KIBBUTZ MEFALSIM, Gaza Border – The view from the border fence at Kibbutz Mefalsim, 1500 meters from the Gaza Strip, is the definition of a pastoral scene. In the mid-summer heat, the kibbutz fields are flourishing, orchards are in full bloom, the air hot typically hot and dry at the end of July.
The atmosphere is broken only by the constant boom of Israeli artillery. Judging from the sounds of the shooting, tank and mortar batteries are located around the perimeter of the community. No period of 10 minutes has passed without the roar of tank fire or the hum of drones flying overhead towards Beit Hanoun, just five kilometres away.
In the distance, the view towards the open fields are broken only by clouds of dust in the distance, kicked up by IDF tanks and armored personnel carriers inside Gaza. Further away, pillars of smoke rise from the horizon, the result of a drone attack.
While residents of Tel Aviv, Bet Shemesh, Gush Etzion and other regions of the country have heard news reports for more than a decade about incessant rocket attacks on border towns like Mefalsim, the reports do little to accurately describe the reality of life this area. Even the intermittent sirens in the Jerusalem area towards the beginning of Operation Protective Edge have not given residents of the capital any real taste of what it means to take cover in just 15 seconds.
Or less. While a majority of Israelis have been exposed to Code Red sirens over the past month, the experience of taking cover here is fundamentally different here than it is in Tel Aviv or Bet Shemesh. For years, news media have reported the mythical “15 seconds” that Gaza Belt residents have to take cover in the case of an incoming Qassam rocket or mortar.
In reality, by the time residents hear the siren, the mortar or Qassam rocket are nearing the end of their flight. In real terms, that gives people between 5-7 seconds to react to react to the siren and to take cover.
With that reality, radio alerts of rocket sirens are irrelevant: The public address system at Mefalsim announces each alarm over loudspeakers that have been affixed around the community, and residents have become used to taking cover quickly. One resident described the warning time as “codeboomred,” meaning that the rocket has struck Israel even before the siren has ended.
As a result, residents have developed lightening-fast reflexes: Walking around the community, one resident had dropped-and-curled before this reporter had even heard and processed the sound.
Far From Normal
Driving towards Gaza, one could easily be fooled into thinking that the region has taken Operation Protective Edge as “business as usual.” There is a normal amount of traffic on the drive from Kiryat Gat towards Sderot, with foreign workers maintaining the kibbutz and moshav fields by the side of the road. There are more military vehicles than usual, but the war doesn’t really make an appearance “in your face” until the temporary IDF checkpoint at the Shaar Hanegev Junction.
But inside the Gaza Belt communities, life is far from normal. In the middle of the working day, there appear to be more soldiers than kibbutz members around. The kibbutz factory at Mefalsim (it isn’t clear what it produces) appears to be abandoned, with little action, save for three soldiers in an army jeep relaxing in the shade of a eucalyptus tree. Two German shepherds guard the factory; when one is clearly distressed by the mid-day heat, a soldier passes the time by spritzing water on the dog and fills a makeshift water dish.
To the outsider, a walking tour of the kibbutz is a surreal experience. Miguniot – small concrete bomb shelters – dot the area, from the parking lot to the community center to everywhere. Simply put, there is no such thing as a public space here that isn’t either bomb-protected with a large concrete roof, fitted with a built-in bomb shelter room, or immediately next to a migunia.
Even so, the kibbutz is mostly notable for the lack of children outside. At the height of the summer holiday, the kibbutz pool is closed. There are no soccer games, no basketball, no groups of girls drawing chalk-art on the sidewalks, no indication that young people live here.
Instead, the children’s houses – local parlance for childcare, which in the context of the kibbutz continues virtually until kids are teenagers – are alive and vibrant. Several buildings are pocked with shrapnel marks, courtesy of a Qassam rocket that fell next to the babies room earlier this month. With the increased danger of rockets over the past month, kibbutz security teams have nixed outdoor play.
Not that the kids seem to mind. Inside the kindergarten, 13 children aged four to eleven are busy being children – at one table, a group of girls play a board game. In the bomb shelter, which has been fitted with gym-style mattresses, a group of boys roughhouse and pelt one another with beach balls. Along the walls of the shelter room, caregivers have fixed a roll of white drawing paper at kids’ height around the room, with markers, crayons, colored pens and pencils at the ready.
In contrast to some expectations, however, there is no evidence of trauma, in either the drawings on the wall or the games the children play. The war raging less than two kilometres away is not a topic of discussion as the children sit down for lunch, and the artillery booms in the background have become an uninteresting part of their lives.
“Listen, the kids here have all grown up with this reality,” said Orly Schuster, a member of the kibbutz who serves as the media spokeswoman during emergency situations. “Jumping into the bomb shelter when they hear the Code Red siren is as natural to them as breathing. For that reason, you wouldn’t expect them to be terribly traumatized.”
Schuster admitted that some children and parents have been gripped by fear, but she also said the community has created a strong apparatus of support to ensure that all members of the group feel safe, and that they have an address for their concerns.
“Of course, we and the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council provide psychological counselling to anyone who feels they need it. But in my view, the social solidarity we enjoy here is far more significant to keeping people from falling apart. Our sense of togetherness is absolute – some people who have had the chance to leave haven’t taken it.
Lastly, the most important piece of this puzzle is the parents here. Most people I know take care not to show their kids they are afraid or worried. When there is a siren, we go into the shelter, but we don’t go crazy. The children see this, and they are also able to keep things in proportion,” Schuster said.
Still, it is significant to note that more than half the residents of Mefalsim have left the area, either for the duration of the fighting or at least for short breaks away from the war, financed in part or in full by kibbutzim or by regional councils in the north, which have approved discounts or even free entry for residents of the south. Many people interviewed for this story said they had taken advantage or free housing and swimming at Kfar Nehalel since Operation Protective Edge began three weeks ago. Kibbutz kids have been treated to activities with animals at Kibbutz Neve Ilan, near Jerusalem, fun days at water parks in the Tel Aviv area, outdoor camps for older kids near Tiberias and more.
Furthermore, young people say they have simply never known any other reality. For them, there has never been a time without Code Red sirens. To them, the threat of Hamas terrorists trying to kill them is just an ordinary part of life – annoying, perhaps, but not much worse than that.
“Of course it isn’t ideal,” says 16-year-old Yam Meyerovitch, “but it is what it is. The situation here is very up-and-down – it’s very scary when a Qassam hits the kibbutz. But we have to remain strong – this is our home.”
Seventeen-year-old Maayan Schuster agreed, saying he and his friends had had opportunities to leave the kibbutz during the war, but that they all elected to stay.
“Yes, you need a day off every now and again, but I don’t know anybody of my age who said, ‘see you later, I’ll be back when this is over.’ We have a responsibility to our homes and our community – it’s hard sometimes, but not impossible.”
Schuster said he has spent the summer helping out in the children’s houses, planning activities, playing with children said he plans on enlisting in an IDF combat unit upon finishing high school next year. Perhaps even more astonishingly, he says he plans to build his home here as an adult. The quiet (most of the time), the view, the openness – I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else, let alone raising kids in the city.
“Don’t let anyone tell you different: This is the best possible place to grow up, and we certainly aren’t’ going anywhere,” Schuster said.