Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Special Dispatch from Israel

Our wonderful Israel correspondent passed along her first hand experience of the effects of the constant bombardment of Southern Israel and Sderot in particular.

The following is a first hand report from KN, our (beautiful and fantastic) Israeli correspondent:

I was recently invited to participate in a "Fact Finding Mission" in Israel, and I am now writing to you now because of the immense impact the program had on me. I was so affected by this program that I feel the need to share some of my experiences. Please let me know if you have any questions about what I did, and I'm always happy to give more information.

Background: After the conflict with Hezbollah in 2006, communities in the US and Canada raised over $360 million through the UJC (United Jewish Communities.) $215 million of that money was designated to create the "Israel Emergency Campaign," a collective allocations process. The money was used to sponsor 92 programs within Israel during the conflict. The programs are meant to serve two purposes: responding to immediate needs and long-term strengthening of the regions affected. If you want more information on those programs, please let me know, and I'll be happy to provide more information.

The program I took part in was created for the leading American journalists on Jewish Affairs. The program was organized not so they could be lectured by various Israeli officials, but rather so they could speak one on one with officials, recipients of the emergency campaign program, and victims of the conflicts Israel continues to face.
In regards to that conflict, to catch you up: In the summer of 2006 the major conflict Israel faced with Hezbollah was in the north. That area has since become quiet, however what some people are unaware of is that for the past seven plus years, the city of Sderot and the area of the Western Negev have been under the shadow of relentless Kassam rocket attacks. These attacks are often only reported on when they are particularly intense, or result in tragedy. What is not mentioned is that these rockets have become a part of daily life in the region.

Over 4,000 rockets have fallen on Israeli territory since 2004. A similar number of mortar bombs have fallen as well. On a "quiet day," an average of two to four rockets, and six to fourteen mortars are fired on Israel from the Gaza strip.

Recently those rockets and mortars are becoming more sophisticated. Their range is longer, they are more accurate and the damage they cause is greater. Some 200,000 residents live under the threat of these weapons. Grad missiles have recently come into use, and can reach further distances, all the way to the city of Ashkelon. According to reports, these missiles will soon be able to penetrate even further into Israel.

In the next few weeks the reporters on this trip will be publishing their articles. Please keep an eye out for them in the UJC, JDC, Jewish Standard, Baltimore, Atlanta and New Jersey Jewish Times, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the JUF News, Chicago, and several other Jewish Affairs publications.

I met the group at their hotel in Ashkelon, a beautiful, expanding beach city which has only begun to see rocket fire. We heard from the major of the city about its struggle to remain hopeful, and the challenge of remaining prosperous at this time. We next heard from several speakers representing the media and military branches of Israel about the current threats we are facing.

The following days activities began with the drive to the border with Gaza. On route we witnessed a police crew collecting pieces of a Kassam rocket which had landed earlier in the morning. Several rockets fell during our days spent in the region, including one which injured several citizens, and left one dead.

Since the rockets began falling almost eight years ago, an estimated 25% of the citizens of Sderot have left the city. Those that remain are the ones who often don't have the means to leave. The group visited school which received a "trauma center" with the help of the emergency campaign funding. When entering the school we were briefed about the kids we were about to meet. We were told that when the rockets began falling, children's pictures reflected their fears with drawings of blood and bodies. However, in more recent times pictures have changed: they are now mostly colorless and empty. They show fragmented images, "a face here, a leg there...these are signs of extreme depression and apathy," said one of the campaign leaders.

What is striking about citizens receiving emergency aid is that the emergency is not yet over. There is no PTSD, but rather continuing trauma. The therapists brought in to help citizens cope often have to eventually receive therapy themselves. One boy told me that "no one in Sderot is not traumatized".

One interesting result of these programs is that the children of Sderot are now experts on talking about their fears, anxieties and emotions. They are articulate and direct about how they feel, and why they are scared. I noticed that the kids participating in the provided programs were quiet, and extremely well behaved.

The trauma center we visited was built in an elementary school. There were drawings of flowers on the walls, and bean bag chairs to sit on along one wall. In another area there was a foam figure, and beside it boxing gloves, where children were encouraged to take out their anxiety.

The first program we witnessed was tai chi. The kids stood beside one another quietly, and after several breathing exercises were told to "gather all of their fears, anxieties and anger towards the rockets falling on their homes, and in the city and near them every single day, to gather all of that fear and anxiety and really gather it up and focus on it, and release, release, release."

The next group was pet therapy. The children tend to transfer their fears onto the animals they handle, in order to better talk about their fears. Taking care of the animals helps them feel more in control of their own fears. The kids had built a mouse city with poster board and used toilet paper rolls. The rolls were all linked like piping in a circle. When asked why the city was built this way, the kids explained that the tubes were places the mice could go to feel safe, and get protection.

We later met with a group of teenagers from Sderot who were traveling the country in order to talk about the crisis they face. They admitted that they wonder if the government cares about them, since it does not seem to be reacting with much force. They also fear that the rest of the country does not know or care about them. In their volunteer work in other cities, they said that many people have no idea about the crisis they face; people are shocked by their story. "Sderot is only about an hours drive from Tel-Aviv by car. How is it that the rest of the country can be clueless about our situation?" The students do not want to leave their homes, but they are unsure what the future holds for them.--

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