With Gaza war in rear-view mirror, Southern residents brace for another round

Six months on from Operation Protective Edge, insecurity, trauma and mourning linger in Gaza border communities.

A resident of Nahal Oz walks next to a concrete wall to protect the local kindergarten, just outside the northern Gaza Strip  (photo credit: REUTERS)
A resident of Nahal Oz walks next to a concrete wall to protect the local kindergarten, just outside the northern Gaza Strip
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Six months after Operation Protective Edge came to an end, the kibbutzim and moshavim surrounding Gaza remain damaged and in mourning, their residents disenchanted with a military campaign they say brought no decisive victory.
“We’re not even in the post-trauma [phase] yet, we’re still in the trauma, we’re still a community in mourning,” said Adele Raemer of Kibbutz Nirim.
The kibbutz, in the Eshkol region, is still reeling from last summer’s 50-day operation – which claimed the lives of 66 soldiers and six civilians in Israel; and over 2,000 Gazans, around half of them combatants.
Nirim tore into the Israeli consciousness on August 26, 2014, when two residents were killed by a mortar shell just an hour or so before the guns went silent on the final day of the war.
“We’re disappointed,” Raemer said.
“I don’t feel anything was achieved and we don’t feel safer; we feel it could all kick off again. We know about the Hamas [infiltration] tunnels they found, but what about the ones they didn’t find?” Raemer described a life on edge in the Gaza border community, saying there are often “security incidents” that never make the news and that the locals feel their fate is determined by politics, not security.
The mortar strike that killed 55-year-old Ze’ev “Ze’evik” Etzion, head of security for the kibbutz, and resident and 43-year-old father of three Shahar Melamed, forever changed the life of Gadi Yarkoni – who lost both his legs in the attack.
Yarkoni, the kibbutz’s general manager, returned to Nirim 11 days ago, after a six-month stint in the hospital recovering and learning to walk again with prosthetic legs.
“I am trying to get back to normal,” he said, “but I think that what we went through influenced us very deeply, because we lost two kibbutz members.
We have the feeling that there will be another round and we aren’t built for it; also on the other side [in Gaza], the people aren’t built for it.”
Yarkoni noted that the kibbutz is trying to invest more in its infrastructure and in attempting to attract new members. As is the case among other border communities, there has been a healthy amount of interest from young couples looking to move to Nirim from Tel Aviv – despite its proximity to Gaza and the barrage of rockets it endured.
The trauma from the war still affects a lot of people on the kibbutz, compounded by the repeated rounds of violence over the past several years.
Yarkoni explained that while his children have lived through three Gaza operations, this one brought the new, unseen menace of infiltration tunnels.
“My 11-year-old told me he’s afraid that when he takes the trash out at night, someone could pop out of the ground.”
Like Raemer, when asked how the summer’s war will influence his vote in the March election, Yarkoni responded that the fighting and losses suffered just prove there is no military solution; only a diplomatic solution can end the fighting.
The reality seemed a lot less clear to “Limor” (real name withheld on request), a resident of Moshav Netiv Ha’asara who said her fellow residents have a wide range of opinions about the war and what it attained. She wants the soldiers posted on the moshav to stay there permanently, even if only for the feeling of comfort it gives her.
Netiv Ha’asara is one of only three communities – along with Nahal Oz and Kerem Shalom – which are so close to Gaza that the army kept small contingents of troops on-site after withdrawing from the rest of the border communities in January. The moshav is in such close proximity to the Gaza security barrier you can hear the call to prayer from a nearby mosque loud and clear.
“There are villages close to the border – some very close; some very, very close, like us,” noted Limor.
On Tuesday, she set up plastic tables and chairs at a dining hall on the moshav for a visiting delegation of Jews from Chicago. Limor said that since the war, an average of two or three busloads of visitors have arrived daily, part of a nascent “war tourism” industry that has sprouted in the six months since the conflict ended. For better or for mostly worse, the war put the town on the map – especially when news emerged that the IDF had discovered the opening of an infiltration tunnel in one of the community’s fields.
“After 14 years of rockets we got used to it, but it’s the tunnels,” she stressed. “Everyone’s afraid because of the tunnels.”
Prof. Danny Brom, a clinical psychologist and founding director of the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma at Herzog Memorial Hospital in Jerusalem, said on Wednesday that the signs of trauma can be seen long after the shooting stops.
“What we see is that despite the enormous investment in treatment and trying to help people cope, among young mothers and children, there are something like over 30 percent who suffer from long-term consequences of trauma.”
He pointed to a clear correlation “between physical health and the psychological and emotional trauma suffered, often manifesting itself in illness and physical complications.
While his center hasn’t performed research on the victims of Operation Protective Edge, he agreed that the suffering could be worse due to the threat of the infiltration tunnels. “This creates another fear of what is happening under my feet and under my house – the invisible enemy that could pop up any minute.”
On a small soccer field in Nahal Oz, a group of young children are kicking a ball around, their laughter breaking the mid-afternoon quiet on the sleepy kibbutz next to Gaza. One of their former classmates is missing, and won’t return – four-yearold Daniel Tragerman, killed in a mortar strike four days before the final cease-fire.
His parents were rushing to gather their belongings to leave Nahal Oz and wait out the war further north, when the mortar struck their car, killing Daniel.
Tragerman, the youngest victim of the war, was a friend and classmate of one of Yael Raz Lachyani’s sons, and since that day in August she has struggled to explain the tragedy to him.
“Usually when a kid that age deals with death for the first time, it’s because a grandparent died – not a schoolmate,” she said. “We’ve tried just to answer him in a straightforward way, be honest but not tell him all the details.”
Lachyani, a 38-year-old mother of three, was born on the kibbutz and moved back with her family seven years ago. Like others, she said her feelings about living there “are complicated,” and that she’s still dealing with trauma from the war. But the experience, she noted, has also made her more steadfast and committed to living in Nahal Oz – which she called a symbol, somewhere that cannot be abandoned.
During the war, in this front-line kibbutz and others like it, life became unbearable – mortars and rockets landed constantly, typically without setting off the color red siren; they were also close enough to be under the new, terrifying threat posed by the tunnels.
Perhaps the most traumatizing incident involving the tunnels happened right outside the kibbutz. On the evening of July 28, 2014, Hamas gunmen emerged from a hole in the ground and managed to run hundreds of meters without interference to an IDF post, where they killed five soldiers.
The attack was filmed on a GoPro camera and posted online by the terrorist movement, which scored a major psychological and propaganda victory with the raid.
When asked how the new threats facing her family will affect her as she heads to the ballot box in March, Lachyani repeated a sentiment heard often on Tuesday – that those who led Israel through the war had failed, and had to go.
“It strengthens my feeling that the current leadership isn’t the right one, and they aren’t protecting us.”