January 22, 2009 / 26 Tevet 5769
45,162 children from southern Israel were taken for much needed respite days in the center of the country during Operation Cast Lead. According to Yehuda Scharf, director of the Jewish Agency’s Israel Region, setting out for these events took place, in most cases, literally under fire.
“Our goal,” Scharf recalled, “was to rescue the children in the most effective manner possible from the civilian centers of southern Israel. This included the Eshkol region, Shaar Hanegev, and towns at a distance of up to 10 km from the Gaza border, which were hit by a ‘cocktail’ of Kassam rockets and mortar shells. I received a call from Jeff Kaye, director of the Department of Resource Development and Public Affairs, asking if I could do the unthinkable: take the children for respite days within two days’ notice. I told him that I could do even better, and get the children out on day’s notice. ‘If you call me on Wednesday,’ I told him, ‘I could get them out already on Thursday morning.’ And this is indeed what happened. He called, and the buses were ready the next morning.
“Those were very difficult days. We had to convince the bus drivers to enter the Southern towns, some of which were attacked incessantly, and wait at specified locations so that the children could jump onto the buses and leave the area as soon as possible once the word was given. The bus drivers and the children deserve all the credit in the world. You have to understand – we brought buses into the line of fire. The children waited patiently in the sheltered rooms, and as soon as the notice came they all leaped onto the buses. This was no simple matter. It was very complicated, but we, in the Israel Region, have already grown accustomed to rescuing children under fire.”
The children were treated to special shows, a workshop on releasing tension during stressful situations, and a hike.
Scharf made a point of saluting those who helped southern residents during these trying times: “Great work was being done by the representatives of the Fund for Victims of Terror, which went from family to family in the south to bring them aid. I must note the courage of the Israel Region staff in the south – Tzippy, Monica, and, mainly, Ofer and Ohad, who literally live in the line of fire. They acted with unmatched courage and resolve in working and running around helping people in an area under fire. There were days and moments when our hair turned white thinking about how they were running from one place to the next. I remember the site from the border fence near Ofer’s house. As we watched the bombing, we would see the pillars of smoke indicating that we would very soon get a ‘shower’ – but not of rain… I remember the site of the jubilant children as they left the line of fire, and the look of anxiety on their faces when they returned home. They will not be forgotten.”