Sick of ceasefires, Israelis near Gaza demand an agreement

While some border residents dream of a bike ride to Gaza beach, others harbor more modest expectations

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Kibbutz Nir Am resident Micha Ben Hillel points at Gaza from a mound outside his community (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)
Kibbutz Nir Am resident Micha Ben Hillel points at Gaza from a mound outside his community (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

KIBBUTZ NIR AM — In the early days of Kibbutz Nir Am, founded in 1943, residents would return from their shopping in Tel Aviv by taking the coastal bus from Jaffa to Gaza, disembark at the Palestinian town of Beit Hanoun in the northern Strip, and complete the 2.5 kilometer (1.5 mile) journey on foot or donkeyback.

Seven weeks after Operation Protective Edge, this anecdote seems like a naive dream. But looking out over Gaza City from a mound in the fields of Nir Am, Micha Ben Hillel, a retired high school teacher and kibbutz old-timer, said he’s still hopeful those days will return.

“I think the coastal road could certainly extend southward,” he told The Times of Israel, smiling wryly.

Just before hostilities with Gaza intensified in July, Nir Am took in 30 new members, said Ben Hillel, who serves on the kibbutz’s “demographic growth” committee. But that trend will doubtless reverse, as it did in nearby Kibbutz Nahal Oz, if the government doesn’t match Israel’s military might with a diplomatic vision for the Gaza Strip, he asserted.

“What am I supposed to tell families debating whether to stay or leave?” he wondered. “Logically speaking, I can’t promise them that no shots will be fired from the other side, or that a Qassam [rocket] won’t be fired. I can’t promise that another [cross-border attack] tunnel won’t be discovered, or that Israel will go and destroy all of Gaza. Even right-wing politicians admit that we’ve exhausted our use of force in this war.

“Therefore, if I were a young family, I would tell myself: ‘If there’s no dialogue with the other side, if there’s no attempt to solve the problem in the long run, I really have nothing to do here.’ The only thing that can possibly keep people here is the notion that this place has a future.”

Other Voice activists Yeela Raanan and Micha Ben Hillel at Kibbutz Nir Am, October 1, 2014 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)
Other Voice activists Ye’ela Raanan and Micha Ben Hillel at Kibbutz Nir Am, October 1, 2014 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

Ben Hillel is a member of Other Voice, a grassroots group created by residents of the nearby town of Sderot in January 2008, when communities along the frontier were experiencing a sharp escalation in cross-border fire from Gaza. Members of the organization, he said, would hold weekly meetings in which they would vent their feelings following a security crisis or “an annoying statement by a politician,” and make conference calls with residents of Gaza.

“We wanted to let them feel that someone on the other side is listening to them, that we care about what’s happening there.”

There were also attempts at organizing small, largely symbolic cross-border projects. Once, they initiated a joint kite flying event for Gazans and Israelis. Another time, Gaza residents walked toward their Israeli counterparts near the border fence at Nahal Oz. The peak of Other Voice’s activities came in February 2011, when the group organized the “Gaza-Sderot” conference in collaboration with the Sderot’s Sapir College.

But rather than open the door to a new era of Palestinian-Israeli cooperation, the conference highlighted the hurdles facing Palestinians living under Hamas’s rule in reaching out to Israelis. Following the conference, one participant was harassed by Hamas security upon his return and eventually driven out of the Gaza Strip. Other Palestinians became fearful to contact their Israeli friends.

Maha, an Arabic-English translator living in Gaza, became acquainted with Other Voice three years ago while accompanying her nephew for regular medical treatments in Israel. She has since become a volunteer for the organization and translated its website into Arabic.

A Hamas security officers checks IDs after stopping a car at a checkpoint on the outskirts of the border between Rafah and Israel to prevent Palestinian collaborators from escaping into Israel, April 15, 2013 (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
A Hamas security officers checks IDs after stopping a car at a checkpoint on the outskirts of the border between Rafah and Israel to prevent Palestinian collaborators from escaping into Israel, April 15, 2013 (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

“In Gaza it’s not easy to speak about your friendship with Israelis because Hamas is in control of Gaza, and for them Israel is the enemy and talking to the enemy makes you a traitor,” Maha told The Times of Israel in a phone interview. “They don’t understand that we connect on a human level, that we’re not a political group but friends, just human beings who really care about each other.”

Public opposition to Hamas, like the Egyptian-inspired Tamarod movement that emerged in the Gaza Strip last year, is impossible at the moment, Maha said. Protesters “will get arrested or killed immediately, because Hamas is powerful here.” Journalists, she added, are similarly harassed for criticizing Hamas, their computers confiscated.

“We try not to talk to the media about [peace with Israel], but people in cafes and family meetings speak about peace and change. We need a two-state solution.”

It is the plight of people like Maha that brought Ye’ela Raanan, a teacher of public policy at Sapir College and resident of Kibbutz Kissufim on the Gaza border, to Other Voice. A self-proclaimed “radical leftist,” Raanan left the group soon after joining it, feeling that its political message was too wishy-washy in its attempt to include as many Israeli voices as possible. But Raanan returned to the group this summer during Operation Protective edge, when her sense of isolation from the broader community and the fear of war became too much to bear.

“We would strengthen each other. At a time when 90% of Israel’s population was saying ‘yes, let’s hit them with force and more force, let’s destroy Hamas’ … and many of our family members and friends toed the same line — while we were getting hit by Qassams, mortar shells and tunnels — to say ‘enough with the war’ was very difficult.”

A mother hugs her child as they sit in the safe zone while a siren sounds in the town of Ashkelon, November 18, 2012 (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
A mother hugs her child as they sit in the safe zone while a siren sounds in the town of Ashkelon, November 18, 2012 (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

A mortar shell or rocket would hit Kibbutz Kissufim between 0 and 7 seconds after being launched from Gaza, Raanan said. Living through the constant booms and announcements of “red alert, red alert,” she wouldn’t let her three-year-old daughter stray more than three meters away from her, so that she could be quickly snatched up and carried to safety. Subsequently, like most families from the Gaza region, Raanan left Kissufim for Kibbutz Zuba outside Jerusalem with her young child, leaving two teenage boys behind.

“I had to turn this war trauma into something positive, which for me means ending the occupation, lifting the siege [on Gaza], allowing the people of Gaza to enjoy the same things I wish for myself. I’d love to take my bike and ride the four kilometers (2.5 miles) to the sea. I can see it from my window, but can’t reach it.”

But for Ronit Ifargan, a resident of Kibbutz Kfar Aza, the seemingly leftist bent of Other Voice hampers its ability to improve the security situation in Israeli communities surrounding the Gaza Strip. This summer, she and some friends founded the Movement for the Future of the Western Negev, a group that advocates immediate government action in “promoting a diplomatic settlement in Gaza that would bring peace, security and prosperity to the residents of the Western Negev and the State of Israel as a whole.”

Ifargan may share Raanan’s wish for a lasting peace agreement with Gaza, but she is unabashedly concerned with Israelis, not Palestinians.

“We understand that fortifying ourselves to death is no solution,” Ifargan said. “It’s completely obvious that we need a political settlement. But we come to this with our eyes open. We don’t say: ‘Let’s fly white doves and all love each other and live in peace. I have no problem that we and Gaza continue to not love each other. But we must have a permanent agreement based on common interests.”

A fortified concrete bus stop at Kibbutz Nir Am (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)
A fortified concrete bus stop at Kibbutz Nir Am (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

“It’s not that we say we don’t want peace. We really do! It’s just that it’s difficult for us to be optimistic while we’re massively harmed.”

The deepest damage caused by Operation Protective Edge, Ifargan argued, was psychological. “People here have simply despaired. They’re fed up,” she said. “You know what? I think people on the other side are really starting to despair too.”

The notion of political agreement has become reviled in many Israeli communities around Gaza, she noted. While hanging banners in Sderot calling for a diplomatic solution recently, activists in her movement were berated by local residents.

“It’s not that they don’t believe that’s the solution, they just don’t believe it’s possible! With so many years of brainwashing telling us it’s impossible, how can we ever believe it is?”

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