Living in a War Zone: Why Are So Many Israelis Settling Near Gaza?

In recent years, hundreds of Israeli families have moved to one of the most dangerous parts of Israel. They tell Haaretz what drove them to move to a conflict zone

Eyal Atar, a new resident at Kibbutz Kfar Aza in southern Israel, June 17, 2018.
\ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

KEREM SHALOM – In August, Lital Ben-Ezra and her family will be leaving their comfortable apartment in one of Israel’s fastest growing cities and moving to a tiny kibbutz barely a stone’s throw away from the Gaza border.

And they couldn’t be more excited.

“For years, my husband and I have been dreaming of life on a kibbutz,” says the 35-year-old mother of two from Rishon Letzion. “Living smack in the center of Israel, you have no idea what’s really going on in the rest of the country. For us, this move is a calling.”

It doesn’t get more remote in Israel than Kerem Shalom. Situated on the southernmost tip of the border with the Gaza Strip, this kibbutz – originally established in 1968 – also shares a border with Egypt.

Remnants of flaming kites launched from Gaza, strewn on the grounds here and hanging from trees, serve as the latest reminder of the risks involved in living this close to a hostile population.

But Ben-Ezra is not perturbed – even after a recent weekend spent at the kibbutz when thousands of Palestinian protesters were threatening to breach the border just a few hundred meters away. “It didn’t scare me at all,” she says. “I know that the army is well spread out in the area, and everyone on the kibbutz was remarkably calm. So while we came down here hoping to strengthen our soon-to-be-neighbors, we actually left feeling strengthened by them.”

The Ben-Ezras are among seven families that will be moving to Kerem Shalom this summer. Another seven families will be joining them later in the year. Considering that only 24 families live here now, this isolated kibbutz is about to experience a major population boom.

And it is not the only place. During Israel’s 50-day war in Gaza in the summer of 2014, life became so dangerous in the border communities – as Hamas rockets and mortar shells rained down on them constantly – that most residents were evacuated. Remarkably, the trauma of that experience didn’t drive many people away. Even more remarkably, over the past few years, hundreds of new families from around the country have chosen to move down here – often against the advice of concerned friends and relatives.

Like Ben-Ezra, many of the newcomers say their motivation is idealistic: A desire to help fortify and secure Israel’s most vulnerable border. Others cite the natural beauty of the region and the more relaxed pace of life. For some, it is the strong sense of community and child-friendly atmosphere that beckon. Almost all the new transplants cite greater affordability as a major factor in their decision.

New homes being built in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, southern Israel, June 17, 2018.
\ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

‘Safer than the big city’

Over 50 agricultural communities, most of them kibbutzim, dot Israel’s 51-kilometer (32-mile) border on the east and north of the Gaza Strip. Some of them sit right on the edge, where they have little to no warning of Hamas rocket and mortar fire (at best, warning sirens give them 15 seconds to find shelter). They are also in easy range of the flaming kites that have destroyed thousands of dunams of agricultural fields and nature reserves over the past two months.

Eshkol Regional Council, which includes Kerem Shalom, is by far the largest locality in the area, with more than 30 communities under its jurisdiction. According to Tzurit Yarchi – who coordinates Eshkol’s population recruitment efforts – the number of residents in these communities has grown 10 percent since the 2014 war, to total 16,000.

“It’s even more impressive if you take into account that these are communities where families have to go through a whole acceptance process before they’re allowed to move in,” she says. “It’s not like moving to the big city.”

Israelis who move to this part of the country, she says, are well aware of the dangers endemic to the region, but tend to view them within the larger context of trade-offs in life. “When I ask them if they’re not scared, many tell me that, barring the occasional outbreaks of violence, they feel that their kids are safer here than in the big city,” relays Yarchi.

“They also remind me that Hezbollah and Hamas missiles have the capability to strike cities in central Israel as well,” she adds. “But here at least, when they are under attack they feel there is a much bigger support system.”

A construction site in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, southern Israel, June 17, 2018.
\ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The somewhat smaller Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council includes most of the other agricultural communities situated along and near the border. While it has yet to compile figures for the entire area under its jurisdiction, the population of the kibbutzim located right on the region’s border has grown 9 percent since the 2014 war, a council official said.

As a result, for the first time in its history, Sha’ar Hanegev now finds itself in need of a second elementary school. “There are just too many kids for one school,” says council spokeswoman Adi Meiri, as she points to the construction site.

Among those Sha’ar Hanegev communities experiencing recent growth is Nahal Oz – the border kibbutz where a 4-year-old boy was killed by a mortar shell that smashed into his home on one of the final days of the 2014 war. Soon after that tragedy, 17 families picked themselves up and left the kibbutz for good. By now, though, Nahal Oz has more than recouped those population losses.

“After the 2014 war, Nahal Oz was in a very bad state, with virtually no children left on the kibbutz,” notes Meiri. “But those who stayed on decided they were going to do their utmost to convince new families to join them. They even sent members of the kibbutz to Tel Aviv on recruitment missions. What they learned is that most Israelis don’t know the good facts about living here – they only know the bad facts.”

A key perk, she notes, is the relatively low cost of housing. “I’ll say it – and I’m not ashamed to say it – but it’s much cheaper to live here,” says Meiri, a member of Kibbutz Yad Mordechai and a relatively recent transplant herself.

Tourists visiting Kibbutz Kfar Aza in southern Israel, June 17, 2018.
\ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The reason housing is so affordable is that homebuilders in agricultural communities located within 7 kilometers of the Gaza border get their land for free. In addition, they are eligible for a 100,000 shekel ($27,500) government rebate on their building expenses. Many agricultural communities in the region also offer new families the option of renting for five years and using the money spent on rent toward the purchase of the homes should they choose to stay on. In this way, they avoid having to make a down payment.

Special tax incentives also apply to the Gaza border communities and, among other perks, residents are eligible for free organized group vacations once a year, paid for by the government.

Nirim, in the Eshkol region, is another kibbutz that suffered badly in 2014. On the last day of the war, just hours before the cease-fire officially took effect, a mortar shell killed two members of the kibbutz and badly injured a third, who had both his legs blown off.

“There was a sense of total devastation at Nirim after that,” recounts Yarchi. “But the kibbutz pulled itself together and set out to expand. It reached out mainly to children of kibbutz members who had left with no plans to return. Against all odds, they’ve taken in 20 new families since the 2014 war.”

Firefighters trying to put out a forest fire caused by Palestinian incendiary kites near Kibbutz Or Haner on Monday.
\ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Flaming kite on the backyard tree

From the kitchen of his soon-to-be-completed home in Kibbutz Kfar Aza on the border, Eyal Attar will be able to see out to Gaza City, the largest city in the Strip. “How cool is that?” he exclaims.

Originally from the coastal city of Ashdod, Attar and his wife spent three-and-a-half years in Tel Aviv before she discovered she was pregnant and it was time for them to decide where they wanted to raise their children. His wife, Dror, was born and raised on Kfar Aza, which took in 15 new families in the past year alone.

“We started to think about things that mattered to us, like a strong a community, wide open spaces, good air and less noise,” says Attar, who now has two children. “And most of all, we get lots of support here from the family.”

Attar, who runs the local mini-mart, says he has no regrets about the move – not even in the past two months, when Kfar Aza once again found itself in the line of fire. “That doesn’t mean we don’t have fears,” he admits.

Kerem Shalom was put on notice after the last Gaza war that if it continued to lose members, it would be dropped from the Kibbutz Movement and lose all the benefits that entails. As a first step on its road to recovery, it embraced privatization and, like many struggling kibbutzim of recent decades, began charging members for the goods and services once handed out for free. As a second step, it reinvented itself as a mixed religious-secular kibbutz (only the second of its kind in Israel).

Lilach Naftalyahu in Kibbutz Nirim, southern Israel, June 17, 2018.
\ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Ben-Ezra says this hybridity was another draw for her. “We’re not religious, but I loved the idea of having both religious and secular people living in one community together,” she says. “Who knows? Maybe we’ll start doing kiddush on Friday nights.” (Of the seven new families moving in this summer, three are religious, three are secular and one is mixed.)

Roni Kissin moved here with her husband and four children eight years ago. From the window looking out to their backyard, the remnants of a flaming kite caught on a tree are visible. Just beyond it is a concrete barrier marking the border. But Kissin doesn’t let these facts of everyday life here get her down.

“If I was going to obsess over all the bad things that could happen, like tunnels being dug by terrorists under my home, I wouldn’t be living here,” she says. “Do you think people who live in Kansas are always worrying about the next tornado? And do you think people could live in Florida always worrying about the next hurricane?”

Kissin’s eyes sparkle as she recounts the first time she set her sights on this little kibbutz in the middle of nowhere. “We happened to notice a small ad in the paper that they were recruiting new members, so almost on a whim we decided to check it out,” she relays. “The place was run-down and neglected, and yet there was something magical about it. We fell in love at first sight and, a month later, moved in.”

Roni Kissin sitting by the barrier at the edge of Kibbutz Kerem Shalom, southern Israel, June 17, 2018.
\ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Nowhere to run

Tzlil and Amit Nir moved to Nirim 18 months ago, just when their first child was born. Tzlil grew up in the Gush Katif settlement bloc in Gaza (which Israel evacuated in 2005), and then moved with her family to the coastal town of Ashkelon. Amit was raised on another kibbutz.

“When I would tell people we were moving to Nirim, many of them thought we were crazy,” recounts Tzlil, 32. “We knew exactly what we were getting into, though.”

Nirim appealed, she says, because it was a place “where we could hang out with the neighbors in the late afternoon over coffee, walk around barefoot and our kids could roam around freely.”

But she concedes that the latest outbreak of violence on the Gaza border caught her somewhat off guard. “I’m not going to lie,” she says. “Of course I was scared – especially since this was my first time experiencing something like this as a mom.”

Lilach Naftalyahu grew up on this kibbutz, left as soon as she could and thought she would never return. In her early twenties, when she moved to Tel Aviv, she recalls, “I suddenly felt safe and understood there’s another world out there.”

But she did return, mainly because of her husband, who also grew up in Nirim and wanted to raise their children there. The past few weeks have been a nightmare for her. “I have two kids now, and all I think about is, What am I going to do if I’m outside with them and there’s a ‘red alert’ siren? Where am I going to run?”

A few weeks ago, when the kibbutzim along the border were under constant rocket fire for a period of 24 hours, Naftalyahu packed her two children into the car and left the kibbutz. She stayed away for three days.

“You know how everyone talks about the quiet out here? Just listen,” she says, putting a finger to her lips. “That’s not quiet. There is always the sound of drones in the background. And now there’s also the constant stench of smoke from all the fields that are burning. So suddenly I’m asking myself why I’m doing this to my kids? This is not quality of life.”

And what does she think about all the Israelis moving here? “I don’t understand it,” she admits. “For me, though, it’s already too late.”