Jerusalem — On Tuesday afternoon, as Hamas rockets were pounding the communities along the Israel-Gaza border, killing two Israelis and injuring several others, Ahrale Rothstein, the principal of Beit Cinuch Meshutf Sha’ar HaNegev junior/senior high school, predicted 30 percent of the school’s 1,200 students would come to class next Monday, the first day of school.
By the next morning, following the surprise announcement Tuesday night of an open-ended cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, Rothstein revised that number to 70 percent.
Assuming the cease-fire holds — and that’s a big if, given that three have already failed — Rothstein told The Jewish Week, attendance could reach 85 percent.
The school is less than two miles from the Gaza border and is one big bomb shelter.
Whether or not to open school in the south has become a political hot potato, and was likely a factor in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to agree to the cease-fire, some pundits say. Netanyahu’s popularity numbers plummeted this week as Hamas intensified its attacks and the war of attrition continued to rage, and the possibility that hundreds of thousands of southern parents would have to take even more time off from work to care for their homebound children had to be a consideration, they believe.
In a Channel 2 poll taken just before the cease-fire, 63 percent of respondents nationwide said southern schools should remain closed if there was no cease-fire (15 percent said all schools should be closed as a sign of solidarity), and 68 percent said the government’s treatment of the border communities has been bad; 24 percent called it good.
Politics aside, many parents believe their war-weary children are better off in school than at home, where they may or may not have ready access to a nearby bomb shelter.
The Ministry of Education is working with southern municipalities and regional councils to ensure the school year will open as scheduled, but ultimately, the decision of whether or not to open “is up to the municipalities,” according to Suzi Ben-Harush, southern district spokesperson for the ministry.
The ministry is well aware of parents’ fears, Ben-Harush said, and the fact that most but not all schools in the south are rocket-proof.
Rothstein said there is “a lot, a lot of distrust” among southerners, first that the cease-fire will hold, but also that the government has their best interests at heart.
“People are very sad and a lot of pain is surfacing. When it’s not wartime, we are not a high priority for the State of Israel,” the principal said.
The government is trying to prove its commitment by heeding local officials’ demands for improved safety measures, but that’s proving difficult.
The reinforced buses the government promised to provide to the border communities “are reinforced only against bullets, not missiles, and this is unacceptable,” Sdot Negev Regional Council Chairman Tamir Idan told Haaretz.
Michal Shaban, spokesperson for the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council, an area with several communities right on the border and others close by, noted that the region’s schools “are completely reinforced” against bombardments, “but that doesn’t mean the commute is safe.”
That’s what worries Laurie Ornstein, a counselor for teachers of English as a Foreign Language (EFL) in Bedouin schools in the south.
Bedouin communities have almost no bomb shelters, partly because municipalities have not heeded building safely guidelines, and partly because building shelters requires money these municipalities lack.
“The Bedouin pupils from the villages either walk to school, some long distances, and there is absolutely no place to take cover in these open areas, which are often in villages,” Ornstein said.” The rest, walk to bus stops and then travel by bus to school, again through open areas. Far too risky and dangerous.”
The newer schools have shelters, she noted, “but it’s not reasonable to think all the kids could make it into them in time and there are not enough. Most of the older schools, still in temporary caravans have no shelters.”
In contrast, Sarah Kashin Klein, the mother of four children from Beersheva, which is 26 miles from the Gaza border, believes it’s best for the city’s children to be in school.
“The Iron Dome system of missile interception has been very reliable … and the schools have safe rooms, although it is known that they are not adequate for the entire student body. We will have to keep recess time indoors, and become more creative with how to let the students release tension without going outside.”
It remains to be seen whether the border communities, whose children have been evacuated to safety to the center and north of the country, will be back home and in school on Monday.
“In the meantime we’re not returning to the kibbutz,” Dov Hartuv, community spokesman for Kibbutz Nahal Oz, told The Jewish Week.
Last Friday Daniel Tragerman, a 4-year-old boy, was killed by a mortar that slammed into his house on the kibbutz, which has been hit by numerous rockets and mortars since the war began. The mortar hit just seconds after the Red Alert, signaling an incoming projectile, sounded.
The boy’s parents had returned from an extended stay up north after the government said it was safe to return home during the last cease-fire. They were about to go back up north, their suitcases packed, when the mortar struck.
“We have experience with other cease-fires that didn’t hold,” Hartuv said. “We’re waiting to see what happens.”
Meanwhile, Tragerman’s grieving parents said that when the kibbutz members decide to return home, they won’t be among them.