Why Would Anyone Live on the Gaza Border?

They have been living under the threat of rockets for 14 years, but the area's special pull keeps the residents there.

Danna Harman
Judy Maltz
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A man looks at cars destroyed by mortar fire in Kibbutz Nahal Oz, on the Gaza border with Israel, during the 2014 conflict.
A man looks at cars destroyed by mortar fire in Kibbutz Nahal Oz, on the Gaza border with Israel, during the 2014 conflict.Credit: AP
Danna Harman
Judy Maltz

The discovery of Hamas-built tunnels under their homes was the pretext for Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza, and the existential threat posed by constant mortar fire over their heads, it would seem, was what ultimately convinced the government to end the fighting.

Their homes and fields delineate Israel’s border with Gaza, and in the latest round of fighting, residents of these agricultural communities served as the country’s shock absorbers, taking the brunt of the blows. But a question on the minds of many was how long could they hold up.

Their homes and property suffered heavy damages from direct rocket hits. Large swaths of their farmlands were devastated by army tanks rolling through them. And the three Israelis killed over the past week, including a four-year-old boy, were members of their own kibbutzim.

Dozens of agricultural communities surround Israel’s border with Gaza, the smallest numbering a few dozen members and the largest with more than 1,000. For the past 14 years, ever since the outbreak of the Second Intifada, they have been living, off and on, under the threat of cross-border rocket fire. For many of the young families who call this westernmost stretch of the Negev desert home, it was the third time in just over five years – first during Operation Cast Lead in 2009 and then during Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 – that they were forced to pick up and leave out of fear for their children’s safety.

There are definitely more beautiful spots in the country, near the mountains and the sea. Job opportunities are far more plentiful elsewhere, and the cultural life leaves something to be desired. So what attracts these Israelis to this particular slice of earth, located just a stone’s throw away from one of the world’s most dangerous borders?

On the first day of the ceasefire, Haaretz asked residents of these border communities – some who hail from very distant lands – to explain the special pull of this place for them. It turns out a key draw, believe it or not, is the quiet, safety and tranquillity this place offers -- that is, when war isn't waging in their backyards. And here’s what else they had to say:

Evelyn Zinchenko, Kerem Shalom

Her mom, who lives back in the Ukraine, is very worried. Her parents-in-law, who live in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, complain they are losing sleep.

“Its funny. I usually worry about them where they are, and now it has turned around. But in truth, I feel fine here,” announces 33-year-old Evelyn Zinchenko, the kibbutz secretary at Kerem Shalom, a tiny kibbutz of 50 young adults and 55 children situated closer to the Gaza border than any other Israeli settlement.

“Over there, right under that,” says Zinchenko, pointing out a striped blue and white concrete tower some 200 meters away, “that’s where Gilad Shalit was kidnapped.” “And over here,” she continues with the tour, “you can see that a mortar has smashed through this kibbutz member’s living room last week.” “Oh, and down the road, a few minutes away, there,” she nods her head, “is the Egyptian border. We have that here too.”

During the long weeks of this past summer, with two or three Hamas mortars and rockets falling on or nearby this kibbutz every day, almost all the members packed up and left. But not Zinchenko, who stayed put, ducking in and out of the shelters when need be and lying on the side of the road when sirens stopped her commute, as they did daily, to her job at a candy wrapper factory in a nearby kibbutz.

A leggy blond who favors mini-skirts and sports dark movie star glasses and little silver turtle on a chain around her neck, Zinchenko probably did not imagine she would end up living here, on 10,000 dunams of potatoes, radishes, carrots and nuts. But she likes it.

A non-Jew, Zinchenko followed her Jewish boyfriend Roman from the Ukraine to Israel when she was 18. The couple got married and lived in Petach Tikva for a while, but the whole kibbutz ideology beckoned. “Not everything about Socialism was so bad,” she argues. “Look at the Ukraine…everyone I know there now wants out of the capitalist thing!”

“Roman kept saying ‘kibbutz, kibbutz, kibbutz, its great! And then he would say ‘and the beer is free of Fridays!’ and so I was like ‘great!’”

She envisioned a kibbutz by the sea, maybe up north somewhere – but when the couple turned to the kibbutz movement to ask for guidance, they were directed here. They took the bus down from Petach Tikva to check it out. “It was such a small community and they really needed people. We are young. We thought we could contribute, and in a way it also reminded me of the USSR. It looked like it was falling apart. I so was like, ‘let’s move.’”

Alon Pauker, Be’eri

When he was an undergraduate student at Tel Aviv University, Alon Pauker recalls the sense of relief he would feel at the end of each week when he could finally return home and “breathe.” Don’t get him wrong, says the 48-year-old father of three. Tel Aviv is a great city – but just to visit.

Aside from his university days, Pauker, a historian of the kibbutz movement, has spent almost his entire life on the Gaza border. He was born on Kibbutz Nir Oz and moved with his wife and three children eight years ago to Be’eri, the largest kibbutz in the area and one of the country’s wealthiest, where members, like in the good old days, still eat three meals a day together in the communal dining hall. Pauker’s wife, Adi, has one-upped him, having already lived on three kibbutzim in the area: She was born on Mifalsim, a kibbutz founded by Argentinian immigrants.

“We were raised here, we started our careers here, and for us, this place has a certain magic,” Pauker explains their attraction to life in this part of the country. “I identify with the ideals of the kibbutz movement, and what I especially love about kibbutz life is that there’s a freer inter-personal dynamic.”

Until Operation Cast Lead, he says, there was a feeling among residents here that the conflict with Gaza was a passing thing, and the advantages of life in this part of the country – among them the ability to allow their children to roam free and not lock up their homes – outweighed the disadvantages. But following the latest 50-day-war, he says, many are beginning to question whether the sacrifices are worth it. If a permanent solution to the conflict isn’t reached, he warns, “people are going to start leaving in masses.”

Janet Swierzanski, Nir Yitzhak

“Leo was a serious Zionist. I did not think for a moment I could get him to stay in Uruguay,” says Janet Swierzanski, a vivacious 48-year-old Uruguayan, who met her Argentinean-turned-Israeli husband – the said Leo – when he came to Montevideo as an emissary of the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair Jewish youth movement.

“That,” she laughs – sitting down under a certificate reading “Award for Outstanding Potato Quality,” in the agriculture caravan out of where she works – “was a long time ago.”

Swierzanski has been living here at Nir Yitzhak – one of the region’s biggest (with some 550 members) and wealthiest kibbutzim – for 17 years. Both her children, today aged 16 and 13, know nothing but kibbutz life.

“Back in Uruguay I had planned to become a journalist. And I was a city girl,” says Swierzanski. “I was a Zionist too, but if I imagined myself in Israel it was, maybe, in Tel Aviv. I did not even consider a kibbutz.” But her husband-to-be loved the kibbutz life, and Swierzanski made her calculations. “’Look, what’s important in life?” she asks.

“I fell in love, both with Leo, and after that, with the kibbutz life too,” she said. “I made good friends – the community is very warm – and our kids have a great education. It’s a challenge building a kibbutz, which gives my life meaning – and it very peaceful and quiet here,” she says. “Usually.”

This summer, with mortar and rocket attacks from across the border, soldiers camping out on their back lawns, and tanks rolling through their fields, was not easy. It began a week before the official start of hostilities, when the communal Bar Mitzvah celebration of Swierzanski son and others in his age group came to an abrupt halt because of the shellings. “We tried to hand out the cakes we had made in the safe rooms, but it was pretty sad. It was the first time we ever had to cancel a Bar Mitzvah here,” she says.

In the early days, she did not fully register where she was geographically, Swierzanski admits – and in any case, living alongside Gaza did not seem particularly dangerous. Palestinians were still working on the kibbutz back then, and the bus from Tel Aviv to here still passed through Gaza. “The threat back then was in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv – that where the terror attacks were. For years, we were afraid to go there because that was scary,” she recalls.

Siobhan Rahamim, Nahal Oz

She arrived as a volunteer. A bright eyed Irish Catholic sociology student at Ealing, Hammersmith & West London College, who wanted to experience something new.

“When we were sitting in the bomb shelter the other day, my youngest daughter tuned to me and said: ‘Why did you come here? We could have been living in London now,” says Siobhan Rahamim, now 54, Jewish, and a long term member of Kibbutz Nahal Oz, population 350. “I said, ‘They don’t like us in London either. And, you would not survive one winter there.’ That got her.”

“I am not as optimistic about everyone returning. I think like a mother,” continues Rahamim, getting serious and reflecting on the past weeks, which reached their lowest point, for most everyone on this kibbutz, with the death of Daniel Tragerman, a 4-year-old son of members here who did not have time to rush to shelter during a rocket attack.

“The men see the solution and want to get there – but for the women it will take a while. What happened was very traumatic. It could have been anyone’s child,” she says.

“I think what happened in Nahal Oz last week, with the death of this boy, had an impact on the entire nation,” adds Daniel Rahamim, the kibbutz’s spokesman and the reason Siobhan never made it back to London. “If the country cannot understand and is does not connect to what is happening here and do something about it – then this community could collapse,” he warns.

“The ceasefire is not the end of it,” says Rahamim, agreeing. “We shoot. They shoot. Killing brings more hatred, on both sides. We just have to sit down and talk,” she says.

Ironically, almost, it was always the quiet and safety for her three children here that Rahamim would point to when asked about kibbutz life. “Our children get a great education here – and, its safe and they can also grow up playing outside and biking to their friends without any fear of cars.”

Beyond that, there is a sense of purpose too, she attests: “Our lives have meaning here which goes beyond the regular. We have found ourselves, over the years, protecting our homes and this kibbutz – which has become so dear.”

Yehiel Tchlenov, Nahal Oz

Named for his grandfather, the long-serving chairman of the Russian Zionist Congress, this Yehiel Tchlenov is a less buttoned-up sort. On this peaceful early evening – the first full day of quiet in what seems like an endless summer of rocket barrages and sirens, the 79-year-old is lounging around his tidy kibbutz home in shorts and a sports t-shirt, reading the papers and considering some instant coffee and a slice of cake.

“We were filled with motivation and desperate to be pioneers,” he says, harkening back to 1953, when he and 60 other members of his youth movement first set eyes on this barren land. “We wanted to build a new settlement, we didn’t even care where. We wanted to create something totally new – not go where others were already.”

He never really missed Tel Aviv, where he was born and grew up, he says. “What did we have there to miss?” he asks. In those days it was not like today, with everyone out playing and hanging out all day at cafes, he laughs. For him and his friends, the biggest – and basically only—Tel Aviv treat involved a trip to the “Bar Americani” down at the bottom of Allenby street where they would indulge in a rare and oh-so-wonderful banana split. So, yes, true, there were no banana splits in Nahal Oz – but there was, he says, a sense of purpose.

“We were here, and we were protecting the border. We felt good about ourselves and what we were creating,” he says.

“The scenery was – and still sort of is – sort of boring here. God was tired by the time he hit this land,” he reflects and chuckles. “We don’t have forest or streams or hills, but what beauty we have is man-made, and in fact, we made it, which is some accomplishment.”

Tchlenov, one of only five of the original founders of Nahal Oz who still lives on the kibbutz, lives alone these days. His wife passed away after a long illness, and his two daughters, grown now, decided kibbutz life was not for them anymore. He considered leaving many times himself, he will admit – but not, he stresses, because of the security situation. If anything, the past summer has made him more determined to stick around. “The real test is – what now?” he says. “I want to be here for it.”  

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