A D.C. Reporter's Weekend Under Hamas Rocket Fire From Gaza

My house in Kibbutz Nahal Oz is as close to the Gaza border fence as Capitol Hill is to the Washington Memorial and this weekend, my first back in almost a year, was the most violent in recent memory

Damage from a mortar that exploded in Nahal Oz over the weekend
\ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

NAHAL OZ - It was supposed to be a vacation. Three days of nothing but rest and fun: meetings with friends who have been terribly missed, some relaxing time at the pool, happy dinner gatherings that start before sunset and end long after midnight. Instead, it was a tense weekend that served as a reminder of the concerning and unstable reality on Israel's border with the Gaza Strip – and the heavy price people on both sides of that border pay for the decisions made by their leaders. 

My wife and I, two Israelis who have been living in Washington since last spring, finally arrived last Friday for a much-anticipated visit to our former and future home: Kibbutz Nahal Oz, in southern Israel. Nahal Oz is located less than a mile from the Strip, and is technically the closest place in Israel to Gaza City.

The devastation caused to Gaza by the war in the summer of 2014 between Israel and Hamas is still clearly and easily visible from the outskirts of our kibbutz. The border fence – the scene of massive demonstrations in recent months, in which dozens of Palestinians have been shot dead by the Israel Defense Forces and thousands have been injured – is about as close to the kibbutz as Capitol Hill is to the Washington Memorial. 

We chose to make the kibbutz our home after Operation Protective Edge exactly four years ago, during which Nahal Oz was officially the most bombarded place in Israel. Its proximity to populated areas of Gaza made it an easy target for mortar-shell fire.

Israeli women look into binoculars as they scan the area for incoming kites and balloons carrying flammable materials on the Israeli side of the border between Israel and Gaza June 8, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

Members of the kibbutz suffered a crisis after a Hamas mortar shell, shot during the last days of the war, killed a 4-year-old boy, Daniel Tragerman, who was running for shelter with his family. When a warning siren goes off in Nahal Oz, you have five seconds (though officially its seven) to reach a shelter, but many times, the timespan between the siren and the explosion of the shell can be less – even just two or three seconds. 

We lived in Nahal Oz for almost three years after the end of that war, and despite risks that come with the surroundings, we were happy. We moved there out of ideological reasons, but stayed for selfish ones, mostly the friends we discovered and the beautiful nature we were surrounded by. We loved living in Nahal Oz so much that we even had our wedding there in 2016. Then, in mid 2017, we left for Washington D.C., after I accepted the job of Haaretz's correspondent in the American capital. Career-wise, it was an easy decision to make, but personally, it was heartbreaking. We traded the comforts of a small community for the loneliness and competitiveness that comes with life in a political metropolis. And as enjoyable as Washington is (especially for journalists), we've missed the kibbutz every day since our relocation. That's why, when we had a chance to visit this past weekend, we didn't hesitate. 

We knew the situation was somewhat tense – there have been dozens of fires around the kibbutz lately, set by incendiary devices such as kites and balloons launched from Gaza, and some of the deadliest demonstrations along the border fence took place not far from Nahal Oz – but our friends assured us that the last few days before our arrival had been relatively calm. 

Firemen extinguish fires caused by burning kites sent from Gaza over the weekend at Nahal Oz
\ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

When we arrived on Friday afternoon, that assessment of the situation seemed to be accurate. It was painful to see the massive damage caused to the kibbutz fields by the flaming kites, but inside the kibbutz itself, things were normal. In fact, ever since we left last year, the kibbutz has undergone a demographic "renaissance" and an investment in infrastructure: Eight new homes have been built, and they are all already populated by new families – no small feat for a community overlooking Gaza. Another neighborhood of 12 houses is being planned these days. The entrance to the kibbutz, which was ugly and scarred by the war when we moved there, has been renovated and a new playground for children is in the final stages of construction. 

A weekend of rockets

During our time in D.C., whenever we spoke with friends from the kibbutz, they told us that while things have been going well in Nahal Oz, it is increasingly clear that the situation in Gaza is just as miserable today as it was at the end of the 2014 war. Just about everyone in the region – from Israel and Egypt to the Palestinian Authority and of course Hamas, has a share of the blame, but the price for unwise and unhelpful policies initiated by local and world powers, is mostly paid by the population of the Strip.

In one conversation with a friend from the kibbutz, a few weeks before our arrival, the message we heard was: “Things are good right now, but if Gaza remains miserable, sooner or later that misery will explode on our side of the border as well.”

A woman pushes a baby stroller next to a cement security barrier in Kibbutz Nahal Oz, near the Gaza Strip border, Israel April 8, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

Coincidentally, that’s exactly what happened when we arrived on Friday. While the first few hours, in which we had dinner with our friends and strolled through the kibbutz, were quiet and pleasant, things began to change at night, when Hamas launched a barrage of more than 30 rockets and mortars at communities in the border area. At least two fell in the vicinity of Nahal Oz. The IDF bombed more than 100 targets in Gaza, in what was described in the Israeli media as the largest airstrike there in four years. For us, this mostly meant a lot of extremely loud noises  throughout the night – from sirens to supersonic booms.

We were hosted that night by friends who have two “safe rooms” in their house. A “safe room” is built of fortified concrete that provides shelter from mortars and missiles. Every house in Nahal Oz has at least one such room (when we lived there, we made ours into the bedroom, in order to avoid frantically running there whenever a siren is sounded in the middle of the night). On Friday night and then for most of Saturday, we had to run to the safe rooms at least a dozen times, probably more. At some point during the day, we just stopped counting.

For readers who find it hard to imagine the situation, here is what it looks like: It’s early afternoon on Saturday and a group of eight people are in a family's living room, eating, drinking, bringing up memories, laughing. Suddenly there is a warning siren. Within less than second, everyone gets up and runs to one of the safe rooms. At the same time, the sound of an explosion is heard. A minute passes. Sometimes, another siren is immediately heard. But in most cases, 75 seconds later, everyone is back in the living room, checking their phones to see that other friends and neighbors are okay, or answering worried family members from other parts of the country who are calling and texting with questions about “the situation.” Then, gradually, the conversation goes back to where it was – until the next time.

Damage from a mortar that exploded in Nahal Oz over the weekend
\ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Saturday was the tensest day Nahal Oz had experienced since the end of Operation Protective Edge. Everyone we spoke to agreed that there had been some stressful days in the four years that passed – but “not like this one.” The ironic joke we kept hearing for the rest of our stay was that we had “brought good luck from America” when we arrived there. We had plans to go to the pool and tour the burned fields, but both ideas were taken off the table as the severity of the situation became clear. Instead, we stayed indoors for most of the day, and even when we did walk a bit around the kibbutz, it was always with one eye looking out for the nearest public shelter, in case another siren was heard. Still, we had a good time. Being stuck in the same place with a group of friends for hours upon hours is actually fun when you haven’t seen them for more than a year.

At some point in the afternoon, friends with a 2-year-old daughter decided to visit us at the house where we were staying. They didn’t want to take the risk of being caught by a siren out in the open with their young girl, so instead of walking they took the car for what was supposed to be a two-minute drive from one neighborhood in the kibbutz to another. But unfortunately, during the two minutes they spent on the road, three sirens were heard. They had to stop the car twice, run outside carrying their daughter, lay on the ground and protect her with their own bodies. Luckily, the mortars landed outside the kibbutz itself, and they arrived safely. For their child, the whole thing felt somewhat like an adventure. But while we waited for them, we were worried sick.

Eventually, on Saturday night, things began to calm down. Israel and Hamas reached an unofficial cease-fire, with the help of Egypt and other international actors. Even avid followers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have lost track of how many such ceasefires have been reached in recent years. Sometimes they hold for months. Usually, much less.

For the rest of our visit, life went back to normal. On Sunday, there were no sirens in the kibbutz. But the fires caused by the kites continued, and the IDF again retaliated from the air. It felt like the next round of violence was only a matter of time.

In the meantime, however, we were determined to have fun – which was what we had originally come for. That included watching the World Cup final with friends in the  kibbutz's small pub. It was a happy evening – especially because France, the better team, won.

If a random person had passed by the pub and seen the locals enjoying the game with a cold beer and children and dogs running around – they would never have guessed what had happened in the kibbutz just a day earlier. That’s part of the charm of Nahal Oz. But perhaps it’s also an illusion. Things look normal at a certain moment, but that moment is always temporary, at least until a solution will be found for the far-from-normal situation in the Gaza Strip.

As I head back to Washington this week, I know that such a solution looks incredibly distant. In Gaza itself, as well as in Ramallah and in Jerusalem, there are no signs of the emergence of a creative, pragmatic and open-minded leadership that would be willing to take unpopular steps in order to improve the situation on the ground.

The Trump administration’s peace team, led by Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, has announced that it will focus on improving the situation in the Gaza Strip before unveiling its broader peace plan. If they do manage to make progress on rehabilitating Gaza, I know at least one group of people in Israel who will be overwhelmingly supportive of their efforts: my friends and neighbors in Nahal Oz. But unfortunately, it’s hard to see the administration making any real progress with this goal, as long as regional leaders’ top concern is to appear tough and uncompromising before the most extreme segments of their population – even if that means that other parts of the population will continue to suffer in between kite fires, aerial strikes and mortar shells.