Uneasy opposite Gaza

Border kibbutzim have become virtual ghost communities with only a skeleton crew remaining to hold the fort.

A woman surveys the damage after her home in Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha, opposite the central Gaza Strip, was hit by a rocket, July 11 (photo credit: FLASH 90)
A woman surveys the damage after her home in Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha, opposite the central Gaza Strip, was hit by a rocket, July 11
(photo credit: FLASH 90)
It is hard to imagine a more peaceful way to spend a summer day than walking around Kibbutz Mefalsim. Located near the southwest corner of Israel, the community of 800 residents is simple and well-kept, marked by neat, grassy areas and simple, functional buildings. In the mid-summer heat, groves of eucalyptus provide refreshing shade around the grounds.
Around the perimeter of the community, kibbutz orchards are in full bloom, giving the air a sweet, pungent taste.
The pastoral scene is shattered by the boom of exploding rockets and return fire by IDF artillery. Located a few hundred meters from the northeastern end of the war-torn Gaza Strip. Mefalsim, like other border kibbutzim, has largely been abandoned by residents during the current round of fighting, leaving little more than a rotating skeleton crew of members to hold down the fort until the violence subsides.
In Kibbutz Erez, just north of the Strip, few people can be seen; at 7 p.m. on a summer evening, it is a virtual ghost community.
Some members are working the evening shift at the plastics factory, but most simply have left. The community had to cancel summer camp due to a lack of children.
In fact, many of the residents in the kibbutzim surrounding Gaza left for part or all of the war. They took advantage of a variety of escape options. Kibbutzim located out of Kassam and Grad rocket range invited families from the rocket-weary south for subsidized or even free holidays. Tourist attractions chipped in, too, by offering free entrance to residents from affected areas. And, even for families who chose to stay put, the kibbutz movements provided day trips and longer to Jerusalem; fun days at water parks in the Tel Aviv area and outdoor camps for older kids near Tiberias.
The exodus from the border kibbutzim is in sharp contrast to the situation in Sderot, Netivot and other towns within a 20-30 minute drive from Erez. There, residents and community leaders complain there is little to do with school-aged children other than sit around and wait for the next Code Red alert.
The kibbutzim are different. Because the communal settlements belong to national umbrella groups, members have taken advantage of invitations to sit out the war out of rocket range, or at least to enjoy short periods of respite at kibbutzim further north.
Walking around Mefalsim, the first thing a visitor notices are the bomb shelters. As one of the closest communities to the Strip, the kibbutz has sustained so many Kassam rocket attacks that residents have lost count of the projectiles fired at them. Here, a sidewalk bears the remnants of a recent rocket; over there, a piece of missile is lodged in a tree. Further down the path, the children’s house is pockmarked by shrapnel.
The kibbutz enjoys a variety of bomb protection. In a parking bay, the bus stop is constructed of thick cement, in order to double as a shelter. In 2009, in the wake of Operation Cast Lead, the Defense Ministry funded rocket defense for kindergartens and children’s houses. As a result, a thick cement tent envelops some of the buildings. Small concrete bomb shelters, miguniot, are located all over the kibbutz. Every residence and some public buildings have been fitted with safe rooms. When planning to walk from point A to point B, residents plot out the location of every shelter.
Much has been made of the “15 seconds” residents have to take cover once the Code Red alert sounds; in reality, mortar bombs will hit the community in far less time than that.
In the middle of the kibbutz, the children’s house is raucous as the 13 remaining children, ages 4 to 10, while away the summer holiday together. In the doll corner of the room, a group of girls have set up a virtual resort complete with Barbie look-alikes and stuffed animals. Across the room, a group of three is busy coloring at a table, while in the third room, the bomb shelter, a group of boys rough house and laugh inside the safe room, which has been fitted with gym mats and inflatable balls.
In contrast to some expectations, however, there is no outward evidence of trauma.
Apart from one printed sheet of paper with instructions for the kindergarten staff in the event of a rocket attack, there is little recognition of the reality these children have lived with all their lives. Observing the children from the side of the room, one does not discern a sense of concern or difficulty in dealing with the rocket attacks, though several kids do say they wish they could play outside (but, with less than 10 seconds to take cover when a Code Red alarm sounds, it is simply too risky to allow them to do so).
Even with a war raging less than two kilometers away – and with the constant sound of artillery fire from IDF units deployed right outside the kibbutz – the discussion around the lunch table is identical to any other summer camp in Israel.
“Listen, the kids here have all grown up with this reality,” says Orly Schuster, a member of the kibbutz who serves as the media spokeswoman during emergency situations.
“Jumping into the bomb shelter when they hear the Code Red siren is as natural to them as breathing. From their perspective, it’s something that’s always been there, so you wouldn’t expect them to be terribly traumatized.”
SCHUSTER ADMITS to The Jerusalem Report that some children and parents have been gripped by fear, but she also says the community has created a strong apparatus of support to ensure that all members of the group feel safe and have an address for their concerns.
“Of course, we and the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council provide psychological counseling to anyone who feels they need it. But, in my view, the social solidarity we enjoy here is far more significant to keeping people from falling apart. Our sense of togetherness is absolute – some people who have had the chance to leave haven’t taken it.”
Significantly, young people at the kibbutz seem to share Schuster’s passion. When she describes life at the kibbutz during “normal” times as a Garden of Eden, teenagers seem to share her enthusiasm. They, too, speak about the strong social contract that defines life here, as well as the fact that for individuals who have grown up with the constant threat of rocket attack, the sirens mean little more than a reflexive jump to take cover quickly.
“Of course it’s not ideal, but you just get used to it,” says Yam Meyerovitch, 16, whose summer job on the kibbutz is to help plan and execute activities for the little children. “But I wouldn’t even consider living anywhere else. I enjoy going with my friends to Tel Aviv sometimes, but growing up here is the best childhood I could imagine. There are no cars around, mostly, and I love the quiet.
There are good things and bad things about living anywhere, but I can honestly say that I wouldn’t trade my life here for anything.”
Similarly, 17-year-old Maayan Schuster, Orly’s nephew, says he “couldn’t imagine” living anywhere else, adding that he and his classmates feel both a debt of gratitude to their parents’ generation for creating their community. Despite the rockets and repeated bouts of war, he plans to return to the kibbutz as an adult to build his life here after he has completed his IDF service.
To a visitor, Schuster, Meyerovitch and other residents of kibbutzim in the area try hard to portray an image of life-as-normal and give a message that their communities are strong. Most people speak passionately about maintaining communal life during the current difficult time, and about building and expanding their communities for the future.
Despite the fact that most residents, and especially most children, have left the area, residents who have stayed behind say they are planning for the follow-up care that will be necessary after the guns of Gaza go silent.
As in other areas of Israel, which have experienced periods of danger, adults around the Gaza belt communities say they take care to broadcast a message of confidence and calm to their children, even during the heaviest rocket barrages.
Like West Bank communities during the second intifada when Palestinian gunmen regularly fired into Jewish communities and when roadside shootings were common, parents and the authorities at Mefalsim, Erez and other border communities struggle to temper their fears in order to allow their children to feel safe. Most residents say they have moved mattresses for their children into the bomb shelters and, in some cases, parents have moved in with them.
In addition, the community school at Sha’ar Hanegev, responsible for most of the students in the northern region of the Gaza envelope area, holds regular drills to practice calm, natural responses to Code Red sirens. Asked to demonstrate the correct procedure for a siren, 8-year-old Daniel Stephenson, of Erez, and his younger brother, 6-year-old Tomer, knew instinctively how to “duck and take cover” to stay out of harm’s way.
One method of dealing with the tension appears to have been to limit exposure to news coverage of the war. Outside the situation rooms at Mefalsim and Erez, where community security and monitoring teams were keeping tabs on the events just a few kilometers to the west, this reporter did not see one television tuned to the almost 24/7 news coverage of the war. Residents quite deliberately have stopped checking email and Facebook on their mobile phones.
INSTEAD, ADULTS in Mefalsim, Erez, Sderot and other border locales, say they bear in mind that statistically the rocket attacks are unlikely to cause injury or property damage. In recent years, the vast majority of Kassam attacks have landed in open fields, and most of those headed for populated areas have been shot down by Iron Dome missiles. It is a message that is reported by parents, educators, rabbis, and psychologists from around the region. The sirens are scary, but not serious. By remaining calm, the theory goes, not only will children remain calm in the short term, it will help prevent them developing long-term stress reactions.
Sitting on the porch outside her single- family home on the perimeter of Mefalsim, Merav Rahaf looks out at the security fence that surrounds the community. Like many buildings in the Gaza envelope, her home is pockmarked from Kassam shrapnel.
Like several dozen families, she and her husband, Avi, moved to Mefalsim when the kibbutz privatized some of its land in order to develop an adjunct community to the kibbutz. Here, the homes are privately owned and residents are not members of the kibbutz, but both sides consider themselves members of one community, one social group.
Rahaf tells The Report she moved near the Gaza Strip from the Tel Aviv area in 2004, two years after Hamas and Islamic Jihad started their Kassam attacks, but over the years she has learned to deal with the threat. As the rocket fire increased in frequency, her reaction to them became reflexive and instantaneous.
But, apart from “hot” military conflict times, including operations Cast Lead, Defensive Shield and now Protective Edge, she said the missile threat never impacted their quality of life. The community is safe enough to allow her 5-year-old to ride his bike to nursery school unaccompanied.
She never hesitated to get in the car to run to Sderot, 10 minutes away, if she needed to run to the pharmacy.
Today, however, all that has changed.
Rahaf, like virtually all residents of the Gaza-belt region, says the discovery of an extensive network of cross-border terror tunnels has shaken her confidence and sense of security every minute that she and her children are at home. “Look out there,” she says with a combination of fear and resignation in her voice. “We are the first row of houses on the kibbutz. You don’t have to go very far in the past to imagine the things these people are capable of.
“Compared to the tunnels, the Code Red sirens are a joke. You’ve now got a situation where you don’t know what hole a terrorist is going to pop out of. God help us,” she said. As a result, Rahaf says she is no longer able to leave her four children, aged 2 to 13, home alone for any amount of time, nor does she feel she can leave the kibbutz without them.
“What would happen if something happened while I was out? What if there was an infiltration during the five minutes I’d run to the supermarket? The army’s instructions during that situation are to go in the house, lock the doors and turn off the lights. Can you imagine how scared the kids would be? That I would be? How could you possibly take a chance of something like that happening when you are out of the house?” Virtually all individuals interviewed agree the tunnels have become their No. 1 issue – not only because they exist, but because the government and the army did not act on intelligence information at their disposal over the years to neutralize the threat.
All also stressed that they did not want the government to agree to a cease-fire that would leave Hamas with the ability to fire rockets or to dig tunnels.
“We have to keep fighting until we win this war, until Hamas surrenders,” Orly Schuster asserts. “Of course, I know what a huge cost that would entail, both on our side and on their side. But what are the other options? The tunnels have shown everybody here, probably everybody in the country, that we cannot continue living like this. The situation here has simply become untenable. Even more important, we’ve never had this kind of nationwide support for the army’s action.
Surprisingly, most people interviewed in the Gaza area remain optimistic. Longtime residents say that while the current impasse is difficult, it is no more difficult than other crises Israel has faced in the past.
“Eventually, peace will come to this region, too, but it’s not something we’re going to be able to force on the Palestinians.
It’s frustrating to say, but it doesn’t entirely depend on us,” contends Yael Chebutzky, a member of Kibbutz Erez. “They are eventually going to have to decide they’ve had enough, that they want a better life for them and their children. As soon as they make that decision, there will be peace here. But it’s not something I can produce for them.”