July 1, 2004
Back in the good old days, when I traveled freely though the Gaza Strip, Rafah was our neighboring village across a stretch of sand, my boss was Ahmad from Khan Yunis and stones were for building, not for throwing.
That was in 1983, three months after I moved to Israel and a couple of years before Arabs started stoning Israeli soldiers who patrolled the Gaza Strip since the 1967 Six-Day War, when Egypt relinquished the teeming slums it never wanted back.
I lived in Atzmona, a moshav that was then 500 yards from Rafah, an Arab city that straddles both sides of the Egyptian border.
Atzmona was founded by Jews who had been transferred from Yamit in the wake of Israeli's handing the Sinai Desert over to Egypt.
"We wanted to be as close as possible to the border, to the land where we will return one day," I remember Yitzchak telling me. Today he still is the idealist who foresees the day, with God's help, Israel will be a sovereign state from the Jordan to the Mediterranean.
I had gone to Atzmona looking for a place without Americans so I could learn Hebrew and the Israeli society.
The bus ride from Tel Aviv through Gaza to the Jewish communities in Gush Katif was a nice tourist ride, back in the days when no one ever heard of stone-proof windows. We crossed something called the Green Line, into Greater Israel, or the occupied territories, depending on one's political view.
Palm trees lined the main road, and an occasional lavishly built house interrupted the crowded refugee camps that separated the main road from the Mediterranean Sea. The only life-endangering problems were the usual wild Mideastern drivers.
Atzmona was a community made up of about 50 trailers for families, a kindergarten and grade school. A lone reserve soldier sat in a booth at the entrance, a preventive measure back in the good old days when Israel assumed that an improved Arab economy would sustain peace and quiet under its rule.
Yehuda, who had moved to Atzmona from a Negev kibbutz, was my boss, at least in theory. He assigned me to help build greenhouses for the moshav's vegetables. Most of the day I worked for his contractor, Ahmad, a tall, thin and bearded Arab from the refugee camp of Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip. His Hebrew was fluent, and we talked mainly about how to build greenhouses and how to make sure not to drop a nail from 10 feet in the air. Those were in the days when the sand buried nails instead of war victims.
He shunned politics. "I have to work, I can feed my children and we live in peace," he used to tell me. Even then it was clear to me that Jews and Arabs never could know if the other was telling the truth about their political views. If Ahmad wanted to keep his job, he wasn't about to tell me that sooner or later, with Allah's help, he and his million-plus neighbors were going to fight for independence after having been abandoned by Egypt and ruled by Israel.
The Jews of Atzmona, content with their own illusion that the Arabs were happy because "they never had it so good," played the part of the benevolent king.
My best political conversations were with Rafi, the bald-headed reserve soldier who guarded the entrance to the moshav. Those were the good old days of peace and quiet, when he could sit down on guard duty and teach me how to write Hebrew better.
Rafi, in his 40s, was a leftist. "We shouldn't be here at all," he said. "I am for returning all of the Jewish settlements to the Arabs." But he smiled when I asked him why he guarded the base. "I am an Israeli soldier. This is my duty, even if I think it is wrong."
That was in the good old days, before soldiers could be "conscientious rejecters" and veto an army command because they disagreed with government policy.
Rafah was a neighboring village, but we were not real neighbors. The sandy divide never bore a footprint, not by a Jew nor an Arab. The moshav members knew Rafah was a hotbed for drug smugglers. Rafah, for its part, did not benefit from Atzmona, whose residents drove to Gaza, which profited from Israelis buying at the local markets.
A couple of years later, stones started to fill the air, and Rafi, or his replacement, no longer could chat with volunteers at the guard booth.
The government eventually transferred the Atzmona residents again, moving them a few hundred yards further away from the teeming turmoil of Rafah, further away from the border that they wanted to erase.
Atzmona has grown substantially since then, and about 100 families live in comfortable houses. Rafah also has grown. It now is a major port for smuggling arms, drugs and prostitutes. An enormously high birthrate, "the real intifada" as one Jewish midwife once said, has made the Gaza Strip even more crowded, more poor and more hopeless.
Today, Ahmad and his family might be fighting as Hamas soldiers, militants or terrorists, depending on your point of view, or they might be collaborators for Israel. Who knows or cares if Ahmad is dead or alive?
Yitzchak, of course, wouldn't mind if the Arabs were to disappear.
Rafi may have gone the way of many Israeli leftists, disillusioned by broken peace agreements, or may have held on to the useless vision of Israel withdrawing to the 1967 borders and living happily ever after next to a terrorist-occupied country of Palestine.
I stayed at Atzmona four months before moving elsewhere, wanting to learn other parts of the country. Occasionally, I visit, but Ahmad and Rafi no longer are there, and I doubt that they even remember me.
If we ever meet, I will ask them if they also thought those were the good old days.
Tzvi Ben Gedalyahu writes for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.