A home at Kibbutz Nir Oz destroyed by Hamas terrorists. Photo by Shahar Vahab.
A home at Kibbutz Nir Oz destroyed by Hamas terrorists. Photo by Shahar Vahab.
featureIsrael at War

What does the future hold for Nir Oz?

A kibbutznik/photographer returns to visit his devastated home and ponders how residents will be able to rehabilitate themselves.

I’ve been in Europe for a month and a half now, and as beautiful as autumn is, it’s also cold and wet. I only returned to Israel for a few days, to visit everyone and collect items from home. After two days of traffic jams in the center, I hopped over to Kibbutz Nir Oz for the first time since that day.

On that awful Shabbat, Oct. 7, Hamas hordes broke through the Gaza border fence and attacked the sleeping Israel communities opposite the Gaza Strip. They murdered scores of Nir Oz residents, burned homes and abducted residents. About 180 of some 400 residents were killed, or abducted as hostages.

They didn’t burn my house down—they just turned it upside down and stole everything possible. So, as always when returning from abroad, I started tidying up, cleaning, and washing dishes, as if I really lived there. Collecting some clothes, important documents, and photos.

They cut up our pictures. The terrorists were in my house, went to the trouble of finding the scissors (even I can’t always find them), and cut up our family photos while my wife and child hid in the bomb shelter hoping not to be found. 

I finally stayed overnight in my house, drinking my cup of coffee on the balcony. The next day I returned to central Israel. After a whole day of traffic jams and errands, I’m tired of the big city again. At night, I turn southward and begin to drive home. I must remember to stop at Kibbutz Sde Boker and take a photo of the sunrise.

We love Sde Boker. It is close to Nir Oz and is as beautiful as a painting. It is also our destination whenever there is a war or a military operation, or “only” missiles.

Most of the time it’s fine, but the operations in Gaza are not always planned and coordinated with us to make sure we have time to flee. That is what we did this time—packed a bag and traveled to Sde Boker and waited for the news, to see what Hamas would decide.

A picture left in the ruins of Nir Oz. Photo by Shahar Vahab.

Two words 

Morning in the Negev. I open a window and dry, warm air surrounds me. Desert air, unlike in that damp Europe. I’ve missed it. The desert rises and falls and soon we’ll be in Eilat to join everyone else from Nir Oz.

I meet my mom, siblings and friends. How are you? How are you? How are you? Like I can answer that in two words, or even a full sentence. It’s all crappy, is what I want to say, and I have not found a better word yet to describe the situation. 

A schedule develops: lunch in the dining room, and laundry in the makeshift laundromat. My laundry is the one being washed right now. Tonight, hostages from Nir Oz are released. A message with the list was sent to the group. 

In the evening we sit in the lobby. We watch the news on a big screen. Or hang out on the patio outside, among reporters and cameras and kids who are already bored at the hotel, and all the activities and all the artists and soccer players who come to visit don’t interest them—because dad is not on the list of those expected to be released tonight. 

A strange place, this alternate world of Nir Oz in Eilat. Everything is going as usual, the teachers even opened makeshift kindergartens in a big tent. I suddenly come from outside, after not being with everyone for a long time, and everything seems to me like a reality show. So, I wave and smile at the security cameras every time I pass.

A makeshift kindergarten for Nir Oz children staying in Eilat. Photo by Shahar Vahab.

Grandmothers 

Tonight is a crazy episode: some of Nir Oz’s grandmothers are returning from captivity, but there might still be a surprise from Hamas, and everything is still uncertain! We are all in this crazy roulette, what will happen tomorrow night, will the girls come back or not? Tune in for tonight’s episode to find out. 

The drama is over, and so are the commercials. The hostages have returned home, but there are more to come tomorrow and in the days to follow. Outside the lobby, the young people are sitting and having a drink. No one is watching TV anymore, and all the children have gone to sleep. We hear more stories that we did not know about Oct. 7. 

At night the roulette spins again and the list for tomorrow is published. Only hostages from Kibbutz Be’eri, not Nir Oz. Bummer. … Wait, no, actually it’s great! Our moral ideals have recently been seriously stretched in all directions.

The next day there is also a big screen outside, but fewer people come to see it. Today it’s Be’eri hostages being released and we’re in the land of Nir Oz, the ratings are lower in this episode. What will be tomorrow? We don’t know, Hamas has not yet allowed the list to be published.

It’s hard to describe what we are going through. It feels surreal. We are sitting in a hotel 250 kilometers away from home to feel safe, while Hamas announces every day which of our closest friends will be released from captivity in Gaza tonight, maybe. The whole country is in crisis, all members of the army, even Tel Aviv is deserted! But don’t worry, we will vanquish Hamas.

Who gets to decide which hostages are released? I think to myself after the third drink in the lobby with the guys. How do you decide who gets released, does Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar simply mark with a pencil on a list of names, or are there secret and complex discussions? Like the kids swapping soccer cards—I’ll give you two Messis for one Mbappé, but make sure not to wrinkle it.

What can we do, is this a good or a bad deal? I ask everyone I meet at the hotel. The answer is always, “It doesn’t matter, we have no choice.” We have no choice because the hostages must be returned. 

What now? 

In all this mess I need to choose apartments and furniture for the new housing in Kiryat Gat. Everyone is under pressure. Everything has to happen in the next week or two, and everyone has to move out of the hotel.

And after that, do you go back to rebuilding Nir Oz, or somewhere else? All of us together or each for himself? Good questions, but the daily hostage release episode is about to start, so we’ll think about it tomorrow.

None of us wants to live outside the community, that’s why we were in Nir Oz in the first place. What we decide in the end is directly related to how this war will end. Return all the hostages and give up in Gaza? Or keep going until we wipe out Hamas?

And the hostages? How will they return from captivity? Will they be the same people, just a little sadder? Or will they shake off the dust of Gaza and continue as usual? Slim chance, I think, and wonder if they’ll even be back with us anytime soon.

All around, the sons and daughters of Nir Oz from all eras are running around. Helping, organizing, arranging and just supporting. In the kibbutz itself, the guys are already sowing wheat and picking avocados.

Great people, everyone. Well, we were all raised by those grandmothers you see on the news coming back from captivity with their backs upright. I don’t envy a Hamas terrorist who tried to mess with them. I stopped trying at a young age.

The laundry is done

Nir Oz is beautiful at this time. Everything is green and lots of butterflies are in the air. The cats walk around like they own the place, but sooty. The abandoned and burnt houses are a great hunting ground for them. 

It’s fun to visit, but it’s hard to think about coming back to live here for now. A lot of questions and not many answers, this is life now. We will wait for everyone to return and hear what they say. And I am informed that my laundry is done and I need to go swiftly and get my clothes.

Originally published by Israel Hayom.

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