SDEROT is just half a mile from Gaza — the nearest of any town.
For 12 years, it has been synonymous with missile attacks. No wonder, since 8,000 rockets have hit the town and its outskirts over the years.
Up to the end of 2008, there were almost daily hits and during Operation Cast Lead, a third of the population moved out.
Sderot’s mayor David Buskila told me: “They couldn’t live with daily missile attacks.”
He knows the town well, having served as mayor between 1989-98 and again since 2008. And he’s eternally grateful to JNF UK.
He recalls: “My first meeting with JNF was in 2008. The door of the shelter opened and in walked Samuel Hayek [JNF UK’s chairman]. He asked me what he could do for this town and its children.
“I took him round and told him that the children don’t know what it is to play in a playground.
“They have to stay in the shelters almost every day, up to 15 to 20 times, with up to 30 missiles a day.”
Mr Buskila described his dream of a playground to Mr Hayek. The JNF chief agreed immediately to fund it and the first phase has been open for four years; the second was inaugurated six months ago.
“The feeling is different now,” observes Mr Buskila. “In the evening, you will see hundreds of parents with their children.”
Sderot was established in 1956 with pioneers from north Africa. They were joined in the 1960s by immigrants from Romania, followed by Russians in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s and in between by Ethiopian olim.
Today, despite the recent attacks from Gaza, Mr Buskila says things are “Much better” because those missiles are now less frequent.
Since Operation Cast Lead there have been fewer than 1,000, which by anyone else’s standards would still seem horrific.
During November’s attacks, 160 rockets fell on Sderot, hitting 20 homes; Iron Dome intercepted 30 of them.
But the people of Sderot are grateful for small mercies.
“JNF has changed the lives of people here,” says Mr Buskila. “It gave people the ability to lead a normal life.
“We want a normal life for our children and a place that normal children play in.”
He added: “We want to praise the people of the UK for what they have done for our children.
“It’s a huge thing they have done to give our children the ability to play outside. Without JNF it wouldn’t have happened. We feel that Samuel Hayek and his staff care about us.”
He went on: “Our government cares about life, but not about the quality of life.”
PARTNERSHIP: JNF UK and Sderot|
The youngsters of Sderot suffer considerable psychological problems. Some 520 are treated daily for post-traumatic symptoms.
Mr Buskila observed: “This is the only town in the world where we have psychiatrists on the municipal staff.
“We have three to four times more psychiatrists here and two to three times as many social workers than any other place in the world.”
A staggering 7,300 adults are treated for post-traumatic symptoms annually.
In the past four years 50,000 shelters have been built at a cost of £93m. Now nearly every home has one.
And ballistic windows, reinforced with special glass, have been fitted at schools.
Describing his own position as mayor, Mr Buskila said: “You are 24 hours a day under stress with children.
“As someone sending 3.500 to school you are under stress, sending them to shelters you are under stress and going home you are under stress.”
Mr Buskila has a new, ambitious plan to put Sderot firmly on the national map and is hoping JNF UK will assist — the establishment of a music academy.
The town is already famous for its bands but the mayor wants talented children from centres like Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and the south to study in Sderot.
“This could change the meaning of Sderot,” he said, “and make it very famous and different.”
Spokesman Shalom Halevi added: “Sderot is like the Liverpool of Israel. We have a lot of famous bands.”
The project would cost nearly £6m to establish and run for the first year.
It was a JNF initiative and the organisation approached several municipalities but favoured Sderot.
The town has already identified a major partner — Ranaan Hartman, who founded and runs a music college at Kiryat Ono, near Ramat Gan, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv.
He also operates a college for the ultra-Orthodox in Jerusalem.
The four-year plan would see 50 students introduced annually, with an eventual roll of 200.
Mr Halevi said: “It would be an institute of academic excellence.
“Sderot has spawned many musicians of excellence, possibly because children have spent so long in shelters that they have concentrated on practising instruments.”
Hagit Yasoo, one of the winners of Israel’s X-Factor last year, came from Sderot.
But names like Kobi Oz, Knisiat, Hasechel, Micha Bitton, Sfatayim and Haim Uliel are known throughout the country.