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HomeMiddle EastIsraeli Villages Near Gaza Rebound Warily Year After the War

Israeli Villages Near Gaza Rebound Warily Year After the War

KIBBUTZ SUFA, Israel — Looking out across the perimeter fence of this small rural community in southern Israel, along the border with Gaza, Eyal Shalev, 23, sees a battlefield.

Last summer, during Israel’s 50-day war with Hamas in Gaza, Mr. Shalev was on the other side, in a tank. His younger brother, Sgt. Shachar Shalev, who was fighting with the Paratroopers Brigade inside Gaza, was critically injured in an explosion. Days after the Aug. 26 cease-fire that ended the war, Sergeant Shalev, 20, died of his wounds.

Mr. Shalev, who grew up in an agricultural village in the Golan Heights, moved to Sufa in June. He is one of a group of 16 young Israeli volunteers who came to spend half a year working alongside Thai laborers in the kibbutz hothouses, growing peppers and tomatoes.

“I am here to bring life to the place where my brother was killed,” Mr. Shalev said, sitting in the garden of the modest kibbutz home he shares in the last row of houses by the perimeter fence. “He didn’t die for nothing, but so that people could live here in peace. That’s what we fought for.”

Interactive Feature | Take a Walk Through Israel and Gaza, a Year After the War Meet a wounded Israeli soldier, a 5-year-old stuck in Gaza and a 24-year-old in Gaza who finds comfort in horse-jumping. For them and many others, daily life is full of reminders of last year’s Israel-Gaza war. Meet a wounded Israeli soldier, a 5-year-old stuck in Gaza and a 24-year-old in Gaza who finds comfort in horse-jumping. For them and many others, daily life is full of reminders of last year’s Israel-Gaza war.

The volunteer program, Tent and Tower, run by the nonprofit organization New Guard, is one of several signs of recovery along the Israeli side of the border. Residents of the farms and villages in the area are reporting a stronger sense of community. Young families are moving in, replacing those that left after the war.

The border communities are still dotted with fortified bomb shelters, and because the war ended inconclusively, many residents say they can never quite escape the thought that the rockets and mortar rounds will start flying out of Gaza again or that Hamas militants will burst out of surreptitious tunnels right into their midst. Still, life is returning, though more quickly in some places than in others.

In Nahal Oz, a kibbutz north of Sufa, 16 families — nearly a fifth of the 380 residents — moved out permanently last year, traumatized by the death of a 4-year-old boy, Daniel Tregerman, who was killed by shrapnel from a mortar shell as he played in his home just days before the war ended. The potato, sunflower, wheat and jojoba fields were churned up by tank tracks.

But the crops grew back, 12 new families have recently arrived, and four more are expected by the end of the summer.

Sharona Poslushni, 41, a kindergarten teacher, moved into one of five newly built houses at Nahal Oz on July 1. She and her husband, who works at the port in Ashdod, came with their three young sons from Yavne, a town about 40 miles north.

“We wanted a place that is more open, more intimate, to be part of a community where the children can run around freely without shoes,” Mrs. Poslushni said, adding that she had also been looking for somewhere “with a good educational level and with good values.”

The Gaza periphery, or envelope, as the area is known in Hebrew, also offers newcomers incentives in the form of tax breaks and lower housing costs.

The Poslushnis had been planning the move for more than a year, but it was delayed by last summer’s war. Despite fears of renewed violence, Mrs. Poslushni said, the values of Zionism and love of the land that attracted them to Nahal Oz in the first place had become “more prominent.”

After the crisis last summer, the government provided financial support for the kibbutz, and the regional council brought in psychologists. Industry consultants and other professionals came to offer help to get them back on their feet, and veteran members of the kibbutz held brainstorming sessions and formed teams to explore development opportunities.

The crop manager’s wife had the idea of a government-sponsored, pre-army leadership program at Nahal Oz, like many that operate around the country. She made some phone calls. Three months later, 30 high school graduates came from around Israel to join the yearlong course.

The members of Nahal Oz, who felt a need for more togetherness, organized cultural activities and set up a dining club to entertain one another at their homes with special theme nights.

Last summer, when Hamas released a video of its fighters coming out of a tunnel, attacking a military pillbox guarding Nahal Oz and killing five soldiers, Daniel Rahamim, 60, the crop irrigation manager, immediately recognized the sunflower field where they emerged.

“We worked there all along without knowing there was a tunnel under our feet,” he said.

About 2,200 Palestinians died during the war, and 73 were killed on the Israeli side, most of them soldiers.

Now, Mr. Rahamim said, it is clear that Israel prevailed. “Victory or defeat in war is not about the number of dead, but a matter of consciousness,” he said. “If the kibbutz had collapsed, Hamas would have won.”

Yet the relief is mixed with foreboding. Along with the renewal at Nahal Oz, residents and the local authorities have already prepared orderly evacuation plans for what they assume will be another, inevitable round of fighting.

Hamas has been digging tunnels again and rebuilding its stock of rockets and more sophisticated weaponry, according to a senior military official in the southern command who recently briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity, in line with army protocol.

“As long as Hamas keeps the quiet, we will,” the military official said. But he said he expected Hamas to try to surprise Israel the next time around, perhaps by attempting a large-scale killing and kidnapping mission from the tunnels.

It was after 13 Hamas gunmen from Gaza emerged from the mouth of a different tunnel about a mile from Sufa, inside Israeli territory, that Israel began its ground invasion of the Palestinian coastal enclave in July 2014.

On a recent weekday afternoon, a group of Sufa’s young residents relaxed by the kibbutz pool, where the bomb shelter is painted with octopuses and other marine life. Two of the residents had fought in Gaza last summer. Having completed their compulsory military service, they will soon be leaving for a trip to India.

“The extreme contrast between this summer and last is surreal,” one of them, Paz Becher, 22, said as reggae music played on a sound system in the background. Mr. Becher said that, while he defended his home during the war, it was a “special thing” that other soldiers from all over the country felt the same commitment, “just like I would defend their homes in the north.”

Eyal Brandeis, the kibbutz spokesman, said that 30 mortar shells had crashed into Sufa last summer and that another 30 fell nearby, though nobody was killed.

Mr. Brandeis commutes to work several times a week as a lecturer in political philosophy at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv, a round trip of about 185 miles. He said it was worthwhile to come home to the pastoral tranquillity that now prevails.

Most of Sufa’s residents left for safer parts of the country during the fighting and came back after the war. But Mr. Brandeis described Sufa’s population as becoming weaker. More remote than other Gaza envelope communities and with fewer employment opportunities, Sufa has received only one new family in the last year.

“It was a very long war,” Mr. Brandeis said. “I don’t know if we will sustain another one, and the general feeling is that it is coming.”

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(via NY Times)