Israelis demonstrate awe-inspiring resolve and optimism despite months of arson terror attacks from the Gaza Strip.
By the time field workers get ahold of Ofer Liberman, the manager of farming operations at Kibbutz Nir Am, to let him know that that a fire has broken out in a wheat field on the outskirts of the community, Liberman is well on his way to survey the incident.
After a month of fighting the arson attacks from the Gaza Strip, just 1,500 meters away, Liberman has honed his senses to respond immediately to the attacks. The kite may have entered Israel silently, but without any discernible prompting to the uninitiated, Liberman’s head jerked around the minute the plume of black smoke began to rise from the wheat field, almost as a reflex reaction. By the time field workers called, we were in a 4X4 truck and speeding towards the scene.
Despite it all – Liberman displays a kibbutznik’s penchant for understatement, calling the kites a “nuisance” – he says that years of Palestinian missile attacks has taught him perspective, and not to get “over excited” by the attacks.
“You know what the most important thing I did today was? Attaching the Israeli flag to the tractors. Why? Because I’m a Zionist. I love the flag. I’ve got two huge flags hanging at my house, not only on Independence Day, but all year round. It’s meaningful because we will win this,” he told Tazpit Press Service (TPS).
Driving back to Liberman’s office in the kibbutz, his enthusiasm for the area is infectious. Despite having lived with the ever-present threat of mortar or rocket attacks from Gaza for nearly 20 years – the Palestinian city of Beit Hanoun is just three kilometers from the kibbutz, he describes life along the border as the “Garden of Eden,” punctuated occasionally by short periods of hell.
“There is no question that the satisfaction of the ‘Garden of Eden’ periods far outweighs the nightmare of the hellish times,” he says.
A Housing Boom that Ignores the Rockets
It doesn’t take more than an hour-long drive around the Gaza Belt region to see that Liberman is far from alone in his dedication to the area, and not only for ideological reasons. Housing projects are under construction across the area.
From Ashkelon, 11 kilometres north of the strip, to Halutza, located 45 kilometres to the south at the tripartite border between Israel, Gaza and Egypt, farming and urban communities are thriving.
The construction of new homes is conspicuous in towns such as Bnei Netzarim and Sderot, as well as kibbutzim like Be’eri, Sa’ad and Nir Am, and farther afield, in cities including Ashkelon (11 kilometres north of Gaza) and Kiryat Gat (25 kilometres northeast).
But virtually all of the new housing is spoken for, almost as soon as the building projects are announced. Eighty-five hundred students from around the country study at nearby Sapir College in Sderot, with many graduates choosing to stay in the area after completing their studies.
Ofer Liberman says his two eldest daughters, aged 26 and 24, have bought homes at the kibbutz after completing their military service in IDF combat units and plan to raise their families at Nir Am. His third daughter, who is currently a company commander in a well-known, exclusive combat unit, says she wants to do the same.
‘I Love the People Here’
“I grew up in Mevasseret Tzion, near Jerusalem, but I studied (social work) at Sapir College,” said Michal, a 30-year-old mother of a two-year-old son who declined to give her family name. “I met my husband here and I love the people here. And I love the area here. It’s green in the winter, yellow in the summer. I think it’s the most beautiful area of Israel. For me it’s a peaceful place.”
Not that the region has been left unscathed by the constant threat of rocket fire or burning kites: As early as 2010, a year after Operation Cast Lead, Dr. Adrianna Katz, Executive Director of the Sderot Community Center for Mental Health told this reporter that the war did not end in January of that year.
Rather, she said that more than half the city’s residents suffered from chronic shock and trauma conditions, a fact made worse by fears that any period of calm will not last.
“We don’t talk about ‘post-traumatic stress conditions,” Katz said at the time while chain smoking nearly a full pack of cigarettes during an hour-long interview, “because there is no ‘post.’ We’re dealing with all the problems you’d expect – bedwetting, chronic fear, insecurity, marital dysfunction and more.
“The constant fear affects parents as well, our social workers and psychologists are dealing with many cases of spousal friction, and that’s another factor that has an affect on the culture, especially on young people,” she added.
Eight years later, those issues have certainly deepened, and signs of the ever-present security fears are visible throughout the region: At kindergartens that are topped by mortar-proof concrete roofs, private homes with hastily-added “safe rooms,” the sights and smells of burnt fields and especially by the small, quasi-portable bomb shelters that dot the landscape of every bus stop, playground, sports field and shopping mall in the region.
Predictably, many young people who have grown up with this reality say their parents are out of touch with reality, and ask why they remain in the region. One 16-year-old from Kibbutz Mefalsim said she alternates between lingering trauma left by her earliest memory, a kassam rocket that landed in the garden of the family home in the Gush Katif town of Nisanit and her mostly positive experiences growing up with a “terrific community.”
“You really can only brush it all off with a laugh,” she told TPS down the street from her house, looking out at a burned field reaching all the way up to the community’s security road, just 15 meters from private homes. The army says we only have 15 seconds to get to a bomb shelter, but in reality it’s really only about seven.”
Nevertheless, Michal seconds Ofer Liberman’s point that the positives of life in the south far outweigh the negatives. With her friends and young family in the area she says she expects more young families to make their ways to the region – and to deal with security issues if and when they arise.
“Obviously, now that I have a child, I’ve got a lot more to worry about. It’s a lot more terrifying. But we can always go to stay at my parents, or at my husbands parents. But at the end of the day, this is my home,” Michal said.