ASHKELON, Israel - Israel's three-week military incursion against the Hamas terror group in the Gaza Strip ended a year ago, but for students at the ORT Amit technical high school in the coastal city of Ashkelon, it wasn't long before it started again.
Within a few weeks, an advanced Grad rocket exploded in the school's courtyard, spewing shrapnel and severely damaging the building.
Thankfully, the strike occurred on a Saturday, when the teenagers were home for Shabbat (the Sabbath). But it struck in the very spot where the IDF Southern Command had advised students to hide in the event of a rocket attack.
A sign was soon erected in the courtyard reading, "A great miracle happened here!"
The structure was quickly rebuilt and today paintings of biblical figures brighten the courtyard's walls. But the strike was a bitter reminder to residents of Ashkelon and surrounding communities that Hamas has its own definition of a "ceasefire."
"Most military analysts don't talk about if there will be another war but when," IDF spokesman Capt. Kory Bardash told an ICEJ (International Christian Embassy Jerusalem) delegation on the one-year anniversary of Operation Cast Lead. Bardash said Hamas has rearmed itself over the past year.
The IDF estimates it now has more than four times as many rockets as before the war, including thousands of Iranian-made, longer-range rockets, which carry larger payloads than Kassams.
ORT Amit High School
One of the first stops of the ICEJ tour was the ORT Amit high school where city officials underscored the growing threat they face.
"We have 20 institutions here - like kindergartens and schools - that still don't have any kind of shelter," deputy mayor Shlomo Grande told tour participants. "We tell the students to hide under the desk… but practically it means nothing because I have seen what happens to desks in a rocket attack."
"Every day, I expect an attack," he said, "pretty much every minute of every day. They [Hamas] don't need a reason… This is my experience," Ashkelon municipality security chief Yossi Greenfield said.
The municipality chose ORT Amit as the first recipient of a 70-ton portable bomb shelter provided by the ICEJ. The shelter can accommodate up to 50 people.
Shelters Still Needed
Located just 12 miles up the coast from Gaza, Ashkelon was hit with some 200 rockets last year. Residents feel sure their town will be one of the main targets in the next conflict.
Even when the IDF deploys the Iron Dome anti-missile system, with its advanced radar that locates, tracks and destroys incoming rockets, residents will still need more bomb shelters.
"There are some estimates that in the next conflict, both from the north and the south there will be over 300 rockets emanating a day, and no system anywhere is able to stop all of them. But bomb shelters will save lives," Bardash said.
"It can't be stated enough. It's not just the saving of lives that is important with these shelters, it's being able to live a normal life," he said.
While the government has been providing shelters to communities within a three-mile radius of the border with Gaza, those beyond three miles are largely on their own.
With help from organizations like the ICEJ, Operation Lifeshield has placed 60 portable bomb shelters from Sderot southward to the Sinai border. Operation Lifeshield is now working its way north from the Erez Crossing toward Ashkelon and Ashdod.
During the tour, the delegation watched a crane place one of four donated shelters at a kindergarten in Talmeh Yaffe, a small moshav less than four-and-a-half miles from Erez.
Two more shelters were delivered to a community center and adjacent youth center in nearby Mavqi'im. Without the shelters, these facilities would be forced to close in times of conflict.
'Now We Are Safe'
As the 18 excited youngsters at the Talmeh Yaffe kindergarten filed into the shelter for a first look, one child asked the teacher: "Why is the shelter here?"
"Because they chose us!" replied the teacher. "Now we are safe!"
It made a heart-warming day for the Christian visitors.
"Seeing these little children having a safe place to run to and the peace of mind that brings to their parents really brings home what we are doing with these shelters," ICEJ Executive Director Malcolm Hedding said. "We simply believe that Israelis have the right to live here in peace and security."