I live on Kibbutz Nirim on the border with the Gaza Strip. My home is a five minute jog from one of the attack tunnels Hamas dug under the border in order to send terrorists to attack the closest Israeli towns. That tunnel was discovered during last year’s war; a war which, although never declared as such, turned my home community into a battlefield.
On the very last day of that horrible war, in the very last hour, the rockets fired from Gaza exploded in the kibbutz where our people were trying to restore electricity that had been knocked out by one of the morning barrages. Two neighbors of mine were killed and a third lost both of his legs and almost died.
It’s coming up to a year since Operation Protective Edge. The first year of a significant loss is so tender…so difficult. Throughout that first year, it’s so very fresh, that the scars of loss flare up and become once-again raw each time there is another community holiday or milestone. All of the “firsts” melt together into bittersweet milestones:
NewYears-Hanukkah-Purim-Passover-DriversLicense-GraduationCeremony…or whatever without those we lost. Those personal and communal events which should be celebrated, instead are commemorated, together with the losses of naivety and the oh so personal feeling of relative safety.
Throughout last year’s conflict I remained in my home, in my community, the entire time (but for one night – the very last – the very-most-horrible one) writing, bearing witness, giving interviews to the press, helping out as best I could. Since then, every so often, a group or a dignitary contacts me to ask for a tour, an explanation, a rendition, of what really happened here, through my eyes.
Whenever I can, I comply.
Last week two groups from abroad visited us, and I proudly described life here on the border. The group of participants were warm, empathetic and supportive. For the most part, they asked the questions that I am used to — the same ones that confound most people who come to visit us here, such as: “Why didn’t you leave?” and “Why do you remain?”. This time, however, what was surprising was that I was asked new questions that I have never been asked before, and asked separately by two different people, from two different groups: “Do you feel angry?”, and “Do you feel resentment?”
I have experienced a mixture of emotions throughout my experiences here on the border, but neither anger nor resentment were ones that had ever played a big part in that pool. If pressed, I guess I could say that I was angry at the lack of communication or information that might have been passed down to our our men outside, exposed and so utterly vulnerable, as they worked to fix the electricity on August 26th, costing them lives and limbs as a ceasefire was being negotiated. I suppose I could say that I resented the fact that the geo-political climate in which we live does not allow us (on either side of the border) to develop this region into the potential paradise it could be. I suppose, then, I could say that “frustration” is what I feel, more than anything else. In fact, I am grateful that I am not dominated by “anger” and “resentment”, since these are emotions that would only prevent me from taking action — and in our community, “moving on” IS the operative theme .
Within this past year, my kibbutz has worked ardently to “move on”. Of course that does not suggest that we are forgetting our beloved friends. How could we? Even if we wanted to, the location of their violent deaths is in the heart of our community. We pass it on the way to the pool, or while dashing to the little store to pick up groceries or on the way to eat a meal in the kibbutz dining room. We cherish their memories, ache at their absences, give emotional support to their widows and children, and, yet, at the same time, rebuild our lives. I have no doubt that that is how they, our beloved friends, would have wanted it.
Members of the kibbutz went on a partially subsidized weekend trip to beautiful northern Israel. We had day-long meetings of brainstorming and think-tanking to try to devise ways to improve our communal lives. One idea was the founding of voluntary groups of people to take turns making communal Thursday evening dinners at cost-price, to attract as many families as possible. We have also opened up our doors to absorbing new families onto the kibbutz and have welcomed no less than 11 young families who are investing their lives and families in Nirim (with more waiting in the wings).
Maybe, if my visitors had asked someone else, “anger” and “resentment” would have featured more highly on their scale. But I tend to lean towards reactions that will empower rather than enslave and chain me to pessimism. I am lucky enough to be able to focus on the rebuilding and restrengthening of our community. That has been MY modus operandi. That has been the way to go for most of my neighbors here, in this green oasis, including Gadi Yarkoni who, after losing both legs in that attack on the last day of the war, went on to heal and then run and win the race for mayor of the Eshkol Region.
Last summer also sowed the seeds for the founding of The Movement for the Future of the Western Negev – a non-partisan, grassroots political movement that sprouted from among young families in the Western Negev and lobbies to encourage our government to move forward to find political solutions. Clearly, this is not a conflict that can be solved by armed weapons – it can ONLY be solved by diplomacy. Until the Gazans have something to live for, they will only have something to die for. Until Gaza is rebuilt, our safety will remain precarious. We want to be good neighbors. We’ve always dreamed of that ideal situation. I can still remember when there were plans to build a maternity hospital down the road from me, at the Kissufim crossing, to serve women from the Western Negev, as well as Gaza. It can happen again.
Until then, I will continue to tell our story (when asked to look back), but I trust that together, the people of our community will continue to look forward, finding ways to make our lives here ever better and ever brighter. After all, you can’t move forward if you are always looking back.
In hopes that the only sounds we hear will be those of the tractors in the fields, the birds in the trees and the laughter of children in the playground. As long as we continue to need safe rooms scattered around our communities, at least they can be beautiful.
The paintings you see here on the side of the saferoom were created by our very own caricaturist and graphic artist, Arnon Avni, born here on Nirim and living here all his life. The fees paid by the good people from the Wexner Foundation for their visit here will enable two more saferooms to be decorated. I am grateful to them for their generosity and caring.