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Israeli Kibbutzniks On Gaza Border Push For Diplomacy

Grief: Doron Tragerman (left) holds onto his wife Gila as they bury their son Daniel in the Israeli village of Yevul located near the border with Gaza on August 24. Image by Getty Images

If there were one community in Israel most likely to support Israel’s recent war in Gaza, it would be the kibbutzim sitting right on the border with the Hamas-run territory. That’s where the mortars fell so quickly that there was little time to run for shelter, where Hamas fighters attempted to infiltrate the Israeli border through tunnels and where 4-year-old Daniel Tragerman was killed by shrapnel in one of the more emotional moments for Israeli Jews in this war.

And yet, a small group of kibbutz residents there are making an argument for diplomacy.

Anat Heffetz, a 36-year-old doctoral student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, with wispy blond hair and wire-rimmed glasses, is one of the founders of the fledgling group, called the Movement for the Future of the Western Negev. Heffetz lives with her husband and her two children at Kibbutz Nirim, a farming community where two residents, Ze’ev Etzion and Shahar Melamed, were killed in late August by mortar fire while repairing a damaged electrical line.

After rockets landed inside the kibbutz, the community made a collective decision to relocate to a sister kibbutz near Afula, in northern Israel. From there, Heffetz watched the Israeli South slide into despair at the escalation of Israel’s third war with Hamas in five years. A self-proclaimed leftist who is active in Other Voice, a group that facilitates communication between Gazans and Southern Israelis, Heffetz said she felt abandoned by her allies as Operation Protective Edge pushed Israelis to either political extreme.

“I felt a certain sense of alienation from the Israeli left during this war,” she said. “I felt a lot of them were concentrating solely on the suffering of the children in Gaza. It is also a concern of mine, and I care about it and it pains me deeply, but I felt there was very little empathy for the children of the South, who were of course suffering differently. There was a lack of willingness to see the complexity of the situation. And I think that’s what fails us.”

In late July, Heffetz drafted an online petition calling on the government to halt its operation through a cease-fire agreement and to pursue diplomacy to end the war.

Her petition brought her into contact with other online activists in southern Israel, and the group began to meet in person.

In the past two months, the Movement for the Future of the Western Negev has grown to include 140 volunteers around the Gaza communities, and another 150 in other parts of Israel. The movement — which doesn’t specify how or with whom a diplomatic solution should be reached — stakes its credibility on the fact that its members come from the area hardest hit by Hamas rocket and mortar fire during the most recent round of fighting. In addition to young Daniel Tragerman, Etzion and Melamed, the fourth Israeli victim of the war was a Thai day laborer on a moshav, another kind of cooperative village, near the border.

The makeup of the group, however, might also be its greatest obstacle. With strong historic ties to the left-leaning Labor and Meretz parties, the kibbutzim in the Gaza Envelope, as Israelis call the area around the strip, have radically different political identities from hawkish places like Sderot, Ashkelon and Ashdod, which also came under heavy rocket fire from Hamas — much of it intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile system. But the activists say that the cynicism and disillusionment in southern Israel is real and that it could be fuel for a large-scale social movement, political disagreements aside.

Grief-stricken: Relatives mourn during the funeral for four-year-old Daniel Tragerman who was killed by a mortar shell. Image by Getty Images

“What happened during this war was that it was just one war too many,” Heffetz said. “People are fed up. They realized that the government and the army do not necessarily have our best interest in mind.”

The group’s first action took place at the train stations in Sderot and Ashkelon, which had paused service because of Hamas rocket fire. Opened just a year and a half earlier, the Sderot station was seen as a sign of renewed economic prosperity in one of the South’s most beleaguered cities, where bus stops double as bomb shelters. Its closure, Heffetz said, highlighted the Western Negev’s isolation from the rest of Israel. At the protest, the group handed out papers that were designed to look like actual train passes and said “ticket to nowhere.” “It was to signify the government’s policy in Gaza is taking us nowhere,” she said.

Next the group took its cause to Jerusalem, setting up tents on the street outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence in the Rehavia neighborhood to demand an audience with Netanyahu. The action garnered coverage from the Israeli media, and also brought new members to the movement, like Nitza Nackan, a 44-year-old administrator at Sapir College, in Sderot.

Originally from a religious kibbutz in the South, Nackan had lived in Sderot for 13 years, through Israel’s on-again, off-again war with Hamas. But this operation was different, she said. Not only was she running in and out of shelters, but her home shook with each bomb the Israeli military dropped in Gaza. Her 7-year-old son began to have panic attacks, and she sent him to live with her mother-in-law on a kibbutz in northern Israel. Watching the Jerusalem protest on television was a turning point for Nackan. “I told my husband: ‘Tomorrow we are going to Jerusalem. I can’t shut up anymore,’” she said.

Sharon Sheli Baram, an art therapist with the Ministry of Education who lives in a suburb of Kibbutz Or HaNer, learned about the Movement for the Future of the Western Negev on Facebook. During Operation Protective Edge, she said, she never felt physically unsafe — her home has a shelter, and though she heard plenty of alarms, no rockets fell inside the kibbutz — but the war took a psychological toll on her family. She said that an Israeli cannon was situated behind her home, and each time it would shoot, “I would think of the people on the other side.”

“I needed to deal with it and go on with my routine and cook spaghetti and change diapers. But I knew that someone was going to die a few kilometers from me,” she said. Baram decided that she needed an escape, and she took her family to her sister-in-law’s home at a kibbutz near Netanya, and later to the home of friends in Tel Aviv. She called her family “refugees with means.”

After three weeks, Baram returned to the south to attend the funeral of a woman who had committed suicide during the war. She decided that she was ready to move the family back home. Since then, Baram — who laughs that she is wearing high heels again now that she no longer needs to run to and from shelters — has become active in the movement. She is in charge of the “experts circle,” arranging meetings with military and intelligence officials to brief the group on alternatives to military action in Gaza.

Advocating Diplomacy: Anat Heffetz and Ori Ophir are members of Movement for the Future of the Western Negev. Image by Naomi Zeveloff

“I felt that I cannot sit quietly and wait,” she said. “I need to do something or leave this area and do something else. If this is my home, I need to save it.”

On a recent Sunday evening, Ori Ophir, a member of the group, drove from his home in Kibbutz Zikim to a community center in Sderot with a roll of posters emblazoned with the motto “Real Security. Diplomatic Settlement” in his trunk. Ophir moved to Zikim just two years ago with his wife. “We knew about the security situation here,” he said, “but it didn’t seem as complicated as we understand it to be now.” When Ophir’s neighbors — his wife calls them the family’s “barometer” in wartime — left Zikim, the couple knew that the war would be especially difficult. A few days later, in early July, the Israel Defense Forces killed five Hamas fighters attempting to infiltrate the beach at Zikim. At first the couple stayed at Zikim; they typically slept inside the bomb shelter, so they wouldn’t have to disturb their young daughter by changing rooms. But then they, too, decided to leave town.

One of the movement’s greatest challenges, Ophir says, is to convince the public that it is not affiliated with the left, which has little credibility with today’s right-leaning Israeli public.

“I think the main challenge for our movement is to build a new language,” Ophir said. “If we continue to speak the language of the left-wing political parties, nobody will be able to hear us in this area, because we are under attack all the time.” Ophir said that concern for the high civilian death toll in Gaza reflects the thinking of people in “Tel Aviv, Jerusalem or New York.” But for the people of the South, “it is very clear that we are talking about our enemies.” Although he can see Gaza’s Beit Lahiya neighborhood — which was heavily bombarded by Israel in the recent operation — from a viewpoint at Zikim, he said that the fatalities across the border are the “price of war.”

Yet even without talking about Palestinian rights, the group’s emphasis on a diplomatic solution instead of a military one has isolated it from some potential allies. Early on, the movement helped organize a large protest in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square with another group whose Hebrew name roughly translates to Mothers Who Won’t Shut Up During the Red Alert. Started by Hasidic women from Shuva, a religious moshav near Gaza, the group aims to bring more attention to the plight of families in the Israeli South. One of the founders, Esther Lachman, said that the mothers looked into joining forces with the Movement for the Future of the Western Negev but decided against it. “We felt it is too political and too left wing,” she said. “We are still good friends, and we are happy to work together, but we feel that our group is not going to tell the government what it needs to do.”

War Games: Israeli children in Kibbutz Nahal Oz near the Gaza border play with toy guns next to a newly built concrete protection wall around their kindergarten. Image by Getty Images

Alon Davidi, the mayor of Sderot, was also skeptical about the group’s aims. “I firmly believe that our attention needs to be focused on strengthening the residents of the region and not being preoccupied with pursuing negotiated solutions that are unlikely to provide us greater security in the near future,” he wrote in an email.

Though the group’s recent meeting was held in Sderot, most of the 30 participants came from area kibbutzim. The makeup of the group doesn’t surprise Avshalom Vilan, a founding member of Peace Now and a former member of the Meretz party in the Israeli Knesset, who says he is supportive of the new movement. “Honestly speaking, I think what they are doing is important. They are trying to create a new atmosphere and a new dialogue,” he said. “But politically speaking, there is no big chance that they will change something.”

However, Heffetz and her co-leaders are convinced that the Israeli South is ready for a paradigm shift. “I believe this struggle has a good chance of succeeding,” she said. “It is fueled by an authentic sense that people are fighting for their lives, the lives of their children and for their homes.”

Naomi Zeveloff is the Forward’s Middle East correspondent. Reach her on Twitter, @NaomiZeveloff, or on email at [email protected]


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