Middle East

Israel

Living on the Edge in Kibbutz Nahal Oz

Israeli soldiers clean the cannon of 155mm mobile artillery

Israeli soldiers clean the cannon of 155mm mobile artillery after it fired from its position near Kibbutz Nahal Oz, just outside the northern Gaza Strip in early November. The artillery was fired at uninhabited zones in the Gaza Strip where Israeli forces determined a rocket attack had been launched. (Photo: Menahem Kahana / AFP-Getty Images)

A small, exploded Qassam rocket sits welded to a metal post right outside the administrative office of Kibbutz Nahal Oz, Israel.

"That's the first rocket that landed in the kibbutz," says Gidi Sabag, 47, smiling as he lights his cigarette. "The Palestinians have since fired others, but they land mostly in the fields."

A handsome man with curly gray hair, Sabag is a widower with three adult children and the current kibbutz secretary.

Part of his job entails signing up new members to the little Negev community, but given a so-so economy and the occasional attack from nearby Gaza, Israelis are not exactly flocking to Nahal Oz.

"It's very hard to get young families to come here nowadays," he says with a bit of resignation. "Hopefully, that will change in the future."

Winds of Change

Later incorporated into the United Kibbutz Movement, Nahal Oz was established along the border with the Gaza Strip in 1953, when Israeli society held socialist communes in high regard.

"Nahal Oz was considered one of the elite kibbutzim in the northern tip of the Negev," says Moshe Schwartz, a professor of sociology at the Jacob Blaustein Institute at Beersheba's Ben-Gurion University.

It was always very selective about members, he adds.

Today, the kibbutz is home to some 330 residents, of which 110 are full-fledged members and a few dozen are students attending the local Sapir Academic College.

Sabag says that Nahal Oz is trying to fill 12 homes. Financial incentives have been used to entice newcomers, but so far, only a handful of low-wage Thai workers have arrived.

Despite the changing times, communal meals are still served at lunchtime in the cafeteria, and the kibbutz remains quite pastoral, depending on farming for its income.

Nahal Oz raises some 600 cows for milk and veal (the smell of manure wafts in with the wind) and grows cotton, carrots and wheat — whose stalks the winter rain has turned a lush green.

Weathering the Economy

The kibbutz also owned the metal works factory, which produces industrial-sized ratchet bits and where Sabag works part-time, and OzVision, a company that links security cameras to the Web.

Now it has only a minority share in both businesses.

"Some people come from outside to work here, so it contributes to the kibbutz," says Sabag, but he doesn't sound too convinced of himself.

It's an old story, really, explains Schwartz.

Things turned sour for the kibbutz movement by the mid-1980's. Israel was suffering from triple-digit inflation, so to rein in the runaway economy, the government instituted policies that ended up hurting large debtors.

At the same time, government's traditional largess with kibbutzim ended, and they found themselves in dire straits a few years later.

"We're not very rich," Sabag says. "At the end of 90's, we faced huge economic problems, but we are in fair condition now."

Raining Rockets

Nahal Oz's main problem is that the Gaza Strip is only 700 meters away, a distance that could be covered by a would-be infiltrator in minutes. And some have tried.

In October 2004, six Palestinian terrorists were killed in two separate raids on the kibbutz.

Taking no chances, Nahal Oz has been upgrading its defenses, from its rusting rolls of concertina wire to the newest electronic sensors.

"Hot from the oven," laughs a burly Russian as he installs the new equipment.

But there are still the Qassams. Since February 2002, hundreds of the primitive Palestinian rockets have peppered Israel's south, some landing in the kibbutz.

The creation of the buffer zone in northern Gaza in late December is unlikely to change anything: The zone is only 2.5 kilometers deep while Qassams have a range of up to 10 kilometers.

The Defense Ministry has funded the construction of concrete safety rooms for kibbutz homes, and the community has laid cream-colored metal sheeting over the roof of the Children's House.

Meanwhile, the roar of Israeli cannons has only added to a stressful situation.

Sabag drives his blue Nissan Almera out to a field where a group of self-propelled artillery pieces, olive-green tents and supply vehicles is hunkered down.

"Poor bastards," he says.

The Artillery Corps unit has been there, calf-deep in mud, even before the creation of the no-go zone, lobbing 155mm shells into the Strip in response to Palestinian attacks.

"I don't know what hitting uninhabited land accomplishes besides scaring the children," Sabag says, looking at the encampment. "But then again, I'm not the defense minister."

Digging In

"Despite all the booms, Nahal Oz is a beautiful place to raise children," says Dikla Eliav, a 33-year-old mother of two who has lived here for 10 years. "I love the kibbutz."

Still, she admits that the artillery exchanges have taken a toll on her family's nerves.

There hasn't been any discussion about moving in her household — her husband is a second-generation kibbutz member — but she knows of others with children who have considered the option.

Many have also sought counseling to deal with the tension.

"It's like living in a war zone," she says. "This place could be so wonderful if we could just arrive at peace with our cousins [the Arabs]."

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Erik Schechter.

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