Behind concrete blast walls, Israelis talk about fear

Friday 03/07/2015
Far cry from the misery facing people of Gaza

YAD MORDECHAI (Israel) - Children scramble down a narrow corridor between giant concrete walls as if it were a real-life maze -- but the stark addition to their Israeli nursery has nothing to do with playtime.

"The children, they reflect their parents," said Hagar Weiner, the 62-year-old head of the nursery and kindergarten where concrete blast walls are designed to protect the children from rocket and mortar fire.

"If their parents are terrified, they are terrified. If they are relaxed, they are relaxed."

Shelters and blast walls have become a part of life for Israelis living near the Gaza Strip, and the war that broke out a year ago this week between Israel and Hamas, which rules the coastal enclave, has only increased such concerns.

Even so, it is a far cry from the misery facing Gazans, with Israel's military offensive having destroyed thousands of homes in the 50-day conflict that are yet to be rebuilt.

The war left 2,251 Palestinians dead, including 551 children, compared with 73 on the Israeli side. An Israeli blockade and tightly controlled borders have added to Gazans' suffering.

But the risk of mortars and rockets in this corner of Israel is nonetheless a very real one. Several thousand were fired into Israeli territory during last summer's war, leading to repeated sirens and terrified runs to shelters, sometimes with only seconds to spare.

Tunnels dug by Palestinian militants with the aim of carrying out attacks also greatly added to local residents' fears.

Shelters at bus stations or farms adorned with cartoon characters and peace slogans, along with blast walls painted blue and white at schools like Weiner's, are constant reminders of the grim circumstances.

There have been three wars in six years in Gaza, and fears of yet another conflict cannot be put to rest despite indirect talks between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing government and Islamist movement Hamas.

"We know that the next one will begin where the last one finished," said Jehan Berman, a 34-year-old wounded by mortar fire while celebrating his three-year-old son's birthday at a kibbutz near the Gaza border during last year's war.

"We have more or less the same players."

The range of the rockets can vary greatly, from the basic Qassams to more sophisticated M-302s made in Syria, which can travel about 160 kilometres (100 miles). Mortar shells are short-range and can send shrapnel in various directions.

A radar system is in place to alert residents and the country's "Iron Dome" missile defence system has had success in intercepting rockets, but the threat is far from being eliminated.

Israel has long had requirements that residents must have shelters for their homes, but new programmes have been put in place in recent years.

The government has a policy of supplying shelters and blast walls where needed for areas less than seven kilometres (about 4.4 miles) from Gaza, and in some cases equips sites within 15 kilometres, a military engineering official said.

In cities like Sderot, only a few kilometres from Gaza and repeatedly hit by rocket fire, concrete box shelters stand next to bus stops. Behind the police station, dozens of rusting, spent rockets about a metre in length sit on racks.

Farms in the region have installed small, concrete shelters for workers to run to when the alarms sound, many of them painted with cows and pasture. Next to a football field near the border, two players are painted on the side of a shelter along with the word "gooooaaal!"

At the Alumim kibbutz, there are concrete shelters next to the basketball court and on the grounds of the dairy farm. Incessant alarms led residents to frequently take cover, but the only direct hit at Alumim in last year's war was an Israeli missile that fell there by mistake, landing near the synagogue.

"No one was there. It was a little miracle," Avi Fraiman, the 59-year-old manager of the dairy farm, said in his office, where a poster of "Cattle of the World" hung with pictures of cows.

At Yad Mordechai kibbutz, where the school Weiner runs is located, Anja Yitzhak said many people relocated during the war last year, but she stayed due to her work on the farm.

She spent weeks sleeping in the shelter at her home with her husband and her dog, who also has a bed in the hideaway.

"I can't say I am getting used to it, because I'm never getting used to it," she said as she stood next to a cattle pen. "But this is how it is here."