As I reachedthe darkened potato field belonging to Kibbutz Nir Oz in the Western Negev, the houses of Gaza suddenly lit up. Gaza seemed so close, threatening and intriguing. Close enough to touch, yet impossible to know or to see how its residents spent their evenings. Was the power failure a few minutes earlier a result of a fuel shortage?
The Nir Oz fields are pitch-black. There were dim lights on the three combine harvesters that mounted orderly sand banks and dug out potatoes. Eshkol Regional Council patrolman Nicki Levy stood with his finger on the trigger of an M-16 rifle and occasionally glanced at the almost-full moon, which moved slowly above the field and illuminated it. "This would make a good target," Levy said, meaning the potato patch and the farmers working it. In the scary dark, light became an enemy.
The tension worsened with the requests of an officer from the Bedouin desert patrol battalion, Fadli Naim, who arrived to secure the place. "Do me a favor, stand behind the dirt embankment. Yesterday the bullets whistled right by us exactly at this spot," Naim demanded firmly.
Naim and Levy's descriptions of the previous night's events spoke of a battlefield. Skipping between the bullets of the Palestinian snipers, the mortar shells falling out of the fog and the Israeli army's response at the entrance to the Gaza Strip, which only brought worse fire.
This is potato harvest time, and the Israel Defense Forces asked that it take place at night to lower the risk of attack. Nir Oz farmers have come under Palestinian sniper fire dozens of times in the past few months. Fewer field hands are sent out, and any work entails IDF guards, tanks and lookouts along the border fence.
"It was awful," Moshe Hadar, a member of Nir Oz, said. "The fire did not stop from 8 P.M. until 5:30 A.M. Then I went to work, and the party here was still going on." The night before he was asked to "lend a hand," along with other veteran kibbutz members, after the hired hands who operated the combines asked to leave, because of the shooting. He came at once.
"Buddy, that's mine," he shouted over the noise of the machines, "I will do everything to protect my livelihood. This is my home."
On Monday night only three combines were working, operated by kibbutz members, with no field hands to sort the produce atop the combine.
The unprotected cabin Hadar sat in as he drove the combine was dark. The snipers might see the lights of the vehicle itself but cannot spot the operator. It's scary nonetheless. In open territory with the border fence about half a kilometer away, the phrase "sitting ducks" suddenly becomes palpable. Every squeak and rustle is a frightening intimation: "Where will the bullet come from and where will it hit?"
"This is Zionism 2008," Hadar explains his working despite the shooting, "It's easy to stand up and say 'not me.' Then who, if not me and my son. I can understand the hired hands. But a kibbutz member is obligated."
His eldest son, Tamir, operates another combine in the field. "My son spent his military service at Philadelphi," Hadar said, referring to a strategic corridor along the Gaza Strip between Israel and Egypt, "and he went through the Second Lebanon War, so at home he isn't going to work?"
In between small talk about the media and city-versus-kibbutz life, Hadar spoke of his disappointment in a government that "does not offer solutions" and leaves the country's civilians who live near the Gaza Strip feeling "like there's no daddy looking out for you. It's a bad feeling."
Close to 11 P.M. four mortar shells fall in the fields of kibbutzim further to the north. A big boom is heard west of the fence. Moments later a pager message reports the liquidation of a cell in the Gaza Strip. The field crops foreman, Moshe David, whose vehicle was hit in the events of the night before, telephones from home, worried. "Go back to sleep," Arye Zalman, 70, tells him. The combine mechanic, Tawfiq Tarabin, from the Bedouin town of Rahat, lit a campfire in preparation for the coffee break. "It's quiet tonight, weird," Hadar said. "You haven't given up yet? Go to bed," he addressed the journalists waiting to document the shooting attack. The farmers went back to work and Zalman told Fadli Naim at length about "the Arab road" that Moshe Dayan in his day ordered paved after the Six-Day War for the people of Khan Yunis.
Shahar Batya, 24, has an armor-plated combine. He smoked his Noblesse cigarette only on the way back to the produce containers, when the door is on the eastern side, so he could open it without being exposed to fire from Gaza to the west. He has come under fire a number of times. "The snipers take position in a school house that's close to the fence," Batya said. As for his dangerous line of work, he said: "These are the values we were raised on - it's working the land... Peace Now." An embarrassed smile covers his face. "Listen, nowadays I find myself using expressions that never used to be part of my lexicon. Suddenly you find yourself saying, 'Let's kill them,' and it sucks because I always believed there's a chance. I remember my childhood, running in these fields with Walid and Jessan [laborers from Gaza]. We'd bring them in the morning from the Erez Crossing and work here together. Lord knows where they are now," he said.
Like Hadar, Batya believes that "it's easier not to work the land. But the situation isn't going to change anytime soon. When will it change? That you have to ask in Jerusalem," he said.
At dawn, their shift over, Hadar, his son and Batya were replaced by two kibbutz members operating the two armor-plated machines. Naim remained to guard the field. Now the Gazan schoolhouse was visible, a white building two stories high.
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