I live on the border with the Gaza Strip, in a little kibbutz named Kibbutz Nirim. I was lucky enough to have been brought over to the States to give a series of talks for the JNF about the realities of our daily lives on the border, in the Eshkol Region. It was an honor to comply, and so – here I am, just after having informally kicked off the tour with a talk I gave at the synagogue of my JNF friend, Betsy Fischer, in the Congregation of Beth El in Voorhees, New Jersey.
I was asked by Rabbi Green, to speak about the Challenges and the blessings of living on the border. Here’s what I said to a very warm and welcoming audience:
Seven is a powerful number according to Jewish numerology beliefs (gematria): there were seven days of creation, many holidays are seven days long, there are the seven blessings recited at Jewish weddings, the Jewish custom of mourning for seven days (shiva) among many others. So when asked to talk about blessings and challenges of living on the border, I came up with seven of each.
Seven Blessings and Challenges of Living on the Border
Blessing number one:
Pace of life
In the rural, quiet serenity of our green oasis in the desert, time moves slowly. When driving home from days in Tel Aviv, as soon as I draw up into the palm-tree bordered entryway to our community, my breathing slows, my heart calms, my body senses the smell of the earth and the flowering plants.
However that same drive home from the north that gives me comfort, runs parallel to the 32 mile long border with Gaza, and is a harrowing drive during times of escalation in rocket fire.
Which leads me to my first challenge…
Challenge number one:
Pace of life
What can you accomplish in 10 seconds?
Here are a few things that I thought of:
* Add sugar to my coffee and stir.
* Boot up the computer (providing it’s relatively new. Mine isn’t 😉 )
* Turn on the ignition, check my rear view mirrors and start to reverse.
Ten seconds (or less) is how much time we, in our community, have to get someplace safe, when the Red Alert (the incoming rocket warning) is sounded. If you are outside, you find a wall to lie down next to; if there is no wall, you lie down and cover your head with your hands.
There was a joke circulating during the war: If you had to go to the bathroom in Tel Aviv, (which had 90 seconds’ warning from time of launch from Gaza, to exploding over Tel Aviv) you had time to do a Number one and a Number two. If you were in Beer Sheva (where they have 60 seconds) you had time to do a number one. If you were in one of the communities where I live, wear diapers.
When there is a red alert incoming rocket warning, we have 10 seconds or less to get to a safe place, So during the summer of 2014, every time I went in to have a (quick) shower, I would be sure the bath mat was on the floor (so I could jump out onto it and dry my feet at the same time so as not to slip while running), my bath towel was already draped over the sink (so I could grab it, and run). And even then, I didn’t usually make it to the opening of my safe room (which is about 15 feet away).
That’s a challenge.
Blessing number two:
Security from crime
In my community, crime rate is zero. ZERO. I walk around, at any time of the night or day, and never have to be afraid of being mugged. Some people don’t even bother locking their doors. Ever. I question whether they even know where the key is.
Challenge number two:
Having said that, the entrance to a Hamas-built tunnel of terror was discovered just a five minute jog from my community. It was discovered during the winter that preceded the war, when a tractor working in the fields suddenly sunk – the heavy rains drenched the land, and caused the earth above the tunnel and below the field, to give way. During the war, the IDF “neutralized” 32 tunnels, fourteen of which crossed into Israel. We know about the tunnels that have been found. It’s those that haven’t been found, that remain a concern.
The Hamas have blatantly admitted that they are still digging. There are people in my community who can hear it. They have complained to the IDF numerous times, and the IDF have come and dug for extended periods… searching. Another tunnel was discovered this past April and May.
It is clear that the Hamas are still building, and with their support waning, they need to show that they are still the tough guys on the block. WIth nearly 50% unemployment in the Gaza Strip, until they begin investing in building schools and hospitals and high-rise homes, there will be plenty of hands willing to be employed under the ground, in order to put food on their tables.
Blessing number three:
The region has a “good”, comforting connotation for red, as well as the threatening one of the “red alert” (which, by the way used to be sounded out as “Shachar Adom”- meaning “”Red Sunrise”, until they realized in Sderot that children named “Shachar” were freaked out by it. As if it isn’t traumatic enough to hear the warning and have to run for cover – having that warning scream out your name…..).
But there’s the other “red” which we have in the south: Every year for the past ten years, there has been a Darom Adom (Red South) Festival in our region. When I first came to the area, there were small patches of red anemones here and there. When the workers in the JNF discovered that anyplace the Bedouin grazed their sheep following the flowering of the anemones, they spread the anemones to neighboring fields. As a result, they encouraged them to graze their sheep in our region and now, from late January to early March the south explodes in the red blooms, which have become a tourist draw, giving birth to farmers’ markets and other events attended by Israelis from all over the country who come visit our region.
In addition to that, 40% of all of the produce in Israel, is grown in the Eshkol region.
Challenge number three:
Gaza’s sewage-processing infrastructure is falling apart. Aside from the fact that it is in poor shape, in general, it does not get enough hours of energy during the day (since many areas of Gaza get only a few hours of electricity daily) to process the sewage. The sewage is therefore spilling into the sea and washing up on the shores of Zikim and Ashkelon. The wastes are also seeping into the underground aquifer of both Gaza AND Israel (nature knows no borders) threatening our water supplies, as well. In fact, according to a UN report from September 2015, Gaza may become uninhabitable by 2020: “Even before last year’s conflict, Gaza’s electricity supply was not even enough to cover 40 percent of demand, UNCTAD said, adding that 95 percent of water from coastal aquifers — Gazans main source of freshwater — was considered unsafe to drink.”
Blessing number four:
The government of Israel invests highly in its citizens. As I mentioned, the saferooms that were built on homes within 2 ½ miles of the border (now widened to a little over 4 miles) because that is the distance mortars can be shot. Mortars and other shorter range missiles are NOT shot down by the Iron Dome Rocket Interception system. Iron Dome is the system which American defense officials cautioned would be “doomed to fail”. Luckily then defense minister Amir Peretz didn’t listen to them, and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems working jointly with the IDF, developed the system which prevented the Hamas’ goals of downing high rise buildings in Tel Aviv from coming to fruition. However, since they do not yet have a system that protects us from the shorter range projectiles, the government invested billions of dollars building our saferooms.
The government has also committed to building an underground barrier which will prevent more tunnel construction (that, however, is not yet a reality…) which leads me to my fourth challenge:
Challenge number four:
Following the war, each of the communities that are considered close to the border fence (2 ½ miles) were protected by soldiers who would patrol the perimeter of the kibbutz , and one that was stationed in the middle of the area of the children’s houses throughout the hours that the children were in child care – so that in the event of infiltration, there would be armed soldiers at the ready. We were promised that these soldiers would not be removed from the community until an underground barrier were put in place. Despite this, in January 2015, the soldiers were removed, causing much anger and a feeling of abandonment by many who lived in our communities.
Another challenge connected to this, is the lack of development in the Gaza Strip – because until the people of Gaza can be gainfully employed repairing and building homes, hospitals, schools and other public institutions that will make a dent in the high unemployment, and give Gazans a horizon for the future, they will continue to agree to go underground, to build and develop more tunnels of terror. What happens in Gaza has a direct influence on our lives, as well. Until they have something to live for, they will only have reasons to die for.
Out of 4300 rockets that were shot towards Israel during Operation Protective Edge, 1,400 of them hit Eshkol.
Blessing number five:
Regional development of transportation
In the past year, a new commuter train line, connecting Tel Aviv and Beer Sheva, running through Ofakim, Netivot and Sderot, opened, effectively bringing the center and the periphery much closer together. This has had a major impact on my life – it means that I can drive for 15 minutes to catch a train from Ofakim, and, armed with my laptop and the train wifi and electricity, be in Tel Aviv in an hour and a half, while I work (rather than drive) all that time.
Challenge number five:
In order for humanitarian supplies and materials to enable building, to get into the Gaza Strip, they must go through security checks, which are ONLY done at the border crossing in the southernmost part of our region, at the Kerem Shalom Border Crossing. This means that up to 1000 trucks a day barrel down our little two lane major artery – the 232. Road 232 is not built for such heavy traffic (both in volume as well as sheer weight of the heavy haulers) and makes driving in the area during certain times of the day difficult and even treacherous. The weight of the vehicles, in addition to the heavy rains this past winter, cause the road to crumble in many places, huge potholes yawning open. Too many of our residents have been killed and maimed in traffic accidents as a result (the most recent being a former colleague of mine, only two months ago).
Blessing number six:
Demographics: New families come to the area
Last summer my kibbutz, alone, absorbed 10 new families (20 members, 17 children). The entire Eshkol Region has absorbed 1000 people since the end of the summer of 2014.
Challenge number six:
There are still many who would love to live in the region for the quality of life and feeling of community that abound, but are afraid. And when the rockets start flying again (and there is no reason they won’t, because not only has the situation there not gotten better since the 2014 war, it has gotten much worse) there are no promises that these, and other families who have had more than their fill of the constant rounds of violence and war breaking out every 2-3 years, will not leave. The “resilient homefront” which the Government of Israel has always been proud of, and relied upon, is wearing down.
Blessing number seven:
In addition to the government funds that are being invested in our security, there are other bodies such as the JNF, with whom Betsy is affiliated, who help us feel that we are not alone. They have already invested generously in other regional councils on the border, and hopefully will continue to invest in projects in our Eshkol Region, which are essential to the welfare of our citizens and the continuing development of our area, such as the rocket proof fortified resilience center for which we are trying to raise funds.
Challenge number seven:
Unfortunately, with all the efforts and investments, until there is a solution to the problem: a far-reaching, long term political agreement, that can bring changes to the conditions in which the Gazans live, we will continue to live with the threats of rockets and tunnels. There are plans for ports which will enable Gaza to supply their needs without relying on our roads, our electricity – in general – to enable them to be independently self-sustaining. The plans for the ports have been devised by members of the Likud government (Yisrael Katz). There are peace initiatives that have been floated around by the moderate Arab states, as well as the French initiative. Until our government agrees to sit down and talk; until BOTH our governments agree to recognize the legitimacy of the other to exist, we will not be able to make a dent in the armor which on the one hand, protects us, but on the other, preserves the status quo of rounds of periodic violence an unsustainable living conditions.
The border has been relatively quiet since the end of Operation Protective Edge. But it’s a tenuous quiet, and we all know that it can be broken at any minute, catapulting us back to the many years of sporadic rocket fire, and the possibility of terrorist infiltration.
The area in which I live, has many challenges. It also has many blessings.
When I was a child, growing up in the Bronx, my dream was to open my door and see green. My dream came true. Now all we need is a little peace.
I want to thank the JNF for bringing me over here, to Betsy Fischer for the warm hospitality, (and the hosts whom I have yet to meet) and to Aaron Troy for the inspiration.