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.”