Life on the edge

Kibbutz Nir Am has withstood hundreds of Kassam missiles. Now it must build to survive. (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
The plowed bean field at the southern edge of Kibbutz Nir Am, just between Sderot and the Gaza Strip, is where the dream would materialize. "Mitzpe Nir Am," it's called - "a community neighborhood in the gentle, scenic hills of the Western Negev," according to the real estate plans. There's a developer, and even a half-dozen or so people who have signed contracts to buy houses here. But so far, it exists only on paper. What's real at Kibbutz Nir Am is the frequent repetition of the Shahar Adom - "Red Dawn" - alerts coming over the loudspeakers. They give members 15 seconds to find a bomb shelter somewhere, or just sit tight, because a Kassam has been launched from outside Beit Hanoun, two kilometers away. Also real are the booms of the shells fired from nearby IDF tanks in the direction of the Palestinian missile launchers. The kibbutz has weathered the Kassams not too badly, actually: Only one family has left and no one has been injured, though there have been several close calls. A Gazan terrorist with an explosives belt was found by Israeli troops in Nir Am's fields at the end of last year, and another was found along the highway running past it just after the disengagement. But maybe worse even than the security threat, say kibbutz leaders, is the huge financial debt hanging over Kibbutz Nir Am - the debt that keeps the southern field best suited for beans instead of new houses and new people. "If we can't build new neighborhoods and bring in young families, the kibbutz will dry up in another 10 years or so and collapse under its own weight. The membership will just die off," says Ofer Lieberman, Nir Am's agricultural manager. The average age of the 136 members, not counting the many non-members who rent homes at the kibbutz, is just over 60. "Our worst enemy isn't to the west, in Gaza, it's in Tel Aviv," says Lieberman, referring to the government-owned Agriculture Bank, which is holding up a restructuring of the kibbutz's NIS 38 million debt, and delaying construction of Mitzpe Nir Am. The kibbutzniks expect that in the end, the Agriculture Bank will agree to the debt restructuring and the new homes - first 42 and, if they sell well, another 96 - will be constructed. The question, though, is this: Who would want to invest in a new home in the shadow of the Kassams? So it seems that the future of this kibbutz, which has endured four years of "Red Dawn" alerts and missiles falling in the vicinity, depends on the IDF's ability to quell the missile attacks. On the likelihood of that happening, the kibbutzniks are divided. Meantime, they go on about their lives, quieting their young children's fears and putting aside their own. They remain perched on two confrontation lines at once - one with terror, the other with economic insolvency. KIBBUTZ NIR AM looks kind of shabby, with a lot of tired, beige stucco housing still standing and rusting industrial parts still lying around the edges. But new homes have been built, and the mounds of construction debris and Chinese laborers on ladders are signs of all the home remodeling going on. Built in 1943, Nir Am was the first of 11 "tower and stockade" kibbutzim in the Western Negev. Three years ago, the kibbutz gave up its collective economy and privatized. Now everybody has to pay his own way. "There's no comparison - it's much better this way," says Haim Zak, 73, an Argentinean immigrant who has spent most of his life here. "Now I can save money, I can buy presents for my grandchildren." Haim and his wife Rachel live like other pensioners at Nir Am, who make up about 40 percent of the membership. Their two grown children married and moved away long ago. The Zaks get NIS 6,000 a month between them - a little less than half in old-age pension from the National Insurance Institute and the rest from the kibbutz. But since Nir Am has only been putting away money for the past three years, there isn't much of a pension fund. The aged members of the kibbutz live in large part off the money made by the members still working. The transition to capitalism has its harsh sides, too. "It's true that not every Israeli has a pension," says Avi Kadosh, 55, the kibbutz's social director, "but in our case we have to personally fund the pensions of our elderly members out of the money we ourselves make. I have to feed my family, save for my pension and pay for other people's pensions too. Even if I make NIS 20,000, how can I do it?" Since privatization, the kibbutz stopped paying off its debts to its creditors. It can't manage, says Lieberman, because the interest on the loans is so high that the kibbutz's members simply wouldn't be able to make ends meet from month to month. About two years ago, the Agriculture Bank tried to legally force the kibbutz into bankruptcy proceedings. In response, the Takam kibbutz movement pulled every political string it had, from Negev patriot Omri Sharon to former agriculture minister Shalom Simhon, and someone in government gave the order to the Agriculture Bank to drop the suit. Meantime, 16 of the kibbutz's 17 creditors - including the major Israeli banks, the government and the Takam kibbutz movement itself - have agreed to close out Nir Am's NIS 38 million debt in return for only half the payment. "They have no choice," says Lieberman. "If they don't accept it, they'll get nothing." The deal is for Mishke Hanegev, the purchasing agent for Takam's kibbutzim in the Negev, and Nir Am's main creditor, to "buy" the debt from the kibbutz. In return, Mishke Hanegev would get money the kibbutz expects to receive when a train station and commercial center, due to be completed in 2008, are built right outside the kibbutz. It will be a stop on the new Tel Aviv-Beersheba line that is now under construction. The land for the station and commercial center belongs to the kibbutz, which means the government will have to pay Nir Am dearly for its expropriation. The government is already paying Nir Am a few million shekels for expropriating a swath of farmland to expand the border fence with Gaza. "Part of the money we'll get from the government for the land [needed for the train station and commercial center] will go to pay off Mishke Hanegev, and the rest will go into our pension fund," explains Kadosh. But the deal is waiting on the Agriculture Bank. "We have 17 different creditors, including the government itself, Mishke Hanegev, and various banks, and they've all agreed to the debt restructuring. Only the Agriculture Bank, which is owned by the government, and which is the smallest of all our creditors, is refusing. It's absurd," says Lieberman. Asked why he thought the bank was refusing to accept the deal, he suggested that its only remaining function was to administer repayment of its old loans. "If it starts closing the debts on its loans, it will be out of business and the people who run the bank will be out of their jobs." Lieberman predicted that no one at the bank would agree to comment to The Jerusalem Post for this article and, as it turned out, the bank did not return the messages I left. Aside from the debts, the kibbutz is keeping its head above water - though not by much. Its main sources of income are the farm and cutlery factory, and the latter is not doing so well. "Basically it's a metal factory," says Lieberman. The low-technology shop competes with Third World companies that can manufacture cutlery at much lower cost and import their products to Israel. Nir Am also started a bed-and-breakfast business, but it's not exactly thriving, because of the Kassams. Why is this kibbutz having such economic problems, though, while others in the region, likewise threatened by Gazan missiles, are faring much better? "A lot of these other kibbutzim have plastics factories, which is a much better business than metal. If we had a more competitive industry, then definitely, that could have made the difference," Lieberman says. THE DISENGAGEMENT from the Gaza Strip was supported overwhelmingly at this Labor Party-affiliated kibbutz, but it has been a bit of a disappointment. That is not to say - as many others, who only know the situation here from the news reports, have - that it has been a disaster. Veterans at Nir Am say that, since disengagement, there are either fewer Kassams being fired their way, or about the same number. According to the IDF's count, there has been basically no change. In the first eight months of last year, the army counted 164 Kassams, mortars and other flying objects fired from Gaza and landing on the Israeli side - an average of about 20 a month. In slightly more than four months since September 12, the day the army left Gaza, 93 Kassams and assorted other projectiles launched in the Strip have landed over the border - an average of about 23 a month. However, 2005 was a relatively calm year. Lieberman recalls the height of the intifada from 2001 to 2003, when "eight missiles would be fired in a day. Now it's more like one a day." Back then, Kassams landed in Nir Am more often because the Sderot area, east of Gaza City, was frequently targeted. Since the disengagement, the Palestinians have aimed more toward Ashkelon, to the north. And the IDF, which used to fight the missile launchers up close with infantry or helicopters, is now firing long-range shells from tanks. "The army is doing things now it didn't dare do when we were still inside Gaza," Lieberman notes. While the IDF's shells may help quiet the Gazan missile launchers, they have a disquieting effect on the locals - who hear them and think they come from incoming Kassams. "I'll wake up in the middle of the night and I won't know where the boom is coming from," says Zak. Like the other older homes on the kibbutz, Zak's has no "security room." And 15 seconds, the time afforded by the "Red Dawn" alert, isn't enough for him to get to one of the underground bomb shelters, or to one of the standing concrete shelters that dot the kibbutz. "What can I do?" he says. "I lie in bed and count to 10, then I count to 10 again." When the "red dawn" sounds, Lieberman likes to stand outside his front door and try to gauge where the missile landed. His wife and four young daughters, however, have their regular drill: They huddle in the hallway under the concrete part of the roof, which isn't thick enough to be Kassam-proof by any means, but which affords more protection than the rest of the roof, which is just tile. He shows a drawing of their home by his four-year-old, Amit. It depicts a house, grass, a little girl, a turtle, the sun - and the sky, with something black drawn through it. "She told us that the black part in the sky was the 'Red Dawn,' and she's telling her turtle to hurry up and get into the house," explains Lieberman. ZAK EXPECTED the disengagement to cause a clear downturn in the danger the kibbutzniks face. "I thought that as soon as [the Palestinians] got their land that it would be over, that they'd want to start living like human beings," he says. "It didn't happen." But, comparing the situation to what it was like in the worst years, Lieberman and Kadosh feel that the disengagement has been a boon to their security, even if the border is far from anything that could be called quiet - far, for instance, from the level of security enjoyed by residents of Israel's northern border since the IDF's unilateral pullout from south Lebanon in May of 2000. "Two of my daughters get hysterical every time they hear the 'Red Dawn,'" says Lieberman. "Davka because things have gotten quieter, the booms sound to them like they've gotten louder." Asked whether he thought the residents of Nir Am would one day be as safe as the residents in, say, Metulla on the northern border, Kadosh replies, "Certainly. I have to be optimistic. Right now we're facing the consequences of unilateral withdrawal, of trying to make peace without the other side's agreement. But I have to believe that eventually both sides, Israel and the Palestinians, are going to come to an agreement that will put an end to the fighting. It's just common sense. "The alternative is that this whole area [within Kassam range], where about 200,000 people live, is going to be cut off from the rest of the country, and I can't believe that Israel will let that happen." For now, though, that is the situation. For now, there isn't too much demand for Mitzpe Nir Am, despite the lovely Mediterranean architecture of the planned houses, and despite the tempting price: about $175,000 for a 140-meter house on a dunam of land. The developer, Oded Megiddo, is also optimistic. "We're not getting customers from Rehavia [in Jerusalem] and North Tel Aviv, but we are getting people from Sderot who are living with the Kassams already, whose work is here, who love this area and want to move up," he says. But he's also realistic. "To say that the security situation is ideal from a marketing perspective, I wouldn't say that." He adds: "Don't forget to write that the train station will be virtually at the entrance to Nir Am, and that it will be a 55-minute ride from the Azrieli Towers in Tel Aviv, and 21 minutes from downtown Beersheba." For this kibbutz living under the dual pressure of terror and economic uncertainty, Mitzpe Nir Am is a beautiful dream, and not an impossible one. For now, maybe it makes the days and nights easier to get through.