Israeli Kibbutz residents stay away unconvinced by Gaza peace deal
The hastily-built new kindergarten’s forbidding appearance conveys a message of fear that belies the soothing words of Israel’s leaders.
Charcoal grey 20-foot concrete blocks envelop what is supposed to be a safe haven for childhood innocence in startling testimony of the trauma Israelis living in exposed far-flung communities have endured in the recent Gaza conflict.
The Orwellian scene provides a dramatic counterpoint to the declarations of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, who has tried to persuade a sceptical country that the bloody 50-day confrontation with Hamas – halted last week by an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire – ended in victory.
The remarkable security measures have been demanded by parents in Nahal Oz as a minimum price for returning to the kibbutz, less than half-a-mile from Gaza, before the Israeli school term begins on Monday.
Families fled en mass after Daniel Tragerman, aged four, became the only Israeli child to die in the hostilities after a mortar shell struck his home just as his parents were preparing to evacuate in the face of a barrage of incoming fire.The August 22 incident has left question marks over the future of this 60-year-old kibbutz after some parents – including the Tragermans – vowed never to go back, deeming it an unsafe place to raise children.
The kibbutz, like several others near the Gaza border, remained virtually empty on Friday as residents chose to stay away in a telling statement of no confidence in the truce deal signed nearly three days earlier – halting seven weeks of fighting that cost the lives of 2,140 Palestinians and 72 Israelis.
It is an equivocal judgement at odds with the claims of Mr Netanyahu, who announced in a televised address last week that Hamas – the Islamist group that runs Gaza – had suffered an “unprecedented blow” that secured “prolonged quiet” for Israeli citizens who have endured waves of militant missile fire.
“The outcome is not clear,” said Dov Hartuv, 77, who has lived in Nahal Oz since 1961 and one of a minority of residents to remain there throughout the conflict. “There is a sense of lost trust. People haven’t lost faith in the army, but in the government they have. It’s clear that we didn’t lose, but we didn’t win either.
“If we are going to have a war, it must be clear to the people that we have won and that it was worth the sacrifices. That isn’t clear. The politicians are so wrapped up in their own future as politicians that they cannot see the future of the country as more important.”
That view reflects wider doubts among the Israeli public about the outcome. Some 54 per cent of Israelis believe the conflict had no clear winner, with just one quarter saying Israel won against 16 per cent who said Hamas prevailed, according to a poll conducted for Haaretz newspaper.
Another survey, published by Maariv, found 58 per cent believed the open-ended ceasefire deal was a mistake.
The prime minister’s own approval ratings – at an all-time high during the conflict – have also suffered, amid criticisms that the result fell well short of Mr Netanyahu’s previously stated goal of demilitarising Hamas, and instead left its weapons arsenal sufficiently intact to wage a new round of hostilities in future.
Plunging poll ratings have coincided with sniping against the Israeli leader from within his own cabinet. Avigdor Lieberman, the hard-line foreign minister, complained bitterly about the ceasefire on Facebook, writing that Hamas needed to be militarily defeated.
Naftali Bennett, the industry minister and leader of the far-Right Jewish Home party, even tried to organise a rebellion against Mr Netanyahu’s refusal to put the deal to a vote in the security cabinet – which may well have decided against the agreement.
Yet there is little sign sign that the cabinet ructions could spell the imminent collapse of the prime minister’s coalition and result in fresh elections.
Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party would increase its representation in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, from 19 to 32, according to the Maariv survey, which also predicted substantial rises for Mr Lieberman’s and Mr Bennett’s parties.
Such considerations seem obscure to Israel’s kibbutzim, where political sentiments are often to the left of the national mainstream. Feelings run high about the government’s refusal to upgrade the offensive against Hamas to official war status – thus entitling the self-sustaining communities to compensation for losses and evacuation costs.
“I don’t feel safer than before,” said Pablo Leffler, 57, crop manager at the Ein Hashlosha kibbutz, who recalled being forced to crawl along the fields to escape militant sniper fire.
“There’s a lot of criticism of the government here. If it declares a war, it means it has to provide solutions, such as saying you need to evacuate the kibbutz. At no time did they say that. We had to take that decision ourselves and we think they should take responsibility for it.”
Instead there is resentment in Nahal Oz about the decision of Moshe Ya’alon, the Israeli defence minister and a close ally of Mr Netanyahu, to cancel a visit scheduled after Daniel Tragerman’s death on the advice of his security team.
“We were waiting for him and his security people phoned up and told us he’s not coming because it isn’t safe in Nahal Oz,” said Ofra Hartuv, 72, wife of Dov.
“To us, who have been sitting here under fire for more than a month and a half, that was wrong. If it’s not safe for him, how can it be safe for us?”
Now, fearing an exodus of families reluctant to face the prospect of a future conflict, veteran kibbutz leaders are urging Mr Netanyahu to use the war as a springboard to a peace deal with the Palestinians.
“I think I speak for most of the members of Nahal Oz by saying what we want to see is real peace negotiations,” said Daniel Rahamin, the kibbutz’s spokesman. “We want Netanyahu to commit to a peaceful solution and not play games around the peace talks. It’s difficult to see him doing that because he is trapped in that Right-wing cabinet.
“But if we want to live, we have to stay here in Nahal Oz. This is our country and our land. If we leave, what do you think will happen? There will be a domino effect.”