"I felt I was stabbed in the heart," Hochman said this week - the week two soldiers were killed, one wounded and one kidnapped in a Palestinian attack near the Kerem Shalom border crossing between Israel and Gaza. "I have no idea who it is. Maybe it's someone who thinks we're a settlement. Maybe it's some right-wing extremist, even from Gush Katif, who wants to get us back the same way." In any case, he has saved the recording, and listens to it again every once in a while.
If the more logical theory is right, that the anonymous caller wanted to be defiant, then this small story embodies all the political-social history of the region. Thirty years ago, these were the Kerem Shalom peaceniks who protested the establishment of Gush Katif, using exactly the same arguments the caller used. Afterward, it appeared that the people of Gush Katif had won: The settlement bloc expanded to include 6,000 people, while Kibbutz Kerem Shalom had 100 members at its height. The disputed land of Gush Katif has exerted a stronger pull over the last few decades than the piece of kibbutz land situated within the Green Line, where the Israeli, Egyptian and Gazan borders meet.
The kibbutz collapsed in 1995, and efforts have been made over the last five years to rebuild it. In the meantime, Gush Katif is no longer and the war has come to the doorstep of the small kibbutz. It was then the anonymous caller chose to fling a hurtful statement in the faces of the kibbutz members, in effect saying, "It's not because of us; now it's because of you."
The entire area around Kerem Shalom looked more like a military base than a pastoral kibbutz in the days following the attack. After the storm subsided a bit, Home Front Command officials came in for renewed discussions on the "defense package" that has yet to be completed. Armored personnel carriers were stationed at the entrance to the kibbutz and the positions surrounding the kibbutz have been raised. Tanks and ground forces gathered a short distance away in anticipation of a raid on Gaza. What a pr ank of history. When the kibbutz was established in 1968 by a core group of 48 young, leftist kibbutz members, they chose to settle where all three borders meet because "from there peace will come." Now, though, it is war that is coming from the tri-border region.
The Web site of the kibbutz, which is now trying to absorb new members, emphasizes the meaning of the kibbutz's name. "At the junction of borders with Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, a place has been established whose significance is that from here will come peace with our neighbors." Hochman hopes the tragic attack at the border crossing, which put the kibbutz's name in the headlines, might actually work as a sales tactic. After nearly five years of efforts to rebuild Kerem Shalom as a cooperative kibbutz, it has 30 adult members and about 20 children. The Web site also emphasizes that the kibbutz is located within the Green Line, a reminder that is not necessarily an attraction.
Hochman, who grew up on Kibbutz Tze'elim, admits that he is disappointed. "I looked at Gush Katif with longing," he said. "That's why I came here. I am still not prepared to recognize the fact that we are not capable of doing what they did. When we get more than 50 adult members, we will be able to say we succeeded. But in the meantime I feel I need to, and can, do more."
What Hochman is doing is absorbing more and more families, via the kibbutz movement. Not on the basis of a core group of kibbutz members, but on the basis of families and singles who come on their own. Today 21 two-parent families, two bachelors and two single-parent families are members of the kibbutz. Even if some came because they were in distress, they have nonetheless united around the concept of a cooperative kibbutz of the kind that once was. The kibbutz movement does not generally take single-parent families; Kerem Shalom is "even" prepared to take lesbian couples.
Iris Lavie, 63, considers Kibbutz Kerem Shalom to be "paradise." She came to the kibbutz five years ago, from Kibbutz Mishmar Hayarden, and works as the kibbutz bookkeeper. "Every morning I sit with a cup of coffee under the tree and listen to the sounds of the birds. Between one Qassam and the next you can still hear the birds chirping." For Lavie, exploding buses are not normal; Qassam rockets and tunnels, though - that's normal. At this point, no one is thinking about leaving. On the contrary, the attack at the border generated a new feeling of togetherness and the events of the week increased the flow of adrenaline in the veins of the kibbutz members.
On the Friday before the attack on the threshold of the kibbutz, a new couple joined Kerem Shalom: Miriam and Michael Modell, immigrants from Russia, and their 10-month-old red-headed son, Ronen. "He was born during the disengagement," said Michael. "That explains his orange hair." There are not many immigrants living in kibbutzim, and certainly not many that have chosen such an extreme transition - from living with 1.5 million others in Ekaterinburg, in the Ural mountains, to living with just a few families on a kibbutz in the Negev. The couple's friends thought they had gone crazy and told them kibbutzim were for communists. And the Modells are no communists; in the last elections, they voted for Benjamin Netanyahu.
They came to Kerem Shalom because they were looking for a high quality of life, they wanted to be close to the earth and provide their son with a suitable education. Now they both want the army in Gaza.
Their dramatic welcome has not deterred them. Perhaps the opposite is the case. After a few years in Be'er Sheva, with the exploding buses and the isolation, at Kerem Shalom the Modells feel protected. Michael has a master's degree in political science and philosophy but will be switching over to farming - a 2006-model kibbutznik.
The 1968 models, who established Kerem Shalom to defy their parents' "defiled" generation, were a different type altogether. So different that Gavri Bargil, who now serves as kibbutz movement secretary general, told of growing up on stories of Kerem Shalom, "which was the wildest kibbutz." Almost 40 years after the kibbutz's establishment, everyone remembers something different. While Bargil saw it as a wayward child, Hochman reminisced about kibbutz members in the area talking about how Kerem Shalom members would go skinny dipping in their pool.
Shalom Golani, among the founding members of the kibbutz, primarily remembers the avant-garde spirit and lively political discourse; he said the radicalization of the kibbutz by urban members who arrived later led to Kerem Shalom's collapse. Golani also recalled how one night he was summoned to deal with soldiers in Biranit who refused to go out on a night ambush, fearing that "they would be dragged into firing on their Palestinian brethren."
Asher Livni, another Kerem Shalom founder, lamented the recent incidents in the Kerem Shalom region. "I saw the high wall that now surrounds Kerem Shalom from three directions," he said. "We wanted to be the kibbutz of the border triangle, but we didn't expect that would be the view. We came with a dream of peace, we struggled against settlement in the Rafah plain. I still remember a piercing internal argument about whether our ambulance must help them in times of need." When the settlements began developing, with Ariel Sharon's encouragement, Kerem Shalom members "settled" Sharon's Sycamore Ranch as an act of protest and spilled a truck-full of sand into the offices of the Gush Emunim settlement movement.
"We waged a serious political battle," Livni said from his home on Kibbutz Nir David, where he returned after 32 years at Kerem Shalom. He said the withdrawal from Gaza and the evacuation of Gush Katif leaves him feeling sad that an opportunity for peace has been missed.
This is how the faces of peace look in Kerem Shalom: Workers complete an electronic fence, a mango orchard lies uprooted to make room for a route between the electronic fence and the border fence, and a new nine-meter wall encloses the kibbutz on three sides. Above the wall can be seen the still higher lookout posts. Since the disengagement, the sound of mortar shells has been replaced by the sound of Qassam rockets falling nearby. The chicken coop is empty. At first the fowl were hit by bird flu, and now the importation of more chickens is being delayed due to "the situation."
Hochman was very bothered by the unsightly wall that will block the wind from the sea and could deter potential kibbutz members. Now he takes comfort in that the wall will be painted. But the big problem now is the tunnels. Ilan Regev, the economy coordinator for the kibbutz, discovered that a slight miscalculation of the angle of digging could put a tunnel opening directly beneath the kibbutz dining room. What a strange situation: City residents worry about terror attacks on the ground, Sderot residents worry about Qassam rockets from above, and in Kerem Shalom they worry about tunnels from below.
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