On Wednesday (August 13, 2014) I visited the south of Israel, right on the Gaza border, with a group on a Solidarity Tour.
As one leaves Tel Aviv – where the hotels are empty – and drive along HaYarkon (the beach road) through to Jaffa and out of the city, it is apparent that we are in an “operation” – the name given to this current situation. The beaches are empty, Jaffa is not bustling with tourists and the roads south are not as busy as usual. The further south one drives one becomes aware of army units at the side of the road and the preparedness for an intensification of the “operation”.
After about ninety minutes we arrived at Netiv HaAsara, a moshav (agricultural settlement) founded in 1982 by 70 families who were residents of the former Israeli settlement of the same name in the Sinai Peninsula. The former settlement was evacuated as a result of the Camp David Accords.
Netiv HaAsara is the closest community in Israel to the Gaza Strip, located 400 meters away from the edge of the Gazan town of Beit Lahiya. The southern edge of the moshav is the border with Gaza.
It has a population of about 700 people.
Our guide in Netiv HaAsara was Raz Shilomitz.
He explained how Israel is divided into warning areas of the time one has to get into a bomb shelter. If you live in Netiv HaAsara, you get no warning. The moshav is in the “immediate” warning area.
One of the residents by the name of Moira spoke to us with such emotional tension difficult to describe in words. Every small noise she heard made her jump and think she should head for shelter. This was the result of the years she had lived under rocket fire. It was a “terrible, terrible situation”. Her current worry was the possibility of a tunnel rising up in the moshav. She lived in fear that the IDF had not found them all and she and her family were in danger.
But Moira is not a weak character. She told a government minister, who had visited the moshav and referred to the rockets as a tif tuf (a drizzle), that he was insensitive and unfeeling, as he most certainly was. She angrily expressed to him, in no uncertain terms, that it was not a rain shower in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.
She also felt no grievance towards the ordinary citizens of Gaza who lived under the control of Hamas.
She has friends in Gaza and her husband had managed to speak to one the previous evening. During the telephone conversation, her husband realised that his friend was crying with relief upon hearing that everyone in the moshav was alive, albeit living under the strain of war. He, (the Gazan friend) had heard from his media that everyone on the Israeli side of the border had been killed, that Tel Aviv had been destroyed and Israel was almost no more. Another few days of fighting and all the Gazans would be able to reap the benefits of the destroyed State of Israel.
This is the evilness of Hamas in its control of the people of Gaza, who in the main, Moira believed just wanted to get on and live their lives.
Eventually Moira just had to leave and go back to home, where at least she could sit in her strong room which was now her regular sitting room.
As she left, there was not one dry eye in the group. I impulsively went over to Moira and hugged her. It was the only thing I could do to show her I stood with her.
Raz took us on a tour of the moshav. He explained, what he described as the “evolution of security requirements”. When the first rockets started, it was sufficient to build a fabricated roof above the then buildings to deflect the effect of the rockets exploding. It then became necessary to erect bomb shelters at regular intervals throughout the moshav. Now all houses have a strong room and new houses and communal buildings, as they are built, are fully reinforced. The children’s nursery has no windows on its southern elevation because that is the direction from which the rockets come.
The most poignant scene is the reinforced shelter next to the children’s school bus stop. It is decorated in bright colours with children’s paintings on it but its use is very apparent. That is how the children of the moshav live.
Raz told us that during the first weeks of the “operation” he and his wife and three young children, all under the age of ten, had left the moshav for safety reasons. They packed and moved six times and stayed in nine different places during a period of about four weeks. That is how the children of the moshav live.
Eventually he and his wife decided that it was better for the children if they returned to the moshav and remained there. (Raz also had to continue to run his farming business). His children will now not go from room to room in their own house without a parent with them. His children will not go out to play unless they know that one of their parents can see them at all times. His children will not go to nursery and school or communal events unless a parent takes them and then they know they are safe. But they cannot handle anything out of the regular. Raz could not take us into the nursery for a visit because his youngest child was there and if she saw him she would think something was wrong. That is how the children of the moshav live.
The moshav is surrounded by an electronic fence. It is not there to keep people in but to keep terrorists out. If someone or something touches the fence it sets off an alarm in a control centre and the necessary security measures go into place. At the point where the fence runs parallel to the border it is 400 meters in from the border fence, the space between the two, creating a sort of no-man’s land. That land is cleared of all vegetation so that anyone entering it from the border can be seen. The problem is that it creates a clearway for snipers. That is why trees are grown alongside the approach road to the moshav on the southern side. The trees form a barrier to bullets. This is the way the people of the moshav live.
The rockets that are fired from Gaza and intercepted by the Iron Dome result in shrapnel that can fall into the green houses. It causes much damage and if it falls onto a person it can cause a major injury if not death.
Before the Iron Dome the rockets also had direct hits and mortars (as opposed to rockets) fired from Gaza cannot be intercepted by the Iron Dome.
Dana Galkowicz, a 22-year old Israeli-Brazilian woman, was killed on July 14, 2005 by a Qassam rocket. On March 20, 2010, a Thai worker was killed and in the recent “operation” another Thai worker was killed whilst he was in a field working. That is the way the people of the moshav live.
Raz is a farmer. He will no longer take responsibility for his workers being hurt or killed so he and his father and uncle farm the land alone. Raz is a man of morals. He maintains the land because in his words “if we leave the land, we lose the land and if we lose this piece of land it is not long until we lose all the land. We cannot let that happen.”
When a friend of Raz told him he was going to open a flower shop on the moshav, Raz suggested he first see a psychiatrist. “Who will come to the moshav to buy flowers?” Even in such circumstances humour comes to the fore.
Nevertheless the flower shop was opened and it thrived. Under normal conditions there would be many customers. At the current time the customers do not come. Needless to say we all bought something in that flower shop. After all that is the way the people of the moshav live.
Raz and his friend and Moira and all the people of Netiv HaAsara are representative of the people of the south. They live under terrible stress. No one can have any understanding of the psychological, economic and social pressure of living under such a situation. There can be no sense of that without visiting and meeting with the people who experience it day in and day out.
I am so pleased I came. I do not regret the emotional upheaval I have experienced in myself since then. But I will recover sooner than the people of the south. We live up north and at the present time we have quiet even with the threat of Hizbollah in Lebanon. But it could be us and we must never forsake the people of the south and neither must our government. They do not live with a tif tuf of rockets. It is not a rain shower. It is a perpetual downpour for the purpose of killing. Yes, we have the Iron Dome. But the Iron Dome is prevention and not cure. Once and for all our government must ensure that there is a cure.
The people of the south deserve to no longer live with the sound of code red alerts and the threat of rockets. They deserve not to live in the fear of an attack from under the ground. Moira deserves not to jump at the slightest noise. The children of the moshav deserve to once again go from room to room in their houses and play in their gardens and walk to school by themselves without fear. The flower shop deserves its customers.
The people of the south deserve the time to recover in body and spirit.
I became a Zionist, when in 1965, my parents together with my siblings and I made Aliyah from Ireland to Kiryat Gat in the Negev. Sadly, that aliyah did not work and in 1966 we went to live in London, England. During that time in Israel it was as if the land rose up through my feet and never left. From then on I soaked up anything to do with Israel. I learnt about the beginning of Zionism, the first settlers of the land and those who established kibbutzim overnight and became farmers. Those people started off my list of heroes.
During my education I learnt about the one million Jewish children who perished in the Shoah (Holocaust). If Israel had existed at that time those children would not have been murdered. That reinforced the Zionist in me and those one million children were added to my list of heroes.
I also learnt about those who responded to the call of David Ben Gurion to populate the Negev and make it green. They also joined the list.
I now add to the list: Moira who went down to the Sinai as a volunteer and moved to the current Netiv HaAsara in 1982 and stayed despite everything; I now add to the list the children of the moshav, who will not perish because they live in the land of Israel; I now add to the list Raz and his friend who bring to mind all those who before them and who against all the odds took a piece of dry land in the desert and made it flourish. Where there was nothing but wilderness, flowers grow.
I now add to my list all the people of the south. You are my new heroes.
I plan on returning to Netiv HaAsara with my wife and anyone who will come with me.
I want to have a cup of tea with Moira without any nervous emotions, only relaxation. I want to buy flowers in the flower shop in celebration of peace and give them to my wife. I want to see the children playing freely in the sun. And on the northern side of the approach road to the settlement I want to plant a tree to match the trees on the southern side. And I hope for that tree to be there for beauty only, named for my family and in honour of all those who died in this “operation”.