'I feel safe here'

At a Gaza border kibbutz, there’s no such thing as returning to ‘normal’

Nahal Oz residents describe bleak awareness that next round of violence is only a matter of time, but are adamant there’s still no place else they’d rather be

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Don Salman in his home in Kibbutz Nahal Oz on November 14, 2019. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)
Don Salman in his home in Kibbutz Nahal Oz on November 14, 2019. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

KIBBUTZ NAHAL OZ — After 48 hours of non-stop rocket fire, most Israelis across the country were able to return to their normal routines Thursday morning as officials began confirming that a ceasefire had been reached between the Jewish state and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group in Gaza.

In Nahal Oz, though, just a few hundred meters from the Gaza border, normal was a relative term. The streets of the kibbutz remained mostly deserted, many of the families who had fled north during the fighting had still not returned and even getting into town proved to be a challenge.

During two days of fighting, sirens were a near-constant fixture in Nahal Oz, a frequent target of rocket and mortar fire. Then on Thursday, it suddenly stopped.

“You can’t make a switch to normalcy so quickly. It’s impossible to turn 180 degrees just like that,” said kibbutz spokesman Daniel Rahamim. “What’s more, we’re returning to normalcy in a context that’s not normal because we know that this quiet is only temporary.”

Kibbutz Nahal Oz on November 14, 2019. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

The fragility of the ceasefire became clear several times during the day, as Gazan terrorists fired sporadic volleys of rockets into Israel. In Netivot, a woman was speaking to the Kan public broadcaster just before 11 a.m. about her faith in God and in the government’s efforts to improve her community’s situation, when a siren began to wail in the background. As she shouted at her kids to get inside and did her best to calm them down in between cries and screams, the phone disconnected.

But the red alert persisted, and this reporter, who happened to be driving by the town, realized that the siren was not just coming from the radio.  I quickly pulled over and plopped to the ground at the side of the car.

With Home Front Command still taking extra precautions against the possibility of anti-tank missile fire from the Strip, the main road leading into the kibbutz was mostly closed off, with only residents allowed in.

Kibbutz Nahal Oz on November 14, 2019. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

A detour on a poorly paved road along the community’s banana fields and avocado farms eventually brought me to the back entrance of the kibbutz.

Rahamim, the spokesman, was the only person outside at the time, and the kibbutz appeared virtually empty.

The spokesman said that roughly 30 families had left since the start of the latest round of violence, which began after the IDF’s targeted killing of top Islamic Jihad terrorist Baha Abu al-Ata early Tuesday morning. What followed Tuesday and Wednesday were roughly 450 rockets fired into Israel, dozens of which triggered sirens in Nahal Oz.

Kibbutz Nahal Oz spokesman Daniel Rahamim outside his home on November 14, 2019. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

“We encourage people to leave if they want to. This is not a place that children need to be in. It’s somewhat of a battlefield,” admitted Rahamim.

The 65-year-old spokesman said that the kibbutz leadership had been preparing for a more organized exit of most of the remaining 350 families to Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’emek in the north, but had put the plans on hold when news of the ceasefire broke.

Still, the streets and sidewalks were deserted. The only sound that could be heard in Nahal Oz was the occasional bird chirp.

No school, no rules

Little bikes and scooters lay untouched in front of homes; those children still here were inside their family bomb shelters.

Kibbutz Nahal Oz on November 14, 2019. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

Almost every home had a lavish garden, but who had the time over the last couple of days to pick up the oranges and limes that had fallen to the ground?

The routine that Israelis in the rest of the country had the luxury of returning to had not yet kicked in for Nahal Oz residents.

“Nobody here wonders whether there will be another round of violence. The question is only when,” Rahamim said.

For Tom Oren-Denenberg, the day after the violence has temporarily subsided is the most difficult — “because we just went through 48 hours of hell, and then it ends, and you ask, ‘what was it all for?'”

“If we had achieved some sort of agreement that would ensure long-term quiet, I would go and personally shake the prime minister’s hand. But here, all we did was take out a terrorist who can easily be replaced. That cannot be the goal in and of itself,” he argued.

An Israeli army vehicle block a road near Nahal Oz in the Israeli Gaza border in southern Israel, on March 25, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

It was 2:00 p.m., but the 44-year-old father-of-one was the only member of his family awake. His wife and daughter were inside the bomb shelter sleeping after a restless night full of red alert sirens.

“My daughter’s only 5-years-old, so this whole thing is a kind of adventure for her,” explained Oren-Denenberg. “There’s no school and there aren’t any rules. We can’t tell her, ‘Only 30 more minutes of screen time,’ because what else can she do [in the shelter]?”

The challenge of readjusting the family’s sleeping patterns is just another reason why he said the return to normalcy is not instantaneous.

“It takes a couple of days. Luckily we have a weekend to recuperate,” he said. “You’re at the peak of alertness during all of the sirens and explosions, but when the quiet eventually arrives, the exhaustion takes over.”

Tom Oren-Denenberg outside his home on November 14, 2019. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

While he said he understood families with younger kids who preferred to wait out the violence elsewhere, Oren-Denenberg said that leaving would be harder than staying.

“Experiencing what’s happening from a distance would be far worse. Plus, I feel safe here,” Oren-Denenberg said.

Dovish history

Asked how he doesn’t despair in the face of such a dismal reality, Rahamim said he holds out hope that the government will one day work out a diplomatic solution to a conflict that he said cannot be solved through military means.

The 65-year-old was not shy about his dovish political leanings and tied them to the history of the kibbutz.

Kibbutz Nahal Oz on November 14, 2019. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

Nahal Oz was the first of many communities established by members of the Nahal infantry brigade. The kibbutz was founded in 1951, and received national attention five years later when its security coordinator Roi Rotberg was ambushed and brutally killed by Gaza infiltrators while patrolling the area.

Rotberg was eulogized by then IDF chief of staff Moshe Dayan, who gave a brutally pessimistic lecture on Israel’s eternal need to live by the sword in the face of a vicious enemy waiting to pounce at the moment “our tranquility blunts our alertness.”

Rahamim said some residents of the kibbutz took Dayan’s remarks as a slight at Rotberg and other members of their movement, believing that the IDF chief was suggesting that they had been naive regarding their Arab neighbors and had let their guard down. Dayan later apologized and insisted that this was not his intention.

“Fast forward 20 years, and think about the transformation Dayan underwent,” Rahamim said excitedly as we sat in his living room. The military giant who told Nahal Oz residents that being perennially prepared for battle was “the decree of [their] generation” went on to play a central role in Israel’s 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, believing that trading land was necessary for reconciliation with Israel’s neighbors.

Moshe Dayan eulogizes Roi Rotberg, Kibbutz Nahal Oz, April 1956 (IDF archives)

“I tell this to everyone who visits here because it’s part of our heritage,” explained Rahamim, who moved to Nahal Oz 44 years ago.

The dovish sentiment remains to this day, with over 77 percent of the residents voting for center-left parties in September’s election. However, that doesn’t mean the political makeup of Nahal Oz is homogeneous.

‘We cease. They fire’

Don and Elinore Salman said they are among a handful who think differently than Rahamim, and appeared to view Gaza violence as the inevitability that Dayan had once described.

“There are only two ways for this to end: Either we’re eliminated or they’re eliminated,” Don asserted. 

The empty pool at Kibbutz Nahal Oz, as Hamas terrorists in Gaza continue to fire rockets into Israel on August 10, 2014 (Edi Israel/Flash90)

Reflecting on the morning’s rocket fire at Netivot, Elinore said: “This is not a ceasefire. We cease, and they fire.”

“It’s like the movie Groundhog Day. You wake up and this whole thing will happen again,” lamented Don.

“Our kids have been begging us to leave because of what’s going on, but this is our home. We don’t want to leave,” added Elinore.

Don argued that driving out of Nahal Oz might be more dangerous than staying in it. He referenced rocket fire on Tuesday that narrowly missed a moving car outside Gan Yavne. “We take that road all the time,” he said.

Elinore was sitting on her couch calming down their dog, who wouldn’t stop barking.

Kibbutz Nahal Oz on November 14, 2019. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

“These past few days have made Lucky very crazy. He shakes, walks around in circles, goes to the bomb-shelter. The vet gave him a pill to help calm him down,” she said. “I’m not scared for me, I’m scared for my dog.”

The Salmans have been living in Nahal Oz for 49 years after making aliyah from Denver.

“We immediately found ourselves at home here. The people are kind and always checking in. Sometimes a little bit too much,” Elinore joked.

Rahamim said the draw to Nahal Oz, which has added 150 families in the past five years, is not something tangible.

A ‘Peace’ sign hangs in a field near Nahal Oz bordering Gaza, as thousands of Palestinians demonstrate near the border with Israel in the Gaza Strip, on April 6, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“New families tell us that when they cross the entrance [into the kibbutz], they immediately feel at home. Something in the air transmits warmth and belonging. We don’t know what it is ourselves because we’ve been here for so long,” Rahamim said of Nahal Oz’s older residents.

It’s perhaps because of this feeling that Rahamim, Oren-Denenberg and the Salmans say they would never consider leaving.

“Here, life has meaning,” explained Rahamim. “It’s Zionism. There’s nothing wrong with saying that.”

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