Word of the Day Otef Aza: 'Wrapping Round' the Gaza Strip

Are the border kibbutzim the 'Gaza envelope' or, to revive a failed Hebrew word, Israel's condom?

Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova
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'Otef Aza' - the term for towns by the Strip - literally means "wrapping Gaza", like a protective shield.
'Otef Aza' - the term for towns by the Strip - literally means "wrapping Gaza", like a protective shield.Credit: Haaretz
Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova

Israelis often use a quasi-geographic term to refer to the towns and kibbutzim on or near Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip: otef Aza. On a literal level, that means something like “wrapping around Gaza.”

Aza is the Hebrew pronunciation of Gaza. But what exactly is otef in this context?

Let’s take a look at other forms of the word, which also refer to wrapping, but can be seen as containing an element of protection as well. The Hebrew blessing for putting on a tallit, the fringed shawl worn during morning prayers that is meant to remind wearers of God’s commandment - and that can also be said to symbolize God’s protection - is “Blessed are you, Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe, who has sanctified us with his commandments and commanded us to wrap ourselves [lehitatef] in tzitzit.”

You might use another form of the word at the bookstore, asking the clerk to please giftwrap that carefully chosen biography or short-story collection – la’atof et ze lematana, literally “wrap it for a present.”

If you want to do all that creasing and taping yourself, you’ll need to make sure you have some niyar atifa, or wrapping paper, both to make your present look pretty and to protect it from getting dirty or ruined before you have a chance to give it to its intended recipient.

Ma’atafa means “envelope,” that piece of folded paper that wraps up the enclosed letter and keeps it safe from prying eyes. The linguistic link between otef and ma’atafa has given rise to one of the English-language translations sometimes used for otef Aza: “the Gaza envelope,” which, though not as clear as “Gaza border zone,” is not too far off as a nearly literal translation.

And then there’s ma’atof, a failed effort at creating a popular Hebrew word for “condom” – that rubber object that wraps a certain male organ to protect against unwanted pregnancy and disease. In fact, many an amateur comedian has joked that Israel’s Operation Protective Edge tzuk sounds like it could be a condom slogan.

As for otef itself, which modifies the Strip in the term otef Aza, the Even Shoshan dictionary offers a very specific, and strikingly out-of-touch, definition that treats otef solely as a noun referring to a person who wraps: “A worker in a packing house who wraps fruit in special paper before it is packed into crates.”

It’s no coincidence that many of the Israelis who live near the Gaza border – who live in otef Aza, that is – are residents of kibbutzim. Those were often strategically established in locations where they would be well-placed to defend the country’s borders.

Over the last several years, those southern communities have been Israel’s condom, so to speak - absorbing most of the rocket fire coming from the Gaza Strip as the rest of the country felt itself to be largely impregnable.

In the last few weeks, of course, while otef Aza has continued to wrap around the Strip, it has no longer kept militants’ minds off the attractions of the rest of the country, and has recently also been subject to Hamas penetration through underground tunnels.

As the latest Israel-Gaza war continues with no end in sight, many people on both sides of a border that seems to have become nearly as permeable as wrapping paper look forward to the day when this whole conflict has gotten all wrapped up.

To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.

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