SOUTHERN ISRAEL — The kids in Kibbutz Nirim, less than two kilometers from the border with Gaza, can identify rockets by their sounds.
To the untrained ear, all three sound the same: Boom, boom, boom.
“That was two rockets from Gaza, with one of ours in the middle,” announced Regev Haglili, 14, confidently.
“No way, that was a rocket launch, and two rockets falling,” argued his brother, Barak.
“You’re wrong,” insisted Regev. A normal sibling rivalry argument over an abnormal subject: rockets aimed at their houses.
“Luckily, our bedroom is the ‘safe room’,” Barak explained, reinforced against a rocket strike. “But you should see it when the whole family has to sleep in here. Five people in one room – phew!”
Operation Protective Edge is almost five weeks old, but the period post-ground operation is a strange limbo, especially for residents of the south, who are still dealing with frequent rocket attacks. Terror groups shot more than 40 rockets from the Hamas-run Gaza Strip across the border towards the adjacent Israeli communities on Sunday; most of them fell in open areas. What results is a kind of twilight war, an almost-over war, with residents attempting to capture a modicum of normalcy to a soundtrack of frequent booms.
“Nirim is our home, it always was, and it always will be,” said Ifat Haglili, the mother of Regev, Barak, and 17-year-old Peleg. Ifat and the children left at the beginning of Operation Protective Edge for the northern Kibbutz Mishmar Haemek, which hosted more than 100 members of Kibbutz Nirim and enabled Nirim to run its planned summer programs for kids.
“It was really fun there,” Regev said of his summer up north.
“Maybe too fun,” his mother added. They had so many activities, field trips, attractions, movie nights, bowling, and hikes, that some of the kids didn’t want to leave their new friends, said Ifat.
On Friday morning, Hamas ended a three-day ceasefire, and the barrages of rockets returned to the south. Still, that didn’t change the minds of Haglili, or all of the Nirim residents in Mishmar Haemek. “You can’t always be in exile,” she said. “This part of the war we’re staying here, we’re fighting for our homes, from our homes.”
“You can’t always be in exile,” she said. “This part of the war we’re staying here, we’re fighting for our homes, from our homes.”
“We came home the moment we saw it was possible to come back,” she added. Her husband, who works at a local dairy farm, and her oldest son, had stayed in Nirim for most of the war.
After an official goodbye ceremony at Mishmar Haemek on Friday, the Haglili family and most other families drove back to Nirim, where they had a community dinner on Friday night and a party on Saturday.
A local resident who is a graphic designer made T-shirts with the slogan “We’re not giving up on Nirim,” which rhymes in Hebrew. “August 2014 – End of Operation Protective Edge,” he wrote hopefully, underneath a girl using a rocket as a swing.
“We know this reality [of rockets] already for 14 years,” said Haglili. “We hope that we will not return to it again. We want to go back to raising our kids in the best and safest way we can.”
She praised the community leadership in Nirim, which she said kept in constant contact with residents throughout the war and made the right decision to encourage them to return. Already her kids were back with their friends, running in and out of the house in between activities. The vast majority of Nirim residents are back at home, and so too is the Haglili dog. Chupa, a golden retriever mix, was a puppy during Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, and is so terrified of booms that she refuses to leave the family safe room when there are rockets.
Fifteen seconds to run
Both Sha’ar HaNegev and Eshkol Regional Councils told those residents that had left that they could come back last week. In Eshkol, in the communities such as Nirim which are west of Road 232, only about 20% of the residents had stayed out during the ground offensive. But on Sunday, Eshkol spokeswoman Ronit Minaker said that most everyone had returned.
“They will make decisions whether or not to stay depending on the developments,” she said. “We will help anyone that wants to leave, either to go up north or somewhere south further away. But currently most of the residents are here.”
“Generally in Sha’ar HaNegev most of the people returned,” said Michal Shaban-Kotzer, the spokeswoman for the Sha’ar HaNegev Regional Council. “They are trying to fulfill the requirements of the Home Front Command [which require residents to be within 15 seconds of a protected area], but they are also trying to stabilize and return to the routine as much as it’s possible,” she said.
The council is now reaching out to farmers and small businesses to try to determine the extent of the damage caused by the rockets, and the wider war. Many fields were destroyed, both by tanks as well as neglect, since workers could not work under the security situation.
But not all residents of the south are returning. Kibbutz Nahal Oz, one of the closest towns to Gaza and the scene of heavy fighting around a tunnel that led directly to the kibbutz, made the decision on a local level to instruct its residents not to return for now.
Not safe yet
“All these ceasefires aren’t serious,” said Nahal Oz resident Daniel Rachamin, a de facto spokesman during emergency situations, after the next ceasefire was announced from Sunday at midnight. “We’re simply behaving at the kibbutz according to reality, and not according to the notices [the army] give us,” he said.
The army and Home Front Command recommended that residents return on Friday morning, but before the local security team in the kibbutz could meet in the afternoon, there were already 10 Code Red alerts of rockets shot towards the kibbutz, Rachamin said. “We said, in this situation, we don’t recommend that families come back.”
“We’re simply behaving at the kibbutz according to reality, and not according to the notices [the army] gives us.”
“It was our own internal decision, not to try to take a political stand, against the concerns that we don’t think it is safe yet,” he added.
“We really want to return to our regular routine,” stressed Rachamin. “That’s what we were prepared for last week.”
They hired a professional cleaning company to clean out the school and nursery school, which were filthy from hosting soldiers and covered in dust kicked up by heavy military vehicles. Everything was ready to have the families come back over the weekend.
“On the one hand we want to return to our routine, but on the other hand we don’t want to endanger our residents,” said Rachamim. “When they come back we want to give them at least a minimum amount of security.”
Currently, the children’s areas of the kibbutz are not protected from rockets and therefore do not meet Home Front Command requirements that nursery schools within a certain distance of Gaza be held in protected areas, he said. Representatives from the Home Front Command are expected to visit on Monday to determine a temporary solution, though construction was already supposed to have begun on new protected buildings for the children.
Rachamin expressed doubt that the current ceasefire plan would hold, based on all of the failed ceasefire attempts in the past month.
“We’ll see what happens after 72 hours, also what happens within the 72 hours,” he said. “We learned from the last time; we’ll wait until the end. If it ends and there’s still quiet, then almost certainly we’ll have another meeting and we’ll decide together to tell the residents to come back.”
At Nirim, Haglili is excited to be back at home, despite the rockets. “There’s no place like home,” she said on Sunday afternoon, wiping away tears. “The tears are from happiness. It’s coming back to the people you see every day, the people you know, everyone came back,” she said. “And the boys could sleep in their own beds again.”
The boys were on their way to showing me their beds when we heard the first boom, and hurried into the safe room. Boom, boom, boom, in quick succession.
“In Tel Aviv, you have a minute and a half after the siren,” said Haglili. “You can even finish your coffee before you run to the shelter!” she joked.
At Nirim, there are no sirens for the small rockets shot from Gaza, because the sirens – and Iron Dome – can’t activate in time. They can sometimes hear the explosion of the rocket launch, and have 15 seconds to get into a protected area. Sometimes, they’ll hear a Code Red alert or loud alerts from a Home Front Command-type beeper in each home. But a lot of the time, there are booms with no warning.
Haglili tries to stay optimistic for a peaceful and permanent solution.
“We are in favor of living in peace with our neighbors,” she said. “We think also about their kids. The same way we want to raise our children in peace and quiet, on their side there are also mothers who are worried about their children, but the situation there doesn’t give them that option.”
“During the war, we took our kids away from here. And there, it’s the opposite. There are these terrible videos on the internet. They take kids and tie them up together next to a rocket launch. The rocket goes off, and I don’t want to think about what happens,” she said.
“The same way we want to raise our children in peace and quiet, on their side there are also mothers who are worried about their children, but the situation there doesn’t give them that option”
Years ago, Nirim had good relations with many families across the border, including many Gazans who worked at the kibbutz in construction, she said. A famous song about the kibbutz has a verse about an old army watchtower, that one day will be moved to the beach and used as a lifeguard stand.
On a walk towards the entrance of the kibbutz, Haglili points out all of the different safe spaces, no more than a few dozen meters between them, many painted with bright murals.
Do you think these will one day be unnecessary? I asked her.
“We’re optimistic that one day there will be quiet, real quiet,” she answered.
But how do you stay optimistic? I asked, as another boom came from farther away, probably in the next town over.
“There were moments this summer when I didn’t know,” she said. “But the moment you come back home, the optimism grows.”