When a group of Hillsdale stu­dents visited the Kfar Aza Kibbutz less than one mile from the Gaza Strip on Jan. 4, res­i­dents of the kibbutz had not expe­ri­enced an incoming Qassam rocket in four days.

Chen Abrams, who has lived at Kfar Aza nearly all her life, remarked to the group that it had been a peaceful week.

“Today our life is all the time between relaxed, more calm periods and a time of esca­lation,” Abrams said. “In our ter­mi­nology, we’re on the way to an esca­lation now. We’re not there yet: the last alert and rockets in the area were on Thursday, which is like, four days ago.”

The Hamas Pales­tinian political party — which has ties to the Muslim Broth­erhood and con­trols the Gaza Strip — began launching rockets into sur­rounding Israeli area in 2006, and has wreaked havoc on the lives of vil­lages and kib­butzim within range ever since.  Qassam rockets are explosive weapons homemade from sec­tions of pipe stuffed with nails or shards of metal pro­pelled by potassium nitrate and sugar. The rockets have approx­i­mately a six-mile range.

“We used to go to Gaza and go to the beach there. Life was very very dif­ferent. We did com­merce together,” Abrams remem­bered. “Then it changed unfor­tu­nately. It came to a point in 2008. There was a deadly attack on the kibbutz: One of our members who was walking in his garden at the time was directly hit and was killed. This kibbutz changed forever.”

Whenever radar systems detect an incoming rocket, a red code is announced over loud­speakers throughout the kibbutz.

“All the kids and everybody here knows that they have between 10 to 15 seconds to run for cover,” Abrams said. “Tod­dlers imme­di­ately will lift their arms because they know somebody will come pick them up.”

There are bomb shelters or safe rooms within 10 seconds of any­where in the kibbutz. During calm periods, Kfar Aza expe­ri­ences one to five rockets per week.

But periods of esca­lation are dif­ferent, meaning areas around the Gaza strip can expe­rience up to 120 incoming rockets in 48 hours.

“The dif­ference is huge: in times of esca­lation you can’t con­tinue your life as you used to,” Abrams explains. “You can’t go to school. You can’t go to work. Your whole life changes.”

To combat the con­stant unrest on Israel’s borders and defend Israeli people during times of esca­lation, every Israeli citizen is required to serve in the Israel Defense Forces after grad­u­ating high school at age 18.

Aptitude and capa­bility testing is admin­is­tered by Israeli author­ities while stu­dents are still in high school, and most grad­uates enter the IDF imme­di­ately upon draft. Some, however, apply to the national Ein Prat Israeli Social Lead­ership Pre-Mil­itary Schools — highly selective spe­cialty training at schools around the nation that provide a year of prepa­ration and lead­ership training before a draftee con­tinues to basic training.

Ein Prat helps train stu­dents to become more pre­pared to lead their future units, provide an oppor­tunity to develop deeper per­sonal con­nec­tions with the com­mu­nities of Israel, and emphasize a holistic, liberal arts edu­cation.

Erez Eshel, former director and head of Ein Prat, spoke to trip par­tic­i­pants on Jan. 10.

“Lead­ership is the ability to face a crisis — to get pre­pared for it,” Eshel said, describing Ein Prat’s emphasis on per­sonal devel­opment. “A great mind doesn’t mean that you’re a great person. You have to have a solid, strong, coura­geous soul. A very gentle one that feels others when they need you. When they cry without tears. How do you do it? You have to go a lot into nature, into society. To be there, to feel them. To respect things. To develop the ability to love others.”

Ein Prat pro­grams, which train stu­dents in classes of only 50, focus on the devel­opment of mind, soul, and body.

“You must work on your mind. How? By learning liberal arts from great teachers,” Eshel said. “Great teachers — real teachers — will answer you always, ‘I’m not a teacher, I’m a student.’ It’s not about exams. It’s not about grades. It’s about great ideas.”

Draftees who don’t apply for a year at Ein Prat also develop a strong sense of national identity, duty to the Israeli people, and com­passion. Every member of the IDF visits Yad Vashem, Israel’s national holo­caust memorial, as a part of their mil­itary training.

“The prin­ciple ethos in the IDF is the ethos of purity of arms,” said Avi Lewis, a former IDF Com­mander and a staff writer at the Times of Israel. “While serving as sol­diers, it’s of para­mount impor­tance to safe­guard our own morality.”

Because of the devel­op­ments of modern warfare, and the tactics used by Israel’s enemies, the dis­crepancy in moral stan­dards between the oppo­nents is extreme.

“Even though U.S. troops are edu­cated by moral stan­dards and so are Israelis, the enemies that we face, whether it’s Hamas in Gaza or Hezbollah in Lebanon or the insur­gents in Iraq and Afghanistan — they have no moral qualms in killing civilians,” Lewis explains. “They have no issue hiding behind civilians. If they get hold of the body of one of our troops, they have no issue des­e­crating the body.”

According to many Israelis, inter­na­tional media outlets — many of which have bureaus in Israel — don’t always hold Israel to the same stan­dards of combat as other nations.

Uri Goldflam, a former IDF para­trooper and guide for one bus of Hillsdale stu­dents, explained that Israel comes under high levels of scrutiny by inter­na­tional powers when any incident occurs.

“In the Israeli-Pales­tinian con­flict the col­lateral damage is 1 – 1. One civilian to one com­batant,” Goldflam explains. “Britain and the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan the ratio is 1 – 4 or 1 – 5 — that’s four or five civilians killed for every com­batant. And you don’t see as much crit­icism against America and Britain as you do against the Israeli people. That’s not even com­paring the numbers of civilians killed in Arab coun­tries by other Muslims.”

Ter­rorist groups like Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon use this inter­na­tional media bias and the ensuing political pressure from foreign powers to their advantage.

“I saw with my own eyes in Lebanon a cash of rockets under a school. A regular school,” Goldflam said. “Had Israel bombed that weapons cash — it always shoots back to the source of the rockets — children would have been killed. For Hamas, that would have been a win, because Israel would have gotten the black eye and the con­dem­nation from the global com­munity.”

Despite the rockets, the con­flict, and global crit­icism, the Israeli people remain resilient. Members of the kib­butzim in the Gaza area con­tinue their daily lives despite per­petual trauma resulting from rocket fire. Israeli children study hard in school to do well on IDF qual­i­fi­cation exams to brag to their friends and compete for the most dif­ficult jobs.

“I still believe — and this is how I raise my son — that it can change,” Abrams said. “I believe that on the other side of the fence, there are children like my son. There are lots of children there that are less for­tunate than him. They don’t have food. A lot of times they don’t have elec­tricity. They don’t have running water. They def­i­nitely don’t have Call of Duty on their com­puter. And they deserve life like he deserves life. And I can’t give up this hope.”