In the border kibbutz brushed by terror, an understated resilience
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In the border kibbutz brushed by terror, an understated resilience

Squeezed between Hamas-ruled Gaza and the increasing anarchy of Sinai, residents of Kerem Shalom somehow seem to take Sunday’s attack in stride

A concrete shelter at Kerem Shalom, a tiny kibbutz at the convergence of Israel's borders with Gaza and Egypt (photo credit: Times of Israel/Matti Friedman)
A concrete shelter at Kerem Shalom, a tiny kibbutz at the convergence of Israel's borders with Gaza and Egypt (photo credit: Times of Israel/Matti Friedman)

There is perhaps no place in Israel better positioned to feel the violent changes taking place just across the country’s borders than the tiny kibbutz whose name means “Vineyard of Peace.”

Protected by high concrete walls and military lookout towers, and armed with a typically Israeli mix of stubbornness, ideology and denial, the 44 adult residents of Kerem Shalom live in the sandy corner of the “L” formed by the meeting of Israel’s borders with the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and the increasingly anarchic Sinai Peninsula.

Over the years, residents have become used to the threat from Gaza. The Palestinian town of Rafah, notorious for its armed groups and its hundreds of smuggling tunnels, lies just on the other side of the Israel-Gaza line. But it is now clear that events in Egypt have made this spot even more perilous.

At 5:02 p.m. on Sunday, Evelina Zinchenco, the kibbutz’s young secretary, received a text message from a security official. All of the kibbutzniks received the same message at precisely the same time. “Enter protected areas and avoid walking around outside,” it read. Residents began to hear explosions.

This was routine for Kerem Shalom. Zinchenco stayed indoors but didn’t bother entering the reinforced safe room in her small, white-walled kibbutz house.

Another text message arrived at 5:39. “Enter houses, lock houses, and do not travel on road 232,” it read, referring to the nearby main road that is the only way in and out of the kibbutz.

Kibbutz secretary Evelina Zinchenco. Residents are "optimists," she said. (photo credit: Times of Israel/Matti Friedman)
Kibbutz secretary Evelina Zinchenco. Residents are “optimists,” she said. (photo credit: Times of Israel/Matti Friedman)

Roman Kozhokin, a 27-year-old painter, was at home with his wife, Marina. They arrived a year ago from the southern town of Kiryat Gat, hoping to try out kibbutz life, undeterred by the neighbors. Not as jaded as Zinchenco, they were in the safe room. Kibbutzniks in the dining hall entered a communal bomb shelter and watched the Olympics.

Only the next day did residents realize how close they had come. Terrorists from Sinai had managed to break through the Egyptian border with an armored personnel carrier and rode it north, past the trees lining Road 232, for a mile. The vehicle had just passed the turnoff to Kerem Shalom when an Israeli aircraft destroyed it with a missile. It had been packed with explosives and at least some of the eight terrorists killed were wearing bomb belts, according to military officials.

Three days later, all that was left of the clash was a patch of blackened asphalt on the side of the road, and the tread-marks of an Israeli tank that had given pursuit.

Kerem Shalom was first founded in 1968, but that kibbutz disintegrated in 1995 and the site was abandoned. Six years later the kibbutz movement decided to resettle the spot, and a new group moved in. The violence of the second intifada was already under way.

Zinchenco, who was born in Ukraine and moved to Israel at 18 in 1999, arrived with her husband in 2005. She was attracted to the idea of a kibbutz, she said; she suggested that might have had something to do with her “grandmother’s Communism.” In her telling, her husband showed her a map of the kibbutz on which the Gaza Strip was not clearly marked.

“I said, great – a kibbutz next to the sea,” she laughed. She later understood that the Palestinian territory, with its 1.5 million residents, is an impassable barrier between Kerem Shalom and the Mediterranean.

Out Zinchenco’s back window is the eight-meter-high wall that protects the kibbutz from Gaza. She has decorated the grey concrete in her line of vision with painted figures from Alice in Wonderland, characters in bright colors dwarfed by the grey enormity of the concrete slabs.

The year after she arrived, gunmen from Gaza tunneled into Israel and attacked an Israeli tank parked on a rise just outside the kibbutz fence, killing two soldiers and seizing crewman Gilad Shalit. This was the breaking point for many after years of rocket fire, and members began leaving, she said. Only eight families remained.

But in the past few years, she said, the numbers have been inching up. Half of the adults at Kerem Shalom today are newly arrived residents interested in membership, and new families are coming at a rate of four or five a year, she said. The average age is around 35, and next year members hope to have enough children to open a kindergarten. Members work in the kibbutz’s potato, radish and peanut fields, raise turkeys, or work elsewhere and put their salaries into the communal bank account.

The view from an army post at Kerem Shalom. The grey tower marks the position where Gilad Shalit was captured in 2006. (photo credit: Times of Israel/Matti Friedman)
The view from an army post at Kerem Shalom. The grey tower marks the position where Gilad Shalit was captured in 2006. (photo credit: Times of Israel/Matti Friedman)

The kibbutzniks say the threats to their security have brought them closer. They eat together every night in the dining hall, and take care of each other’s children. They also sporadically operate a pub they call the Mortar Shell. A T-shirt hanging on the wall in Zinchenco’s office has the pub’s name written in orange letters along with the its slogan – “A Zionist Pub Facing Rafah” – and a drawing of a naked woman riding an artillery round into a pint of beer.

Kozhokin, the painter, said this week’s near-miss did not make him consider leaving. The people of Kerem Shalom have always known the dangers. “It’s a matter of time before the IDF takes more forceful steps in Gaza,” he said, and Egypt’s military is operating against terrorists in Sinai.

Another woman who moved here a month ago from a Tel Aviv suburb, and who was in the kibbutz’s club – a room with a pool table and a bar – around midday, said she had spent the hours of the attack with other kibbutz members in the bomb shelter. “It made me feel not that I want to get out of here, but that I want to stay here with these people,” she said.

In April, 1956, Roi Rotberg, a young member of a kibbutz up the road from here, Nahal Oz, was killed by marauders who crossed the border from Gaza. The military chief of staff, Moshe Dayan, delivered a brief eulogy at the funeral that has become one of the best-known speeches in Israel’s history.

The Israelis should not blame the killers, Dayan said – the Palestinians’ hatred was understandable. The Israelis should blame only themselves, for letting down their guard.

“How did we close our eyes rather than look directly at our fate and see the purpose of our generation in all of its cruelty?” Dayan said. “Did we forget that this group of young people at Nahal Oz carries on its shoulders the heavy gates of Gaza?”

“We are a generation of settlement, and without the steel helmet and cannon we will not be able to plant a tree or build a home,” Dayan continued. “We must not draw back from seeing the hatred that inflames and fills the lives of hundreds of thousands of Arabs living around us. We must not avert our eyes, lest it weaken our hands.”

Zinchenco, a slim woman in shorts and designer sunglasses, does not resemble those early settlers. But glancing around the kibbutz at the military posts, the shelters, the concrete walls, and the blackened asphalt on the road outside, one might be forgiven for thinking not all that much has changed.

Zinchenco does not speak in ideological terms. She simply likes it here, in this strange, dangerous corner of the country, where she and her friends are carving out lives in the shadow of momentous events. And she believes things will improve.

“If we were not optimists we would not be here,” she said.

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