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Israel’s Southern Residents Resilient in the Face of Conflict
Netivot, Israel — As a grizzled veteran of the Israel Defense Forces’ Paratroopers unit and the chief security officer of the Sdot Negev Regional Council, Rafi Babayal is not fazed by much.
So it was a little unnerving to see him fidget uneasily and urge: “Let’s get out of here before terrorists pop out of a tunnel.”
Only half joking, Babayal, my guide for a security tour of the collective of 16 kibbutzim, moshavim and villages in the Gaza periphery that encircles the city of Netivot, which shares a partnership with the Jewish community of Philadelphia, was ready to go.
His nervousness was understandable since we were standing around an empty army lookout point only 100 meters from the security fence that divides Israel from the Gaza Strip. The tunnels used by Hamas during the most recent conflict with Israel to kill 18 and nearly kidnap three soldiers have changed the game in the arid Negev desert surrounding the Strip.
Illustrating this point is a pillbox, or guard tower, beneath which terrorists burst out of a tunnel a few weeks ago and caught soldiers manning it completely by surprise, killing five and wounding two. One terrorist was reportedly shot and killed while the others successfully fled back to Gaza through the tunnel.
Earlier, we had driven through two nearby areas that had been struck by rockets. In one incident, a reserves soldier was killed. In another, a soldier lying only a meter or so from the strike escaped with light injuries, though a fire from the blast burned a pool-sized area of dry brush downwind from where he lay.
But it’s the tunnels, more than anything else, that have been the talking point in the South.
“I’ve been saying this since we first discovered the threat of the tunnels two years before the operation: In the case of rockets, it’s difficult, but you can find cover with enough warning from the Code Red system and we have the Iron Dome System," said Babayal, who lives in nearby kibbutz Alumim with his wife and their five children, one of whom entered Gaza with his combat unit during the operation. "When they come out of tunnels onto our side of the border, walking quietly by foot or even using motorcycles — something they’ve already done here — they have the ability to get to a village and cause massive damage before we can scramble our forces."
The two tunnels Babayal saw with his own eyes during the operation were dug much deeper than Israel expected of Hamas’ capabilities. They were extremely intricate with several break-off tunnels in various directions, making it difficult for the IDF to find and completely destroy them. Blowing up one tunnel entrance to close it off doesn’t mean there aren’t other extensions still open.
Despite all his fears about the tunnels and all the metal signs we passed on country roads through the village fields that read: “Warning: Missile Area — Your Life is in Danger,” Babayal said his family will never leave.
“People always wonder if we’re crazy for living here,” he said. “But even with all the difficulties we face for choosing to live here, this is where we’ll continue living, it’s what we’re used to.”
He then used the word “resilient” to describe the people who live in the area. It wasn’t the first or last time I heard that term during my two-day visit to Netivot, a municipality in the Negev comprised mostly of observant Jews of Sephardic descent from North African countries such as Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Situated just 8 kilometers from the border with a population of roughly 30,000, it is the largest city in the Gaza periphery.
Since 1997, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia has had a special relationship with this region through the "Partnership 2gether" program, founded by the Jewish Agency for Israel in cooperation with United Jewish Communities and Keren HaYesod. The program pairs communities from the Diaspora and Israel to strengthen the Galilee and the Negev "by creating a stimulus for growth and development and, on the other hand, confronting the problem of assimilation of Jews living overseas by creating opportunities for them to engage with Israel’s national objectives and to cultivate community building."
During times of peace, the partnership embodies itself in a number of cultural projects aimed at creating communal synergy and addressing many of the financial issues facing Netivot's more impoverished communties. During times of conflict, such as this summer, the Federation helps raise emergency funds to address needs as they arise, such as the sudden need for portable bomb shelters. Solidarity missions from Philadelphia and other regions also came to express their support.
A mission from Northern New Jersey, for instance, bought 20 copies of The Jewish Kitchen Diaries, a cookbook containing Jewish recipes contributed by women in Philadelphia and Netivot and Sdot Negev that was created as part of a project sponsored by the Philadelphia Federation to employ jobless women, for double the usual price.
The day before Babayal’s security tour, I sat in with the North Jersey mission during a meeting with the city’s mayor of 25 years, Yehiel Zohar, a staunch Likud party member — the same party as Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who is now in his sixth term at the city’s helm.
“As someone who was practically born here and has raised his kids here, I can say this isn’t the first time they’ve ruined our summer vacation,” said Zohar, whom Tali Lidar, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Israeli representative in the area, refers to as “the sheriff of the South."
Zohar explained that while Netivot has endured the threat of rockets for a long time, the city is also struggling with major socioeconomic issues, receiving a score of 3 on a scale of 1 to 10, with one being the lowest, on Israel’s socioeconomic index.
Half of the city’s population supports the other half financially, according to Zohar.
Built mostly around small businesses, Netivot has suffered economically during the war, adding to the already trying test of facing rocket strikes. There have been at least six direct hits on the city in the latest conflict, though there have been no casualties. While many people have left the city for various lengths of time for a break from the sirens and rockets, the mayor said, nobody he has spoken to has any intention of permanently moving away.
“All in all it’s the people’s resilience, that’s the word that people have been using these days,” Zohar explained. “The resilience born in Netivot and the Gaza periphery is true resilience — we’ve been dealing with things here that are almost impossible to comprehend.”
Two local women exemplify the challenges Zohar described.
Galito Kasa’oon, a kindergarten teacher, was widowed when her husband, Bainasan, a 39-year-old career soldier of Ethiopian descent, was killed by terrorists who snuck into Israel from a tunnel near the kibbutz of Nir Am before attacking his army jeep. A week after her husband’s death, Kasa’oon gave birth to their fourth child.
“Emotionally, I have a hole in my heart,” Kasa’oon said in her home in Netivot, where she has lived since moving to Israel from Ethiopia with her entire family in 1991 at the age of 12. “The kids know that he’s not here anymore, but they don’t really understand what it means.”
Kasa’oon said her husband, a tracker who would join patrols and check the border roads and fences for foot prints or signs of people passing by, knew about the tunnels and was afraid of them, but continued to go to work. She added that she plans to stay in Netivot — it’s where the rest of her family lives and they will be on hand to help her raise the children.
The week-old baby, a girl who slept peacefully in her cradle at Kasa’oon’s side, was named Tal-Or, a combination of the Hebrew words for “dew” and “light,” because Bainasan would leave for work with the early morning dew still fresh on the ground, and he died during the light of day.
In Netivot’s downtown area, 18-year-old Shirel Yarkoni said no one has been coming to the small convenience store where she works since the conflict began this summer.
“Netivot has fallen harder than everywhere else economically as a result of the rockets,” said Yarkoni, who lives in the neighboring city of Ofakim and will begin commuting from home to study accounting in Tel Aviv this fall. “There were days when only one or two people would come in to the store to buy water and that’s it. People are terrified.”
She said the store’s owners switched locations to the city’s center at the beginning of the summer in hopes of attracting more customers, but then the war started and people didn’t know they had moved until the recent cease-fire. Now, during a period of relative calm as Israel and Hamas continue to negotiate a truce under a holding cease-fire, people have started to leave their homes and bustle about as usual.
With an air of casualness, Yarkoni explained that she herself was hit by shrapnel at the beginning of the conflict when she ignored instructions to stay inside the shelter for 10 minutes after the Iron Dome System intercepted a rocket. A chunk of the missile fell on a car nearby.
“I started feeling things falling on me and I was cut here on my arm and a ball of metal grazed my neck,” she said, showing the spots where she was hit, though the cuts have since faded. “I fell into a state of shock at the time because I was alone.”
During Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, a rocket hit a neighbors’ house “that was completely destroyed,” she said. Ofakim, she explained, is near an army base and targeted by Gazan militants as a result.
But none of these close calls have scared her away.
“This is my place, this is where I was born, this is where I’m used to living,” she said. “I see how busy Tel Aviv is with so many cars and everyone there is under pressure — I prefer the quiet here.”
The quiet she alluded to may seem surprising given her previous experiences, but there is a slow-moving pace to the South that stands in contrast to the intensity of the country’s more heavily populated areas surrounding Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
It is even more prevalent in Kfar Aza, a secular, left-leaning kibbutz only a few kilometers away from Gaza.
From Tzachi Levy’s porch at the corner of the farming community’s new bloc of houses, the entire western horizon is dominated by Shejaiya — the Gazan district from which most of the rockets have been fired, and where fighting between IDF soldiers and Hamas militants during the latest conflict was fierce.
Levy is the director of the partnership between Netivot and Philadelphia and oversees some of the many projects sponsored by the Philadelphia Federation. He moved to the area three years ago with his wife, Orna, and their two children, Bareket, 3, and Oz, 6.
A self-proclaimed “crazy Zionist,” Levy said he believes that within six months Israel will have developed a solution to the terror tunnels equivalent to the Iron Dome System's efficiency in stopping rockets.
“I won’t leave because of that. I was one of the first people to bring back my children after the cease-fire,” said Levy, noting that his wife and kids had been traveling around the North for a few weeks until then. “We need to get them back into a routine as quickly as possible so they can start developing the inner strength they’ll need to deal with some of the things they’ve heard and seen.”
Both children have suffered symptoms of trauma such as bed-wetting and the fear of being left alone as a result of the constant sirens and explosions that occurred during the fighting, he said. Neither will enter a building until they are sure it has a bomb shelter.
For the children, he said, the threat the tunnels represent is “like a boogeyman. It’s someone who pops out of the ground at you like a zombie and drags you underground.”
The symptoms are typical of children their age from the area, said Orna Levy, who is a third- and fourth-grade teacher at the local elementary school and has been in touch with her students and their parents throughout the conflict. She said other parents confided that their children have experienced similar anxiety problems and are nervous about what will happen when the kids go back to school and start swapping stories with one another. Like the Levys, many local took their children north to vacation in a stress-free environment.
Tzachi Levy said the government needs to handle the conflict diplomatically and that he’s against further violence, although he approved of the army’s offensive to destroy tunnels and drive a dent in Hamas’ infrastructure.
“Just 10 years ago, people here used to be able to go to Gaza to get hummus. I doubt if we can go back to that in the near future,” Levy said. “But I hope someday we can compare the hummus of Sderot and the hummus of Gaza.”
In the meantime, according to Levy, the area is growing and developing, and constantly bringing in young families like his own, who come to live in Israel’s southern region for reasons ranging from Zionism to more affordable real estate.
What worries him at night more than anything, he added, is trying to help the community to develop and bond, especially in Netivot where people are more spread out than in the outlying villages.
“This place is blossoming,” he said. “It’s a place where people live, and we want to bring more and more people to come visit. I want the Jewish community of Philadelphia to see our region like a home and come visit; don’t be afraid.”