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school children israel class 248.88.(Photo by: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Schools close in South as residents fear more rockets
By RUTH EGLASH
03/24/2011
Despite Home Front Command opinion that closures aren't necessary, mayors in Ashdod, Ashkelon, Beersheba and Kiryat Gat shut schools.
Schools in southern Israel’s three major cities – Ashdod, Ashkelon and Beersheba – stayed closed Thursday as a barrage of rockets fired by militants from the nearby Gaza Strip continued to hit targets in the area, including in some residential neighborhoods.

Despite recommendations from the Home Front Command and security services that it was not necessary to close educational institutions, schools in Ashdod and Beersheba didn’t open and some parents in Ashkelon refused to allow their children to attend as anger rises over the lack of adequate protection for thousands of pupils.

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In Ashdod, where a rocket hit a northern suburb on Thursday afternoon, following a Grad rocket hit in a southern neighborhood Tuesday night, Mayor Yehiel Lasri decided to close schools through Sunday, saying he could not take responsibility for “endangering the security of any child in the city.”

“[The mayor] wanted to take some time to learn how to cope with the prospect of another rocket attack,” explained Ashdod spokesman Adi Ben-Hamo. “He decided it was not a good idea to allow students to attend schools and on Saturday night will hold meetings in order to decide what to do next.”

With a population of roughly 235,000, Ashdod is Israel’s fifth-largest city and has more than 55,000 students in a wide variety of educational frameworks. Ben-Hamo said the main concern was for haredi schools that often have classes in caravans with no safe areas and for schools or kindergartens built more than 15 years ago that do not have bomb shelters.

“The mayor does not want to take a chance and is happy that the local parents’ organization has supported his decision,” said Ben-Hamo.

Clement Berredi, head of the Ashdod Parents Committee, welcomed the mayor’s decision to close schools on Thursday and Friday and said that parents associations in the southern region also planned to meet Saturday night to discuss their own course of action.

“We should not be taking any chances that a child might be hurt,” he commented.

In Beersheba, which was hit by two Grad rockets early Wednesday morning – one in a residential area – the story was similar, with Mayor Ruvik Danilovich closing schools for roughly 40,000 pupils on Wednesday and Thursday.

While it was still not clear if the schools will re-open Friday, Beersheba municipal spokesman Amnon Yosef said the city has almost no protective structures in its educational institutions but that it has developed an effective distance learning program first initiated during Operation Cast Lead in 2008/09.

“When the schools are closed, it is not meant to be a day off for the students,” he said. “We have learned how to run a distance learning program with educational materials being transferred via computer to the pupils at home.”

Yosef did note, however, the difficulties faced by working parents now forced to stay home with their children due to the school closure.

“It is not a simple decision and we hope this situation will not continue,” he said.

While Avner Bitton, head of the Parent-Teacher Association in Beersheba, said that the decision to close the schools was essential so as not to risk children’s lives, other residents were not impressed.

Veteran US immigrant Miriam Green, who has lived in Beersheba for more than 20 years and has three children, said that while she understands “the fear parents have when a siren goes off… this situation is very difficult for parents, especially immigrants that do not have extended family nearby to help out.

“It also sends a message to the children that their routine has been halted for a certain reason and I don’t know if that is the message I want to send to my children,” she said.

In Ashkelon, the largest Israeli city closest to Gaza, Mayor Benny Vaknin did not officially close the schools, even though the local parent’s association called on parents not to send their children to school Thursday.

The city’s spokesman, Yossi Azoulay, estimated that 70 percent of the city’s school children had shown up for classes. He said the decision to keep school open was to prevent young people from wandering around unsupervised in public areas, which could be even more dangerous to their safety if a rocket was to fall.

“The mayor felt it was not smart to allow the children to wander around outside of school because that is also not safe,” he said. “Those firing the rockets do not do so with much precision, the rockets land randomly and public areas outside of the school grounds might not be safe either.”

The decision angered Ashkelon Parents Committee chairman Inon Jibli, who said, “the decision not to close the schools puts our children in a dangerous security situation and we do not understand why the mayor would risk their lives.

“Every other mayor decided to close the schools and only in Ashkelon they are open,” he said.

A spokesman for the Home Front Command said it had not recommended the schools be closed because the situation did not warrant it.

“At the moment there is still no state of emergency in that area and we can only recommend to local authorities what they should or should not do,” he said.

“We respect the decision of each mayor to decide what is best for his community,” he said, adding that the decision to build bomb shelters or protective areas in schools ultimately belonged to the government.
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