Not typically on any tourist route, our new “Life on the Front Line” program focuses on the history of the southern Israel region and its changing borders in context to the reality of life on the ground since Israel’s independence in 1948. The day included a visit to a new museum documenting Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza strip in 2005, a visit to Sderot to see the concrete reinforced playground that doubles as a bomb shelter and to tour Israels southernmost agricultural community lying right on Gaza’s northern border to meet with residents, see where the tunnels were discovered and destroyed and to participate in a colorful peace project.
The new museum situated in Nitzan tells the story of the withdrawl of the 8,600 residents who settled in the aftermath of the 1967 war, in 21 different communities within the Gaza Strip. From 1967 to 2005, the Israel Defense Forces controlled the Gaza Strip, and the Jewish settlements there became known as Gush Katif. In the summer of 2005, Israel carried out a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip removing all the Jewish settlements in the region. Through film footage we heard the personal stories stories of the many families that left their homes through difficult film footage documenting how the army prepared the soldiers for the removal of these residents. The documentary also presented footage of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s announcing his decision to disengage, the Knesset vote in favor, and the heartbreaking scenes of young soldiers removing Israeli mothers and their children from their homes . The army had handed out cardboard boxes each family to pack up their belongings and we sat on these same boxes as we watched the footage.
In Sderot we met with Odelia, a local leader of an non profit organization Afikim B’Negev, that moves families from outside the area to Sderot in order to strengthen the disadvantaged populations of single families, Holocaust survivors and victims of terror,that are so prevalent within this border community. Odelia, discusses life in Sderot including the trauma of her own six year old son who will not go to the bathroom alone because living in Sderot you have only 15 seconds to find shelter.
Sderot’s protected playground features a cylindrical caterpillar-looking creatures enabling kids to play within its protected walls.
We also saw the collection of missiles and shrapnel on display in the local police station, with each item dated.
Next we visited the agricultural community of Netiv Ha’asara which likes on the sand dunes the divide Israel from the Gaza Strip. Like everything else we visit on this day, Netiv Ha’asara is located within the internationally recognized boundaries of Israel. A nine-foot concrete wall separates Gaza from Israel 200 meters south of of Netiv Ha’asara.
Standing at the southern edge of the moshav, we not only saw the many greenhouses where members grow tomatoes and flowers and other fruits and vegetables, the Erez Crossing, a pedestrian/cargo terminal on the border; but also the now destroyed entrance to an uncovered tunnel that was dug 75 meters underground, wide enough for a tank, and destroyed in last summer’s war.
We learned about the challenges of raising children in a community seeking to live life normally but yet one that unfortunately claims the title for more deadly mortar fire and missile activity than any other community in Israel. Each home in the community sustained some sort of damage during last summers war. Our local guide, Hila, explains that its not really about Hamas wanting to take over Israel, but rather, “they just want to break our spirit”. She explained how a couple years ago a missile landed inside the moshav on the first day of school in September. On the missile it was written “Shalom Kita Aleph” or “welcome to first grade”.
Nevertheless, residents are hopeful as exemplified by the young families joining the community and 68 new units under construction. A local artist created an inspirational mural along the interior separation wall (constructed in order to protect the homes on the southern side of the community from mortars and missiles fired from the Gaza Strip). Dubbed the “peace wall” the art project has attracted moshav members, Israelis and tourists alike who come to write a message of peace on the back of colorful mosaic tile and affix it to the wall. Another area of the wall which faces Gaza will soon be adorned with another mural that says “Salaam”, which in Arabic means “peace”. Why? According to the artist “we want them to see that we want peace”.
There were so many themes running thru this day – Israel’s demonstrated willingness to give up settlements for peace, the unfortunate reality of day to day life in the south where occasional missiles and mortars are launched by Hamas from Gaza. But what really stood out the most – was the strength of the people and the importance of commitment to their community and the still strong hope and belief in peace.