Peres: Gaza border kibbutz is 'Tel Hai of the South'

President pays a surprise visit to Kibbutz Nahal Oz, meets children who were on school bus before it was hit by an anti-tank missile.

Peres visits school in South_311 (photo credit: Mark Neiman)
Peres visits school in South_311
(photo credit: Mark Neiman)
It was almost like being back on the political campaign trail of old.
A day after visiting the area near the Gaza Strip, President Shimon Peres was back again on Thursday, pumping hands, cradling babies and dangling toddlers on his knee.
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But he wasn’t there for election purposes.
His scheduled visit to Kibbutz Nahal Oz on Wednesday had been canceled by the IDF for security reasons, which turned out to be far less crucial on Thursday.
Knowing that the kibbutz members had made preparations in anticipation of his coming, Peres did not want to disappoint them, in addition to which he felt the need to boost their morale.
After the cancellation of Wednesday’s visit, the disappointed kibbutzniks were under the impression that if they wanted to see Peres at all, it would not be before Sukkot when there is open house at Beit Hanassi, unless there was some kibbutz-related event at the president’s official residence before then.
But Peres surprised them, and while en route to the South called to say he was coming to raise a glass with the kibbutzniks before Pessah.
On the previous day, Peres had pledged to some of the people from Nahal Oz who had come to meet him at Kibbutz Erez that he would return before the flowers that they had arranged for him would wilt – but no one took seriously because it was already too close to Seder night.
Peres proved, however, that his pledge had been more than mere lip service, canceled his Thursday agenda and arrived at the kibbutz club house in the morning. He chatted happily with the children who told him what it was like to live in a kibbutz that is constantly under the threat of rocket attacks. Some of the youngsters in the kibbutz had last Thursday been on the school bus that had dropped them off minutes before it was hit by an anti-tank missile.
In addition, on April 8, the kibbutz suffered a rocket attack that caused damage, but no one was hurt. Peres also spoke to adult members of the kibbutz who described their day to day anxieties and experiences.
Over the years Nahal Oz has suffered many barrages of mortar shells and rockets from Gaza.
Nahal Oz has a tradition of planting a tree wherever a huge hole is left in the earth by a rocket. This is an act of defiance against those who would seek to destroy the residents of the kibbutz. The tree symbolizes continuity.
Fourth-graders Shai, Ophir and Chen told Peres that for the past two weeks they had been sleeping indoors in a protective tent, and were forbidden to play outdoors. They admitted to being afraid. At the same time they wanted the president to know that they were strong-willed, would not succumb to fear, and would not abandon the kibbutz. “We won’t move from here, but our lives are not the same as those of other children,” they said.
As Yam, a second-grader, began talking to Peres, she burst into tears. Her teacher explained that the rocket attacks have made her so nervous that she cries nearly all the time.
Peres embraced the little girl and helped her to wipe the tears from her eyes.
Adina, who supervises the youngsters, thanked Peres for coming to strengthen the morale of the people and to listen to them, and told him that the children have not played outside for more than a month.
Nonetheless they have managed to cope, she said.
Shaar Hanegev Regional Council head Alon Shuster, who had met with Peres the previous day, met him again at Nahal Oz and told him that despite the difficult situation and the need to have nerves of steel, the secret of the people of the region was their combined strength, their unity, and their determination to continue to build a vibrant community.
Peres pledged to assist the kibbutz, to do all that he could to encourage more people to settle at Nahal Oz, and to bring more resources and investors to the kibbutz to enable the advancement of projects and the construction of a broader and more sophisticated infrastructure.
Peres praised the children, telling them that they were very special and real heroes in the eyes of the nation.
“The State of Israel is proud of you for living in Nahal Oz despite all the dangers,” he said.
Before joining the children in planting a tree, the president inspected the crater created last week’s rocket.
Nahal Oz, which was founded in 1951 as the first Nahal settlement – one begun by soldiers from the IDF’s Nahal Brigade – became a civilian settlement in 1953 and has always been vulnerable to attack. One of its members, Ro’i Rutenberg, was killed in April 1956, when the kibbutz was attacked by Sudanese serving in the Egyptian Army. Moshe Dayan, who was then the chief of General Staff, attended Rutenberg’s funeral and delivered a stirring eulogy.
Peres, who was a great friend of Dayan’s recalled the event on Thursday, and was saddened that despite the passing of years, Nahal Oz remains in the eye of the storm.
“Nahal Oz is the Tel Hai of the South,” he said, referencing the settlement in the Galilee panhandle that Yosef Trumpeldor and seven comrades died defending against a much larger Arab force in 1920.
In an unrelated issue, but in the Pessah spirit, on the recommendations of the Prisons Service Release Committee and Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman, Peres agreed to release Yossi Levi, Eldad Hadad, Rami Moshe and Yaniv Ashur, four policemen from Nahariya who served two-thirds of their one-year sentence, a few days prior to the day on which they were due to be released so that they could spend Pessah with their families.
The four men were convicted for placing bombs under the car and in the home of underworld figure Michael Mor, who had threatened the safety of their families.