As Rockets Continue, Israel's South Mulls How to Bus Children to School Safely

Not a lot of confidence as opening of school year approaches.

Israelis hide in a large concrete pipe used as a shelter during a Palestinian rocket attack.
Israelis hide in a large concrete pipe used as a shelter during a Palestinian rocket attack. Nitzan, July 10, 2014. AFP

Officials in the south are working on a way to bus children safely to school, which includes the use of bullet-proof buses and putting fewer children on each bus.

With only a week to go before the school year starts, heads of local government have held a number of meetings over the past few days with their education department personnel and the Home Front Command, Defense Ministry and the Education Ministry. However, as long as the rockets and mortars are still flying, it is hard to know whether the school year will actually start on Monday as planned.

“We received a proposal to use reinforced buses for the children, but we realized they are reinforced only against bullets, not missiles, and this is unacceptable,” Sdot Negev Regional Council Chairman Tamir Idan said. The Eshkol Regional Council plans to operate its schools, which are all reinforced structures, and increase the number of buses so there will be fewer children on each bus, shortening response time in case of an alert. However, attendance at school will not be obligatory; parents will decide whether to send their children or not.

Ofer Hammer, transportation safety officer for the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council, said that there was still no clear plan for busing the children and it would depend on directives issued by the Home Front Command. According to Hammer, if the norm is for two buses to take children from a community, instead there will probably be three or four, accompanied by adults who will help in case of an alert.

“Technically the buses can be operated, but if there is no cease-fire I suppose … there will be firing. They know when the buses leave and they might fire on the area,” Hammer noted.

He said there was concern over anti-tank fire, but that is less likely than rockets and mortars, which locals are experiencing daily. “My personal opinion is that they shouldn’t start the school year in the range of 40 kilometers [from the Gazan border],” he said.

In April 2011, 16-year-old Daniel Wiflich was killed when an anti-tank missile fired from Gaza struck a school bus at Sa’ad Junction in Sdot Negev Regional Council. A few minutes before the missile hit, the bus driver had dropped off dozens of children at Kibbutz Nahal Oz, leaving only Wiflich on the bus. He died of head injuries a week later.

The Sdot Negev Regional Council is planning on opening the school year only at reinforced schools within its communities, and only the students living in those communities will attend, to avoid the danger of traveling on the road.

“We are not a city, school buses take an hour and a half to get from a community to a school, and we can’t take that risk,” Sdot Negev council chairman Idan said. “Everything depends on the progress this week and if the massive firing continues. Yesterday, within a half hour, 30 missiles were fired at a community. We have to take responsibility for our children.”

In ordinary times, the children from Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council are picked up from the various communities and taken to the council school bus terminal, where buses depart for the schools, and so at any given time there can be as many as 500 children at the terminal. There are small mobile shelters at the terminal, but there is not enough room for everyone. Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council therefore proposed that buses would take the children directly to their schools, without interim stops.