also help foreign reporters find personal stories of residents living under fire, and get improved access to local authorities. The ministry joins private groups such as the Israel Project and the Sderot Media Center that have brought foreign correspondents and visiting dignitaries to Sderot for years. On Friday, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter and 70 members of the Canada-Israel Committee he was leading to the Givat Nazmit lookout point close to Sderot were attacked by a Gazan sniper. Dichter's bureau chief Mati Gill was moderately wounded. The army says Dichter had not coordinated his visit with security forces. However, a senior aide to the minister denied that there was a lack of coordination with the IDF prior to the minister's visit to Kibbutz Nir Am. "There was full coordination with the military, both on the battalion level and on the division level," the aide said. "There was absolutely no restriction placed on the area by the IDF, and dozens of people, such as the stars of the Eretz Nehederet [A Wonderful Country] TV program, and others, were moving around the kibbutz at the same time." The attack on the delegation was picked up by most of the Canadian press. Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier on Friday blasted the sniper's attack on civilians. At Sunday's cabinet meeting, Dichter railed at the local press, saying that they had only picked up the story because he was shot at and his aide wounded, and that the daily fire on Gaza-periphery communities was no longer considered news by the Israeli press. This Tuesday, a delegation of Turkish parliamentarians is scheduled to visit Sderot accompanied by the Foreign Ministry team. Godar says the lawmakers will be taken to an observation point overlooking the Gaza Strip, despite Friday's attack. "Everyone who is coming to visit Sderot must know that they are entering a war zone," Godar said. Last week, an Irish government delegation was caught in a Kassam barrage and sought refuge in Mayor Eli Moyal's office. Opening an office in Sderot was the brainchild of the ministry's communications and public diplomacy department, which has been working to increase coverage of the town's predicament in the world press. The ministry has sent many Sderot residents abroad to tell their stories. On a recent visit to the UK, Moyal accused the international media of downplaying the story. "If you're a kid in Sderot, you refuse to go outside of your home, and when you have to, you must always calculate 10 seconds from the nearest shelter," Moyal said on BBC's HardTalk, adding, "This is a story never told by the international media." More than 7,000 Gazan rockets have hit Sderot in the past seven years. Twelve residents have been killed by the attacks and hundreds wounded. Many more suffer from psychological difficulties, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Over 3,000 people have left the town. On Sunday, The New York Times ran a front-page story about how Israelis were rallying to support Sderot. "Like the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, Sderot is now a must-see stop for those who support Israel or are being urged to do so. Several groups have set up offices to arrange visits to a damaged home or a trauma center and foreign diplomats have been bused here by the government," the Times story said. Yaakov Lappin contributed to this report.