Near the Gaza Strip in southern Israel, the bus stops double as bomb shelters, reinforced concrete caves built to shield people from rockets and mortars and protect them from deadly shrapnel.
Every new house is required to have a reinforced room to protect the inhabitants from an attack.
Once the voice over the early warning system announces “red alert,” in some cases there’s less than 10 seconds to seek cover.
At the Kibbutz Kfar Aza just a few miles away, there’s barely time to take cover when a rocket or mortar is fired from Gaza.
Visiting the Kibbutz, which began as rural cooperative farming or manufacturing villages, on Feb. 15, we met with Tzachi Levy, who lives there.
He gave us a walking tour of the village, taking us to the fence that faces Gaza, easily visible and just a few miles away.
In early days of the kibbutz, the children would sleep at night in a central, buried bomb shelter in the middle of the village, and during the day the community would go about its business as best as it could.
The “red alerts” replaced air raid sirens. Research suggests that the human-voice alarm causes less long-term psychological damage, particularly for children, than the sirens.
Israel is a small country, and artillery from the Gaza Strip, Lebanon and Syria can reach most parts of the country, but it is the short-range and less sophisticated rockets and mortars that fly under the country’s protective air defenses, with names such as Iron Dome, David’s Sling, Arrow-2 and Arrow-3, which target larger and more complex weapon systems.
There simply isn’t enough time for the missile defenses to shield Kibbutz Kfar Aza.
The children learn songs that help them to remember what to do during an attack and they practice taking cover. The pre-school is built under a protective mushroom-shaped roof.
The Kibbutz is in undisputed Israeli territory. This isn’t a settlement or contested land. It’s well within the original boards of the country, which was founded in 1948.
Every morning, Levy walks his children to the school bus stop past the fence facing Gaza, past a memorial to a member of the community who was killed by a mortar while working in the central garden.
He knows that it’s hard on his family, but it is home.
Despite living under such threat, Levy is optimistic and hopeful. He believes that a lasting peace is possible and that relations with Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas, can be normalized.
During our visit, we asked him about the danger and the toll it takes.
Levy said that it’s not a question of getting used to it, it’s a question of adapting, and he pointed to the violence in the United States as a comparison about what we can grow to tolerate.
Growing up, I can remember doing nuclear bomb drills, terrified that the world would end in a barrage from the Soviet Union. Today, my kids practice live shooter drills and lock downs to protect against another Columbine or Sandy Hook.
It really isn’t a question of getting used to it. With the power grip of the NRA preventing reasonable reforms to prevent gun violence and the cowardice of politicians, it’s a question of adapting.
In 2005, Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip, but it still maintains tight controls, including controlling entrances and ports.
Gaza is surrounded by a security barrier, and much of the economy has depended upon a complex network of tunnels both into Israel and the Sinai Peninsula. But along with goods and people, the tunnels have also been used to smuggle weapons.
The tunnels were large enough for serious commerce, and there are stories of food deliveries from restaurants outside the city. Take out by tunnel.
Egypt has joined with Israel in trying to detect and close the tunnels, and the effect has made life in Gaza harder for the residents – but perhaps it has also made Egypt and Israel safer.
Gaza is controlled by Hamas, a terrorist organization. But that doesn’t go far enough as an explanation. Hamas is also like a political party or apparatus. Not only does it act externally as a sponsor of terror and rocket attacks, it’s also responsible for governing, which means building roads and hospitals and providing social services, at least in some limited capacity.
Unemployment is 42 percent overall, and 58 percent for young people. And Gaza is running out of water. The coastal aquifer is in jeopardy and there is limited infrastructure for water delivery and wastewater treatment.
The hope was for Gaza to bloom financial with the Israeli pullout, but that hasn’t happened. Without stability and infrastructure, it’s difficult to attract investment; without investment, it’s difficult to build infrastructure and create a stable, safe society.
Reporter turns TV producer
Avi Issacharoff is a reporter, analyst and TV producer. He’s known for his work reporting on the Arab street and is an expert on modern Arab affairs.
In 2014, he was attacked while covering a violent protest in the West Bank, near Ramallah. Issacharoff credits the Palestinian Authority’s forces with saving his life.
Last year, a TV show he wrote called “Fauda” went on the air. It’s about a deep under cover Israeli unit and the terrorists they hunt. But the show is more nuanced than that, and it’s not always easy to tell the good guys from the bad.
“Fauna,” chaos in Arabic, is available on Netflix in the US, with English subtitles. You should watch it.
I traveled to Israel from Feb. 12-18 with the American Israel Education Foundation, the nonprofit arm of AIPAC. The foundation funds educational seminars to Israel for members of Congress and other political influentials. These AIEF-sponsored trips help educate political leaders about the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship through firsthand experiences in Israel, briefings by experts on Middle East affairs, and meetings with Israeli political elite. Traveling with me was a group of 12 other people from New England.