It’s hard enough to pick up and relocate to any new country, but moving to Israel brings its own unique challenges. Yet there are some immigrants (or olim, as they’re called in Hebrew) who have chosen not only to relocate to Israel but to move to communities along the Gaza border – Israel’s most hostile front in recent years.
With the latest flare-up between Israel and Gaza now in its fourth day, Israeli communities closest to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip have been subjected to a constant barrage of rockets. Many residents have chosen to temporarily leave their homes, waiting until a cease-fire comes into effect before returning home. And while being on the receiving end of a torrent of missiles is a new experience for those living in central Israel, it has long become routine for those Israelis living in the Western Negev.
Some question why immigrants would choose to live under such challenging circumstances in places like Kibbutz Nahal Oz, Kibbutz Nirim and Sderot, when the warning alert for an incoming attack is just 15 seconds. Haaretz spoke to four olim to find out more about their experiences and why, despite it all, they’re committed to staying in the area.
Connecticut native Talia Isaacson lives on Kibbutz Nahal Oz, just 800 meters (2,625 feet) from the Gaza Strip. She describes kibbutz life as beautiful and quiet – when rockets aren’t being launched at it from across the border, that is.
A 32-year-old teacher, Isaacson immigrated to Israel in 2016 and initially lived in Jerusalem before heading south soon afterward. As a student at Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, she had the opportunity to move to Sderot as part of its program aimed at incentivizing students to live in outlying areas, away from the country’s center.
She moved to Nahal Oz last October because she wanted to experience kibbutz life and she notes that, while it’s even closer to Gaza than her former home in Sderot, she actually feels safer there.
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“We’re so close and so small that it’s a waste of a rocket for them,” she says of the Islamist military groups. “But we hear everything, every single rocket launched.” She adds, though, that all of the border communities come under fire during escalations like the current one.
Isaacson was outside with her dog when she heard the first siren this week. “If we’re inside when the sirens sound, the houses shake and it scares my dog,” she says, adding that sometimes they go outside to a bomb shelter that is actually constructed as a children’s playground.
She is currently staying with friends near Jerusalem and admits to feeling “a bit guilty” over leaving her home during the flare-up: “This is my first time not being there for one of these things. This is my home, these are the people in my life, and I’m not there.” She reports that while some people, mostly students, have left the area this week, most families and the elderly have stayed.
But Isaacson has no intention of leaving the region indefinitely and now considers the south her home. She credits the kibbutz’s warm and supportive community of residents for this. Knowing that she was a new immigrant, so many local people reached out to her and made a special effort to support her, she recounts. “It’s the Catch-22 of living in an area like this,” she reflects. “There are so many external threats, but it’s what makes the community so strong.”
“This is by no means my first rodeo,” Todd Edelman says of the current flare-up, “but I still feel out of focus.” Originally from New Jersey, Edelman, a 36-year-old digital marketing adviser, lives in Nir Israel, 15 kilometers from Gaza. He moved to Israel 14 years ago and has lived in the south for the past decade. Up till a year ago he lived on a moshav called Gea, about 7 kilometers from the border.
“This is my first big operation that I’m experiencing post-divorce,” says Edelman, whose two young children still live in Gea with his ex-wife.
His eldest son, Itay, was born in April 2014 and spent two months of his first year in a bomb shelter as Israel and Hamas/Palestinian Islamic Jihad fought a bloody war that summer.
Edelman says his son, now seven, “feels the fear in the air and understands exactly what’s going on.” For instance, on Tuesday he was playing soccer when the warning sirens started to sound in Gea and he subsequently asked to sleep in the bomb shelter that night.
The young father worries about the harsh realities his children are being exposed to. “The news is quite different here than in North America,” he says. “It isn’t censored here, and it’s very much live reporting from the field. I don’t want my kids watching it.”
While the latest escalation seemingly caught many politicians and media pundits unawares, Edelman says he was unsurprised by developments. Many residents in the south “absolutely saw this coming,” he says. “From the moment that Bibi failed to form a government [last week], I expected it,” he adds, referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
After 10 years in the south, he says he’s often asked why he stays there. His stock response? “I chose to make Israel my home, and I’m not going to run away from it because of the tension.”
Yet despite that, he believes Israelis are skeptical of immigrants’ ability to understand the challenges that those who’ve lived here all their lives have faced. “I think that my short time here, especially 10 years in the south, has allowed me to see things the same way sabras do,” he concludes, using a term for native-born Israelis.
‘95% heaven, 5% hell’
For teacher and teacher-trainer Adele Raemer, her life on Kibbutz Nirim is mostly peaceful. Or, if she puts it in numerical terms, “95 percent heaven, 5 percent hell.”
Originally from the Bronx, Raemer is not exactly a new immigrant. She moved to Israel at the end of 1973, two months after the Yom Kippur War ended and has lived on Kibbutz Nirim, 2 kilometers from the Gaza border, since 1975.
Raemer, 66, is known for her Facebook group Life on the Border with Gaza – Things People May Not Know (But Should), which has drawn a worldwide following, making her the voice of Western Negev residents in the English-speaking world. She has even testified before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and addressed the UN Security Council about events on the Gaza border.
Having lived so close to Gaza for over 45 years, Raemer can actually remember the time – almost mythological for young Israelis – when kibbutz members would “drive into Gaza on Shabbat and go to the beach and the shuk [market], and Gazans used to come here.”
As a member of a community very much on the front line, Raemer says she too had been expecting the latest escalation.
“Things have only gotten worse on the other side, especially with [the coronavirus],” she says, adding that the “miserable situation” for many Gazans, combined with their “callous” leadership and the preceding tensions in Jerusalem, made for a perfect storm.
She has previously held Facebook Live events in English where she explains what the border communities are experiencing. She’s even had Palestinians from Gaza joining the group and communicating with members of the Western Negev communities, aka their neighbors.
“They aren’t easy conversations, but they need to be held,” she says. She adds that she has “no doubt that the great majority of Gazans want the same things I do: to live their lives and get on with it, and prosper.”
If “braver leaders” were in power in both Israel and Gaza, Raemer is convinced “we could be good neighbors. We were once, and we could be again.”
She says that many in her community, long a bastion of the old left in Israel, feel abandoned by the political leadership. “Some bright light [Netanyahu] said ‘Hamas made a real mistake when they thought they could attack Jerusalem.’ As if shooting communities on the border is OK? It makes people here feel like we aren’t important.”
For Raemer, for the past 15 years successive governments have failed to devise a long-term strategy for the Gaza Strip. Her daughter and grandchildren also live on the kibbutz and, while her daughter grew up from a young age being afraid of “infiltration” by terrorists, she did not have to deal with the constant threat of rockets that her grandchildren do.
When asked if she ever considered moving, Raemer scoffs at the question. Aside from the fact that this is her home and therefore why should she leave, Raemer asks: “Where aren’t there rockets? Tel Aviv? Jerusalem, where not so long ago they had buses blowing up? Where don’t they have terror?”
‘Sense of purpose’
“The point that I was making before I was interrupted by Hamas,” says George Stevens, returning after a rocket siren sent him rushing to the safe room in his Sderot home two minutes earlier, “is that the people of Sderot have a strong sense of social solidarity.”
Originally from Philadelphia, Stevens, 33, made aliyah to Haifa with the Habonim Dror youth movement 10 years ago. He moved to Sderot four years ago to join a Dror Israel urban educators kibbutz.
He notes that while he is one of a small community of Anglo immigrants in the city right next door to Gaza’s northeastern border, Sderot is actually an extremely diverse community of many different immigrants.
“I’m actually in the minority here as a non-USSR Ashkenazi Jew and I have a lot to learn from the cultural richness and life experience of Mizrahi Jews, Ethiopian Jews and Jews who lived through communism,” he says.
The opportunity to engage with so many different people was one of the things that drew Stevens to this area. Or as he described it, he didn’t want to live in “an Anglo urban left-wing bubble.”
Stevens says he feels that living in the south is necessary for the state. “As a Zionist, it’s important that we stay here and that we don’t leave every time something scary happens – because we wouldn’t even have a country if we did,” he says.
But he also wanted to live in Sderot – a city whose familiarity with Hamas rockets made one of its most famous residents, then-Defense Minister Amir Peretz, push for the development of the Iron Dome anti-missile system over a decade ago – because he wanted to contribute to the community. Living here gives him a “strong sense of purpose” and makes him feel he is both “learning so much from the local residents” while also helping to “change Israeli society and make it a better place,” he says.
A 6-year-old boy from Sderot, Ido Avigail, died on Wednesday after a missile hit his family home in the city, even though he was sheltering in the safe room at the time.
Speaking a day prior to that tragedy, Stevens told Haaretz that if such rocket attacks happened in places like “Vancouver or Calgary, everybody would lose their minds and society would crumble. But our community knows how to handle it.”
“On the other hand,” he says, “you never get used to it” and when he hears the warning sirens, “my heart skips a beat and my blood pressure goes up.”
For him, the hardest part is explaining his new life to the people he grew up with in North America. “The first 23 years of my life were in North America and the last 10 were in Israel, and that gap is difficult to bridge,” he admits. Despite the latest escalation, he remains optimistic about the future and has no plans to leave Sderot anytime soon.
“I’ve lived in some nice places – Philadelphia, California, Vancouver – but this is the best place I’ve lived by a significant margin.”