A few of us decided to spend Shabbat in one of the Jewish communities in Gaza. With all one hears, names and events like the Alamo and Masada come to mind and tease the imagination. I wanted to be there even for one Shabbat with those on center stage while this drama is being written.



The bus ride from Jerusalem to Ashkelon was ordinary and uneventful. However, when I transferred at Ashkelon and bordered our armored bus for Gush Katif in Gaza, I entered a different dimension. The passengers were no longer the typical cross-section of Israelis.



Looking around me I noticed a number of young soldiers nodding off, instinctively holding on to their rifles as if it were another limb. They were going to spend Shabbat on patrol. They would soon be assuring loved ones that they were fine and will see them soon.



In addition to the soldiers, there were a number of Thai farm workers returning to the famous Gush Katif hot-houses, where they have become indispensable as Arab labor has become a risk not worth taking. One wonders if they have a position on the Arab-Jewish conflict. On the one hand, they are in the line of Arab fire, and on the other, in the absence of Arab terror they would not have been called to work in Israel. Thousands of Thai families are being supported due to this conflict.



Sitting near me were an elderly couple. They escaped Hitler to help build a Jewish country. They raised families and now were visiting their children and grandchildren in Gush Katif. Talking to them, I could not help but feel the throb of Jewish history, the eternal backbone that does not break even as other limbs are bruised. The pen that has always written the Jewish drama is held tightly between their fingers.



There were other Asians on our bus, as well. These were not foreign workers. They are from northeast India, a place called Manipur near the Burmese border. The "B'nai Menashe" are remnants of the ten lost tribes. Hanging on to their Jewish traditions over the long millennia, they are part of the prophetic vision of the ingathering of the exiles from the four corners of the world. About one thousand have officially converted, to dispel any doubts, and are back from where Sancheriv the Assyrian king exiled them over 2,700 years ago. What a story! What a people! What a country! Most of the "B'nei Menashe" live in the" territories" on the "front lines" of the Land of Israel. A hardy bunch indeed. They needed no prodding or promises of "new immigrant benefits" to come home.



As we crossed the "Green Line" and our first checkpoint, we were made to wait a few minutes for our jeep escort to arrive. We wondered if there was a problem ahead. The atmosphere and landscape changed abruptly. Below the guard towers at the first checkpoint were parked a long row of armored vehicles used from time to time for incursions into the terror nests in "Area A" of the Palestinian Authority. As we drove along, I noticed a jeep on the side of the road, its motor idling and soldiers at the ready. A normal precaution these days. This was part of their effort to keep the bypass roads safe for us. These roads were created with the Oslo agreements in order to carefully bypass the Arab population.



As we drove along, conversation diminished and eyes squinted through the thick, opaque bullet-proof glass for any unwelcome signs along the road and beyond. So far, so good.



Over the last three years of the "second intifada", the government has gradually and reluctantly responded to terror attacks upon Jewish traffic by tearing down or securing buildings or orchards from where the attacks were launched. Along the road were a number of demolished buildings with camouflage nets covering gaping holes or entire shaved sides. Soldiers man towers, and Jewish residents and visitors travel in armored convoys to and from their homes.



Then we saw the beautiful homes, indeed. Picture-book, beautifully kept villages with the sea on one side and cultivated green fields and hot houses on the other, framing these creations of love, pride and devotion. Situated within the relative security of multiple electric fences, gates and patrol roads, they are in stark contrast to their Arab neighbors. The latter enter and leave their villages with out seeing a gate, tower or fence. They have the luxury of going about their lives without nervously looking over their shoulders. If one of them decides to strike at his Jewish neighbor, he decides the place and time. The Jews have fences.



Before our bus entered the main bloc of settlements to let us off, we made stops in some of the more isolated (one learns this is a relative term) villages. As we near Kfar Darom, I noticed a number of damaged Arab buildings that were once used as sniper platforms; the government finally decided enough was enough. A scarred and pocked landscape surrounded the heavily fenced-in community. Upon entering, we passed imposing bunkers, towers, rows of armored vehicles and soldiers in bullet-proof gear. It looked like the beach after the Marines had landed. It became clear to me that no conventional defensive measures would be enough to fully protect these people.



Inside the village of some forty large families, a surrealistic tranquility and normalcy prevail. One gets used to anything. They say that people will naturally try to avoid pain, but do accept the pain of sacrifice. They created a Garden of Eden on the front lines. If you want to see sacrifice today....



As we passed through the gates of N'vei Dekalim (500 families), the largest of the communities, we experienced a feeling of relative security; like a stage coach entering the stockade in the old West with the gates closing behind it. Security and normalcy is offered here for the more outlying villages. It's all relative. Total security? Not here, not in Gaza, not in Israel .Anywhere?. This is just a microcosm. Israelis have in the last years come to live with the almost fatalistic acceptance that there will always be some ducks in the pond that will not come out.



In beautiful N'vei Dekalim, with its well kept homes, lawns, shopping center and synagogues, and with the sea next door, one can forget what lurks beyond the fences, or that a mortar shell can fall on you at any time (3,100 have fallen in the last three years). Talk about living with faith and miracles.



One of those mortar shells found its target the day before we toured the region - it was the community recreation hall and museum. The families of the village, Kfar Darom, had gathered for the screening of a film. Instead of popcorn, there was a very different pop as the mortar shot from the Palestinian Authority crashed into the room next to the one in which over 100 people were sitting. The entire wall was punctured with shrapnel. It all flew over the heads of the intended targets. And they calmly cleaned up and explained to their children that this is part of sacrifice for one's beliefs and country. There are no words.



After Shabbat, it was back to "safe" Israel. My heart went out to my brothers and sisters, and I asked myself how much longer they can keep their fingers in the dike before the hordes wash over them or their own security forces come to forcibly "relocate" them. Some say the fate of these people will serve as a sure indicator as to where the country is going next. We will find out very soon.