Hugging a teddy in war-torn Gaza

By John Harvey

ONE would not think a teddy bear called Hibooki, or Hug,  would play a significant role in war-torn Gaza, but in southern Israel the comfort toy has become standard issue for every young child.

This is but one of the many remarkable – and terrifying – facets of daily life in Ashqelon, a city only 12km from Gaza where former Port Elizabeth teacher Yael Burkinshaw and her family have been under constant rocket attack.

The recent escalation of attacks on southern Israel by militant groups in Gaza, such as the Popular Resistance Committees, have met with heated response from Israeli war planes.

But for Burkinshaw and her family, surviving the daily onslaughts has simply become another part of life in the country.

“Just this year we have had almost 900 rockets [fired at us],” the 34-year-old teacher at the Shaar Hanegev school told Weekend Post.

“The militants don’t have a particular time [of attack], but I have noticed they attack more in the early hours of the morning, about 2am or 3am. If the children are at school then they like to cause havoc. We have a terrible siren that goes off warning us that a rocket has been launched.”

The former Collegiate schoolgirl, whose family left for Israel on completion of her matric in 1996,  said not everyone in southern Israel had access to a bomb shelter.

“For those who don’t, like me, we stand in the corridor and pray the rocket doesn’t make a direct hit. My daughter’s kindergarten doesn’t have a bomb shelter either.”

Burkinshaw has two girls, Oren, 8, and Noa, 5, with her husband, but said in recent times they had almost become “immune” to the missiles.

“In the beginning it was all tears and wanting to sleep in our bed but now they sleep through it during the night. However, if there are rockets during the day it affects them more. Israel handed out a teddy bear called Hibook which means ‘hug’ in Hebrew to all the children in the South to help them deal with the situation.”

Although Burkinshaw’s school in Sderot is in an area frequently hit by Hamas rockets, the whole building is a bomb shelter in itself.

The community is also shielded from rocket fire by Israel’s famous “Iron Dome”,  a mobile all-weather air defence system designed to intercept and destroy short-range rockets and artillery shells fired from four to 70km.

“As strange as it may seem,  I do feel safe.This country has one of the best military defence forces in the world. I am proud to live here and I knew I wanted to get married here.

“My children will be brought up here,” she said.

“If I wasn’t happy living in the south [of Israel] I could easily pack up and leave to go live with my family in the centre of Israel which rockets don’t reach.

“The only way to understand how we live is to be here when it all happens. No other country would allow this to happen .”

This is a shortened version of an article that appeared in the print edition of the Weekend Post on Saturday, November 3, 2012.

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