Protecting the pioneers

Despite the rockets, flaming kites and even blown-up condoms filled with explosives being hurled across the border, Gaza Envelope residents are united in one mission: protecting their homes.

Agricultural land burnt by kites launched from Gaza (photo credit: ERIC NARROW)
Agricultural land burnt by kites launched from Gaza
(photo credit: ERIC NARROW)
Yedidya Harush didn't get much sleep the night of June 20.
Residents of the Eshkol Region have had countless sleepless nights since Hamas announced its "March of Return" over two months ago and tried to seize the border.
Attempts to infiltrate the security fence have so far proven unsuccessful, but Hamas, never in short supply of finding creative attempts to terrorize Israeli civilians, have been relentless in launching dangerous projectiles across the border. Kites set alight and emblazoned with Swastikas on them, condoms and balloons filled with explosives and, of course, rockets, burnt hundreds of agricultural land to the ground.
Harush, Jewish National Fund-USA's liaison for its Halutza community, gave this reporter a tour of his daily commute that once was a picture perfect view of lush greenery now has become black scorched earth.
"I biked along these roads the other day and it's all black," Harush lamented as we tried to ignore the stench of smoke still emanating from the 50 rockets that Hamas launched the night before. "They can shoot rockets and burn the land but our spirit won't be broken."
Keeping the spirit alive for the residents of Gaza is exactly what Jewish National Fund-USA is helping them do.
The organization has established a multi-pronged campaign to help the Gaza Envelope residents. From a $1 million campaign goal to build and maintain resilience centers and provide animal assisted therapy for children, to constructing new bomb shelters that can house up to 100 people each, to delivering new fire wagons which can get to and extinguish fires more rapidly than large trucks, to the most simple and symbolic acts like painting existing bomb shelters with colorful murals so children will not be so afraid to enter them, are just some ways JNF donors are encouraged to aid the people in the region.
Another fundamental way JNF helps is through its Housing Development Fund.
On the surface, attracting young families to move down south is not an easy sell, but by offering aspiring homeowners affordable loans, moving down south becomes more practical and enticing.
"We have 32 lots being developed in Kibbutz Kissufim, with 8 families in the process of buying their home. It's amazing. Since Operation Protective Edge [in 2014], we've had 2,500 new residents in Eshkol and it’s a miracle. We are able to do this because of JNF-USA," said Michal Uziyahu, a resident of the Eshkol Region.
"The most important thing for us is to grow demographically, to have our children come back and raise our children here. If communities like Kitzufim won't grow, they'll cease to exist and then we know exactly what will happen next," she said.
The region bore the brunt of this most recent confrontation with Gaza; its 32 communities that are located along 65 kilometers of the Gaza Strip makes for many sleepless nights and anxiety inducing days – especially for children.
"It's easy to dismiss these kites, but for children, they see them on fire and so close to the border and its terrifying. You can't ignore it. We're the first to initiate and signal the trend," Uziyahu said.
At one of the resilience centers JNF already helped build outside of Kibbutz Magen just a few kilometers away from the border, health care professionals administer the latest innovative therapeutic methods to teach residents how to cope with the ongoing situation. The goal is to ensure that residents have exposure to the therapy they need before a traumatic event happens, so they do not develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
"We need to make sure people are emotionally prepared for the next escalation. If another operation were to start soon, our skin is so thin right now, people who had to leave their children during the war and stay in the community, may not be able to handle this and we need to make sure they do," Uziyahu said of one resilience center already in place that currently serves 40 new people a week.
For Eshkol resident and father of two Jehan Berman, an oleh (immigrant) from Belgium, his morning commute taking the kids to school is a bit different than most.
That's because his journey to daycare can – and sometimes does – involve reacting to a “red alert” signaling an incoming rocket attack. Since a shelter can't always be found in the scant 0-7 seconds one has to run for cover, Berman has devised his own safety protocol.
Once he hears the siren, he immediately stops at the side of the road, drapes his children with a bullet proof vest and then gets out of the car and lays flat on the ground with only a helmet to protect him.
"I put my helmet on my head and say the Shema” he said, referring to the holy prayer Jews recite.
For many Gaza residents, Harush included, this kind of trauma is not enough to deter their resolve.
"We have one country, governments can stay and go. You can choose to be negative and leave, as some people did," Harush said of some of his neighbors while growing up in Gush Katif which was evacuated during the 2005 disengagement.
"Or, choose the positive way and still believe in the people and land of Israel. One of the main reasons why I decided to come back to Israel and be active is because you have two options in life: be in the crowd or be a player on the ground," said Harush, who was offered, and subsequently rejected, a scholarship to play college basketball in the United States.
Benny Hasson, the spokesperson for the region, is not surprised by high retention rate he's seen despite the situation. "Everyone has their reasons, but primarily, they feel an obligation to protect the borders of their country – to be pioneers and protectors of the state," he said. "We stick together in the good and the bad."