Negev turns to Peres for help against Kassams

We're not asking for sympathy, but we need tangible assistance for our problems," Nir Oz resident tells president.

Peres 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Peres 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Residents of the rocket-weary western Negev region greeted President Shimon Peres with cautious hope and a list of their concerns Monday as he toured front-line communities and spoke with regional council leaders about the ongoing security situation in the South. "The first thing we need is protection," said a Nir Oz kibbutz member as Peres met with residents in an underground bomb shelter. "The State of Israel must protect its citizens. We're not asking for sympathy, but we need tangible assistance for our problems." Nir Oz, which was the site of a deadly mortar attack less than two weeks ago, also reaps a large portion of its living from agricultural fields that are now under constant threat of sniper fire from the nearby Gaza Strip. But Nir Oz is not alone. Leaders and community heads from all over the Eshkol Regional Council turned out for the presidential visit. And while a somber tone painted most of the president's tour, some residents turned to Peres as a glimmer of hope, seeing him as someone who could make things happen in Jerusalem for this battered agricultural bloc in the South. One woman greeted Peres at the Eshkol Regional Council headquarters saying, "Only you can save us now." Other residents were less optimistic. "How am I supposed to explain to my grandchildren that it's worthwhile to live here?" one resident asked. Still, the president told council leaders that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had agreed to authorize the fortification process of homes and schools in the area, albeit independently, and that after the construction was done, the regional council would be reimbursed for its expenditures. In addition, Peres promised to take the resounding message of Gaza-vicinity residents and their calls for increased protection with him back to Jerusalem. "I'm going to have a talk with the prime minister, and I'm sure the government will respond," Peres said to reporters. "The fact that a civilian settlement is under fire, day in and day out - you can clearly see the problem. But you can also see the strength of the kibbutz residents," Peres continued. "They are true pioneers." Peres also visited a school, where the kids sang a song they had prepared and spoke with the president about their fears and visions for peace. "I'm very scared of Kassams," one young girl said to Peres. "We stay in the school a lot, because it's protected [from rockets]." Peres also received a warm welcome as he joined Nir Oz residents for lunch in their communal dining hall, walking into an applauding crowd of kibbutz members who seemed touched by the presidential visit to their out-of-the-way kibbutz. Cameras flashed as Peres was treated to the first piece of chicken in the cafeteria line. The president also used his visit to discuss the ongoing efforts by Egypt to broker a cease-fire between Israel and Palestinian terrorists in Gaza. "No deal has been reached yet," Peres said. "But I do not believe [kidnapped soldier Cpl. Gilad] Schalit will be part of such an agreement." Peres also touched on the latest round of peace talks between Israel and Syria, repeating his invitation for Syrian President Bashar Assad to come to Israel for direct high-level talks. "The invitation is open to all leaders," Peres said. "I don't see any reason why the Syrians should be shy. If Sadat had never come to Jerusalem, we wouldn't have peace with Egypt." Returning to the issue of the Gaza-vicinity communities, the president agreed with residents that more needed to be done to assist them. "I hear your words, and they are real and truthful," Peres said. "And I think about the situation you are living in, and your children. We are going to work immediately to see what is possible to have done. I don't know if there is any other place like this in the world."