Monday, May 15, 2017

Hof Ashkelon Is Their Home in the Shadow of Mortars from Gaza

The question comes up every year: Why do you stay in arguably the most dangerous corner of Israel, the settlements adjacent to the Gaza Strip?

It was the turn of eight women, social workers and trauma care first responders from the Hof Ashkelon region, to respond this year to the heart-rending, oft-repeated question that over a two-week period came from students of Westchester Hebrew High School, staff of Westchester Jewish Community Services, Congresswoman Nita Lowey and members of the Westchester families that hosted them for a fortnight.

Fourteen days of touring, eating and shopping their way through New York and Washington, DC, ended Sunday. But that’s not why Shalom Yisrael of Westchester brought them to America. The goal was to help the helpers maintain and refresh their balance in a turbulent part of the world, at perhaps its most hazardous, impulsive and unpredictable point.

The women are no different than the 16,000 other residents of Hof Ashkelon, a region along the Mediterranean coast south of Ashkelon and north of the Gaza Strip. They are mothers of three or four children. One is a grandmother. Social workers and office workers. Their children go to school. Some are in the military. A few are married. No different than any group of women from the 19 communities of Hof Ashkelon (or the 56 previous first responder women of the prior seven years hosted by Shalom Yisrael from the Sha’ar Hanegev and Eshkol districts that also border the Gaza Strip).

Except, when conflict arises others have the freedom to scoop up their families to leave for safer quarters. These women have made a commitment to stay on sacred ground and help others cope with the consequences of terror.

They are not right wing zealots. They want to live in peace with their neighbors. But they will not cede an inch more of territory. Two of them—Esti and Corinne—already had homes taken from them when Israel abandoned their settlements in the Sinai and Gaza in the hope that peace would ensue. Ceding land won’t happen again, not after Hamas turned their former communities into rocket and mortar launch pads.

Hof Ashkelon is a beautiful part of Israel. Its inhabitants are more than just neighbors. They are united in determination to work together to secure a stable environment for their families. Yet, they know when—not really if, just when—the random mortar attack escalates to full scale hostilities their homes and settlements will be uninhabitable because Hamas has inventoried rockets more powerful than before.

They stay for a simple, primal reason. It is their home.

If they give it up, the border region will become the next district down the road, subject to the same intermittent bombardments they sustain, they say. No. The border stays as is.

Everyday life in Hof Ashkelon is different than in the rest of Israel. Showers are shorter—nobody wants to get caught full of suds should an alarm be sounded. Long past the age when they shouldn’t, children wet their beds. While traveling inside cars, seat belts are not worn, windows are left open, radios are turned off—with seven to 15 seconds warning before a mortar can land, one doesn’t want to have to tussle with undoing a seat belt to exit a car and lie down by the roadside with hands wrapped around one’s head, or worry about reverberations from an explosion shattering glass, or miss an alarm because the radio drowned out its warning.

On the other hand, life in Hof Ashkelon is by choice, as is service as a first responder. Before joining the first responder team Inbal had to commit that while other residents might leave during a conflict she would stay. Shalhevet and her family moved from the city of Ashkelon to Zikim, a kibbutz on the coastline less than two miles from the northern border of the Gaza Strip. When her daughter clings to her leg and pleads with her to stay home, Idit must overcome a normal, motherly response. She must leave her home to help others deal with trauma.

It is difficult not to think of these women and their colleagues, Tsipi, Mali and Ronit, as heroes, but that is the last descriptor they would attach to themselves. They are, simply, part of a people trying to live in peace. Their job is but one performed in defense of their homeland.

They arrived back in Israel Monday afternoon. The Shalom Yisrael 2017 program has concluded but funding needs for this year and future programs remain. Please consider making a donation. 

Send your tax deductible donation to:

Shalom Yisrael
c/o Murray Forseter
11 Brad Lane
White Plains, NY 10605

The links below are to previous posts about visits sponsored by Shalom Yisrael and Gilda’s and my visit in 2011 to the Sha’ar Hanegev region along the northeastern edge of the Gaza Strip: