Israeli soldiers survey the destruction caused by Hamas terrorists in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, near the Israel-Gaza border, in southern Israel, October 15, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/ Flash90)
Kibbutz Kfar Aza, October 15, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
Reporter's notebook'I have to ask permission to enter the place where I was born'

Resurrecting Gaza border communities will take a lot more than sowing winter wheat

Despite optimistic images of return and rehabilitation, the harsh reality in the kibbutzim and towns wrecked by Hamas makes living there largely impossible, locals say

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Kibbutz Kfar Aza, October 15, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

KIBBUTZ BE’ERI — As a traumatized nation seeks solace from a still-ongoing national tragedy and war, signs of renewal and rehabilitation in Israel’s most affected areas are celebrated in the media as victories.

The sowing of wheat this week in the fields of Be’eri prompted the Givatron choir to produce a video of its performance of a song titled “The Wheat Grows Again.” It has been shared tens of thousands of times on Facebook, as has footage from the November 27 dedication of a new Torah scroll in the same kibbutz.

But on the ground in the affected kibbutzim and towns near Gaza, where Hamas terrorists murdered some 1,200 people on October 7, the few residents who have returned are struggling to feel at home again in a place transformed by war.

Haim Jelin, the former mayor of the regional council of Eshkol, to which his Kibbutz Be’eri belongs, said on Thursday that the hostage exchange deals, a ceasefire and a few settlement resurrection efforts have dulled the realization that Israel — and specifically the northern Negev region — is at war.

He spoke to The Times of Israel in Be’eri hours before fighting resumed between Israel and Hamas in Gaza at the end of a weeklong ceasefire. During that time, Hamas freed 105 of the some 240 hostages it is believed to be holding in Gaza, and Israel had released 240 Palestinian prisoners jailed on security-related offenses.

Jelin, 65, is among hundreds of people who have stayed throughout the war in Israel’s Tkumah region. The government on October 19 gave the new name — which means “revival” or “resurrection” in Hebrew — to the area around the Gaza Strip.

Haim Jelin, a former parliament member and Kibbutz Be’eri resident near the Israeli-Gaza border, on November 23, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

“We demand Hamas’s obliteration. We can’t speak of any revival before that. Until then, we’re just staying here to keep things ticking along,” declared Jelin, whose wife, Ziva, is staying, along with most Be’eri residents, at a hotel in the Dead Sea.

Permission to visit their own homes

Eight weeks after the Hamas onslaught and the start of the Israel Defense Forces’ military action in Gaza that it prompted, many kibbutzim are still essentially army bases, operating as closed military zones even though they have civilian infrastructure and residents. At Be’eri’s large printing factory, dozens have been working under Hamas fire since October 15.

Ami Rabin holds a cup of coffee in front of the perimeter fence of his Kibbutz Nir Am, Israel on November 30, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

In Nir Am, a kibbutz situated 13 kilometers (8 miles) north of Be’eri, Ami Rabin, a shooting range operator and father of four who until recently was the kibbutz security officer, waits at the gate for a lieutenant’s permission to enter.

“I’m a guest here, like you,” he tells this reporter, chuckling. “I have to ask nicely if this is a perhaps a convenient time for me to visit my own home.”

Israeli soldiers seen at a staging area near the Israeli-Gaza border, southern Israel, November 30, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

A bomb shelter near his home now serves as an army situation room. The troops garrisoned at Nir Am turned part of Rabin’s yard into a field kitchen, with permission from Ami Rabin and his wife Nicole. They had stayed at the couple’s home for a while. Nicole on Thursday came to clean up after the soldiers.

“I don’t feel at home here just yet,” she said. “Maybe when it’s cleaned up. Maybe after the war, but right now this doesn’t feel like my home.”

But Ami, a gravel-voiced man whose diction betrays many years working in the defense establishment and adjacent roles, insists he feels “perfectly at home. Why wouldn’t I?” he demands.

Itiel Mateh examines on November 23, 2023, the extensive damage that a rocket caused in a sheltered area of the residential building where he lives with his family in Sderot, Israel. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

If that’s true, it’s despite the atmosphere in the Tkumah region, where soldiers inspect cars at checkpoints set up at every other junction, and where multiple roads are closed due to the threat of antitank missiles.

Ami discovered in the yard the decaying carcass of Tuni, a cat that his daughter adopted 16 years ago. A crawling blanket of green carrion flies covers the cat’s rotting flesh and the couple, as well as two journalists visiting them, negotiate disposal efforts involving a shovel, a shopping bag and a nearby dumpster. The daughter, 28, is due any minute and Tuni’s remains need to be cleared up ahead of her arrival.

Asked how he was feeling about Tuni’s demise, Ami dismissed the question. “It’s a shame but look, we’ve been clearing body bags with people here.”

We’ve been clearing body bags with people here

Several soldiers died outside Nir Am in a firefight with about 30 Hamas terrorists. The kibbutz’s defense squad, a handful of men led by Inbal Rabin, Ami’s niece, deployed along the perimeter fence before the terrorists could get in, staving them off long enough for army troops to show up and kill most of them and send the rest retreating to the Gaza Strip, a mere l.6 kilometers (1 mile) away.

One of the terrorists was given a temporary burial where he fell, 150 yards from the Rabins’ front yard, which borders on Nir Am’s perimeter fence. (During battle, an explosion scattered the terrorist’s remains across a patch of the field, whose location Israeli medical corps saved for future reference before covering the remains with earth to keep animals from carrying them away.)

From behind concrete crouching posts, Ami Rabin and other members of the defense team shot at the terrorists crossing the field as bullets whistled around them. None of the Israelis was killed in the fight, a fact that Ami Rabin, who is secular, defines as a miracle. Nicole, meanwhile, was brewing coffee for the defenders and distributing it among them under fire.

Kibbutz Be’eri residents and visitors on November 27, 2023, inaugurate a Torah scroll in the kibbutz in memory of Amit Man, among those murdered by terrorists on October 7, 2023. (Courtesy of Amit Man’s family)

“It was just coffee but man, what strength we drew from it!” Ami recalled.

Back at the house, which Nicole visited on Thursday for the second time since October 7, she found herself thinking of her friend Cyndy Flash from Kibbutz Kfar Aza and her husband Yigal. Nicole and Cyndy spoke by phone every 15 minutes on October 7, from their respective safe rooms. The Flashes’ safe room had no lock and sometime after at 5 p.m., they stopped responding to Nicole’s texts and calls, said Nicole, who was transported back to that day during her brief visit home.

Israeli soldiers remove bodies of Israeli civilians in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, near the Israeli-Gaza border in southern Israel, October 10, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Destruction tourism post-Oct. 7

In Be’eri, Jelin and other members are dealing with another war-related nuisance: visitors, including an army of local and international journalists.

As Jelin, a hospitable and amicable man who was born in Argentina, wrapped up a talk he gave to a group of Haredi visitors from Beit Shemesh led by Mayor Aliza Bloch, he told the group he felt uncharacteristic impatience for their departure.

“Guys, I’m just waiting for you to leave so I have a moment to breathe,” he told the 70-odd visitors, who were taking their time boarding a bus back home.

A dead body after the devastating assault by Hamas terrorists in Kibbutz Be’eri, near the Israeli-Gaza border, in southern Israel, October 11, 2023 (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

Noam, a young kibbutz member from Be’eri, explained her own exasperation with the visitors.

“You’re coming here to observe. To see a battleground. But for us, this is what’s left of home. So we’re becoming increasingly protective of it from you lot,” she told this reporter amid a row of demolished homes that multiple IDF-arranged tours have made so well-known that journalists call it “the alley of death.”

Jelin conceded that the kibbutz right now looks like a shadow of the place he has called home.

“Look, my home may be blown up but my home is not only a building. It’s the paths, the plants, the smells,” he told The Times of Israel. “So there’s the smell and sounds of war right now. But my home is an internal thing and it lives on, right here.”

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