Winnie the Pooh and the Red Alert: Life for Israeli children on the border

The playground in Nahal Oz, with a bomb shelter adorned with Winnie the Pooh and friends

How do families cope day by day, awaiting the next alert of a strike, always trying to stay one step ahead of Hamas? Picture in your mind a children’s playground. What do you see? Swings? A see-saw? Perhaps a climbing frame, with a slide? Some trees? Bomb shelters decorated with characters from Winnie the Pooh?  
 
For children living on the border with Gaza, a continuous and looming threat mortar rockets, or balloons with beautifully wrapped explosive ‘presents’ attached hangs over them.  Child-friendly bomb shelters are as much part of the setting as the swings, slides, and roundabouts in the playground of their community. 
 
I spoke to three mothers living in communities on the border, to learn more. 
 
Deborah lives in Kibbutz Zikim (Southern Israel, near Ashkelon and about half a mile from the Gaza strip) with her husband, and two daughters, aged 3 and 5, having moved to Israel 9 years ago from the US. With her daughters being 2 weeks and 2 years old when she moved to their first house in Zikim, Deborah remembers having to adjust quite quickly. It began with canceling plans to go out for fear a babysitter would not be able to grab both girls in time to run to the shelter, should a T’seva Adom (Red Alert) sound whilst they are out. 
     “It just ruins everything” she explains, sadly. “You don’t go out, and you feel guilty if you do because you’re out while your children have to run to the safe room”.  
          When asked what it’s like, living so close to Hamas, she tells me “well, it’s like living in a war zone, or near a volcano that’s ready to erupt at any time. It wasn’t that frequent when my husband was here before (he had lived in Zikim for a period before they were married), he would never have suggested moving here if it was”.

Deborah’s view of the smoke from an explosive balloon. The balloons are intended for young Israeli children.

She goes on to tell me how her children are affected. “We don’t have balloons at the girl’s birthdays anymore, the explosive balloons sent by Hamas have completely changed what they represent. My three-year-old daughter will react to the oven timer going off by asking if we have to go to the shelter. Both my children are afraid of the sounds of fireworks, cars backfiring, doors slamming, even if we are outside of Israel”.

Deborah also tells me how her daughters are trying to establish a sense of normality whilst living in a war zone;

The Children of Kibbutz Zikim have also decorated their shelters.

“The shelters get painted in colorful pictures by the children living here so that it’s more fun to run into them.  The kids are also taught a T’seva Adom song with dance moves in day-care, which my girls often act out with their barbie dolls at home. No one wants their children to have to learn that, but at least they are working through their reality”.

Mirjam moved from Holland to Nahal Oz (in the Northwest of the Negev desert, and about 14 miles from Gaza), home to the shelter that is painted with Winnie the Pooh and friends. In May of last year, their living room was struck by a rocket, which crashed through the roof whilst the family were in the safe room.

“Hamas fill the mortars with shrapnel” she explains to me, “and as soon as a mortar hits something, the shrapnel flies out everywhere, and can go through a lot of things, for example, a wooden closet. It will travel far too; you can still see the damage from 20 – 30 meters away from the house. You think every day that it is something that will never happen to you, and then it does, and suddenly, you are aware of the danger”.

The damage from the rocket to Mirjam’s living room.

She has one daughter, aged 4, and 2 sons, aged 9 and 10, who know all too well, the realities of growing up on the border. “My eldest son has a what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger type approach, but my middle son makes us all sleep in the safe room if there is a red alert anywhere in the vicinity, even if it isn’t near us, just to be sure. Currently, my daughter is telling us a lot of the time how she wants us to go back to Holland, where there are “no booms”. They play, go outside, hang out with friends like normal kids, but they are always aware of what could happen. Luckily, they do a lot of practice of what to do when the alert sounds, so they know what to do automatically because there is no time to have to think through what to do”. 
 
A fellow Nahal Oz resident, Oshrit, also tells of the chaos between the first alert and the strike of the rocket.  

“First of all, people are told that we get 15 seconds to find a safe place to hide. That simply is not the case, you could take a shower in 15 seconds, in reality, we have about 4 – 6 seconds. I have a young daughter and a handicapped son, who is getting heavier as he gets older, so it is even more difficult to get my family to safety. In fact, as a Mother on the border, it affects even the smallest of decisions, such as whether or not to open the window when one of my children has a fever, will it be safe enough?”.  She goes on to tell me about Operation Protective Edge, a 7-week conflict between Israel and Gaza in 2014.  

“It was called an Operation, but it was more like a war that lasted about 50 days. Three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and killed, and a whole city of Hamas terror attack tunnels was found”.  

She then tells me how she and her community affected by one of Nahal Oz’s most notorious fatalities, 4-year-old Daniel Tragerman who died as a result of being hit by the shrapnel of a mortar rocket around the time of OPE. “He was my best friend’s son” she explains “his death impacted not only me but everyone in Nahal Oz.  I was the demographic road manager at the time of his death and we were supposed to be accepting 15 new families that summer. However, because of what happened to Daniel, 17 families, most of those with children, left, out of a community of about 80 households. We had about 80 children, and 40 of them left. Of course, even I did what any sane mother would do, and began questioning whether it was wise to stay here”. 

She adds “With all these factors considered, I began to feel like I was in a personal war with Hamas, who are a terrorist group and terrorize both sides. I felt that I had to do something, which is why I am telling you my story. We now have 450 people living here, so I feel like I have won the war, and these people are like a family, we have been through so much together, so I am doing this for them”. 
 
In a story that rarely gets told, in three different families across two different Kibbutzim on the border, PTSD (or, as Oshrit puts it, CTSD – Current Traumatic Stress Disorder) has presented itself in one form or another in their lives. Through the direct impact of the landing of a rocket, to a more subtle, but ever-present awareness of the fact that disaster, could and always will, be just around the corner. In a reality that, to an outsider, seems so unreal, what messages do these three women have, that they wish to get across to those hearing their stories? 

“Education is so important,” says Deborah, “People need to get our stories out there so that they can understand the impact of this conflict that no one seems to care about”. Mirjam agrees, but also adds for those that would suggest that these families move, “People need to know that most of us moved here at peaceful times, and now that we are here, we have our lives, our friends, our jobs, we are rooted here now”.  

Oshrit also addresses this point, saying “I’ve lived all over Israel, there is nowhere on earth like Nahal Oz, it is my home. At the same time, Hamas doesn’t just want me out of Nahal Oz, they want me out of Israel, but where can I go? My family and I were expelled from the Middle East, and told ‘go to Israel you dirty Jews’, so where are we supposed to go now?” 
 
Unfortunately, the narrative of the Israelis in the story of the Arab Israeli conflict is often downplayed, their casualties often are forgotten and their voices unheard.  If we are to establish any kind of progress or attempts to move forward, we have to start paying attention to this side of the conflict. We need to begin to understand that the lives of Israeli children and their families are just as valuable as those of their neighbors on the other side of the border.

About the Author
Zara is a half British and half Pakistani ex-Muslim and Roman Catholic convert, who became interested in Arab-Israeli issues after visiting both Israel and Palestine to see both sides of the conflict. She has lived among and worked in the Jewish community, and is a Conservative Party activist. She is also a member of North London Friends of Israel.
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