My Word: Southern discomfort

"We are probably the only town in the world where it’s often considered too dangerous to wear car seat belts," says my friend Channa.

kibbutz kfar aza_311 (photo credit: (Liat Collins))
kibbutz kfar aza_311
(photo credit: (Liat Collins))
There is something slightly surreal about setting off on a trip to Sderot and the Gaza border communities while worrying about acquaintances in New Zealand, but it so happened that the day I participated on a press tour of the Kassam-prone Negev, I woke up to news of the terrible toll of the earthquake in Christchurch.
The South happened to be deceptively quiet during our visit on February 22. The scene at the Asaf Siboni Lookout on the border was pastoral, with butterflies, bright red anemones and a breeze rustling the wind chimes erected in memory of one of the 73 victims of the 1997 helicopter disaster.
Just how deceptive the calm was became apparent only the following day when an explosive device was detonated close to IDF soldiers at a crossing, several mortar shells landed on Kibbutz Nahal Oz and a Grad missile hit Beersheba.
As a matter of routine, Haim Yalin, head of the Eshkol Regional Council, begins his explanations at the site with the instructions that in the event of a missile attack, we are simply to lie down. Standing not much more than a stone’s throw from Gaza’s Beit Hanun neighborhood – a ridiculously close distance for even primitive missiles – the fact that literally keeping our heads down is our only defense is not comforting.
Neither is Yalin’s talk. Although the number of missiles has dropped from 3,000 a year pre- Operation Cast Lead in the winter of 2008, they aren’t the only concern. There are constant infiltration attempts, he says. Last month, for example, there were 23 firing incidents but 145 attempts to penetrate the border.
“Infiltration is seen by Hamas as being more heroic,” Yalin notes. “Not a day goes by without some such attempt. It’s like a broker at the stock exchange. Any day without activity means they are losing money.”
Yalin, like everyone I spoke to in the area, wants the currency to change. He points out that Hamas even fires at the crossings where humanitarian aid is being transferred. He longs for the day when the money currently being invested in protective measures – such as the building of shelters – can be used instead to really make the area bloom, for the Palestinians as well as for Israel.
“But there needs to be a change in perception among Hamas for that to happen,” he adds. Blaming the occupation is ludicrous, he says, when there is only one IDF soldier in Gaza – Gilad Schalit, abducted four and a half years ago.
AT OUR next stop, the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional High School, a distinct art form seems to be developing: shelter graffiti. The students seem determined to show the bright side of their situation.
They feel much safer since Cast Lead because the number of missiles has dropped to “one or two a week,” says vice principal Tzila Levy, although there have been several near-disasters in the past. One missile scored a direct hit, but the class was taking a Bible exam in a different room at the time.
Levy notes that all the pupils automatically orient themselves to the nearest shelter or safe room – marked in blue.
Twelfth-grader Eden Machlof admits that although she feels calmer, “it’s still there, bubbling away inside, and every alarm brings back memories that I try to suppress.”
Nonetheless, Eden states very firmly that she sees her future in the moshav where she grew up: “This is my home.”
Bar Goldenberg points out that nowhere is really safe. In answer to a question I ask, she says she feels the difference between her friends and their peers in Tel Aviv is not only a stronger sense of community as a result of the attacks, but also “we’re probably more mature than they are.”
Their maturity manifests itself in many ways, not least the shock she expresses at being asked whether she has given up on peace: “How can you give up on peace and be at peace with yourself?” she replies.
Adi Maoz speaks fluent American-accented English, gained partly during the two and a half years her family spent in the US to escape the shelling in Nahal Oz. She admits that fear is a constant companion – “I go to bed scared about what will happen if a missile falls during the night” – but nonetheless stresses that they manage to live “normal lives. Our lives are great.”
Eden and Adi participate in a special program called Creativity for Peace, which includes meetings with Palestinians.
“The school is conscious of the possibility that the attacks could result in hatred, so it strengthens the pupils’ identities and self-confidence as Israelis and facilitates programs with Palestinians,” says Levy.
ON NEARBY Kibbutz Kfar Aza, we are introduced to Doron Solomon, whose jobs include the oh-so- Israeli combination of operating a tour company, running educational projects and heading the First Response Team which tackles emergencies from missiles to traffic accidents.
In the “War Room,” from where the team operates, we are introduced to Bentzi Ofek, another member of the emergency crew. Ofek later meets us again in the kibbutz art gallery of his wife, Shosh. She admits that missiles “paralyze me.” Between attacks, however, her art seems to serve as a form of therapy: “We have to continue to live, be creative and make beautiful things.”
Kfar Aza has known both miracles and tragedy. In May 2008, longtime member Jimmy Kedoshim was killed by a mortar as he tended the garden outside his home.
As I take a photo of the olive tree which now marks the spot where he died, his widow invites me into the house, decorated with his stunning photography. The spirit of Jimmy, a national paragliding champion, seems to hover around the home. Anna Kedoshim welcomes the chance to express her undying love for “such a very special person; someone who touched everybody who met him.” She also has a message of life and peace, symbolized by the olive tree.
While Anna and her three children have been more directly affected than others, almost every family in the region has a story to tell.
In Sderot, the town whose name is now synonymous with Kassam attacks, we visit the local trauma center, where Mayor David Buskila and psychiatrist Dr. Adriana Katz are waiting for us. Both emphasize that the biggest problem is post-traumatic stress disorder, which affects thousands of residents, particularly the children. Buskila says that even the pets in Sderot are traumatized.
“It’s not normal to live like this,” he says.
In the event of a warning, residents have just 15 seconds to get to the nearest shelter. “That’s why we are probably the only town in the world where there are times that it’s considered too dangerous to wear car seat belts,” says my friend Channa, who’s lived in Sderot most of her life.
During my visit, Channa is with her children in the bombproof playground. The term “a sheltered existence” takes on a very different connotation under these circumstances, although she is also intent on staying in her hometown.
“Yes, the children in Gaza suffer, too,” says Mayor Buskila, “but it’s the fault of their leaders, who seek only to destroy Israel instead of building a good life for their own people.”
Buskila is willing to travel to the end of the world for peace – well, at least to Gaza. “I have invited the mayor of Gaza to visit me, and I would go to Gaza if I was invited,” he says. “I’d love to be the sort of mayor who handles normal problems like garbage, sewage and education.”

The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.