Hundreds of children in southern Israel returned to school Sunday for the first time in two weeks, braving the threat of Palestinian rocket attacks while the army pushed ahead with its offensive against Hamas militants in the neighboring Gaza Strip.
Schools have been closed since Dec. 27, when Israel launched the operation to end years of rocket fire on its south. While diminished rocket fire has continued, the military said Sunday that students could return to schools that have been sufficiently fortified against attack.
Chana Oved said she wanted to keep her 10-year-old soon Daniel at home, but that after two weeks indoors, he was eager to get out and see his friends.
"I'm scared. I don't want him to go, but he insisted," the 48-year-old Sderot resident said as the boy dragged her into Haroeh Elementary School. "Usually, he doesn't like to go to school but this time he does."
Frequent target of rocket fire
Sderot, located just a mile (1.5 kilometers) from the Gaza border, has been a frequent target of rocket fire over the past eight years. Eight residents have been killed, hundreds wounded and nearly everyone traumatized by the frequent sound of air-raid sirens and explosions of incoming projectiles.
All of Sderot's schools have been fortified. Haroeh is protected by a concrete roof, has bomb shelters and a fortified bus station outside. On Sunday, soldiers were stationed at the school to assist the students in case of a siren.
Oved, 48, said she remained worried nonetheless, but at least in school her son would have some kind of distraction. Both were injured by a rocket that landed on their home several years ago and Daniel has suffered from post-traumatic stress symptoms since.
"He's being treated by a psychologist but it's not helping," he said. "He's never been the same."
Counselors at his school said the children usually feel safer there, among their friends, and the social interaction helps them deal better with the danger surrounding them.
Students and their parents hesitantly tricked in after two weeks of huddling in their homes. Attendance appeared to be sparse, with many students apparently staying home. City officials said about 2,300 students came to school, about 60 percent turnout.
Four rockets landed in Sderot on Sunday, including one that landed near a school, the army said. There were no injuries.
Stress and uncertainty for children
Education Minister Yuli Tamir said students were returning only in protected areas of the south. She said she hoped a return to school would provide a little structure and routine in a time of great stress and uncertainty for children.
In many other towns in southern Israel, schools remained closed. Rockets have struck several empty schools in the past two weeks. On Sunday, an empty kindergarten in the city of Ashdod was hit.
Israel's offensive in the Gaza Strip launched to halt the rocket fire has caused widespread death, suffering and destruction in the territory ruled by Hamas militants. On Sunday, the Palestinian death toll there stood at nearly 870. Thirteen Israelis have also been killed since the offensive was launched.
Leah Maman, a secretary at Haroeh school, brought her 12-year-old daughter Eden with her to work because the girl's school, in a nearby village, is not fortified and remained closed.
Eden said she was eager to return. "I miss my friends," she said.
But other parents refused to send their kids back. Even when schools are fortified, the trip there can be treacherous. Residents in Sderot have just 15 seconds to find cover between the sound of air-raid sirens and the landing of the rocket.
"The problem is not inside the schools, its getting there," said Mari Ochana, who kept her 16-year-old daughter at home. "Those 15 seconds could be critical."