On Israeli kibbutzim near Gaza, residents come home to an uneasy truce

August 13, 2014

Quiet has made an uneasy return to Kibbutz Nahal Oz, so close to Gaza City that residents can see its battered skyline on the edge of their wheat fields now crisscrossed by tank tracks.

Since the latest cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians, which was extended for five days Wednesday night, the birds came back, their songs mingling with the mechanical whirr of a surveillance drone overhead. Code Red alerts no longer blared several times a day from loudspeakers warning of incoming rocket fire from Gaza. And for a few brief hours, children’s laughter rang out as some families returned this week for their first visit since evacuating a month ago when war came to their doorstep.

“We came back for the day, just long enough to smell home,” said Gali Idan, a mother of four.

For the past month, “frontline communities” such as Nahal Oz and a neighboring kibbutz, Kfar Aza, resembled ghost towns. Most residents fled what had become a combat zone, with Israeli artillery whooshing above them and Gaza rockets flying the other way, sometimes landing on rooftops or in gardens and schoolhouses.

The Israeli military and government have urged them to come home, saying they have destroyed the “terror tunnels” that Gaza militants built to sneak in to Israel — at least, those they know about. But after raised hopes were dashed when previous cease-fires gave way to renewed rocket fire, many residents do not trust the assurances that it is safe to do so and are staying away for now. Their hesitation seemed vindicated Wednesday night when a rocket was fired from Gaza into the Ashkelon region two hours before the truce ended, but that was quickly followed by the five-day extension.

Satellite images released by the United Nations show the impact of Israeli strikes on structures in Gaza. One of the most ravaged areas is the Shijaiyah neighborhood in the southeastern part of Gaza City.

Only the day before, Maayan Katzav came home to clean her house of a thick coat of dust churned up by tanks. She and her three children hung around for a communal outdoor dinner with a few dozen childless residents who stayed through the fighting. Then they left again for her mother-in-law’s house, far from Gaza.

“I want to come back, but I’m afraid,” said Katzav, 40, a schoolteacher who has lived all her life in Nahal Oz. “If I had the option, I’d take a year off to see how things go.”

Noam Stahl, 47, a plastics consultant who was born and raised in Kfar Aza, said he worries some may never return to the kibbutz, which got 15 direct hits from Gaza rockets.

“People are so tired of living as refugees in their own country,” said Stahl, who left but returned after two weeks.

Fear and flight are nothing new for Kfar Aza and Nahal Oz, both founded in the 1950s as outposts against invasions from the Egyptian-occupied Gaza. Occasional incursions in the region by militants sometimes resulted in the loss of Israeli lives.

But starting in 2001, rockets and missiles from Gaza landed more routinely, sometimes several times a month, sometimes nothing for a month or two. In a display of the dark humor that comes from living here, residents call those attacks “tif tuf,” Hebrew for a drizzling rainfall.

The history of the decades of attacks are written in the fortified architecture and landscaping.

A Palestinian negotiator announced Wednesday that a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza has been extended for five days, following indirect talks between the two sides in Cairo. (Reuters)

Kfar Aza has hundreds of bomb shelters, from large underground communal ones to small concrete hives placed beside walkways, bus stops and soccer fields. But the Iron Dome missile and rocket interceptor is of little use here. The proximity to Gaza two miles away means residents have 10 or 15 seconds of warning, often less. So a few years ago the Israeli government built “safe rooms” attached to every home, with fortified cement and steel plates over windows. Blast walls and extra roofs strong enough to withstand a missile attack were added to old schoolhouses; new ones are basically large bomb shelters.

To deter laser-guided missiles, straight roads were redesigned with many curves and trees, creating a “defensive forest.” So many Qassam rockets have fallen on Kfar Aza over the years that the shells are used as planters and garden decorations.

But nothing compared to the recent downpour of rockets and mortar shells.

Of Kfar Aza’s 750 residents, 90 percent left in the early days of the month-long conflict. Only 60 of Nahal Oz’s 350 residents stayed, all middle aged or older. Anyone with children left to stay with friends, relatives or as a group in distant northern schools.

Someone had to milk the dairy cows at Nahal Oz and feed the chickens at Kfar Aza. More important, someone had to be there to put out the fires ignited when rockets landed, turn off the utilities and check for the injured. They slept in their safe rooms, and many evenings got together in a basement pub where popular Israeli singers, comedians and storytellers came to entertain them.

Their choice carried dangers. A woman in Nahal Oz was seriously injured when a rocket slammed through her roof. Many were rattled when the entrance to an underground tunnel was found in the fields and a Gaza militant popped out and killed five Israeli soldiers.

Some residents say they realize Gaza experienced more damage and trauma than they have.

“I hear my children speak of the experience of the Palestinian children, and I agree with them,” said Stahl. “We know they suffered hard. But I worry about my own kids before I worry about neighbors’ kids.”

Residents patiently answer questions about why they don’t move somewhere safer, as if it were so obvious it needs no explanation. Where in Israel is safe?

“In Tel Aviv, five years ago, people were afraid if they got on a bus it would explode,” Stahl said. “Jerusalem was the same. At Kiryat Shmona in the north, for 15 years they had Katyusha rockets come at them from Lebanon. If I decide it’s no longer safe to live here, if I take my family and move elsewhere in Israel, who can guarantee we won’t be the target of a terrorist attack in our new home?”

Still, some acknowledge the equation is different when children are involved. Mandy Damari, who has lived at Kfar Aza for 25 years after immigrating from Britain, said she was thrilled when her son married last year and settled with his new wife on the kibbutz where he was raised.

“Now I’m not sure,” said Damari, 53, thinking of future grandchildren. “I think I’d prefer they live a little bit further away.”

Few are optimistic that peace talks in Cairo will produce a breakthrough.

Ofah Hartuv prayed for peace during the 1973 Yom Kippur war so her son, then 7, wouldn’t have to go to war. Now he is 42, and she said she prays the same for her 16-year-old grandson.

“This is our home,” said her husband, Dov, the kibbutz archivist. “It happens to be a place that’s very dangerous. What keeps us going is we believe in the future, maybe 20 or 30 years, there will be a lasting peace. If we didn’t believe that, we wouldn’t remain in Israel.”

Carol Morello is the diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post, covering the State Department.
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