Visiting the Gaza Border Area

Esther Marcus holding arson kite at Kibbutz Alumim
Esther Marcus holding an arson kite that landed at Kibbutz Alumim

Nogo Gulst fondly remembers the years when she could go to the nearest large city to do her shopping or to catch a bus to Tel Aviv. Noga, who lives in Kibbutz Mefalsim, Danny Rachamim from Kibbutz Nahal Oz, and Esther Marcus from Kibbutz Alumim, all say the same thing. From 1967 until the signing of the Oslo Accords, Gaza City was the place to go.

Noga said, “We did everything in Gaza.” They shopped there and ate in its restaurants. “It was the best hummous I ever eat,” Danny reported. The fastest to route to Tel Aviv was through Gaza City. They were friends with Arabs. Danny reports having hosted several families from Gaza at the wedding of one of his children. Long time residents of Sderot have happy memories of walking less than a kilometer to the beach on Shabbat during those years.

Touring with Honest Reporting
The Asaf Siboni overlook. Gaza City, less than a mile away, is on the horizon The black patches are fields that were burned in arson attacks by Hamas.
The Asaf Siboni overlook. Gaza City, less than a mile away, is on the horizon The black patches are fields that were burned in arson attacks by Hamas.

On August 7, my husband and I spent the day with Honest Reporting on a briefing tour of the Gaza border areas. The places we went, Asaf Siboni, Kibutz Nahal Oz, and Kibbutz Alumim, are all in areas allotted to Israel by the 1947 UN Partition PlanThey have been part of Israel since the founding of the state in May 1948. Elliot Chodoff, a military and political analyst spoke about the background of the current situation.

At each stop, we met several long-time residents, and toured their towns and farms. Today, the situation is different from what it was in the 1970s and 80s, when travel between Israel and Gaza was easy and safe. No Israelis go to Gaza City. The only exceptions are soldiers, and they only go armed, under military orders. In many Arab areas, in the Shomron as well as Gaza, Israeli soldiers are the only Jews anyone under the age of 25 has ever seen.

Hamas demonstrations at the Gaza border fence

Hamas has been trying to destroy Israel, ever since the founding of organization in 1987. But this summer has been particularly difficult for the residents of the south, especially for those living in the area closest to Gaza.

Since April, Hamas has directed weekly demonstrations along the border with Israel. Although billed as peaceful, the demonstrations are neither peaceful in intent, nor in actuality. Hamas leaders have encouraged demonstrators to come armed with knives slingshots, guns, and Molotov cocktails. They have urged Gaza residents to break down the border fence, and attack Israeli soldiers, and civilians. Hamas has distributed maps of Israeli towns near the border. With the map, any Gazan who gets through the fence can easily find Israelis and kill them.

Arson attacks against Israeli farms

This year’s summer unrest has unveiled a new weapon, which may have been more effective than Hamas originally envisioned: kites. The kites and balloons from Gaza may have started out as innocent children’s toys, but now they are weapons of war. They carry fire. Some are set on fire before being sent aloft, others carry Molotov cocktails or incendiary devices on timers. Their purpose is to destroy Israeli agriculture.

The kites have been remarkably successful. They are hard to detect when in the air, and when they land, the small fires they set spread quickly. Standing at Asaf Siboni, a high point overlooking the border with Gaza, Noga pointed out several fields that were recently burned by Hamas. Six months ago, she told us, from this spot all you could see was wheat. Half of it was burned by kite-triggered fires. Grass grows fast, and some of the fields and forests in the area burned more than once. She laughed when she said “forests,” because as she said, “Fifty trees is a forest in Israel.” But in an area where every tree was planted by hand and carefully irrigated, the loss of a stand of fifty trees hits hard.

At Nahal Oz, Danny pointed out a large wheat field, now scorched black from a fire. He reported that five thousand dunams of their land (about 1235 acres) is planted in wheat. This year Hamas burned a fifth of their crop, causing a loss of about 700,000 shekels from kibbutz income (a little more than $190,000). Their fields of sunflowers are almost ready for harvest. Because the fields are very dry,  they worry an arson kite or balloon will land in the field and destroy that crop as well.

Less than two kilometers away, Kibbutz Alumim lost a field of chickpeas to a fire two weeks ago and earlier this week a fire burned their corn. Although the government provides compensation for destroyed crops and lost income, it can not provide a sense of security for the residents.

Hamas rockets attack Israel

Kibbutzim, farms, and cities all over the Negev have been under sporadic attack by Hamas for almost twenty years. This area has been farmed by Jews since 1946, when the first kibbutzim in the Negev were founded. Be’er Sheva, about 50 km (30 miles) from Gaza, has been hit by rockets and a few arson kites which have drifted inland. The first

Esther shows remnants or some of the rockets that have landed at Alumim in the last ten years
Esther shows remnants or some of the rockets that have landed at Alumim in the last ten years

Kassam rockets were first launched in 2001. Noga says her youngest son was five years old then; he cannot remember a time when there was no terror. The  reinforced concrete protective rooms in every house and public building, and the squat shelters in parks and playgrounds, offer physical protection. Older schools and public buildings have been adapted by constructing thick reinforced concrete roofs above their original roofs. But these structures also constantly remind people of the rockets that necessitate their presence.

Kibbutz Alumim, when they recently erected a new children’s building, they made the whole building bomb proof. They needed the new center because, despite the constant danger, the kibbutz is growing. In the last three weeks alone, nine babies were born, including one set of twins.

Tzeva Adom: Warnings of rocket attacks

Even during quiet periods, everyone has with one ear listening for the warning “Tzeva Adom” warning, the woman’s voice announcing “Color red, color red.” They know when they hear that announcement they have fifteen seconds, sometimes less, to get into the shelter. To make sure they hear any announcement, they always keep a window open wherever they are, even if it is a hundred degrees outside and the air conditioner is struggling to keep the inside temperature down to 85.

When in places where there is no chance of a rocket warning, they are nevertheless on alert. Noga mentioned being in a foreign airport and hearing the little “tick” a loudspeaker makes as it turns on just before an announcement. Her whole family tensed, ready to run to shelter. “You can never 100% concentrate because you are always listening for the alarm.”

Hamas also occasionally fires mortars from Gaza at the Israeli farms. Mortars are small, with flatter trajectories. There’s no way to protect yourself from mortar, and there’s no warning. Four years ago, a mortar killed a young child in his own front yard, in the area we were touring.

Child care workers and teachers spend time working with children, teaching them what to do in case of an alarm. They also try to decrease the stress of rocket attacks. A teacher in the South wrote a song for the children to sing during an alert, that has body and hand motions to go with it.

Children have Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Nonetheless, there is a very high rate of PTSD among children in the areas within the 30 second warning area. Children have stopped using the color red in their art projects because of its association with rocket attacks.

To destigmatize the color, Esther Marcus wrote a children’s book called, Tzeva Adom. It is the story of about how all the colors gathered to choose the color of the year. Each color, starting with purple, explained all the things it can found in and why it should be chosen. But when it came to red’s turn it sat in the corner because people are afraid of it. All the other colors comfort red. It’s the life-saving color of warnings. They elect red as color of the year, and then all join together in a rainbow.

Esther talked about trying to “raise children not to have hate in their hearts, not to want revenge.” Noga talked about the electricity made by solar panels in nearby fields. The owners want to send the excess  electricity to Gaza, instead of selling it to the Israel Electric Company, as required.   Doing so would could give the people might have five or six hours hours of electricity a day, instead of four hours. They feel that “Making it better for them will make it better for us.”

Early August escalation of attacks

Wednesday night, August 8, into Thursday morning, Hamas fired hundreds of rockets into Israel. When I awoke Thursday morning, my phone alerts showed screen after screen full of Tzeva Adom notifications. The alert system has been so refined that only the area projected to be the target of a specific barrage is notified. The rest of us find out from the radio or notifications on our phones.

One of the painted public bomb shelters at Kibbutz Nahal Oz. Inside, the walls are bare unpainted concrete.
One of the public bomb shelters at Kibbutz Nahal Oz. Inside, the walls are bare unpainted concrete.

So, while we were sleeping peacefully, thousands of residents of southern Israel dozed fitfully or sat up all night in their bomb shelters. About twenty people were wounded in the attacks, and many more suffered psychological trauma.

When I saw all the notifications, I thought of Noga, spending the night sitting or lying on the floor in her son’s bedroom, which is their family’s bomb-proof room. I think of all the children crowded into one room for the night, and then not being allowed out of the house to run around and get rid of their tension during the day, because there could be a Tzeva Adom at any second.

I think of those people walking outside when they hear the alarm and running to the nearest public shelter, a small windowless concrete box on the side of the street or in the middle of the park. In many places, the shelters are painted with cheerful designs, but inside there’s nothing but the bare concrete walls and other people standing there, all of you worried about your families and whether or not they were able to get to a shelter within 15 seconds of the Tzeva Adom.

All the people we met want to restore peaceful relationships with our neighbors. To Noga winning means staying where they have always lived; Winning is peace. They want to the Arabs to came to Israel in peace to work and to shop. They want to go to Gaza to shop, to swim, to have their cars repaired.

And Danny Rachamim wants a plate of Gaza’s best hummous.

Where we were.

Nahal Oz and Alumim are about eight kilometers south west of  The observation point

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