Three Israelis living through the latest round of hostilities in the Gaza border area shared their experiences with a full auditorium at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School (CESJDS) in Rockville, Maryland. Other community members and leaders also spoke at the Jewish National Fund (JNF) event on Aug. 27.
Michal Uziyahu, Sarit Khanoukaev, and Yedidya Harush all live in the Gaza Envelope region, an area in Israel that borders the Gaza strip. The three told the audience about the challenges — and triumphs — they experience, leading their daily lives under constant bombardment and, more recently, the threat of incendiary balloons coming from nearby Gaza.
Uziyahu, director of a community center in the Eshkol region and a mother of three, said that despite the hardships, her community’s resilience and dedication to remaining there is strong and support from the American community is paramount.
“Our life there are 99 percent heaven, and 1 percent hell,” she said. “But thanks to you, we’re strengthening this 99 percent, and we can manage and grow out of this 1 percent of hell.”
Khanoukaev, 21, has lived in Sderot since birth. It’s difficult to describe the effect of having to live under constant fear of attack, she said.
“Every noise to this day makes me jump and scream,” said Khanoukaev. “It can be a noise from the other room, or a car hitting the breaks, or even when I’m shopping in the supermarket and they call up someone — it sounds like the beginning of an alarm siren for me.”
Harush was born and raised in Gush Katif before members of the community were forcibly removed during Israel’s unilateral disengagement in August 2005, described how the recent incendiary balloon attacks have further escalated living conditions in the area by burning thousands of acres of farmland.
“Six months ago, one innocent balloon” — he said, motioning toward a balloon tied to the podium “landed in one field in Israel. It started burning, one balloon after another, 600 balloons a day, and 20 fires on average, and then the rockets started coming ... It’s been very challenging.”
According to Israeli media, over 9,000 acres have been burned since Hamas militants began launching incendiary balloons over the border in June of this year. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman last month estimated that about 600 balloons and kites loaded with flammable and explosive materials have been launched toward the region from neighboring Gaza.
In an interview with Kol HaBirah, Uziyahu said that despite the popular narrative, she does not see the situation as a battle between good guys and bad guys.
“I see myself as pro-Palestinian, but pro-Israeli too,” she explained. “The problem with this conflict has nothing to do with occupation and other things — it has everything to do with not recognizing our right to exist.”
Attendees also heard from Jeffrey Ellenbogen, a physician from Baltimore, Maryland, who recently returned from volunteering as a firefighter in the Gaza Envelope region.
“We got into the fire truck and thought we are going up north to Haifa,” Ellenbogen recalled. “But instead, we went down south to the border.”
Ellenbogen was honored together with Capt. Scott Goldstein, a professional firefighter from Pikesville, Maryland, for their time volunteering as firefighters in the Gaza Envelope region this past summer.
All three Israeli speakers maintained that support from the American Jewish community has been instrumental in helping them overcome their circumstances.
Harush recalled that one moment that has given him continued strength took place when he first encountered the American Jewish community when he traveled to New Jersey as a teen on a basketball scholarship.
“I realized how much you love Israel,” he said. “I realized that it’s not a 7 million people country, but a 50 million people country but only 7 million people living in it.”
Uziyahu, counting the many ways JNF has helped the local community, including the building of trauma resilience centers, bomb shelters, and the rocket-proof JNF Indoor Recreation Center in Sderot, added that her community’s decision to stay in the area should not be venerated.
“Don’t feel sorry for us, don’t call us heroes. This is our home. You chose to be here, and you choose every day to support us, you are our heroes.”
“The people that are living in these communities, like Halutza, are the modern-day pioneers of Israel,” said JNF President Sol Lizerbram. “Like they said, life there is 99 percent heaven, and 1 percent hell —and they put up with it.”
Speaking about the connection he has seen develop between the Gaza Envelope communities and the American Jewish community over the decades of his involvement with JNF, Lizerbram emphasized the importance of staying informed and continuing to support those communities.
“The people who live there are so happy that we are there to help, and you go there, sometimes they say to us why do people 6,000 miles away care about us?” he recounted. “We have to tell them that you’re a part of us. The land of Israel is part of us.”
Lizerbram shared that among the many projects JNF supports in the area, he has especially taken to heart the rocket-proof JNF Indoor Recreation Center established in Sderot in 2009.
“To see that the kids and families can go there and be comfortable,” he recalled. “The kids play there during the day, and then the seniors can use it at night. It’s truly remarkable to see.”
Betsy and Lou Narrow of Baltimore, Maryland, who are longtime JNF donors and have family living in Sderot, agreed that this event helped connect with the reality on the ground even for those who are familiar with this situation.
“We brought our sister with us who wasn’t as informed about it, and she asked how come I never heard about this,” Betsy said. “That’s the biggest thing, you’re sitting here hearing about this, and you realize nobody out there is getting the real story.”
Lynn Kapiloff, who along with her late husband Bernard Kapiloff helped establish Sderot’s JNF Recreation Center, believes it is important for members of the community to go to Israel to understand the full impact of the help they are extending to the people living there.
“It’s important to try and minimize the damage to the young children, and the fact they couldn’t play outside was difficult,” she said. “Hearing about the situation is one thing. Seeing it, feeling it, and being in it is another.”
By Anis Modi
Anis Modi is a staff reporter for Kol HaBirah. Born and raised in Israel, he currently writes for several DC-based publications while pursuing his master’s degree at American University in Washington, D.C.