In a Facebook group called “Life on the Border with Gaza – Things People May Not Know,” one is given a glimpse into life that’s constantly in some state of conflict.
Despite relative quiet along Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip, the group is a flurry of activity:
A post showing a rocket that nearly fell in Israeli territory, but landed in Gaza instead.
A post showing the delivery of two seven-ton bomb shelters to the lone soldiers’ housing compound at Kibbutz Urim.
A post by a mother of five explaining that this “new normal” of sirens, rockets, and disturbances along the border is not new at all, but the reality of the Gaza Envelope for the past 18 years.
“Imagine seeing ‘Red Color Alert Drill’ on your child’s kindergarten schedule,” Neta shared on Facebook. “This is normal, a part of our daily routine, living in the southern region of Israel.”
These communities are only in the spotlight when the barrage of violence is too much to ignore. Take for example 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, when media outlets were perpetually camped at the kibbutzim in the area, or, more recently, last May, when 600 rockets were fired at Israel, killing three and wounding 100.
Recently, a more insidious assault on the people of the Gaza Envelope has emerged since the advent of the so-called Palestinian “March of Return,” which began in March 2018. As a result, there have been countless attempts to penetrate the border and infiltrate into Israel. Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives, often carrying knives and grenades, breach the border in the hopes of igniting mass chaos in these usually peaceful communities.
“There’s no need to look as far back as 18 years ago or even last March,” said Ilan Isaacson, head of security for the Eshkol Region. “In the last six weeks alone, we’ve had five attempts to penetrate the border by Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists. The IDF was able to stop them, and make no mistake, these were not peaceful protestors. They came armed with various weapons, including hand grenades and anti-tank rockets.”
Over the past month, there were also intermittent rocket attacks against the nearby cities of Sderot, Ashkelon, and Ashdod.
“We call these incidents ‘tiftufim,’” said Isaacson, referring to the Hebrew word for “dripping water.”
“These tiftufim are much harder to deal with than say 2-3 barrages of 200-300 missiles. You can absorb those, as they become more regular and predictable. These, however, are very frustrating, because you don’t know where and when it will take place. In the Envelope that means you need to be ready for everything and anything at all times.”
In keeping with the water metaphors, while the rest of the mainstream media ignores these tiftufim and would rather focus on the typhoons of activity, in contrast, Jewish National Fund-USA (JNF-USA) has become a resource to the region during both quieter times and times of full-on violence.
“JNF-USA is very supportive and helps us move forward during times of crisis, regardless of the scale,” said Yedidya Harush, a JNF-USA liaison to Halutza—a relatively new Gaza Envelope community.
The community is a strategic part of the nonprofit’s Blueprint Negev initiative, which aims to attract Israelis away from the expensive and crowded cities like Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and bring them to what David Ben Gurion saw as the epicenter of the Zionist dream: the south.
As such, JNF-USA was instrumental in the establishment of this burgeoning community, which is comprised of many Gush Katif evacuees who left Gaza after the 2005 disengagement.
JNF-USA built the Halutza Medical Center, three synagogues, numerous parks, playgrounds, and even a community center that is now under construction. On the surface these projects may not seem like game-changers, but consider that before the medical center opened in August 2017, residents had to drive over an hour and a half to Be’er Sheva to receive care. Today, residents enjoy a fully-staffed center and a new dental clinic, as well. Outside of financial support, the organization’s lay-leaders—many of whom are in the medical profession—lent their expertise to this project, ensuring the medical centers would be efficient, well-oiled machines.
“JNF’s impact is thanks to their unique philanthropic approach. They’re not mere supporters: they’re partners,” said Harush. “When you have a hard time they come and help. Most times, they know what we need, and if they don’t, they ask.”
Isaacson agreed, adding, “JNF is always present in Eshkol and JNF CEO Russell Robinson is always available. Recently, when I needed fire trucks, within weeks I received approval to buy them. When you look at almost every aspect of our lives, you’ll find that JNF has been involved in some way.”
Today in Halutza alone, some 2,000 people now call home a place that was once a barren strip of desert land—and are proud to do so. The Jerusalem Post reports that within the next decade, that population could skyrocket to 15,000.
While those projections may seem counterintuitive given the ongoing crisis with Gaza, it is just one example of the resilience imbued within the Gaza Envelope communities.
How does Harush explain the south’s strength to carry on and not pack their bags?
“We are on the frontlines of the State of Israel. This is a bigger mission than you or me. This about the fate of the Jewish people,” he said. “We don’t look back, only forward. I’m proud to stand here strong and keep going.”
That’s not to say life along the border is an easy one. Harush, like most parents in the region, have children with acute Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms which affect their daily lives.
“My daughter sometimes has trouble falling asleep, and we think twice about driving on the local roads because of rocket threats,” Harush acknowledged.
JNF-USA has stepped up to the plate in this regard as well. It has helped fund trauma resilience centers and an indoor playground in Sderot to give residents a sense of normalcy in an abnormal environment. In one center, outside of Kibbutz Magen just a few kilometers away from the border, health care professionals administer the latest innovative therapeutic methods to teach residents how to cope with the ongoing situation. The goal is to give residents the tools they need to cope ahead of experiencing a stressful situation, so they won’t develop PTSD.
This conflict also takes a great financial toll on the Gaza Envelope. Since many of the Gaza Envelope communities are agriculturally driven, Hamas’ year-and-half-long incendiary device terrorism has torched thousands of acres of precious farmland, creating exacerbated economic pressures.
Some 40,000 dunams (10,000 acres) of forests, nature reserves, and farmland were destroyed. Animals on those nature reserve also perished, and Isaacson predicts that it will take years to repopulate the livestock population to what it was once.
While the Israeli government compensated many of the farmers whose crops were destroyed, the lingering damage to the environment is undeniable. The region’s ecosystem was gutted, and environmentalists are not sure how long it will take to restore it to its former glory.
Sadly, even if Israel swears in a completely new government, it’s unlikely the country’s approach toward Hamas will change. Isaacson explains that the strategic challenges in the West Bank and up north pose an acute existential threat to the country, where the conflict in Gaza has been – and can be – contained.
“When incidents happen simultaneously, north and south, all the focus will go towards the north. As a security officer, I can understand it. But a civilian should not accept it, because every day there’s an attack that challenges the sovereignty of Israel. There’s a violation almost every day,” he lamented.
Noa Amouyal is a Jerusalem-based editor and writer whose work has appeared in The Jerusalem Post, The Jerusalem Report, The Jewish Chronicle and Forbes. For the past six years, she’s written about Israeli culture and current events. Follow her on Twitter at @noaamouyal.