May 1, 2009

Yom Haatzmaut in Nahal Oz

Wednesday April 29
It was hard to wake up early on Yom Haatzmaut day, but the sweet wafting of Amir’s pancakes always does wonders for the kids. By 9:30 we were on the road, our picnic hamper strapped to the roof of our car. This time, we were not heading to Israel’s Vegas (Eilat), or to Israel’s Sierra Nevada (Upper Galil). We were driving towards Gaza.

I gulped when I looked at my map. Yes, I recovered our lost map, but had I studied our destination before we were on the highway, I would have had some apprehension about this trip. But here we were, on our way to spend a very meaningful Yom Haatzmaut.

Our destination: the army base of Nahal Oz.
Our purpose: to barbecue lunch for the soldiers on the base.

This event was organized by StandTogether. We were happy to do this as we wanted soldiers to know how much we care and how much we value what they do. We wanted the soldiers who, on this special holiday, had to stay at base and had work to protect our country. If it were not for them, we would not be here celebrating.

So we drove past Ashdod, past Ashkelon, past Sderot, closer and closer to Gaza. We passed places that I only recognized from the news. Places where rockets had been falling daily over the years: Netivot, Kibbutz Nahal Oz, Sderot. It looked quiet. The fields were brimming with crops. People were cycling along the smooth paved roads. Small moshavim, their red clay roofs set along prim rows, peeked out across the fertile fields. A woman was strolling down the road as if she had not a care in the world.

We stopped at a gas station and I went in to get an espresso. The gas station stood alone surrounded by open fields with Gaza nearby. Thinking of all those gas tanks, I figured that this was not a grat spot to be working. I went inside. Soft Israeli music was playing. There were plush seats. Someone sat with a laptop surfing the net. Bright paintings adorned the walls. A woman in shorts walked in and ordered an ice coffee. I realized that one’s perspective is so relative. Here I am, used to my seemingly more comfortable Raanana reality and feeling a bit fearful of being so close to Gaza. Yet there are many people, including friends of mine, who would never even set foot in Israel due to their own fears. However, for people who live right here, those who order ice coffees, farm these fields, go biking and fill up people’s cars with gas, life is completely normal. I started to relax.

My feeling of ease was short lived. Soon after, I saw a sign that said ‘Gaza’ and 'Karni Crossing.’ Once again, I remembered the news headlines. Most recently, just last week, the crossings were reopened after being closed for Pesach. All looked quiet today.

The road was barred. No entry today. To the right was the Nahal Oz army base. In front of us were a dozen or so mini vans filled with children, picnics and great ruach. We parked in line and waited. It was baking hot and we got out of the car. The group organizer, David, explained that we had to get permission to enter the base. So we waited.

The situation was unreal. Kids got out of the cars and started throwing around Frisbees and baseballs. Parents started to chat. People put on sunscreen. With all these kids and minivans, it looked as if we were waiting to get into an amusement park. Of course my imagination went wild. The situation was really quite unsafe. Here we are, dozens of Orthodox families, ardent supporters of Israel, standing outside cars that were plastered with Israeli flags to salute Yom Haatzmaut. Here we were, all sitting on the Gaza border, squished together like sitting ducks. There was no cover, no shelter. Not even a shady tree in sight. Just the barbed wire fence of the army base.

We were finally given permission to enter the base. The soldiers greeted us with smiles and a happy ‘Chag Sameach.’ We all parked and unloaded the food onto a large basketball court. Walking past a huge concrete wall, I finally felt more secure. Behind that wall was Gaza. We were so close, we could see the windows of their apartment buildings.

The food had all been bought with money donated by a synagogue in Beit Shemesh. Many of the people from this shul were here to help cook and serve the food. The reality was that there were far more volunteers than necessary and there were not enough jobs for everyone. But the sheer number of volunteers made the soldiers feel that much more special.

When we all arrived, the army commander asked for our attention. He then brought reality back to this surreal party. He thanked us for coming and said that we were all brave, explaining that we were just 700 metres from Gaza. He said that ‘they’ were watching us and that ‘we’ were watching them. Although it has been quiet here for a month, in case we hear a Tzeva Adom, the siren, we should run for shelter. He pointed out a few high concrete walls that were shelters. But he did not faze us at all. We all chose to be here and were happy to be at this base.

Within minutes, the barbeques were smoking, the burgers and hot dogs were sizzling. Tables were set up along the periphery of the court and soldiers started to walk in. We must have been a sight. A New Orleans style Wash Board Band arrived with their striped vests, shiny tubas and kazoos. They started to play festive music from the deep south US and they marched around the court. Kids were playing ball. We were all speaking English, serving hot dogs and passing around the ketchup. It looked more like a fourth of July parade. But we far from Centerville, Fairfield, or Pleasant Valley with their well-manicured lawns and local high school bands. This was the Middle East and this was the heart of the conflict. Just past the trumpet player was a knoll. Not a grassy knoll. It was a sand dune with sand bags atop. Soldiers sat on that hill with guns, always watching. Someone brought them a bottle of coke. Then the kids ran up there, wanting to see, explore, tumbling back down the hill. They were politely told to leave.

The soldiers came and the soldiers left. Some grabbed a burger and then ran into an armoured vehicle to do a patrol. The truck honked outside and they all ran in as if it were nothing but a bus to go to school. I was more afraid than they were and I so admire them with their nerves of steel.

The soldiers who could relax a while sat chatting. The highlight for them were the twenty something year old American girls who spoke to them admiringly in English. The soldiers were flattered by all of this attention. One rather precocious little girl started to play ball with them. She spoke only English and chased a group of soldiers, shouting after them “Chicken Man.” The soldiers could not speak back to her so they made a face at her, sticking their thumbs to their ears, then grabbed her and ran across the raced across the court with her. She squealed with joy. At one point the men spontaneously grabbed hands and danced a hora together, soldiers, small boys with peyes flying, older men. Standing Together, Omdim B’Y‎achad.

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