Aza Awareness 101

The teenagers, without exception, told the reporters they all wanted to live in Netzer Hazani or a neighboring community when they set up their own homes. When asked if they were frightened by living there, the answer was: ?Only people who do not live here are afraid. If you want to lose your fear, then come live here.?

Aliza Karp

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?On Rosh Hashana 5761, in the fall of 2000, we were all in shul,? explains Rachel Saperstein, speaking about the people of N?vei Dekalim, a large settlement in the Gush Katif group of settlements in Aza (the Gaza Strip). ?Then came the announcement. There is war. Take the Sefer Torah to safety. All women and children to their homes with doors locked. No one is to go outside. All men are to retrieve their firearms and go to the wall [referring to the barrier between the Arab and Jewish populations of Gush Katif].?

I questioned Rachel about her husband going to the wall. He had lost an arm in the Yom Kippur War.

?Sure he went,? she answered me. ?He was still a sharpshooter!?

Then she described to me the changes that took place in the next few days. The strange sounds from the mosques of nearby Khan Yunis, that the Jewish population had become accustomed to, became intense, fierce and hostile - shouting and screaming, inciting followers with passionate hatred, leading to violence.

?When there is a wall, the enemy mobs come right up to it,? continued Rachel. ?The enemy becomes very close. We could hear them shouting deadly slogans. There was no need to understand Arabic, the tone of the cries carried the message. It reminded me of the stories my mother told about Europe. I had always thought of her experiences as history, but all of a sudden I was experiencing what she had described.?

Since that Rosh Hashana, there have been many tragedies in Aza. The number of rockets (missiles that explode upon impact) that have come over the wall and landed in Jewish communities is nearing the 4,000 mark, as of February 2004. Miraculously, these rockets, with deadly potential, have caused damage, but not death. However, shootings and bombs on the roadways have caused serious injury and death.

In fact, Rachel?s husband, Moshe, became a bit of a folk hero when he pursued the terrorist who was trying to kill him. The terrorist had injured Moshe ? who literally gave his right arm for his country ? in his left hand and his left leg. With one functional limb, he pressed on the accelerator, causing the terrorist to jump aside and come into the range of a soldier who was approaching under cover of darkness. The terrorist was liquidated.

But Moshe was not the only victim of that attack. The other victims gave their lives. The people of Gush Katif would be happy not to have such folk heroes, who become known because of tragedy.

Rabbi Yitchak Arama, (forty years old, husband of Oshrat, father of six) the rabbi of Netzer Hazani (the first post-1967 settlement of Gush Katif), was shot and murdered while driving with his family. A young man who had been driving behind the rabbi?s car dragged the rabbi to cover and attempted to revive him, after putting a child at the wheel of the car to drive the others to safety. It was a brave, spur of the moment, decision. The child could barely reach the peddles, but was able to successfully take the others out of danger, as this young man stayed behind with his beloved rabbi for the few moments it took for help to come.

A replacement has not been found for Rabbi Arama. He was very well-respected and deeply loved by his community. He taught them and led them and returned their love for him with his love for them.

As the security situation in Gush Katif deteriorated, amidst stories of defeat and stories of deliverance, well meaning friends and relatives have begged their loved ones to move to safer ground. At first, a few families were tempted, thinking that they would return when things settled down. But none of them ?waited it out.? To date, no one has deserted the settlements of Aza because of security; in fact, more families have moved in.

Anita Tucker of Netzer Hazani is a spokesperson for her community. One time, she was tired of answering questions and diverted media reporters to a group of teenagers who were out of school on vacation. The teenagers, without exception, told the reporters they all wanted to live in Netzer Hazani or a neighboring community when they set up their own homes. When asked if they were frightened by living there, the answer was: ?Only people who do not live here are afraid. If you want to lose your fear, then come live here.?

The residents of Gush Katif are, by and large, intellectuals, artists and farmers. The population has a high level of education. A doctor in N?vei Dekalim was recently honored for his latest medical innovation. But the atmosphere is that of laid-back farmers, hi-tech farmers, but laid-back all the same.

The laid-back attitude became clear recently, in contrast to others who live under stressful security conditions. In a recent solidarity mission of Chabad rabbis to Gush Katif, the Chabad shaliach of Hevron marveled in amazement that a community could be under fire and, unlike where he comes from, not one person has been arrested for protesting or fighting back.

Anita, manager of several hothouses, claims that if you did not have emunah, a strong trust in G-d, before you became a farmer, then seeing the hand of G-d in growing your crops gives you emunah. It should be noted that Anita?s was one of the first families to settle in Gush Katif. She was one of the pioneers who took the desert and made it bloom, a feat deemed impossible in those days, thirty years ago.

Enduring the current situation, the residents of Gush Katif have grown even more in emunah. Would that they could package it and export it to us, like they do their high quality, bug-free vegetables. Actually, through her writings, Anita has communicated the emunah that is being cultivated in Gush Katif.

In one particular letter, written last fall, Anita describes a particular motzei Shabbos. The plaza in front of the Netzer Hazani shul cleared as the worshippers came outside, were greeted by their wives and children, and proceeded home. Suddenly, the familiar whizzing was heard, followed by loud explosions. Then again. Then again. The residents can now judge the proximity of an explosion by its sound. There was no doubt, these bombs had exploded inside Netzer Hazani.

All phones and cell phones rang at once with instructions to take cover until further notice. The phones rang again to inform the community as each bomb was located and the damage assessed. One bomb landed a meter from the Bnei Akiva building, blowing out the windows and sending glass shards and shrapnel flying. Every week the youngsters of Netzer Hazani gather for their own Havdalah ceremony, separating the Shabbos and the weekdays. This week, as the children assembled, the group leader realized he did not have enough wine required for the ceremony. He sent the children home in a hurry so they would not miss Havadalah in their own homes, where they were not usually expected. The windows of the Bnei Akiva building were shattered moments after the children had left the building to scurry home.

When the all-clear was sounded, families began their Havdalah ceremonies. Three more direct hits into their community, damages to property, but no injuries, a close call at the Bnei Akiva center. In her letter, Anita describes how that week, the words of Havdalah took on a new meaning: "G-d is right here with us, He is always here for us to save us. I will always trust Him and have no fear. He is the only one who saves me and from Him I will get my strength. G-d's forces are the ones I give trust in as when we sincerely call out to Him, he answers us. As the Jewish people have in the past, with G-d's help, seen light and joy and respect, in spite of their enemies?attempts to destroy them, so we too, the Jewish people today, will soon see light and joy and respect."

The residents of Gush Katif are fighting the war against terror through their commitment to live on the land. They are proud that their sons are serving in the Israeli Defense Forces, many of them in top units. And they draw their strength from their belief in the Creator of heaven and earth, who bequeathed Eretz Yisroel to the Jewish people.

My goal in writing this article is not to give the political, rational argument for the preservation and enhancement of Jewish settlement in Aza. That has been done very well by others. I hope to take a piece of news and personalize it for you. Jews in Aza are not political pawns, nor pages in history. They are our brothers and sisters. Ones we can be proud of, ones we can learn from. They are guardians of our land, and we must be there for them when the need arises, because being there for them is really being there for ourselves.

Let me clarify why I say that being there for them is really being there for ourselves. Recently, we have been deliberating over the Gibson movie that could cause us harm; there is a play now showing in Manhattan, called ?Crown Heights?, based on actual happenings, the only ?slight? modification is portraying the Jews as the aggressors rather than the victims; and in the recent past we dealt with the Swedish art connoisseurs telling us that glorifying murder of Jews is art. There is Jew-hatred out there. It is scary. We can try to stop it - but lets get real.

What we can do realistically, what Jews in other generations could not do, is to defend ourselves when hatred becomes dangerous. In order to defend ourselves, we need our own turf and we need to let the Jew-haters know we are not easy targets. We will never get Jew-haters to love us, but we can teach them to respect us. We have to show that we are not a nation that hides behind fences, nor worships world opinion. For sure, we don?t just pick up and leave our homes. Withdrawal from any part of Eretz Yisroel, including any surrounding buffer area, will weaken the Jewish presence in Eretz Yisroel, both in real terms and in the eyes of the world. And don?t fool yourself, as the image of the Jewish state looses its brawn, it affects the safety of Jews everywhere.

As soon as the announcement was made concerning the threatened withdrawal from Aza, the media descended upon Gush Katif. It just so happened that in Netzer Hazani, a children?s playground, whose delivery had been delayed, had finally been delivered and was being assembled on the very same day as the reporters arrived. Expecting to find a community in distress, full of anger, the reporters watched happy, excited children enjoying their brand new, colorful, state-of-the-art playground, ready to make Jewish children happy and to develop their strength and agility - for many years to come.