JERUSALEM — A southern Israeli community with close ties to the MetroWest community was one of the towns hardest hit by the rocket attacks that struck southern Israel in a week of terror.
More than 100 rockets launched from the Gaza Strip have rained on Ofakim and other areas in the South since last Thursday’s terror attacks on Israel’s border with Egypt. The calm that was restored later in the week was too late to save 38-year-old Yossi Shushan, a Beersheba man raised in Ofakim, who was killed by a Grad missile on Saturday night.
Ofakim is a sister city to the United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ under the Jewish Agencies Partnership 2000 program. Beersheba has in recent years received funding from the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey to help finance a number of projects.
The Gaza-based Popular Resistance Committee, blamed for last week’s coordinated attacks near Eilat that left eight Israelis dead, on Monday announced a “temporary halt of rocket fire,” according to reports. Hamas reportedly agreed to enforce a ceasefire on smaller Palestinian terrorist groups in Gaza.
The relative lull came after a five-day barrage of rockets fired from Gaza on southern Israel, to which Israel responded with retaliatory strikes on sites in Gaza.
Shushan was visiting family in Ofakim when he heard that missiles were falling on Beersheba, where he lived with his pregnant wife, Lilach, and daughters Lior, six, and Lihi, four. He was on his way home and had reached Beersheba when a warning siren rang out. A piece of shrapnel hit him in the head as he left his car to race for safety.
Efforts to resuscitate Shushan at Beersheba’s Soroka Hospital failed. Islamic Jihad took credit for the attack.
Four rockets hit Ofakim this week, directly striking three homes and lightly injuring a four-month-old baby.
Shushan’s funeral at Ofakim Cemetery on Sunday attracted thousands of people who were touched by him through his work as an inspector for the municipality, as a goalie for soccer teams in Ofakim and Beersheba, and as a coach in the youth soccer league. Ofakim residents said loud crying could be heard far away during the funeral.
“I still hope I will wake up and find out that this is just a bad dream and that Yossi is playing a trick on me,” Lilach sobbed at the funeral. “Yossi, you have three children. You can’t do this to me. I have been left all alone. Who will be with me when I give birth to our first son, and who will take our daughter to first grade? My world has been shattered to pieces.”
Lilach Shushan, who is in her ninth month of pregnancy, arrived at the funeral on a stretcher. Lior and Lihi kept asking their mother, “Where is Abba [Daddy]?”
Praising her husband as a terrific father, Lilach said Yossi had always put family first above all other priorities.
Shushan’s brother-in-law Norbert Bakovza said Shushan had been excited about the forthcoming birth of his son, for whom he had prayed at the Kotel in Jerusalem. He had already taken Lior to purchase a new backpack for first grade.
The Israeli government was represented at the funeral by Sports Minister Limor Livnat, who promised that Israel would respond mercilessly against its enemies.
“You can try to take the best of our people but you will not prevail,” Labor Knesset Member Isaac Herzog said in a message to the terrorists. “We will defeat you just like we defeated Amalek in the Bible.”
Ofakim Mayor Tzvika Greengold called Shushan “a good man with a good heart who loved people.” He noted that the Grad missile that struck him was especially deadly, because it contains thousands of metal pieces in its warhead.
Greengold expressed concern that the Palestinian threat to get the United Nations to recognize a Palestinian state unilaterally next month and turmoil in Egypt would make security in southern Israel more tenuous.
“We have hope that things will get better but we don’t believe it,” Greengold said. “Ofakim handled the situation this week in a mature manner, and we can be very proud of our residents.”
Welfare Minister Moshe Kahlon visited Ofakim this week and promised to strengthen the local branch of his ministry and increase its budget in order to better handle the challenges ahead.
On a visit to Ofakim on Sunday, Homefront Security Minister Matan Vilnai promised that the town would be provided with 30 nine-meter mobile shelters, which were delivered Monday and Tuesday and will be placed near schools and in neighborhoods built without shelters.
UJC MetroWest has committed funding to the Ofakim Foundation to provide solar lighting systems for the shelters. The federation, which has supported the municipality’s sports programs for many years, is also considering ways to memorialize Shushan.
Besides Ofakim, rockets also fell on Kibbutz Erez, another MetroWest partner community. A Kassam rocket fell in a new neighborhood in the kibbutz, where MetroWest had funded efforts to settle young people.
One rocket that fell in Erez hit near the home of Sarit Cohen, who is director of the MetroWest-funded Youth Futures Program for at-risk children in Ofakim and Merchavim.
“This recent round of violence was very real for the extended MetroWest family,” said Amir Shacham, UJC MetroWest’s associate executive vice president for Israel. “With sorrow and shock, I am also very proud and moved by the immediate reaction and solidarity that so many people in New Jersey demonstrated during this horrible weekend and thereafter. The intimate relationships that we have developed over the years with our partners in Ofakim and Erez make it feel as if our own community and our own family were directly violated by these missiles.
“We know that this feeling and this Jewish value is a source of strength to both Israelis and Diaspora Jewry.”