Loud noises make her three young children jump from fear even though the Gaza war ended a year and a half ago, Zohar Lahav Sheffer told visiting US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power on Tuesday.
“They are scared of every sound they hear. It reminds them of scary things from the war,” she said.
Sheffer was one of 10 mothers who met with Power at a communal center in Kibbutz Nahal Oz on the Gaza border.
The kibbutz of some 380 people suffered 265 rocket and mortar hits during the war, one of which killed Daniel Tregerman, age four.
The UN ambassador’s discussion with the mothers marked the end of her four day visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, where she hoped to better understand the dangers facing both peoples.
She arrived in the south by helicopter after meeting with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon in Tel Aviv earlier in the day.
As they sat in a circle on cushioned chairs and sofas, the mothers told Powers about their fears of more violence from the Gaza Strip and their hopes for a better and more peaceful future.
Sheffer, of Kibbutz Gevim, next to Sderot, said that she and three children, ages 13, 10 and 5, evacuated their home during the summer of 2014 as a result of the war.
“They ask hard questions about why [they] should grow up in a situation like this,” she told Power.
Adele Raemer, a New York native living on Kibbutz Nirim, described the last terrifying days of the war, when her home was hit by a rocket that also knocked out the electricity in the kibbutz.
Samantha Power and Adele Raemer, photo by Tovah Lazaroff
“As terrifying as it is to be shot at when there is light, it is even more terrifying to be shot at in the darkness less than two kilometers from the border,” she said.
Another rocket that fell while the electricity was being fixed killed two people, and wounded a third so badly that he lost his legs.
Atara Orenbouch, a mother of seven, moved to Sderot 17 years ago.
She lived in the city for just one year before the first rockets from Gaza fell, including one that landed in her friend’s backyard. Her children range in age from 23 to six.
“Some of my children were born into Kassam; that is the only thing they know,” she said, referring to the name of the rocket launched most commonly against Israel from the Gaza Strip.
Power asked: “Do you ever think of leaving?” “No,” Orenbouch said, “we have a lovely community in Sderot.”
She added that during the fighting of 2014, they briefly left Sderot to stay with cousins in the center of the country, yet Sderot is where they want to live.
“It must be difficult as a parent to make the choice to go or to stay,” Power replied.
Janet Cwaigenbaum, a native of Uruguay, came to Israel in 1997. She lives with her two children, ages 17 and 14, in Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak. She described to Power how they could hear explosions from Gaza as they celebrated her son’s bar mitzva at the start of the 2014 war, and said her children had no fantasy fears – they have real ones, such as the tunnels Hamas dug into Israel under the Gaza border.
‘We have to explain to our children that there are no monsters under the bed, but there are tunnels,” Cwaigenbaum related. “We do not know if a terrorist will come up from the tunnel.”
Dana Bar-On of Kibbutz Nir Am added that children and teenagers living near the boarder were scared to go out in the dark.
Power said the IDF commander who had briefed her explained that the fear was part of the psychological impact of having lived through the last war. She wondered what it was like for them “to be so afraid that you hear things that are not there.”
The women the room bristled at the idea that they were imaging the sounds.
“We heard real sounds,” Raemer said. “The sounds are there. We record them [Palestinians from Gaza] digging and we send it to the army.”
Hila Haim Sheffer came with her son, Jonathan, aged nine, and her daughter, Michelle, aged 12. As someone who had grown up in Nahal Oz, she witnessed first-hand how a peaceful community – where Israelis at one time went to Gaza and Palestinians came to them – had turned into a fearful place.
Michelle, Hila and Jonathan Shaffer, photo by Tovah Lazaroff
“I have different memories from what my kids have now, good memories regarding the neighbors [Palestinians],” she told Power. “I am very connected to the land here. I am [passing this on] to my kids. I hope they will stay here.”
The ambassador asked the group how they kept hope alive for their children.
“I am an optimistic person,” Hila Sheffer said.
When Power asked if there was a way to interact with people from Gaza, Raemer said she was part of a secret Facebook group of Israelis and Palestinians through which she learned that Palestinians in Gaza “want the same thing that I do – they want food on their table and security for their children; they want to be able to live a normal life.”
Life will not get better for Israelis until it also improves for people in Gaza, she said, saying that until then, “they will be under the ground digging tunnels back to us.”
Power said that her visit with the women and other meetings she had held in the past four days “really brings home what the cost of the conflict is.”
She explained that she had met with Palestinians, including a mother of five from Gaza who had come to Jerusalem to see her. The woman’s children had never left Gaza, and the Jerusalem trip marked only the second time she herself had done so. When her children draw a fantasy picture, it is of ski slopes down a mountain, something they can only dream about but have never seen, Power said.
“She is pining and longing for something different. On this side, you are experiencing that same longing,” the ambassador said. “It underscores the heartbreak.”
Power told the mothers at Nahal Oz that the situation of “war and peace” is not an abstraction.
“It is about real families who just want to wake up in the morning and know that their kids can come home safe, and that if they have worked hard, they can make a living. They want to know that they can live with dignity and self-respect,” she said.
She said that as a friend of both Israel and the Palestinian people, the US has worked to resolve the conflict “even though collectively we do not have peace to show for it.”
She added that the stories she had heard from both sides underscored for her the importance of interaction between the two peoples.
“I admire so much the way you parent you children,” she said.
“It must be so hard when the rockets are coming down to remember that people are experiencing pain and suffering on the other side, for which they are not responsible. It takes a lot to put yourself in the shoes of others when you are under threat.”
Twelve-year-old Michelle Sheffer told Power that in spite of the threat of more violence, she loved living in Nahal Oz.
“People ask me,” she said, ‘Why do you live here? Why won’t you go live somewhere else?’” She tells them: “This is my house. This is the place I know the most. It is very hard for me to go to another place and I think even though it is scary sometimes and even though I am afraid sometimes, I think it is still a nice place to live.”
Raemer interjected: “We are not going anywhere, and neither are they.”
Power assured the woman that the US “will always stand with Israel. We will always stand for your security and for your legitimacy in the UN.”
US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro, American Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power and Israel's Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon, photo by: Avi Dodi
To her left as she spoke sat Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon, and US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro.
“We believe fundamentally that the security [here] is linked to peace, and it is linked to negotiations and to meaningful steps to improve security.
We are working together,” Power said.
She added that providing people with the opportunity to live well is a key ingredient in the recipe for peace.
“We will never give up,” she said.
“Just as you have not given up. You could have easily given upon on this dream. But you stayed here. In your defiance, we take inspiration, and I thank you.”