KIBBUTZ KFAR AZA, Southern Israel — Just days after the end of Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s 2014 war with the Gaza Strip’s ruling Hamas, Haifa-born Tom Oren-Denenberg and his wife Yael visited Nahal Oz, the closest place in Israel to the turbulent Palestinian enclave, to inquire about moving in.
The kibbutz, just 875 yards (800 meters) from the strip, was still reeling from the death by mortar fire of four-year-old Daniel Tregerman, whose family was one of 18 to subsequently leave the community.
“It looked neglected,” Oren-Denenberg told the Times of Israel this week. “Lots of families hadn’t been around for weeks, the landscaping hadn’t been looked after, the army had been in with the tanks.
“But there was something about the atmosphere. I knew this was the place for us. When we came here to have a look, another family had just moved in from Kibbutz Hatzor (located in southern Israel, between coastal Ashdod and inland Kiryat Malachi).”
Two months later, Tom and Yael followed suit and moved in too.
“We kind of started a wave. After that, tens of new families came in (the precise number was 23). I don’t even remember where they came from. Nahal Oz becomes a part of your DNA very quickly, ” Oren-Denenberg said.
Today, around 400 people call the kibbutz home.
Living close to Israel’s highly flammable border with Gaza was not completely new for the couple. Searching for an active community, the Oren-Denenbergs had spent two and a half years at Kibbutz Kfar Menachem, east of Kiryat Malachi, much further from Gaza, but still subject to red alerts.
But it was not sufficiently community-oriented for them and it was in the midst of a kitchen conversation during Operation Protective Edge that Tom suddenly suggested looking at kibbutzim on the Gaza border. “I just threw out the idea. I don’t know what went through my mind,” he recalled.
Now, five years later, and with a four-year-old daughter, Ella, Tom and Yael, who both work from home, are going through the process of being accepted as full members of Nahal Oz.
What is so special about the kibbutz? “The mutual support and help, the feeling of community, ” Oren-Denenberg explained. “We’re outside all the time with friends, at cultural events. We volunteer. And we want our daughter to grow up in a real community, not in a shopping mall in the center of the country or in front of a TV.”
He added, “We want her to have a good education, a love of the land in the old Zionist sense of the word. For us, real Zionism is living in the recognized borders of Israel.”
Oren-Denenberg says he and his wife have no illusions. “Thank G-d, we haven’t lived through a war yet — although we’ve had plenty of short-term escalations and weapons fired over the border — but it’s clear another one will come some time.”
Within hours of that conversation with the Times of Israel, warning sirens sounded in Nahal Oz and in nearby Kibbutz Alumim as Palestinian terrorists launched at least two rockets into Israel which landed in open fields and caused no injuries. That was after Israeli aircraft had bombed a Hamas base in the northern Gaza Strip in retaliation for an earlier wave of balloon-borne incendiary devices launched into Israel.
Even without a war, more than a thousand rockets and mortars have been fired from Gaza into Israel over the past year.
Every Friday, for more than a year, Israeli soldiers gather close to the kibbutz to face violent Palestinian protesters on the other side of the border waging what they call their “March of Return,” and trying to breach the border fence.
“There are two peoples and two sides of the border and the people are more important than their leaders,” said Oren-Denenberg, adding that he had struck up an online relationships with a Gazan journalist via Facebook.
“When there’s an escalation, he tells us to look after ourselves. People aren’t interested in Bibi (a reference to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s nickname) or Hamas. We all want to live quietly.
“And if my wife and I didn’t believe that peace would come one day, we wouldn’t be here.”
‘You don’t know how you’ll cope until something happens’
Ayelet Shachar-Epstein, a member of Kibbutz Kfar Aza, just down the road, agreed.
She chose to be photographed for this article standing next to the remains of a tank, planted with an olive tree.
“It’s a symbol of optimism,” she said. “We understand the need to defend ourselves but we also believe in peace.”
Less than two kilometers (1.5 miles) from the Gaza border, Kibbutz Kfar Aza has around 800 residents. It is in the process of building 38 new housing units and absorbing the first 32 new members. Around ten families are on a waiting list.
The newcomers are generally a mix of kibbutz offspring, who completed their army service, traveled and then worked in the center of the country before deciding to return home to start families, people already renting on the kibbutz, or living in nearby cities such as Sderot and Ashkelon, or other kibbutzim in the area.
“It’s complex for people who don’t know the reality here,” said Shachar-Epstein, who is responsible for receiving new kibbutz members. “You can’t understand the constantly changing security situation until you live it and see how you react. It has happened more than once that people came and saw and began the process of applying to be accepted as kibbutz members before something happened. After the last round of escalation, a few weeks ago, three families dropped out.”
Still, six homes were inhabited last month, another 11 will be moving in the coming weeks and a further 21 are being marketed. One of those 21 has been bought by a lawyer and his wife from the central Israeli city of Givatayim. They are due to move into kibbutz rental accommodation with their three children in the summer until their home is completed.
The new houses, each sitting on a 500 square meter (5,380 square foot) plot, go for between NIS 1.2 million ($335,000) for 90 square meters (970 square feet) to NIS 1.8 million ($500,000) for 180 square meters (1,940 square feet).
By comparison, a 94 square meter (1,012 square foot) first floor apartment in Rishon LeZion in central Israel sold last week for NIS 1.96 million ($546,000) while a 184 square meter (1,980 square foot) house with a 247 square meter (2,660 square foot) garden sold in the same city for NIS 2.7 million ($752,500), according to the Globes business newspaper.
Shachar-Epstein grew up on the kibbutz, married another kibbutz member and now has three children of her own.
She fondly remembers family shopping trips to the Gaza markets when she was a child. “We lived well with our neighbors then. People came here to work. The relationships were friendly.”
Everything changed in 2008
Then in 2008, everything changed with Operation Cast Lead — the first of three rounds of outright war fought between Israel and Hamas.
Operation Cast Lead plunged Kfar Aza into an economic crisis which took a decade to reverse.
“On May 9, 2008, there were four mortar bombs, one after the other. The fourth one hit a kibbutz member, James Kdoshim, a father of three, as he worked in his garden, killing him on the spot. When that happened, we really understood how dangerous it was to live here.”
That was the only fatality caused by Hamas, but houses have been damaged since, and many members of all ages receive psychological counseling.
The whole kibbutz is peppered with bunkers, painted colorfully with mandala designs to make them look more homely. Community members have just 15 seconds to run to the nearest protected space after hearing a siren.
“We’ve had plenty of incendiary balloons coming over the border, but the real threat is from the mortar bombs,” Shachar-Epstein said. “The army says it sealed the tunnels coming from Gaza under the border into Israel but they can discover new ones. Hamas’ ability is there.
“Since Operation Protective Edge, the conflict has been on and off. There are peaks of tension every so often. It usually comes quickly and reaches a climax with so many explosions that you can’t leave the house, the family lives in the protected room, there’s no school, the kids climb the walls, and you can’t work. And that’s before you talk about the anxiety.
“Many people leave temporarily when tensions are high,” she continued. “The uncertainty is very hard. Some people have cases packed at the ready all the time. Then where do you go? And for how long? You have no idea.
“You get used to the practical side and knowing what to do creates a certain order, but you never get used to the uncertainty.”
The last escalation before this week’s one, at the beginning of April, caught Shachar-Epstein in Tel Aviv.
“Suddenly, in the afternoon, there were security alerts and I got a message that the kids were being sent home from school. I caught a train home, but it stopped in Ashkelon. The Sderot station was closed because of the security situation.
“My 18-year-old son got the other two children into the protected room. At 7pm we got a message that there would be no school the next day. The following morning, we decided to leave. We packed a bag and went on a trip. Then we were told a ceasefire would come into effect at 5pm. ”
Kibbutz community life ‘the answer for social protesters’
Naftali Sivan is responsible for “demographic growth” at the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council, which services some 9,000 residents in ten kibbutzim, including Nahal Oz, along with one moshav (Yachini) and a sprinkling of other communities.
Seven of the kibbutzim are within seven kilometers (4.3 miles) of the Gaza border and are thus recognized as eligible for special government support as part of the Gaza envelope.
“It seems crazy, but when you ask how to explain this strange phenomenon of people moving so close to the Gaza border, the answer is that we sell community,” Sivan said.
“It seems this attracts people who want to be part of a community with mutual involvement, where there is quality of life, culture, good education. For most of the day and year, it’s a recipe for which people are willing to spend days or periods of very difficult security-related tension.”
In his view, “The kibbutz today is the answer to many of the people who went out onto the streets to demand social equality in 2011.”
That year saw tens of thousands of Israelis holding mass weekly rallies up and down the country to demand cuts in the high cost of living and a fairer society.
As the demand for community-oriented living has increased, Sivan observes, the kibbutzim have largely abandoned their old collective ways and now allow members to own their own homes, retain the salaries that they have earned, and work anywhere they wish.
This means that thanks to Sderot’s railway station, people who move to the Sha’ar Hanegev region can, and many do, continue to commute to the center of the country each day for work.
Sha’ar Hanegev’s population grew from 6,670 in 2009 to 8,600 in December 2018, with the major growth starting in 2012.
Just under 325 plots earmarked for housing were snapped up across the authority between 2016 and 2018.
Two thirds of the buyers were people wanting to be full kibbutz members.
The remaining third opted for a now largely abandoned product called the kibbutz “extension” — private neighborhoods built away from the kibbutz communal living areas for families seeking a rural lifestyles without the benefits and responsibilities of kibbutz membership.
Of the buyers, around half were from the area, the other half from all over Israel.
This real estate activity has all taken place against the backdrop of two out of the three major wars that Israel has fought with Hamas since the latter took control of the enclave in 2007, not to mention the continual ups and downs of shorter term conflagrations in between.
The idea, Sivan adds, is not to overwhelm the kibbutzim with new members who might change the kibbutz atmosphere, but to enable each to absorb around ten families per year to remain strong and viable.
Sivan proudly described the regional council’s educational campus in Sderot which provides education and facilities to the various member communities “from age six to 120” — from first grade through third age. Here, schools and two colleges — including the academic Sapir College, with 8,000 students, are located alongside facilities such as a club and day center for the elderly, a music conservatory, a dance studio, sports facilities and a special program for children with attention deficit disorder.
Building community, building resilience
The campus is also home to psychological services and to what is known as a center for resilience.
These government-funded centers have been established in all four regional councils of the Gaza envelope as well as the one city close to the border — Sderot.
Originally developed for populations living on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, these provide support for individuals and communities in security-challenged areas.
They provide all residents who are in need with up to 12 free sessions of therapy or psychological counseling — even up to 24 in certain circumstances.
They organize activities and workshops to strengthen community togetherness and inter-generational contact.
Because responsibility has been found to help build resilience, the centers also train emergency volunteer teams, allocating tasks to people that will focus their energies and get them out helping others.
And they train residents who hold certain positions within their communities, such as teachers and kibbutz secretaries to know how to react when the sirens wail.
“Social resilience is what enabled families to return home after Operation Protective Edge (in 2014),” Sivan said. “It’s what keeps our communities here.”
To the area’s touted attractions must be added a generous package of financial incentives.
Massive government investment to maintain and encourage settlement in the Gaza envelope means the difference between renting and buying a first property for many young couples.
Adi Meiri, Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council’s spokeswoman, and a resident of Kibbutz Yad Mordechai — the northernmost kibbutz in the Gaza envelope (and part of the Ashkelon Coast Regional Council) paid just NIS 1.3 million ($362,300) for her 140 square meter (1,500 square foot) house on a 450 square meter (4,845 square foot) plot.
Those wishing to build do not have to pay for the land, Meiri explained.
Furthermore, the housing ministry pays between NIS 80,000 ($22,300) to NIS 120,000 ($33,500) to the kibbutzim for each family that buys a house there, to cover infrastructure costs.
People wanting to rent on a kibbutz in the Gaza envelope before making a decision about buying can apply for an “association house” built by the government.
After five years, they must decide whether they want to stay, and if they do, their rental payments are converted into mortgage payments and the house becomes theirs. This enables them to buy a property without having to invest any personal capital.
Residents earning up to NIS 15,000 ($4,180) are exempt from income tax. (The average monthly salary in January this year was NIS 10,618,equivalent to $2,960).
People who open businesses benefit from discounts on taxes and rates.
And while elsewhere in Israel, parents have to pay extra for childcare in the afternoons, in the Gaza envelope, the labor ministry subsidizes more than a third of the cost of all day frameworks for children aged up to three.
‘Wow’ factor in Sderot
In the city of Sderot, the plans for growth are far more ambitious than those of the regional councils.
Six new neighborhoods are currently being built, with a further two still at the planning stage.
By the end of 2019, the city will have 28,500 residents, up from 24,000 in 2014, according to Arie Cohen, who is responsible for all building projects in the city. Officially, that number will rise to 50,000 by 2040, although Cohen believes the target will be reached a decade before.
“I’m a man of the smaller communities,” said Cohen, who was born in Sderot, “but for the wow factor, you need a city that really grows. And what’s happening here is a miracle, when you consider Operation Protective Edge. You need a mayor who is totally focused on the target and knows how to bring in government money. And you need to provide a layer of excellent services, in addition to the housing.”
The city was also building 400-bed student accommodation and renovating the city center, he added.
The six neighborhoods now being built will contain around 3,000 units, a third of them marketed through a government program to offer homes at subsidized prices to qualified first-time buyers via a lottery system.
According to Cohen, the scheme will allow an apartment of just over 90 meters to be sold for just NIS 550,000 ($154,000).
A regular 140 square meter (1500 square foot) house on a 300 square meter (3,230 square foot) plot that is not part of the scheme will cost NIS 1.6 to NIS 1.7 million ($445,000 to $475,000) — still a relative bargain.
Sderot’s deputy mayor, Elad Kalimi, said that the city’s excellent education system was a major draw.
Indeed, in 2017, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, 71.3 percent of 12th graders in Sderot gained a matriculation certificate, way above the national average of 68.2 %.
And while parents throughout the country fund afternoon activities for their children, Sderot’s schools run, at no extra cost, from 7.30 am to 4 pm.
Theater, cinemas, musical and other performances are highly subsidized, Kalimi said. Out-of-school enrichment activities for pupils in third and fourth grade cost just NIS 100 ($28) per child per year, with schoolchildren of other ages getting a 50 percent discount and paying NIS 800 ($220) each.
The southern periphery, where danger is a relative concept
Sderot and the communities of Sha’ar Hanegev — which have joined forces on several projects to ensure low, medium and high-tech job opportunities — have the advantage of a train to the center of the country for those who want to live in the south but commute to work.
That privilege is not shared by the rural Eshkol Regional Council, further south, which serves 32 communities, mostly kibbutzim, with 14 moshavim and three community settlements.
The Eshkol region runs alongside 40 kilometers (25 miles) of Israel’s border with Gaza, from Kibbutz Be’eri in the north to Kibbutz Kerem Shalom in the south, plus another 12 km (7.5 miles) of the border with the Egyptian Sinai. Twenty five of its communities are within the Gaza envelope.
Despite its relative isolation, the Eshkol communities, which currently number 16,000 souls, are also growing, absorbing around 100 families each year.
Like Naftali Sivan, Tzurit Yarchi, who is in charge of demographic growth at the council, cites quality of life and the community and family atmosphere as the main attractions.
“The security situation, which one wishes didn’t exist, does encourage a lot of the cooperation. It’s a community where people embrace one another,” she said.
Yarchi, who lives on a moshav on the Sinai border, where she constantly hears the roar of battles being fought between Sinai-based Islamists and the Egyptian military, said she was once paid a visit by a journalist from the center of the country who asked if she was worried for her son, then aged ten.
“I asked her whether she let her child wander around the neighborhood, and she said she didn’t even let him play alone on the stairwell of her building.
“I told her that my son cycled all over the moshav and that if anything happened, I would be happy for anyone to take him into their homes.
“It is this sense of togetherness we have that builds resilience.”