UN Chief discusses life under fire with Israeli kids


United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited Sha’ar HaNegev High School last week to talk to students about their experiences living in the shadow of rockets from the nearby Gaza Strip.

Mr Ban’s visit came as work nears completion on a new rocket-proof campus, including a science and technology centre provided by World ORT.

“Earlier in the day he visited Gaza where he was greeted with stones and shoes; by us he was greeted with flowers. It was a very friendly meeting,” said School Principal Aharele Rothstein.

The UN chief listened to teenagers including Amir Maoz, a survivor of last year’s Hamas rocket attack on a school bus. The guided anti-tank missile slammed into the bus as it was dropping off Sha’ar HaNegev students at Kibbutz Nahal Oz; the driver was injured and a 16-year-old yeshiva student, Daniel Viflic, who was visiting relatives at the Kibbutz, died later from wounds received in the attack. Amir’s friend and fellow Nahal Oz resident, Nir Shweber, 17, said: “The Secretary General told him he was glad that he was alive and that it was good he was not anxious. I’m sure he understands us more, not just from meeting us but also from visiting Gaza the same day. I’ve always been optimistic about peace; I believed that peace would come before meeting the Secretary General and I still believe it. We had a very pleasant conversation and he told us not to break down but to invest our energies in achieving our goals in life.”

For many people, however, that is easier said than done: more than a quarter of children in Sderot – a nearby town which Sha’ar HaNegev School serves – have been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. Anxiety symptoms among children often include sleeping difficulties, nightmares, sweating, development regressions, wetting beds, and fear of the outside.

Until Operation Cast Lead in 2009, lessons at Sha’ar HaNegev were regularly disrupted by red alerts which gave children and staff less than 15 seconds warning to take cover. The school was hit more than once but miraculously no-one was injured.

It was this situation which necessitated the construction of reinforced buildings to provide the school community with the kind of protection that would allow members to pursue their activities more safely and with fewer interruptions. The new campus will be able to accommodate 1,800 students, 700 more than the current enrollment, when it opens in April. World ORT’s contribution features a chemistry lab, physics lab, four multi-purpose labs, a logistics centre and exhibition space.

Although the Israeli incursion of 2009 alleviated the situation for a while rocket attacks have become more frequent over the past year and now 1 million Israelis from Ashkelon to Be’er Sheva live within range of the more advanced missiles which are stockpiled in Gaza. The night before Mr Ban’s visit seven Qassam rockets fired from Gaza landed in open spaces around Sha’ar HaNegev; no-one was injured.

However, Tom Katz, 14, said the whole school was excited by the Secretary General’s presence and many students were disappointed that they were not able to meet the distinguished visitor.

“It’s an honour to meet the Secretary General,” Tom said. “I’ve always believed that peace will come, his visit didn’t change my view one way or another. But now I have the feeling that they are working on the situation and trying to make peace a reality; we are not alone. He gave us hope.”

Mr Ban listened to the students’ stories and told them about his experience growing up during the Korean War.

“He told them his village was hit a lot by bombs; he didn’t have an easy childhood,” Mr Rothstein said. “But he told the kids to work hard and, who knows, maybe one day one of them will be Secretary General of the UN. It was very touching to see how warm he was with the kids.”