Holding blue and white balloons aloft, Michal Uziyahu told a crowd that for children in the traumatized Gaza border region of Israel, balloons have lost their joyful appeal.
“These birthday treats have become a symbol of terror,” she said.
For months, incendiary balloons and kites as well as rockets have been raining fire on the people, agricultural communities and forests of the area, wreaking havoc on lives and livelihoods as they burn crops and neighborhoods, and destroy ecosystems and wildlife there. Floating on the prevailing winds from Gaza, the kites and balloons are part of the current Palestinian protests, and tensions between Israel and the Hamas-controlled Gaza have been rising, according to news reports.
Uziyahu was among three Israeli speakers sharing their stories of life in the border area with the daily stress of attacks Monday at a Jewish National Fund Town Hall. It was one stop on a United States tour that is aimed at raising awareness of the fiery crisis — and funds — for communities aided by JNF in “greening” the pocket of Israel that shares more than 30 miles of border with Gaza.
Some 10,000 acres have been charred, JNF officials noted, saying that the residents’ plight and the environmental damage has received scant attention from news media and environmental groups. The event was held at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School.
Uziyahu played a recording of blaring alarms and warnings. “This is the soundtrack of our lives. Whenever we hear it, we have 15 seconds to get to [safety],” she said.
She and the other speakers reminded the crowd of their determination and rebuilding of their lives: “We don’t feel sorry for ourselves.” Life goes on. “My number one concern is how to lose weight.” She described their lives as 99 percent wonderful, but “1 percent hell.”
In Gaza itself, Palestinian civilians are reeling from the ongoing violence. After Hamas rocket attacks on Aug. 9 wounded at least 11 Israelis, Israeli airstrikes in retaliation, killed three Palestinians, including a 23-year-old pregnant woman and her 18-month-old daughter, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza. A recent study by the Norwegian Refugee Council, found that of 300 schoolchildren aged 10 to 12 surveyed, 56 percent said they were suffering from traumatic nightmares.
A psychiatrist who spoke briefly said the children as well as adults in war zones are at risk of developing PTSD.
Uziyahu and the others praised the work of JNF’s Gaza Envelope Task Force, which works to help Israelis living in Gaza border towns including Sderot, and the Halutza and agricultural communities. Residents feel the work of the task force gives them strength as it tells them “you are not alone,” she said. The organization continues to assist in many ways, from helping fund firefighting equipment to helping build a playground and shelters where PTSD therapy is offered and replanting.
When Uziyahu told a counselor at a “resilience center” that she wanted help for her son, they responded, “We will give you help. You have to be strong to help your children,” she said.
Yedidya Harush spent his early years in a town in the Gaza Strip where residences were demolished in Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005 and completed high school in the United States on a two-year scholarship. He turned down a college scholarship in the United States; he chose to return to Israel. The former paratrooper recounted that when he celebrated his birthday with his family, he offered to buy a balloon with Minnie Mouse on it for one of his young daughters.
“I don’t want a balloon,” he recalled her replying. “Balloons are bad. Balloons can kill. Balloons explode.”
He told the crowd, “I think sometimes that hardest thing is to see my children go through the same childhood I did.”
Former paratrooper Yedidya Harush said after the program: “This is the biggest answer to the terrorist for us: “It’s the sound of our kids laughing, the sound of new houses [being built] is more powerful.”
Pounding the podium as she spoke, 21-year-old Sarit Khanoukaev, who counsels youngsters impacted by PTSD, told the crowd, “I live my whole life in Sderot. Every noise, [to] this day, makes me jump.”
“I live every day in fear. I am scared to take a shower with the door locked because I have only 15 seconds to get to shelter,” she said.
Nevertheless, Khanoukaev said, she chose to stay in Sderot for college – she will begin studying public policy next month.
“We are strong, and we never give up. Sderot will always be my home.”
Andrea F. Siegel is a Washington-area writer.