Israelis near Gaza try to recover spirit after summer war

Less than a mile from the Gaza Strip, men working on a recent afternoon were putting a coat of white paint on a newly built concrete blast wall surrounding a kindergarten in the Nahal Oz kibbutz.

The attempt to soften the impact of the 15-foot-high slabs, which towered over a sandbox, was part of the effort to get life back to normal in the border community a month after a cease-fire ended a 50-day war between Israel and the militant Islamist group Hamas. More than 2,100 Palestinians died in the conflict, along with 72 Israelis and a foreign worker.

Mortar and rocket strikes from Gaza have stopped for now, but with talks on a long-term truce deferred to next month, there’s an air of uncertainty at Nahal Oz and other communities along the frontier.

“Nothing is settled. It’s all up in the air,” said Roxana Silverman at Ein Hashlosha, a neighboring kibbutz. She showed visitors the spot where a mortar shell had landed on a lawn near her house during the war, peppering homes behind it with shrapnel.

“We’re all concerned that they might start firing again. I don’t feel safe,” said Silverman, who fled the kibbutz during the war along with most other residents.

The mass departure from border communities undermined a long-held Zionist ethos of standing fast along Israel’s embattled frontiers.

Since the conflict ended Aug. 26 most residents have returned, but some families have decided to leave, and anxious parents living farther away have stopped sending their children to day-care centers in frontier communities.

At Nahal Oz, where a 4-year-old boy was killed during the fighting by shrapnel that pierced the door of his family home, Chantal Cohen, a teacher at the kindergarten, said parents who’d brought their children at the start of the new school year were taken aback by the hulking wall enveloping the building.

“It’s difficult for the parents. They say a kindergarten shouldn’t look this way, but we tell them it’s OK and that we’re protected,” Cohen said. On the walls of a neighboring bomb shelter, someone had painted cheery images from the popular children’s book “Winnie the Pooh.”

A note at the kibbutz administration building invited residents to a postwar meeting for “a conversation about the experiences we’ve been through and about coping as individuals and a community.”

“The community has kind of broken up, and it’s trying to rehabilitate itself,” said Aviad Bar-Lev, a 26-year-old student who lives on the kibbutz. He said that more than a dozen families had decided to leave but that he remained drawn to the rural setting, which despite the occasional flare-ups along the border was “a piece of paradise.”

New fences have been built around some border kibbutzes, and soldiers have been posted at entrance gates to provide an increased sense of security. During the war, Hamas militants emerged from tunnels dug near Nahal Oz and Ein Hashlosha and attacked soldiers, raising fears of possible raids on civilian communities.

Sitting at a bus stop at Ein Hashlosha, 80-year-old Abraham Borenstein appeared unfazed. He said he’d stayed on the kibbutz during the fighting, taking walks in the early mornings during lulls in the mortar fire from Gaza.

“I’m not a refugee, and this is our country,” he said. “We don’t have to run away.”

“The birds are chirping again, and in the meantime it’s quiet,” he added. “But you never know what can happen later. It’s not up to us.”

Borenstein came from Argentina to Ein Hashlosha a few years after it was founded in 1950 by South American immigrants, and he’s weathered many bouts of violence since.

Orli Biyar, who works in the Ein Hashlosha kibbutz office, said that “we’re trying to pull ourselves together” after a difficult summer, with lingering concerns that hostilities might erupt again, as they did after previous military campaigns.

The latest Gaza war, Biyar said, had achieved nothing, and “we’re right back where we started.” She added that although she was politically conservative, she supported a negotiated long-term truce with Hamas.

The Islamist group, which controls the Gaza Strip, has demanded the removal of a blockade imposed on the territory by Israel and Egypt, opening border crossings and building a seaport and airport. Biyar said she supported such steps.

“We won’t get anywhere by military means,” she said. “We have to help them live more normal lives. If we won’t let them live, there won’t be quiet.”