Friday, January 2, 2009

Latest report from Ira Kerem

The Current Situation in Kiryat Malachi-Hof Ashkelon - January 2, 2009

Hof Ashkelon

Living next to Gaza has not been easy over the last 8 years but the residents of Hof Ashkelon are now going through one of the most tension filled times they can remember. Missiles and mortars have fallen on the kibbutzim and moshavim for many years with most falling on the four kibbutzim and the one moshav closest to Gaza. However, today with Hamas trying to prove that they can hit targets up to 40 kilometers away, the furthest communities in Hof Ashkelon are also being targeted. It should be made clear that as of today, the missiles are mostly landing in open fields.. So far no one in Hof Ashkelon has been physically injured or killed by the missiles; no damage to buildings has been caused by the missiles during the last week..

However, the psychological damage has been great. The sense of fear and apprehension is ever present. Air raid alarms are sounded many times a day in all the communities. The instructions for the residents require them to remain close to protected rooms and shelters and you can imagine everyone, fearing the worst, rushing to shelters several times a day. Young children especially are going through a hard time with the results being a growing number of children crying constantly, wetting their beds, refusing to be separated from parents, and remaining nervous throughout the day and night. The fear is even greater on the communities further away from Gaza whose residents are unaccustomed to being targets of the missiles.

The therapists in the Treatment Center for Children, Teens, and Families (supported in the past by the partnership and today by the Tucson Federation) have been working over time in providing help and support to individuals and families who don't know how to cope with the situation. Other volunteers have gone out to the moshavim and kibbutzim and have met with numerous families and helped them deal with their anxieties.

In many ways, the 5 closest communities to Gaza are much better prepared than the other 15 in Hof Ashkelon. The army command ordered that all preschools without protective roofs be closed. The 5 closest to Gaza are in good shape since their preschool buildings have had protective roofs installed. Most of the roofs were paid for by the government but in Netiv Ha’asara, the moshav closest to Gaza, the special roofs are in place as a result of an allocation by the Phoenix Jewish Federation. Children in Netiv Ha’asara have been in a safe and organized framework this past week while children in other communities have been cared for by parents and whatever can be improvised.

The bomb shelters and reinforced rooms have for the most part been better equipped than the other communities. A good number of the shelters have been equipped with television sets, children’s games, and suitable furnishings – many as a result of contributions from the Tucson and Seattle Federations. These shelters are also being used as program centers for children and youth. In the other 15 communities, this kind of equipment is lacking. In fact, in the community of Nitzan where 900 of the former residents have been living in caravilla temporary housing since August 2005, there were no shelters and protected areas at all. The government has rushed in with protection for preschools and for the population at large. The Hof Ashkelon Regional Council is urgently seeking support to create more protected spaces in the other communities. There is also a need for TVs, children's games, and equipment for the shelters that are now being used for children and youth activity centers since schools have been cancelled. The council is also looking for contributions to fund these activities for youth and children.

While activities and programs are being planned and held for youth and children, the major thrust in Hof Ashkelon is to try and get vulnerable populations out of the region. Institutions all over Israel are opening up their homes and centers to those who have been targeted by missiles. One hundred and fifty residents of Netiv Ha'asara are now in Eilat as guests for 3 days of the hotel owners there. One hundred teens spent Thursday (January1) as guests of the community center of Ramat Hasharon. People from Kibbutz Yad Mordechai will be guests of Kibbutz Mishmar Ha'emek. Every day next week, another group will be hosted by organizations and people in Israel who want to relieve the tension that the residents of Hof Ashkelon are facing. The regional council could use help in funding the buses needed to transport these people.

Every morning at 8:00 and every evening at 6:30, the representatives of the army, police, home front command, government ministries, and the regional council departments –welfare, education, transportation, infrastructure, security, youth, etc. meet to coordinate policies and activities. Many subjects are covered. Today they discussed what to do about matriculation exams now that schools have been cancelled. Where can the regional council organize intensive study sessions for the high school students that will be safe and meet the standards of the home front command? Can this be done in central locations or must they be held in the 20 communities of Hof Ashkelon? Who will teach them? How will transportation be arranged? The council organizes for different populations to leave the region. Who should go next? Who will be in charge? What will the program be? Who will organize the buses? Who will pay for the buses? How will it be organized so that the days away go to those most in need and seem fair to everyone? The meetings take place in the underground emergency center which was refurbished by the Portland Jewish Federation. The emergency communication center, contributed by Phoenix and Tucson Federations, have been n continuous use facilitating contact with the 20 moshavim and kibbutzim and with the army, police, and the regional council agencies servicing the communities.

One of the most valuable organized groups are the local emergency volunteer teams providing emergency medical and psychological assistance, organized according to skills and professions (nurses, social workers, educators, etc.). These teams have been meeting non-stop with families in the kibbutzim and moshavim, offering advice and counseling to those who are finding it most difficult to cope with the tension stemming from the situation today. The Seattle Federation has contributed to those teams in the five settlements closest to Gaza but now two way radios, basic first aid kits and more sophisticated medic's medical kits need to be provided to the other communities.

The regional council possesses a jeep purchased by the San Jose Federation used by their security department to check on the border areas and all 20 communities. It needs to be replaced and while the Israeli government is willing to pay for part of the cost, outside funding is needed.

(I repeat Hof Ashkelon's funding requests: equipment and furnishings for bomb shelters; programs and activities for children and youth; communication equipment and medical kits for the emergency volunteer teams; a new security vehicle; and funding for buses willing to transport various HA populations to take advantage of outside Israeli organizations willing to host them. Anything that the federations can do to cover even partially some of these items would be extremely welcome.)

Kiryat Malachi

Four missiles fell this week in open fields near the town of Kiryat Malachi and that was all that was needed to bring a sense of apprehension and fear to the population of 22,000. Theoretically, it was known that Kiryat Malachi was in range of the Grad missiles but none had ever been fired at KM. Once the residents heard the nearby explosions, they realized that they too were targets of the missiles and the feeling of insecurity became widespread.

A emergency command center has been set up in a bomb shelter that was once used as the center of the youth council and located near the partnership's volunteer apartment. Representatives of the police, army, home front command, central government, and all the municipal departments sit there all day monitoring developments and creating systems and programs to deal with any possible emergency. Three times a day meetings are held to coordinate actions. Right now the emphasis is to give vulnerable populations time out of range of the missiles. Institutions and communities throughout Israel have enlisted to help towns like Kiryat Malachi.

Almost every day, children and youth are being taken to places like Haifa and Ramat Hasharon as guests of community centers and special institutions to enjoy amusement parks, social programs with local youth, and other activities to get everyone's minds off the missiles. The municipality is scrambling to find funds to pay for the bus trips (just yesterday 5 buses carried youth away for the day). Next week, 22 blind residents of KM will spend a week as guests of an agency in Hertziliya.

The Welfare Department is also trying to help deaf residents who can not hear the warning sirens by providing them with instruments that light up when the sirens go off. Staff members and volunteers have gone out and visited the homes of all of the senior citizens of the town, explaining to them what to do when the siren is on and to help them deal with their fears. For some seniors who have panicked and can no longer sleep or who no longer take their medications, the department has called family members living in other parts of the country to take in these seniors. Staff and volunteers have met with many individuals with disabilities and have tried to improve their ability to function under the tension caused by the missiles. They have also organized outings for them to places in Israel out of range of the missiles. Many of the social workers are dealing with serious problems connected with the security situation. A family had to cancel the Bar Mitzveh of their son. He was so agitated and disappointed that he threatened suicide. Others are trying to respond to the fears of children not wanting to be separated from their parents and not willing to go outside of their homes.

The Ethiopian Absorption Service of the town translated the government's instructions into Amharic and it 4 staff members and additional volunteers have visited every Ethiopian family in KM and explained in Amharic to the Ethiopian population the situation and how to cope with the emergency situation and how to deal with their anxieties.

Some of the town's after school programs, especially those that were supported by the Mother to Another program, are located in bomb shelters and starting next week programs and activities will be held in them during the day for this population since schools and preschools have all been cancelled. The partnership supported Youth Council and Art City production team will all be volunteering their talents in helping run the activities.

Anxiety is ever present amongst the town's residents and a list of needs to help alleviate the tension has been drawn up: rental of buses to take vulnerable populations to towns in the north and center of the country; programs and activities for children and youth to keep them busy, occupied, and safe while school is no longer in session; a replacement for the security vehicle originally provided by the Phoenix Jewish Federation that patrols schools and other public institutions; 10 walkie talkie systems; 8 intercom systems; 2 LCD TVs for bomb shelters; and most importantly according to the municipality for today are 8 computers and 2 laptops for the emergency command center.

Any help that the communities can provide in any of these areas would be of tremendous use and would be gratefully acknowledged in these tense times.

I would add one more need and that is to show the residents here that people in the partnership communities are thinking about them. A decision was made this week to place the six Otzma volunteers in Arad instead of Kiryat Malachi. A group of social work students in a master's program in Jewish communal work in Yeshiva University were scheduled to spend a day in KM examining how the city, the schools, the voluntary agencies, and the Ethiopian leadership handle new olim. The program was excellent if I must say so myself and of course has been cancelled. I hope that the upcoming partnership meeting will not be cancelled. There is a risk to life but the risk is small while the fear is great. Having a group of American leadership who are willing to come and stay with their partners in Kiryat Malachi would send a powerful message to the Israelis.

Those who want to contact children and youth in Hof Ashkelon can contact Hila Hamami. In Kiryat Malachi, Hila Kordova and Liat.

Ira Kerem

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