Lying on the Ground With Hundreds of Soldiers: Another Day for Gideon Levy

Not all Israelis are alike, he concludes, as he meets the kibbutznik who wants to open his home to Gazans.

Alex Levac

Not all Israelis are alike: Micha Ben Hillel would like to have as his guests a few refugees from Shujaiyeh, the Gaza Strip neighborhood of death and destruction, which lies only a few kilometers southwest of his home. He told us about his wish shortly after the attempted attack on his kibbutz, Nir Am, was foiled on Monday.

“I saw the images from Shujaiyeh,” he said. “They tried to hide them on [Israeli] television, but I got the picture. If I could host a few people from there in my house, I would do it. What’s going on there is shocking. Absolutely shocking.

“I am pretty much conflicted on this issue,” he continued. “I know that when an army goes in with the aim of sustaining zero casualties, it uses huge firepower. What I know is from the media, and I understand that the residents there were warned to leave. I also don’t think that a country can tolerate a situation in which an individual or a squad can suddenly come out from under the ground in Israeli sovereign territory. So I think there was no choice. I only hope that this time it will end better than in the previous operations. That we will move in different directions, which I believe in: that the people in Gaza will have a hope of life.”

We stood at the kibbutz fence, at the site of the battle in which four Israeli soldiers and nine members of the Hamas squad were killed. The hills around the kibbutz are scorched and charred from groves that were set ablaze by Qassam rockets that have fallen here in the past few weeks. The air is still pungent with the smell of fire.

Across the way in the northern Gaza Strip, thick black smoke billows into the blue sky, mushrooming above the battered land. The echoes of the artillery and the rockets and the bombs, and of course the frightening squeal of the drones in the skies of Gaza did not let up for an instant. Sounds of war and images of war.

That backdrop only intensifies the impression made by Ben Hillel, a retired teacher who has lived on Kibbutz Nir Am for 50 years. Founded by Mapai, the forerunner of today’s Labor, the kibbutz has a cutlery factory and, at present, fields of stubble.

Because Ben Hillel snores, he doesn’t sleep in the same room as his kibbutz-born wife, who brought him here half-a-century ago. The night between Sunday and Monday was no exception: She slept in the secure room, he in the next room. That night, he recalled, the cannons, machine guns and mortars thundered more intensely than on previous nights. “An inferno of fire,” he said. Residents of Nir Am had not been afraid of tunnels – they were told that the coarse sand in the area made digging hard, so there was nothing to be worried about. But at 6 A.M. Monday, Ben Hillel awoke to the sound of an announcement telling people not to leave their houses. Two-and-a-half-hours later, the squad had been eliminated and quiet, relatively speaking, descended once more. The firefight took place on the other side of the hill, in what kibbutzniks call the bustan, a word that evokes a lush garden-grove.

Nir Am is largely deserted now; only about 100 of the 400 members are still here, and none of the children. The families are scattered among the hotels of the kibbutz movement across the country. Unlike their neighbors in Gaza, these people had somewhere to escape to.

The kibbutz paths look and feel like an army base: Military vehicles drive by, Israel Defense Forces soldiers are living in the houses. The IDF also uses its own civilian population as a human shield, as Israel claims Hamas does. The outskirts of the neighboring kibbutz, Nahal Oz, have also been turned into an intimidating military base. A vast camp of tanks, armored personnel carriers and immense armored bulldozers is deployed at its entrance.

What should be done? Ben Hillel, the retired teacher, is convinced that in the present circumstances Israel had to respond. Strategically, though, he is at odds with the way the government has chosen.

“Tactically, I have praise for [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyau,” he told us, “but looking at the big picture, he is going in the completely wrong direction. I am appalled by the hatred and the ugly wave that is washing over the country. It’s way beyond the ‘wild weeds’ stage. It’s burning the forest. The hatred and the calls to pulverize ‘them’ are not a good background for a solution.”

An Indian restaurant once operated in the now-burned woods around the kibbutz. All that remains of it are a few sooty poles. Ben Hillel remembers the picnics and the games in the fire-blackened grove, which he and other old-timers planted long before these infernal events. He will stay on: His wife is part of the team that looks after the elderly of the kibbutz during emergencies.

On the hill opposite the kibbutz, a group of Sderot residents is watching enthusiastically as the bombs pulverize Gaza. Everything has already been said, in Israel and internationally, about this shameful “cinema Sderot.” When the audience at the best show in town had spotted me elsewhere some days earlier, they let loose with the usual chorus of violent obscenities, as happens almost everywhere I go these days. A local woman served cool Sprite to the soldiers who streamed in, preparing for another possible tunnel event. “With unity and heroism we will win,” a sign said.

We got out of there.

Most of the roads in this part of the south were blocked, but we managed to get to the encampment of the armored and combat engineering forces near Nahal Oz. Israel’s chariots of fire and their riders stood ready on the white powdery sands. Here now, later in Shujaiyeh. The troops, mostly reservists, did not look gung-ho, as far as one could tell, on a morning when the death of 15 soldiers was announced.

They were immersed in preparations for entering the Strip. Wet socks and towels were draped on the gun barrel of a Merkava Mark III tank to dry. “Cannons instead of socks, a tank instead of a pair of shoes, three undershirts we’ll shed, if we get a seagoing destroyer” – the old song by Haim Hefer from a different war plays in my head. A van from a cell-phone company offers the soldiers free charging of their mobiles. Someone has brought candy.

The whole area was a dust bowl. Every so often another tank revved up its engine and started to move west with a grinding roar, kicking up clouds of thick dust. War. Relentless, thunderous booms. Then, suddenly the Code Red sirens wail, and we lay flat out on the ground along with hundreds of soldiers. The mortar shells landed one after another, a few hundred meters from us, in a series of frightening explosions.

A soldier pushed the photographer. “We know you, the media, all you do is cause damage. You’ll send the photos in WhatsApp and then the Arabs will know what we have.”

A tense quiet descended on the tank encampment again. We advanced slowly toward the security fence. The houses of Beit Lahia, Beit Hanun and Shujaiyeh are within walking distance – stretch out an arm and touch them.

A few hours later, I pull my old articles about Shujaiyeh out of the archive. The last one was published on August 30, 2006, during Operation Summer Rain. On the fourth floor of Shifa Hospital, I had met Awad and Mohammed Abu Salmiya, two wounded brothers, aged 19 and 20, the lone survivors of their family, which had been completely wiped out: Their parents and their seven siblings were killed in an air force bombing, which targeted their father, Dr. Nabil Abu Salmiya, a mathematics lecturer at the Islamic University who was active in Hamas. On that day I documented the story of the death of 11 of the total of 212 Gazans who were killed in the operation. Did the survivors of the Abu Salmiya family come out of Operation Protective Edge alive? Where are they now?

A week later, on September 6, 2006, there were new victims, this time in Operation Locked Kindergarten. In the morgue of Shifa Hospital, Abdullah al-Zakh identified his son by his belt. There was half a body. It was only after the Israeli troops left their neighborhood, leaving 22 Gazans dead, that Zakh found the other half. Mohammed, 14 years old at the time of his death, was buried twice. The IDF Spokesman stated then that the operation was intended “to create the conditions for the return of Gilad Shalit.”

Two-and-a-half months earlier, half of another family in the neighborhood had been killed. The mother, son and daughter from the Hajaj family were killed as they sat in their yard and prepared corn for roasting.

Eight years ago in Shujaiyeh, I saw children burrowing in the rubble of homes leveled by the IDF. They were looking for electric cables, which they then burned in order to extract the copper and sell it for a penny. The children of 2006 are the Hamas fighters of 2014.

A mourners’ tent stood in every corner of the neighborhood back then. Now you can’t even put up those tents in decimated Shujaiyeh.