More than 50 agricultural communities, most of them kibbutzim, dot Israel’s 32-mile border on the east and north of the Gaza Strip. Some sit right on the edge, while others are situated a few kilometers away – though still within easy range of Hamas rocket and mortar fire. Barring times of war and isolated incidents, these pastoral communities tend to mind their own business and not make waves.
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But this summer’s 50-day war with Gaza put them on the map in a big way: The tunnels discovered under their homes were the main reason Israel launched its cross-border ground offensive, and the mortar shells raining on their heads were the main reason the government eventually agreed to a truce. Save for a few short-lived ceasefires, these communities became ghost towns over the summer, most of their residents taking shelter in safer parts of the country.
The Gaza border communities are not on most travelers’ itineraries. And even for many Israelis, in many cases, their names hardly ring a bell (most seem to be some variation of the words “nir” and “oz”). In fact, here are 10 things you probably didn’t know about this sliver of country that played a starring role in the dramatic events of summer 2014:
1. They’re not settlements, at least not that type. Although their residents live in close proximity to Palestinians, the Gaza border communities are not located on disputed or “occupied” lands. Rather, they fall well within Israel’s internationally recognized borders.
2. Their residents are not right-wingers. Being on the receiving end of so much hostility, on and off for the past 14 years, hasn’t made these largely left-wing kibbutzniks any more hardline. In fact, in last year’s election, most residents here voted for Labor and parties left of it. At Nahal Oz, where a four-year-old boy was killed last week, right-wing parties barely captured 10 percent of the vote in the last election. At Nirim, where two members were killed this week in a mortar attack, 47 percent of the vote went to the left-wing Meretz. At Nir Am, where tunnels were discovered the first week of the war, Green Leaf, a single-issue party bent on legalizing marijuana, received more votes than the ruling Likud.
3. They’re growing. Despite the on-and-off fighting of recent years, more people are moving into these border communities than leaving. Feeding this population growth have been many children of residents, now coming back with their own families after leaving their childhood homes after the army. Sure, nostalgia has played a role, but so too has the opportunity to take advantage of grandma and grandpa for babysitting services while they pursue their careers.
4. Former Gaza settlers live among them. When Israel evacuated the Jewish Gush Katif settlement bloc in 2005 during the Gaza pullout, some of the displaced residents established a cluster of new agricultural cooperatives on the other southern tip of the border here. They were not the only evacuees to relocate to this part of the country: Among the founders of Ein Habsor, Sde Avraham, Dekel, Yated and Yevul – a group of agricultural cooperatives in this westernmost stretch of the Negev – were former residents of Yamit and other Sinai settlements handed over to Egypt after the 1979 peace treaty.
5. Idaho in Israel. The Gaza border kibbutzim account for most of Israel’s potato production. In fact, if you’ve ever consumed a bag of “tapuchips” – the famous Israeli brand of potato chips – rest assured they were made from potatoes grown in this region. But not only potatoes come from here. Many of the country’s fruits and vegetables, as well as a lot of its wheat and nuts, are grown out here. In fact, in recent years, many of Israel’s famous citrus groves, once based in the central Sharon region, have moved out here to take advantage of cheaper land.
6. Habla Espanol? If so, you’ll feel right at home in this part of the country. Many of the kibbutzim along the border with Gaza were founded by Argentinean Jews, members of Zionist youth movements who immigrated to Israel in the 1950s and 1960s. Among those where you’ll still find a predominance of Spanish speakers are Kissufim, Nirim, Mifalsim, Gvulot, Ein Hashlosha and Or Haner. Another South American enclave in the area is Bror Chayil, a kibbutz founded by a group of pioneering Brazilians.
7. Gaza was once considered a friendly place. Many of the old-timers here recall a time when they would take day trips to Gaza to swim at its beautiful beaches, dine at local hummus joints and have their bicycles repaired. Camel hair carpets weaved in Gaza were once a common fixture on their living room floors. To this day, some remain in touch with Gaza residents who once worked in their homes and on their farms. Hard as it may be to believe now, there was a time when they would take a shortcut route to Tel Aviv by driving through Gaza.
8. Kibbutz life, as it once was, still exists here. Since the 1980s, most of Israel’s kibbutzim have undergone various degrees of privatization, so that by now, there remain few of the old-school type where everything is shared equally. Some relics do exist, and at least two of them can be found near the Gaza border. At both Alumim and Be’eri, members still congregate three times a day for meals in the communal dining hall. More importantly, there’s no cash register on the premises, since food is still provided to members here free of charge.
9. Their code word for evacuation. Nobody likes to see an empty community, least of all during a war. After all, what kind of message does that send the enemy? So the residents of these border communities have invented a new code word for going away – and that’s to avoid the awful term “evacuation.” The Hebrew word for “break” is “hafugah.” The residents of the Gaza border community prefer a term that sounds similar but has a bit of a different meaning: It’s “hafagah.” The difference is that unlike a “hafugah,” a “hafagah” is not for the purpose of rest and relaxation and not for a predetermined amount of time. After all, when war is waging, how can you know when you’ll be back home, and how can you really rest and relax?
10. A former enclave of anarchy. Kerem Shalom, a tiny kibbutz on the southernmost tip of this region that borders both Gaza and Egypt, is now home to a multicultural, politically diverse group of residents. But it wasn’t always that way. The original kibbutz, established in 1968, was once an Israel hotbed of radical left-wing anarchism. In 1995, when it closed down, many of the original founders went on to establish Neve Shalom, a Jewish-Arab cooperative village. After sitting dormant for quite a few years, Kerem Shalom was re-inhabited in 2001 by an entirely new group of members, most of whom work outside the kibbutz today, and according to their representatives, rarely discuss politics.