Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 10 February 2024



Ghost Town on the Gaza Border

Amit Siman Tov and Mor Tzarfati outside their adjoining houses. Photo: Tunku Varadarajan

Nir Oz, Israel

There was life once in this little kibbutz, in a corner of the Negev—life in its most adamant form. Many would also say that there was sweetness in this place, whose name means “Field of Strength” in Hebrew.

Men and women grew wheat and potatoes on the farmland that stretches over a mile and a quarter toward the fenced frontier of Israel. The crops, now abandoned, stop just short of Gaza, which is visible from the outer ring of the kibbutz and from the modest Jewish homes that were neat, lived in and loved. There were around 150 houses in Nir Oz, including those that were burned down, and every one is empty now, its residents dead, kidnapped or living elsewhere as “internally displaced persons”—IDPs in refugee-speak. Only four houses remain undamaged.

There is beauty amid the destruction, a reminder of a paradise lost. Flowers, glossy in the rain, bloom alongside charred houses. A magnificent ficus tree, chock full of parrots, stands unharmed. Yet abandoned tricycles and strollers tell of a place that was full of children. A soccer ball sits punctured in a yard. A young boy’s saxophone lies blackened in the rubble. Ravenous cats emerge as if from thin air as you walk by. The household bins from which they once scavenged are now empty. The “Cat Man,” a resident who put food out for them at stations around the kibbutz, is dead.

The burned out house of a young family. Photo: Tunku Varadarajan

Also dead is the two-state solution—the idea of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, which would give sovereignty to the people from whose midst came those who laid waste to this kibbutz on Oct. 7. For eight hours they hunted down the kibbutzniks, murdering 46 people and abducting 71, amounting to well over a quarter of those who lived here, making Nir Oz proportionately the hardest-hit of the kibbutzim that Hamas invaded.

No Israeli politician of consequence speaks today of a Palestinian state, except to dismiss the idea as insane. To speak of a two-state “solution”—a word that sounds incongruous and obscene after Oct. 7—is to earn the wrath of women like Amit Siman Tov, 40, who walked me around her ghostly quiet kibbutz. She’s now an IDP in Kiryat Gat, 40 miles northeast, a city of 60,000—150 times as many people as Nir Oz. “It’s concrete,” she says. “No birds, no bicycles, no rosemary bushes.” She tells me her children, still traumatized, say they “feel safer in a building.”

Like everyone else on the kibbutz, Ms. Siman Tov lived with her family in a single-story house. Like her neighbors, she wished the Gazans well. She recalls farmhands from the strip working the fields with her father, who raised her on the kibbutz: “He was their good friend. They used to have coffee in our house. The relationship was positive.” Construction workers from Gaza would help build houses at Nir Oz. “They used to joke sometimes, ‘Oh, I’m building this for myself.’ But they were smiling, and we were smiling.” Before Oct. 7 Ms. Siman Tov would point to Gaza during bike rides and tell her kids: “There are children and women living there, just like me and you.” She wouldn’t say that now. “Our trust has gone. Completely gone.”

She escaped with her life on Oct. 7, surviving three separate raids on her house over eight hours. The family was barricaded in their safe room—or, in Hebrew, mamad, a word that is on everyone’s lips in Israel. “You should add it to the English language,” she says.

“The third time they came, we felt we were going to die.” The terrorists, having failed to break down the mamad’s door, set the house on fire. Ms. Siman Tov, her husband, their 11-year-old daughter and sons age 9, 6 and 2 laid down urine-soaked sweatshirts at the foot of the door to stop smoke from seeping in. “My daughter was pleading with me. ‘Mom, open the door. Let them shoot me. I don’t want to be burned to death.’ ”

Terrorist bullet holes on the door of a safe room. Photo: Tunku Varadarajan

Barricaded at home, Ms. Siman Tov didn’t know the terrorists had killed her mother, brother, sister-in-law, 5-year-old twin nieces and 2-year-old nephew. She takes me to their house, her composure remarkable as we enter her brother’s breached mamad. We’re joined by Mor Tzarfati, 41, Ms. Siman Tov’s neighbor and best friend, who also survived the attack with her family when the terrorists failed to break down the door to their safe room. Ms. Tzarfati points to the bullet holes in the brother’s mamad, where he and his wife died of gunshot wounds and their three children were asphyxiated by smoke. There was blood on the walls—“spritzed,” as Ms. Tzarfati describes it.

Ms. Tzarfati and her family were lucky. The terrorists gave up after trying to batter down their reinforced door for hours. She was in her safe room with her husband, three young kids and dog, whose snout she had to clench shut with her fist to keep it from barking. After the first two waves of attacks, she heard women and children speaking in the house: “They were taking things. Helping themselves to my fridge.” The invading Gazans left shoes behind, making off with footwear stolen from kibbutzniks.

“I don’t want Israel to have any connection with Gaza,” Ms. Tzarfati says when asked what should happen next. “Our attitudes have changed.” Both she and Ms. Siman Tov—like nearly every Israeli, right or left—want Hamas destroyed.

“There were terrorists in our houses. And we could hear civilians. There are no innocent people in Gaza,” Ms. Tzarfati says. “Even if they want to be innocent, they can’t.” Ms. Siman Tov adds that Gaza civilians “chose to come here right behind the terrorists. They came on their own two feet, they took hostages, and went back home.” She alludes to the testimony of some of the freed hostages, “that the scariest time in Gaza was when they passed through crowds of civilians, who beat them and cursed them.” She speaks also of detailed hand-drawn maps found on slain terrorists. “They got the information from Gazans who worked here on our kibbutz.”

Neither woman wants to return to the kibbutz, underscoring a stark problem for the government. Kibbutzim like Nir Oz trace the frontiers of the Jewish state. The novelist Amos Oz (1939-2018) once observed that “if all the lights in Israel were turned off except in the kibbutzim, you would be able to see an accurate map of Israel.” Ms. Tzarfati says that “even if there was no Gaza Strip at all, it would be hard to come back here. Everything we had, every shred of security, has been taken from us.” Ms. Siman Tov adds: “This place has been ruined, not just in a physical way.”

So what can Israel do to make Nir Oz and other kibbutzim in the Gaza Envelope safe again? The answer to that question lies in Gaza. Israelis speak of “the day after,” the period following the defeat of Hamas, and debate the best plan for Gaza.

In an interview with these pages, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu underscored the nonnegotiable need to “ensure that Gaza never again poses a threat to Israel.” That can be achieved, he said, only through “durable demilitarization” and “deradicalization”—an ideological cleansing that rids Gaza of the Islamist poison that took genocidal form on Oct. 7.

To the frustration of many Israelis, particularly Mr. Netanyahu’s detractors on the left, he has yet to spell out in public a clear road map for the day after. But Mr. Netanyahu may have good reasons for hiding his hand, particularly the need for discretion in the building of an international postwar coalition of the willing. Domestically, he has to keep together a fractious and contradictory coalition with partners from the center-left to the far right. Some of his partners wish to resettle Gaza with Jews, an idea that is anathema to many Israelis, as is the idea that the Israel Defense Forces take responsibility for security within Gaza. Ms. Siman Tov speaks for most kibbutzniks, and many Israelis, when she says that Gaza “is not just Israel’s problem, it’s a world problem.” She “wouldn’t feel safe if only the IDF is inside.”

I canvassed a range of prominent Israelis and heard various opinions. Avigdor Lieberman, a Russian-Israeli secular nationalist politician, was once a member of Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud Party and later a governing ally. He describes Mr. Netanyahu’s current government as “the worst in Israel’s history.” He believes Gaza should be “under Egyptian or Arabic control” and wants Egypt to allow Gazans to settle in the Sinai. He is “completely against any visions that we will establish our settlements again”—something other Netanyahu partners, such as National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, advocate forcefully.

A different view comes from Robert Aumann, an American-born Israeli economist. “After defeating Hamas,” he says, “we have to take over Gaza.” He means Israel. “We have to take over and we have to stay there. We must. We cannot give this to anybody else. Not to the United Nations, not to the Europeans, not to the Saudi Arabians, not to anybody.” A game theorist, he says that only Israel has the incentive to wrest Gaza for good from the terrorists.

Mr. Aumann is a religious Zionist, in contrast to Fania Oz-Salzberger, a self-described “humanist Zionist” (and daughter of Amos Oz) who is active in leftist circles. A prominent Israeli historian, she calls in an email for “an interim rule of Gaza by an international administration backed by a (non-UN) security force, preferably from NATO and Arab states.” Israel should fully withdraw, alongside a demilitarization of Gaza. She would dismantle the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, some of whose employees participated in the Oct. 7 attack, and replace it with the U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees, which would monitor a “deradicalization process—school curriculum included.” The Palestinian Authority, currently in control of the West Bank, “can take part in the process pending commitment to a peaceful territorial agreement negotiation.” She says Israel should “also be deradicalized through elections and a moderate government”—i.e., the ouster of Mr. Netanyahu.

Tel Aviv-based venture capitalist Avi Eyal says “Gaza, the day after, needs a mini-Marshall Plan.” He stresses that we “cannot rely on past stewards as, unfortunately, none have reputations, credentials or support to deal with the responsibilities this entails.” It’s also an opportune time for “independent, untainted—in the Palestinian context—Arab countries to show that Arab leadership can solve Middle East challenges.” He emphasizes the need for the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to be in the vanguard.

The view into Gaza from Nir Oz. Photo: Tunku Varadarajan

There is also the view—widely held even by many whose reflex is to advocate multinational approaches—that Gaza has no solution. A senior academic who has served as a back-room policy adviser to several Israeli prime ministers tells me that his “grand-grand-grandchildren will be fighting Gaza.”

In his view, all that can be done in Gaza is damage control. “Brutal damage control. There is no other way.” Like many Israelis—again, left and right—he scoffs at complaints of a “disproportionate” Israeli response to Hamas’s atrocities. “I bring a gun to a knife fight, OK?” He would tell Gaza—now, and in the future—that “if you do to me something that I cannot tolerate, I will do something that you cannot tolerate, but at a much higher level of violence.”

Few Israelis any longer disagree, especially those who lived through the carnage at Nir Oz. They reject the view that Israel must forswear force if civilians might be hurt. That would give barbarians immunity, allowing them to destroy civilization because it is civilized.

Mr. Varadarajan, a Journal contributor, is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and at New York University Law School’s Classical Liberal Institute.

Wonder Land: Iran, Russia and China know that both Joe Biden and Donald Trump are weak adversaries, not least because they have failed to raise U.S. defense capacity to the level of an unmistakable deterrent. Images: AP/Shutterstock Composite: Mark Kelly

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Appeared in the February 10, 2024, print edition as 'Ghost Town on the Gaza Border'.

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