October 14, 2004
Rocket Threat Casts Shadow on Kibbutz
Kibbutz Nir'am, which is slightly closer to the Gaza Strip than Sderot, seemed dead that morning. The air was hot, harsh and still. Hardly anybody was outdoors.
Ofer Lieberman, whose office and van are plastered with stickers for Guinness, the beer he soaks up at the kibbutz's Green Pub, had shown us the yard-wide, four-inch-deep crater in a road near the fields where the Kassam rocket landed the previous morning.
Sitting in his cramped office upstairs in the kibbutz garage, the laconic, goateed Lieberman, who runs Nir'am's farm and handles the kibbutz's media relations, was complaining about how Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz had visited Sderot the previous day but, typical for an Israeli politician, had canceled his scheduled stop at the kibbutz.
It was the day before Sukkot, two days before Dorit Aniso, 2, and her cousin, Yuval Abebeh, 4, were killed by a Kassam in Sderot. At 10:55 a.m., a muffled boom sounded in the near distance and rattled the windows.
"That," said Lieberman, perking up and pointing in the air, "was a Kassam."
As we hustled down to his van, he got a call on his cellphone from the contractor building his new house. The contractor said that the Kassam had fallen nearby. But when Lieberman pulled up to the construction site, he found no sign of a rocket, so he called the contractor.
"I don't see anything," he told the contractor.
But there had been a misunderstanding.
"It fell near the house I live in?" Lieberman asked.
Cursing, he floored the van's gas pedal. Nobody was at home, but three of his four daughters were in the school right near their house.
A crowd had already gathered, staring at the scorched, broken-off wings and engine of the Kassam sticking out of the dirt about 25 yards from Alon Elementary School. The school had already started the holiday, but about 30 children were there for activities. Another dozen preschoolers were in kindergarten nearby.
Shrapnel from the Kassam had flown through the windows of a cottage used as a sewing room and over the head of a seamstress sitting inside, leaving her unharmed. Many children in the school and kindergarten had screamed, cried and run out the door, but physically they were untouched.
Lieberman stood with his daughters and watched as soldiers trotted past, police cordoned off the missile site, parents hugged their children and everyone was buzzing about where they'd been and what they'd been doing when that ugly metal thing crashed on the ground.
"We were playing right over there," said Aviv Revivo, 12, standing with two friends and pointing to a spot on the nearby lawn. "The Kassam from yesterday I saw in the air before it landed. I heard the whistle, and I looked up and I saw it flying over my house."
Since the Kassams started shooting out of Gaza nearly two years ago, more than 100 have landed on Kibbutz Nir'am -- almost as many as have fallen on Sderot. Nobody has been physically injured at the kibbutz, although one Kassam destroyed a trailer that, luckily, was unoccupied at the time, and another landed near a preschool. Now there was this latest close call.
The psychological toll has been heavy on both parents and children, who number about 300. Kassams land in their midst and Israeli army helicopters blast away at Gaza from over their heads.
"Nobody knows what's going on here," Lieberman said. "The press and the politicians are only interested if there's blood. They all go running to Sderot, and not one single Cabinet minister has visited Nir'am since the Kassams started," (On the following Sunday, Deputy Defense Minister Ze'ev Boim made up for Mofaz's cancellation.)
"If that Kassam had fallen 30 yards away, and we'd had three dead children and 30 injured at the school," Lieberman added, "the whole government would have shown up by now."
Inside the school, the children were seated in a circle around Tali Simchi, who had come to the class that day, planning to lead a drama lesson, at the insistence of her daughter, Michal, 9, who was still scared from the Kassam the previous morning.
"We're trying to make peace with the Palestinians," Simchi told the children, "but everywhere there are extremists, and now we're facing Hamas, who think God gave them the right to all of the land, and that's their goal, to take it all, and that's why they fire those missiles at Nir'am."
"And our job, as people who live on the border," she continued, "is -- that's right -- to live with it, to live with the fear, which is natural, and to talk about how we're afraid and to keep believing that all this will pass."
A middle-age soldier in red paratrooper's boots came in the door.
"Look who's here," Simchi told the children, grinning extra widely for effect.
It was Col. Itzik [commander of the 101 Paratrooper Battalion].
"What heroes you are," he told the children with a similar large grin. "Everybody OK? I'm going to bring all my soldiers here to learn from you how to be heroes. Keep on protecting us, and we'll keep on protecting you."
"Well, I came here to give encouragement, and I leave here encouraged," the colonel said and strode out the door.
I asked Michal how she slept at night.
"Not so well," she said. "I'm afraid the Kassams will fall on me all the time."
When this latest Kassam fell, she said, "All I saw was like gray in front of my eyes."
Completely unashamed, Tom Ben Odiz said, "I cried. I'm 13, but I cried."
When the Kassam fell, a birthday party had been in progress. Or Rabin, 9, had her arms around the birthday girl, Neta Amar, who was turning 7.
Like the other children, Neta had spoken with her parents. She didn't seem to want to talk.
"She was in shock at first," Or said, "but now she's started to cry."
Other kibbutzim near Gaza have been hit by Kassams, but none so badly as Nir'am. The kibbutz is broke; it hasn't paid its bank debts for two years, and the water utility has threatened to cut off its water.
Like most kibbutzim, it has been struggling financially for many years, and now the Kassams have driven away its weekend bed-and-breakfast trade and summer campers, as well as many of its outside pupils and cutlery works customers.
Yet Nir'am has not been granted "confrontation-line" status such as Sderot was in July, which means it gets none of the financial breaks, like a 13 percent income tax reduction, that go to residents in that town a few hundred meters away.
Following the Kassam deaths of the young cousins, the prime minister's office announced an aid package for Sderot neighborhoods, schools and businesses. Nir'am wasn't mentioned.
"Everybody talks about Sderot, Sderot," said Arianna Amar, an assistant teacher at Nir'am's kindergarten. "I live in the Mem 3 neighborhood, the [most badly hit neighborhood] of Sderot, but the Kassams haven't fallen here any less."
When this last one fell so close by and the children started screaming and crying, Amar put on a brave face, hugged them and said that even though the floor had shook, the missile had actually landed far away in the fields. But she was shaking herself and tears were falling.
"I wanted to go home, but it's no better there," she said, adding that if there was anyway of selling their apartment, she and her family would already have moved far away from the Gaza border.
This has also been on the mind of Emma Segev. Now 31, she came to Nir'am as an 18-year-old volunteer from Brighton, England, met a young kibbutznik named Gil and married him. Now he's an agronomist on the farm; she's head of purchasing at the cutlery factory. They have two sons -- Yuval, 5, and Ben, 2 -- and today, Segev said, was "too much already."
Standing outside the cow shed near the factory, her arms folded as if for protection, comfort or both, Segev reflected on the day and the days before.
She said, "I saw the [factory] manager go white while he was on the phone. 'Where? It was next to the kindergarten.' My knees buckled, I welled up. I phoned the kindergarten teacher, whose voice was shaking with fear. I heard the kids' voices. Yuval said it had made him jump.
"Today," Segev continued, "it went way beyond saying everything's OK now, and going back to normal. It became so clear to me that I really feel quite irresponsible for being here with my kids. I couldn't concentrate any more; I couldn't get any work done. I was thinking about what we're going to do, because I don't think we can go on like this.
"And it absolutely breaks my heart when we hear the helicopters firing into Gaza," she said. "I can't imagine what a mother there is going through. I'd go back to England tomorrow, but my husband's an Israeli -- he'd agree to live in England if it wasn't for the weather. So I think the thing to do is find a quieter, more peaceful place somewhere in Israel. Tonight we're going to stay with Gil's brother in Ashkelon.
"Enough," she said, "enough for one day."
During the nearly two-year onslaught of Kassams, none of Kibbutz Nir'am's families had moved out. But on the Friday after the Kassam landed by the school and after another Kassam killed the two cousins in Sderot, the Segevs informed the kibbutz that they had leased a house in a desert moshav and would be moving in a week
They were taking a year's leave of absence; after a year, they'd see if it was safe to go home.