For Israeli Kids Just Over 7 Km Away From Gaza, School Is a Scary Place

'Back to school' has a frightening connotation for some children living within Hamas rocket range.

Ilan Assayag

Unfortunately for its students and teachers, the Yuvlei Habesor elementary school is located 7,280 meters from the Gaza Strip. Had it been 280 meters closer, the school would be reinforced against rockets, like every school within seven kilometers of Gaza. But it’s still close enough to Gaza that the Iron Dome antimissile system doesn’t work, and if a rocket alert sounds, its 600 students have only 15 seconds to run to shelter.

“It’s stupidity,” said Liat Sela Cohen, a member of the parents’ committee and mother of two children who study at the school.

Yuvlei Habesor’s students come the moshavim of the Eshkol Regional Council. At both the regional high school and the other elementary school, which serves the local kibbutzim, students learn in rocket-proof classrooms, since those schools are located within seven kilometers of Gaza. But not at Yuvlei Habesor.

Sela Cohen, a resident of Moshav Yesha who works as a manager at the Strauss food company, has been fighting to get her children’s school rocket-proofed as well. It’s important to her not to be painted as a victim. Nevertheless, the situation is problematic: There’s a reinforced safe room for each class in one corner of the school, but all 30 students usually can’t make it there in 15 seconds – especially if they are near the entrance or outside in the yard.

“We don’t know when the cease-fire will be broken for the first time,” she said. “But one strike is enough for something to happen, heaven forbid.”

Not long after the latest war began this summer, a mortar shell exploded near a school bus carrying children to Yuvlei Habesor.  “If there’s a return to what the media calls ‘drizzles’ [of rockets and mortars], classes will in any case be canceled,” Sela Cohen said.

Last Tuesday, shortly after a mortar killed Ze’ev Etzion and Shahar Melamed of nearby Kibbutz Nirim, the school’s parents met to discuss what they should do. They were determined not to let classes begin. “The initial decision was clear: We said the parents wouldn’t open the school,” said Sela Cohen.

But in time, as the cease-fire that began last Tuesday evening seemed to be holding, they changed their minds. “We decided to go back to school in order to give the regional council a tailwind to offer solutions and a clear timetable for reinforcing the building," she said.

Yuvlei Habesor is located in an old building; Sela Cohen said that she, too, studied there as a child. It is supposed to be replaced in a few years by a new, rocket-proof school, so reinforcing the old building, which is slated for demolition, never seemed urgent.

“But on the other hand, 600 children study at this school and it will take years until the new one is built,” she said. “The decision not to reinforce it stems from obtuseness. We’re afraid that we’ll start the year, they’ll see we’re going with the flow and they won’t reinforce it.”

In Ashdod, a tour of the local schools offers testimony to the fact that one of the qualities the human race has been blessed with is forgetfulness. During the war, one could see fear in the children’s eyes. But a few days after it ended, the joyful children running to school in rocket-battered Ashdod looked just like children in quiet Tiberias or Ramat Hasharon.  

Outside one high school, Makif 8, which was damaged by a rocket, I met 16-year-old Li-Chen. “It’s a disgrace that we’re going back to school without having had a vacation,” she said. “The Arabs ruined our summer. They ought to extend the vacation for another week so we can rest up from everything that happened.”

Maor, another student, agreed. “It’s depressing to go back to school,” he said. “We only had 10 days of vacation.”

But Meital, one of the teachers, who has children in preschool, took the opposite view. “It’s a wonderful feeling to go back,” she said. “We were imprisoned; the children went crazy. I’ve never been so happy to go back to school.”

With great pride, the children point at the place where a rocket exploded, and we wait for the principal. The security guard calls him to let us in, but he is held up in a meeting. The photographer and I grow weary and go on to Rabin elementary school.

Something rather strange is happening at the entrance. Some 30 children are trying to get in and the security guard and a teacher are blocking them. It turns out that these are kids who already graduated from the school, and want to come in on the first day of the year to see how the teachers are doing. Aya Ben Tzvi, the teacher who is trying to block the flow of guests at the entrance, explains that this has happened before. Every year, former students visit the school on the first days of the academic year, “because this is a home.” This is not a slogan, she says, “but literally. They want to visit and see that they’ve grown up.”

In the lobby, next to a wall that has articles about the war hung on it, I meet the principal Efrat Tuvol. Tuvol uses every available space to pass the kids information. Every stair has a piece of the multiplication table stuck on it. Every bit of wall and door are dedicated to passing on bits of information, for example the vision of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995. This vision, according to the school which bears his name, comprises: “Caring, creativity and unity.” Tuvol, who is full of initiative, tells me that every class has a different way of looking at excellence, a word that is repeated over and over again in the school. First Grade is “responsibility,” Second Grade is “choice” and Third Grade is Espirit de Corps. Each of these is written in English on the door of the classroom, in the hope that this will help a second language stick to the students.

The next two weeks will be dedicated to processing the operation, at the expense of the regular curriculum. “We prepared to absorb children with high levels of anxiety,” says Tuvol. Children “who find it hard to go into the classroom and that every small sound startles them. We assumed that about 15 percent will need help, but only a small percentage of the children need intervention. The students were just happy to come back [to school] and see their friends.”

I go into one Second Grade classroom where I find teacher Orly Zanzury teaching a lesson with the title “Relaxation.” The children are writing on heart-shaped bits of paper with marker pens. The paper hearts will become presents for soldiers. On the hearts, they copy sentences written on the board, “thank you for fighting,” “thank you for sacrificing,” and so on.

The teacher asks the children what they have to say to the soldiers. “They are fighting so we can return to a normal routine, so that we can be here,” declares Ilan Radak, who is seven years old. “I want to tell the soldiers 'thank you for fighting and protection and for giving us the warmth and love to fight the bad guys, thank you for protecting our world,'” says Noa Badesh.

“In what way do the soldiers have a culture of excellence?” the principal asks.

The children put their hands up, and Ofek Kochavi is chosen to speak. “That they rescue us and don’t give up,” he says. “Dedication to the goal,” adds another.

“What is the aim of Israel Defense Forces soldiers?” the principal continues, while behind her another teacher cuts into a chocolate cake. Over the next two weeks they will dedicate three hours a day to “relaxation lessons” that will include “quiet movement studies” and “emotion ventilation.” After that, the principal and I go to the bomb shelter in the building, which is called the “power room.” The room is locked. We wait quite a long time for someone to arrive with the key. Even the “power room” looks nice, decorated with poems.

A few years ago, I came to teach a class at a school in a tough neighborhood of Ashdod, where there was violence at every turn. But now I am at the representative school, the successful and presentable one that the Education Ministry chose to send the media to.

In order not to set off any anxiety in the kids, they have decided that for the first two weeks of school they won’t ring the bell between classes. “Please leave the classrooms in an orderly fashion, without running,” the principal says over the loudspeaker. And the kids, like in any school, burst out at a run, dragging their heavy bags after them. Next to the entrance, the children hug their parents, and one kid who is in love tells his mother about a new girl in his class.

The Education Ministry said in response that “protection of education institutions is the responsibility of the Defense Ministry.”

The IDF spokesman’s unit said: “The Home Front Command is a professional in the field of protection of civilians, and is responsible for determining and distributing guidelines and protection regulations. According to a Supreme Court decision, educational institutions that are 0-7 kilometers from the Gaza Strip are required to be fully protected. In contrast to them, as per a government decision, and in accordance with government funding, educational institutions between 7 and 15 kilometers from the Strip are required to to be protected as the regulations require.”

Ilan Assayag
Ilan Assayag
Ilan Assayag