Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Unsung Victims of Kassam Rockets

Kibbutz Nir'am, a little closer to the Gaza Strip than Sderot, seems dead this morning. The air is hot, harsh and still – hamsin weather. Hardly anybody is outdoors.

Ofer Lieberman, who runs Nir'am's farm and handles the kibbutz's media relations, has shown us the meter-wide, 10cm.-deep crater in a road near the fields where the Kassam landed the previous morning.

Sitting in his cramped office upstairs in the kibbutz garage, the laconic, goateed Lieberman complains how Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz visited Sderot the previous day but, typically for an Israeli politician, cancelled his scheduled stop to the kibbutz.

It is the day before Succot, two days before Dorit Aniso, two, and her cousin Yuval Abebeh, four, would be killed by a Kassam in Sderot. At 10:55, a muffled "boom" sounds in the near distance and rattles the windows.

"That," says Lieberman, pointing in the air, "was a Kassam."

As we hurry down to his van, he gets a call on his cellphone from the contractor building his new house that the Kassam has fallen nearby. But when Lieberman pulls up to the construction site, he finds no sign of a missile, so he calls the contractor.

"I don't see anything," he tells the contractor. But there has been a misunderstanding.
"It fell near the house I live in?" Lieberman exclaims, as he floors the van, cursing; nobody is at home, but three of his four daughters are in the school right near their house.

A crowd has already gathered, staring at the scorched Kassam sticking out of the dirt about 25 meters from Alon elementary school. The school has already started the holiday, but some 30 kids are there for activities. Another dozen preschoolers are in the Shikma kindergarten nearby. Shrapnel from the Kassam has flown through the windows of a cottage used as a sewing room, and over the head of seamstress Ruti Almog sitting inside, leaving her unharmed.

Many kids in Alon and Shikma are screaming and crying, but physically they are unharmed. Lieberman stands with his daughters and watches as soldiers trot past; police have cordoned off the missile site, parents hug their children and everyone is 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," says 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 coming 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 on the kibbutz has been physically injured, although one Kassam destroyed a trailer that, luckily, was unoccupied at the time; another landed near a preschool, and now there is this latest close call.

The psychological toll has been heavy on both parents and children, who total some 300. Kassams land in their midst and IDF helicopters blast away at Gaza from over the heads.

"Nobody knows what's going on here. 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," says Lieberman. (On Sunday, Deputy Defense Minister Ze'ev Boim made up for Mofaz's cancellation.)

"If that Kassam had fallen 30 meters away, and we'd had three dead children and 30 injured at the school," Lieberman adds, "the whole government would have shown up by now."

Inside the Alon school, the children are seated around Tali Simchi, who has come to class today – planning to lead a drama lesson – at the insistence of her daughter, Michal, nine, who is still scared from the Kassam attack yesterday.

"We're trying to make peace with the Palestinians," Simchi, 41, tells 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, 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-aged soldier in red boots with several "chocolate bars" and "felafels" on his uniform comes through the door.

"Look who's here!" Tali calls to the children, grinning extra widely for effect.

It is IDF Col. Itzik.

"What heroes you are," he tells the children with an equally large grin. "Everybody okay? 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 says and strides back out the door.

I asked Michal how she sleeps at night.

"Not so well," she says. "I'm afraid the Kassams will fall on me all the time."

When this latest Kassam fell, she says, "All I saw was like gray in front of my eyes."

Completely unashamed, Tom Ben-Odiz says, "I cried. I'm 13, but I cried."

When the Kassam fell, a birthday party had been in progress. Or Rabin, nine, now has her arms around the birthday girl, Neta Amar, who is turning seven. Like the other children, Neta has spoken with her parents. She doesn't seem to want to talk to anyone else.

"She was in shock at first," says Or, "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 Mekorot 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 as Sderot was in July, which means it gets none of the financial breaks, such as a 13 percent income tax reduction, that is granted residents in that town, a few hundred meters away.

Following the Kassam deaths of the two little 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. I live in the 'Mem 3' neighborhood, the Kiryat Shmona of Sderot, but the Kassams haven't fallen here any less," says Arianna Amar, 33, an assistant teacher at Shikma kindergarten.

When this last one fell so close by and the kids started screaming and crying, Amar put on a brave face, hugged them and said that even though the floor had shaken, the missile had actually landed far away in the fields. But she was shaking and tears were falling.

"I wanted to go home, but it's no better there," she says, adding that if there was any way of selling their apartment, she and her family would already have moved far away from the Gazan 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, 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, five and Ben, two – and today, she says, was "too much already."

Standing outside the cow shed near the factory, Segev reflects on the day and the days before.

"I saw the [factory] manager go white while he was on the phone. 'Where?' 'It was next to the kindergarten.' My knees buckled, my eyes 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," she continues, "it went way beyond saying everything's okay 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 anymore, 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. I can't imagine what a mother there is going through," she goes on. "I'd go back to England tomorrow, but my husband's an Israeli – he'd agree to live in England if it weren'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 says, "enough for one day."

During the nearly two-year Kassam onslaught, none of Kibbutz Nir'am's families moved out. But on Friday, after the Kassam landed right by Alon school, after another Kassam killed those two small cousins in Sderot, the Segevs informed the kibbutz that they had leased a house on a desert moshav and would be moving in a week or so. They were taking a year's leave of absence; after a year, they'd see if it was safe to go home.