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Since Qassam rockets landed near his house in Kibbutz Nir Am on Friday, December 29, Moni Kaplan has been seized by gardening fever. Opposite the crater in the lawn where one of the Qassams landed, he planted pansies all week long. Kaplan, 86, slim and boyish-looking, explains, "I felt that I had to do something, not just sit around." Thus every day he weeds, hoes and plants his small plot of land, and then he goes on to the visit the neighbors, founders of the kibbutz like him, who have difficulty walking and certainly bending over.

The barrage hit the neighborhood of the veteran kibbutz members, "our soft underbelly," as one kibbutznik put it. About 40 houses were damaged, virtually all of them belonging to members over 80. The attack against people who are unable to run to the shelters led to an even stronger sense of helplessness on the kibbutz, and a feeling that "the state has abandoned us." More than anything else, it emphasized the urgency of their demand that the state provide proper security for their houses - a demand that until now has been totally rejected with the claim that there is no money.

On an ordinary Qassam-free winter day, everything here is green and peaceful. But it is a deceptive calm. To date this beautiful kibbutz, which is located opposite Sderot, about two kilometers from the Gaza town of Beit Hanun, has been hit by more than 400 Qassams. Although at first most of them landed in open areas, recently there has been a large number that have crashed into the middle of the kibbutz.

"We can no longer rely on luck," says Kaplan's daughter, Avital Nir. She says the tension and restlessness have increased after that barrage and the one before it. "It's like Russian roulette, it's impossible to live this way for the long term. We are already feeling tremendous burn-out," she explains. A social worker, Nir believes that the cumulative emotional damage is causing heightened violence in families and among teenagers and children in all the communities threatened by the Qassams.

Not a solution

Almost no kibbutzniks have left Nir Am so far, and the few who left have already returned. The discussion here is about coping, not about leaving. "I'm not saying that I want to die on this land, like the settlers. But it's a pragmatic issue. We have nowhere to go," says the secretary of the kibbutz, Avi Kadosh, who arrived here from Morocco in the 1970s. Adds Nir: "This is my ultimate house, it's an emotional thing; this is where I want to live." She says that her only internal dilemma concerns her children, "who did not choose to live here with daily tension." But in any case, she sees no alternative either.

Kadosh explains that although the reinforced rooms in every house do not provide a solution for people who walk around outdoors, they do provide security in the evening, when people are at home. One can see the melancholy-looking secretary's reluctance to emphasize the distress of the kibbutz, and particularly that of the old-timers. But the rules of the media-political game are not unfamiliar to him. A disaster must occur in order for him to receive protective means, Kadosh says bitterly. "On Kibbutz Zikim, which is near Ashkelon, a baby was hit. That's terrible, of course. But there they've had only one-tenth of the Qassams that have fallen here. And lo and behold, immediately after the accident they received reinforced rooms."

During the past five years, five years of Qassams, they have been reluctant here to expose the true situation, and have adopted a policy of deliberate vagueness. This was done out of the patriotic kibbutz ideal that forbids whining and making demands, and because of a naive desire to create a sense of business as usual, to protect the two industries on which the economy of the kibbutz is based: tourism and apartment rentals. Only this past year, very late in the game, did the kibbutzniks understand they had made a mistake - especially when they see how Sderot is receiving a large dose of public attention and sympathy, which will certainly be translated into funds. The old-timers have therefore been recruited for the struggle for protection. Three of them, Hannah Gershuni, 88, Kaplan, 86, and Shalom Landes, 84, even wrote a flowery request to the chair of the Pensioners Party faction in the Knesset, Moshe Sharoni, saying: "If no end to our life of suffering is in sight, then at least we won't be throwing our lives away to the mortars and the Qassams, if we live our lives protected by the simple means that are available to our country." Next week they will appear in the Knesset.

Shattered glass

The powerful impact of the Qassam strike shattered the windows of Gershuni's house. She was sitting in her small kitchen when the words "Code Red" were heard on the public-address system - the warning of a Qassam on the way. The warning usually comes a few minutes before the Qassam, but sometimes there is less time. For her, this is barely enough to get out of her chair. Her daughter, who had come for a visit from Tel Aviv, was leaving. While she was approaching the front door, the door shook and cracks appeared in it, recalls Gershuni. Within minutes neighbors and friends came to rescue her. "I kept saying, 'I'm all right, I'm all right.' Only now do I think that I was actually in shock," she says.

But a woman like Gershuni does not become dispirited. A few days later she is smiling defiantly, holding a sharp shard of glass that she found in the pocket of her red sweater, which was on her bed when the Qassam landed. Because of her age, Gershuni sits shriveled in her armchair - but she is not afraid, she says. Thoughts about death? What are you talking about? "I've done my job." She is worried about her children, her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren. She is still not considering leaving. During the 1948 War of Independence they evacuated the women and children from Nir Am, and that was enough for her. "Where would I go? What I need is a room without window panes," she says.

Gershuni, whose husband Zvi Gershuni served as a Labor MK in the 1960s, is one of the two surviving members of the original core group that founded the kibbutz in 1943. A member of the Gordonia Zionist movement in Romania, she came to Israel at age 17 and joined the group that was sent to settle the Negev. Life in the kibbutz was hard from the beginning, she explains. The small plot of land bought from the Arabs was not suitable for agriculture. There was no water or electricity. Over the years, innumerable groups came and went from Argentina, Turkey, France and other countries. Only a few remained. The conditions of life in the arid Negev were not hospitable, and the immigrants preferred other places.

Hard times

The veterans who have seen many hard times, like Gershuni, Landes and Kaplan, suffered less from the Qassams than from the kibbutz's privatization two years ago. "For us that was the real intifada," says Landes. He points an accusing finger at the kibbutz, which abandoned the founders.

Like the members of similar cooperative communities, Landes did not accumulate pension rights. Although he worked until age 79, served twice as the farm manager, was for 15 years the manager of the kibbutz's Michsaf silverware factory, and started its cattle industry, since the privatization he has been living on a very small allotment. The same is true of Moni Kaplan, who also served in senior jobs on the kibbutz, and Gershuni, who was the kibbutz nurse.

Although the kibbutz has increased their National Insurance Institute allotment from NIS 1,800 to NIS 3,300 a month, they pay NIS 900 in membership taxes from this sum. Landes spends NIS 500 of the remaining NIS 2,400 on medicine. Until recently, Kaplan did light work in the factory for NIS 500 a month, but in recent weeks he has not been asked to come work. He says that his sons and daughters give him money, and relatives from abroad also contribute modest sums occasionally. Landes and Kaplan, relatives who are both widowers, conduct a kind of joint cooperative household in order to survive.

"It's humiliating that we have to live from hand to mouth at our age," says Landes. "Today on the kibbutz it's every man for himself. The willingness to help is gone. Even on the national level there is no mutual assistance. Everything is measured in money. So why should they consider providing us with protection?"