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The cabinet decided Sunday to extend the special status of those Israeli communities adjacent to the Gaza Strip until the end of March. At the same time, the cabinet also activated the National Emergency Authority. Both of these decisions are designed to afford the Israel Defense Forces extra authority in its dealings with the civilian population. The decision allows the IDF to issue orders for residents to remain in bomb shelters or not to go to school or work; to allow greater coordination between the army and local authorities; and to provide the civilian population with basic supplies if such a situation arises.

Meanwhile, the eight-day Hanukkah vacation is due to end Tuesday, but school children who live within a 20-kilometer radius of the Gaza Strip will not attend school as planned. The Education Ministry and the Home Front Command issued an order yesterday announcing that all educational institutes - from kindergartens to high schools and including special needs schools - will remain closed for the duration. At the same time, some 300 female students who are performing national service as teachers will help students with their studies inside bomb shelters and protected spaces. The Education Ministry also instructed teachers in this area to start locating students in distress in order to provide them with extra lessons. Among the communities in which there will be no studies are Ashkelon, Netivot and Sderot, as well as several local authorities in the area adjacent to the Gaza Strip.

The decision to extend the Hanukkah vacation was taken Sunday, after Defense Minister Ehud Barak and senior defense officials consulted with Education Minister Yuli Tamir. The Education Ministry was also told to draw up contingency plans in case the area in which studies are suspended is expanded to include additional locations.

According to the Education Ministry, instead of regular studies many students will hold lessons via computer link-up using school-run Internet sites. Homework and coursework will be uploaded to these sites for each class and students will be required to complete assignments which they will then return to their teachers via e-mail.

The Education Minister has also instructed all homeroom teachers in the affected areas to make contact with their students and their parents in order to offer support and to locate students who may be suffering from emotional stress. In such cases, the students will be referred to school counselors or psychologists.

The Employment Service, meanwhile, announced Sunday that its bureaus in Sderot, Netivot and Ashkelon will be closed to the public today. Job seekers who are supposed to report to the bureaus today will not be obligated to do so and their unemployment benefits will be paid as if they had reported. The Pensioners Affairs Ministry and the National Insurance Institute have both opened hotlines for local residents seeking help or guidance.

The Education Ministry has also opened a hotline for the public at 1-800-25-00-25 or 1-800-25-00-24.