Rounds of fighting in the South, with the indiscriminate firing of rockets from the Gaza strip toward Israel’s civilian home front, are a constant test of the staying power of Israeli society. For the past 18 years, Israel’s South has been living under the constant threat of rocket fire. The Iron Dome missile defense system, deployed in 2011 (thanks to Amir Peretz, Minister of Defense at the time) was a significant security development. Able to intercept rockets from Gaza with an accuracy of 90 percent, it ensures the physical safety of the citizens of Israel's South.
On days like these my family worries, but they know that I’m working and under excellent conditions
However, the psychological strain of living under these conditions, the interruptions to normal life, damaged infrastructure and shaken morale, all contribute to the often-overlooked human cost of the security situation. This side of the struggle is the daily mission of thousands of Israel’s unsung heroes: its working people.
Social workers under fire
They work around the clock with very limited resources and one clear mission: to help anyone and everyone to get through another round of fighting safely – both physically and mentally. Since the relentless rocket assault on Israel from Gaza began last Tuesday (Nov. 12, 2019), some 3,000 social workers and hundreds of psychologists have provided physical and mental care to those in distress in the nation’s South, mainly through Hosen Centers (a non-profit organization) and local municipal Welfare Departments.
In a conversation with Davar, they expressed concerns that distress is intensifying among residents who have now lived under rocket fire for 18 years, and is also wearing down the people on the ground who provide care. For now, they make do with what they have.
During Cast Lead we were all heroes. Now, I have staff from Ashkelon who are afraid to drive home
Naama Stern, community social worker from Hof Ashkelon Regional Council, describes her work: “In an emergency, we get calls from a hotline, from people with anxiety who need assistance, help to regulate their breathing, to get them functioning again, to start calming down. When bomb shelters are open people need activities run for them in between volleys of rocket fire. We get all kinds of calls from the public. We also have local emergency response teams in each municipality; they are the first to respond. We contact them in case they need additional manpower or assistance. And we’re also in contact with psychologists.”
There are 21 municipalities in Hof Ashkelon Regional Council, some of which are adjoined to the border fence with the Gaza strip, while others are further out. Their total population is approximately 16 thousand people. The social workers in the region work in shifts of eight hours, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and from 4 p.m. to midnight, with each shift manned by teams of three.
“We’re also available 24 hours a day by phone,” Stern added and warned: “It’s extremely important to protect the workers so their spirit doesn't break.”.
Stern, herself a resident of Ashkelon and mother of three children, warns that the burden on welfare workers is liable to harm their ability to provide much-needed care to citizens in distress.
Indeed, the role of the workers, which they preform despite limited governmental support and resources, is critical to the functioning of society. Social workers in Israel are, to some extent, protected by unions and are not alone when fighting for agreeable working conditions. Maybe, this is part of what allows them to continue to provide care to those most in need. However, with government cutbacks and continued attacks, they too are sapped of strength.
Meozia Segal, manager of the regional Department of Welfare, defines the role of the welfare system in times of emergency: “In an emergency the Welfare Department becomes the whole population. Not just routine welfare patients – everyone becomes a patient of ours. That means anxiety attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, the evacuation of disabled citizens, and the provision of medicine to seniors. If the government calls to evacuate the population, I am the person who sets it all in motion."
“We get calls. Yesterday we had ten anxiety attacks, today it’s still too early to tell. For senior citizens who call us and are struggling, we have a senior citizen center, and we bring them there. There’s a shelter, and they can be with one another so they aren’t alone. We also reach out to their families. Any creative solution that we can find, we’ll go for.”
“Every person has a limit to how much they can take,” says Segal. “During Operation Cast Lead [Gaza War 2008-09] we were all heroes, and stayed strong, saying, ‘Who even are they? Do they really think they can break us?’ By Pillar of Defense  we could see cracks; by Protective Edge  the cracks were visible to all. People can’t live for 18 years under existential threat. Each wave like this, you’re talking dozens of anxiety attacks and PTSD. It’s untenable. Young people growing up here have serious issues. During Cast Lead we were all heroes. Now, I have staff from Ashkelon who are afraid to drive home.”
Segal warns that from a psychological standpoint it will be very difficult for these citizens to endure additional rounds of fighting, and claims that the state does not provide enough help.
“The local population here has reached its limit, and unfortunately another round of fighting is already impossible to bear. Our ability to take on this situation is limited. We do what we can with reduced manpower and the limited resources we receive from the state. The state is the one in charge here – it needs to decide what it wants to do.”
Another example of workers who do not stop in times of crisis, are employees of the Israel Electric Corporation (IEC). They are summoned at a moment’s notice to repair the damage sustained in the fighting in order to keep the electricity grid online. As soon as tensions rose in the South, they went on high alert, teams were reinforced, and numerous workers were dispatched to provide 24/7 protection. Since the beginning of the rocket fire there have been a number of instances of direct hits on the electricity grid, including the severing of the electricity line to a house in Netivot that was hit directly by a rocket.
On Tuesday (November 12, 2019) morning, Moshe Sasson, 62, from Kibbutz Givat Brenner, maintenance manager of the Ayalon district at the IEC, received a call to repair a section of the electricity network that was damaged by rocket fire in the Judean foothills.
“We received a report of damage to the electricity grid and we understood that a rocket had struck an overhead power line,” he told Davar, saying he had immediately sent two workers from his team, Eyal Tzairi and Yaron Neradia, to extinguish the electrical current. “I’m not on the scene, I just get a report. The moment a power line falls, electricity pulses through it, and so I feared people might touch it. We cut the power supply to eliminate any danger to human life.” Meanwhile, Sasson loaded up his truck with new cables and all necessary equipment, and headed to the scene.
The trade union associated with the IEC is considered a strong one, and has drawn criticism from opponents of organized labor for holding too much power, and being self-serving. It is not always clear to the public that IEC workers are subject to significant personal safety and security risks on a daily basis. Indeed, without the guarantee that their needs will be looked after, that their salaries and benefits will be protected – that they will be able to provide for their family through injury or even death – they would be unable to carry out the important work they do.
“We’re trained to deal with sensitive situations, and there may still be more Red Alert sirens. But if we don’t work, what will happen to people’s houses or to people on the street? So, in the event of a siren, we move away, find a small ditch, and pray for it to be over. We install and repair the cables, and if there’s another siren we stop again before continuing. We feel like soldiers. We aren’t enlisted, but we feel like soldiers in the Israel Electric Corporation’s army,” said Sasson.
“I’ve seen a lot in my life. On days like these my family worries, but they know that I’m working and under excellent conditions. I have enough experience and my workers are all around 55 years old. We understand the situation – that everyone will do what they can, and it’ll be OK. In times such as these, everyone lends a hand. Even on a normal day. You drop everything, and before anything else, make sure the live power lines are shut off.”