Nahal Oz Hopes to Outsmart Gaza Attackers

From the helipad at Kibbutz Nahal Oz in the Western Negev, spread out among wheat fields located a few hundred meters from the perimeter fence, only the cowshed was visible last weekend. Closely planted groves and avenues of trees surround most of the kibbutz's homes, concealing them from prying eyes to the southwest, in the Gaza Strip. Kibbutz members planted these trees in 1957, aided by the Jewish National Fund, to conceal homes and people from the Egyptian army's artillery fire in those years.

More than 50 years have passed, the kibbutz developed and grew beyond its protective tree line, and a peace treaty was signed with Egypt. But the shooting has gone on, the artillery being replaced by mortar shells fired by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip. Shells land without warning almost daily.

While the government declares "we will not fortify ourselves to death," and various defense officials make daily pronouncements about Hamas' developing weapons arsenal, the members of Nahal Oz are resorting to the old "defensive forestry" method. The idea is to keep the enemy's targets out of view, thereby reducing the accuracy of their attacks.

The driving force behind the project, Zvika Halevy, 73, points out that at Kibbutz Kfar Aza, which lost a member, Jimmy Kedoshim, a few weeks ago, "whoever fired that volley had a clear view of the results through lookouts on the other side." The assumption, he says, is that lookouts are posted to identify hits, then the militants direct their fire to the same spot.

Halevy says forestation can turn the accurate fire from the Gaza Strip into blind fire, minimizing the statistical chances of a direct hit, noting though that "we have learned over the years that blind fire can also kill."

The security situation in the south is not "a fleeting episode," Halevy says, and Palestinian militants are developing more accurate weaponry. "I believe that if someone tries to aim antitank missiles, he'll be looking for illuminated houses or exposed communities, not a clump of trees."

Besides mortar fire, Nahal Oz is in danger of terrorist infiltration. Kibbutz member Moran Freibach explains that the fields outside the kibbutz serve as a buffer between them and the Gaza Strip. "That area is exposed all the way to the Gaza Strip, and we are counting on it to be a buffer zone so the army and kibbutz security guards will manage to prevent infiltrations," he says. "Nonetheless we are still worried about tunnels being dug from the Strip to the kibbutz. When we barbecue at the kibbutz, we joke that someone might suddenly pop out of the ground," Freibach adds.

According to Halevy and Freibach, the forestation initiative has the blessing of GOC Southern Command Yoav Galant and other army officers. In a meeting with the Gaza Division commander, Brigadier General Moshe (Chiko) Tamir, "he said it would be nice if all the communities would take up this initiative," Halevy says.

So far some 40 new dunams have been planted at Nahal Oz. "I tried to use species of large trees, that grow fast and don't guzzle water, because you can't go crazy here with the water," Halevy says. Freibach cites species such as Israeli Eucalyptus, Barnea olive, mulberry and other trees that have been planted for defense.

Nahal Oz was founded in 1953 by the United Kibbutz Movement (the TAKAM), and soon became the target for Egyptian army troops and Palestinian gunmen. On April 29, 1956, kibbutz member and security chief Ro'i Rutenberg was murdered in an ambush by Egyptian soldiers. His death made Rutenberg a legend, and the eulogy that chief of staff Moshe Dayan read at his funeral became a formative document. Halevy, who was a close friend of Rutenberg's, assumed his duties. "Those were different times," Halevy says. "Back then we felt we were part of a national effort to hold onto the border. Today, because of statements like 'we won't fortify ourselves to death' there is a national anti-morale," he explained, referring to a statement a few months ago by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. "That is not a leaderlike statement. You can't keep on dithering; image also contains an element of deterrence. Dayan, with Ben-Gurion's backing, said at the time that 'we cannot prevent serious injury to the population, but we can demand a high price for it.' Credibility has great weight," Halevy concludes.