They fled kibbutzim after Hamas attacked. Now, many Israelis must decide whether to go back.

KIBBUTZ NAHAL OZ, Israel (AP) — For a few minutes on a recent afternoon, the sun-bathed silence that fills Nadav Tzabari’s neighborhood could almost be mistaken for peace.

Then shelling from Israeli tanks dug in across the fence line in Gaza erupts again, sending shudders through the vacated homes and overgrown gardens of this long-resilient farming community, emptied for months of nearly all its people.

“This is my house,” says Tzabari, a 35-year-old teacher, arriving at a small stucco building with a red tile roof near the center of Nahal Oz. It is so close to the bombed-out buildings on Gaza City’s eastern fringe that before Hamas swept in last October, residents could see their Palestinian counterparts driving through the streets.

Next door, Tzabari recalls, the attackers shot dead his 75-year-old neighbor and wounded her husband as the couple clung to the door of their safe room. Beyond an orange tree in his own yard, a tarp stretches across a gaping hole punched through the roof by one of thousands of rockets fired from Gaza in the months since. Inside, the blast layered every surface in dust and grit.

Yet as soon as Tzabari reenters its cracked facade, he is confronted with vivid memories of Nahal Oz as it was — and vexing questions about what it might yet be.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do. It changes every day,” says Tzabari, who fulfilled a dream with his husband when they bought a home in the kibbutz, but are deeply conflicted about returning. “It doesn’t matter how you twist it or what angle you look at it. This is going to be a really, really long, hard and complicated journey.”

Five months after Hamas slaughtered 1,200 people in an early-morning assault, triggering a massive invasion by Israel that has killed more than 30,000 people in Gaza, those who fled ravaged border communities are wrestling with whether, how and when to go back.

The choices are fraught and deeply personal. The trauma of seeing family members and friends killed and others taken hostage remains raw. The attack, which trapped many residents in the dark for 17 or 18 hours, left homes in some communities beyond repair. Artillery fire and the roar of fighter jets make clear that Nahal Oz and nearby towns, built decades ago on or near the sites of former Palestinian villages, are extensions of the war zone.

Many older people, including Nahal Oz’s founders, pledge to return and a small number of residents have gone back to some communities. But the future of the cooperatives, known as kibbutzim, depends on younger families.

“One day you say, ‘No, no, no, I don’t want to go back.’ The next day you wake up and you say, ‘I want to go home’,” says Raymond Reijnen, standing outside the dairy barn where a handful of residents have come back to work a few days each week. The other days, he and his wife deliberate whether Nahal Oz, where their children ran barefoot for hours, can ever again be home.

“It’s a really difficult question,” he says, as two Israeli soldiers just beyond the cattle shed point machine guns toward Gaza. “Is the kibbutz going to be the same place with the same people? Nobody knows.”

Most of the communities near the Gaza border were home to just a few hundred people. But in a country whose short existence has been defined by war, kibbutzim played an outsized role in staking Israel’s territory. Mass evacuations following the October attack have, for now, sharply reduced its inhabitable footprint.

“It’s a practical problem,” says Shlomo Getz, who leads a center for kibbutz research at the University of Haifa, noting that the communities accounted for most of the population on Israel’s side of the border.

“If the kibbutzim … will not come back, no one will come,” he says. “That means we are losing our country.”

The story of Nahal Oz is central to understanding that connection.

In 1951, a newly independent Israel was two years removed from a fierce war with Palestinian fighters and neighboring Arab countries. Palestinians had constituted a large majority of the pre-war population. But by the time fighting ended, about 700,000 had fled or been expelled.

Many, pushed from Arab villages just across the armistice line, ended up in Gaza, where today three-fourths of all residents are refugees or their descendants. Israeli leaders moved to solidify control by establishing communities along the border with the narrow strip, then occupied by Egypt.

To Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, the moment called for soldiers trained to farm as well as fight. The new corps was dubbed Nahal, a Hebrew acronym for “Fighting Pioneer Youth,” and planted its first outpost on land sloping gently toward the border. Two years later, a second group turned it into a kibbutz, Nahal Oz.

“We lived, more or less, half as military and half as citizens,” says Yankale Cohen, who was 19 when he and few others founded the kibbutz. “But in the meantime, we developed a community.”

A month after the kibbutz was launched, Egyptian soldiers killed a resident. Three years later, Roi Rotberg, a soldier in charge of security, was patrolling on horseback when he was ambushed. His death at 21 drew wide attention.

“Have we forgotten that this small group of young people dwelling at Nahal Oz is carrying the heavy gates of Gaza on its shoulders?” Israeli military chief Moshe Dayan said in a eulogy at Rotberg’s funeral.

His words alluded to the Old Testament’s story of Samson, who pulled down the gates of Gaza and carried them to a hill some believe is the one overlooking present-day Nahal Oz. But it was more than a metaphor for Dayan, who noted that Palestinians had watched as Israelis transformed “the lands and villages where they and their fathers dwelt.”

Nahal Oz was built closer to the border than nearby kibbutzim, less than a mile from Gaza’s Shejaiya neighborhood, a Hamas stronghold on Samson’s hill. Kibbutz farmers seed crops to the fence line.

Residents gradually built a tidy village of single-story homes, shadowed by a grain silo and surrounded by cultivated fields. They turned the kibbutz’s first building into a pub, where younger residents gathered for beer and music. Whimsical statues of eggplants and peppers sprouted outside a visitor center that bustled each spring, when Israelis flock to see wildflowers carpeting the fields.

Over time, people in the kibbutzim and in Gaza – captured by Israel during the 1967 war – settled into a sort of tacit acceptance.

Thousands of Palestinians crossed daily to work on Israeli farms. Cohen, who earned the nickname “Mr. Potato” for crop expertise developed over decades, advised Gaza farmers on planting and processing. Many older Israelis recall regular drives to Gaza for shopping and medical care.

That changed after the first Palestinian intifada erupted in 1987, a divide cemented when Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and Hamas seized control two years later.

Tensions in Gaza simmered as recurrent wars and a longstanding blockade, meant to keep Hamas from stockpiling weapons, left the economy in shambles. Many Israelis paid little heed to conditions in Gaza and were largely unaware that border kibbutzim were built on the sites of former Palestinian villages. But rocket attacks were a constant reminder of that dynamic in Nahal Oz and neighboring communities.

During a 2014 war, Palestinian fighters emerged from a tunnel near the kibbutz to kill five Israeli soldiers. Weeks later a mortar shell exploded in Nahal Oz, killing a 4-year-old boy.

Afterward, 17 families abandoned Nahal Oz, dropping the population to about 250. With its future threatened, the kibbutz began housing teens preparing for military service and college students.

Leaders also invited families, attracted to an oasis where neighbors gathered on porches for evening chats, homes were far more affordable than in Israeli cities, and – the threat of rockets notwithstanding – most nights were so peaceful, Cohen says, that you could practically smell the quiet.

Soon Reijnen and his wife, Mirjam, who had left careers as firefighters in their native Netherlands, arrived with their three children.

Tzabari, a former soldier battling post-traumatic stress disorder from the 2014 Gaza war, recalled the beauty of the kibbutz he’d visited during forays across the border and came to stay.

Matan Weitz, boarding in a courtyard filled with fellow students, felt so welcomed by kibbutz elders he decided to build a life there after graduation. Often, he’d walk to an old guard tower to gaze over the countryside.

“It’s a beautiful place to sit alone and when friends came by to see the kibbutz…we’d climb up and see the sunset over Gaza,” he says. “I was never afraid when I was there.”

By last fall, Nahal Oz’s population had topped 450. The kibbutz was 95% heaven, residents told one another, even if the threat of rockets made it 5% hell.

The tradeoff seemed worth it, until Oct. 7.

On the first Friday last October, kibbutz residents stayed up late, stringing lights around the pool and arranging chairs on the grass. The following day was a Jewish holiday. In Nahal Oz, though, it was planned as much more – the 70th anniversary of its founding.

Nahal Oz’s location means that alerts warning of possible rocket attacks give residents just a few seconds to hide and a few more to wait before it is considered safe. The first alert that morning came around 6:30. But the barrage that followed felt endless.

It sounded like “the loudest thunders, multiplied by a thousand,” says Naomi Adler, a nurse who hunkered down with her husband and three sons in the reinforced saferoom built into each house, and routinely used as bedrooms or home offices.

When it ended roughly 10 minutes later, the couple decided it was OK to emerge for water. The gunfire began as their phones started buzzing.

Lock your homes and stay in your safe rooms, warned a message from the kibbutz security director, Ilan Fiorentino. Hamas is at your back door, warned another from the Adlers’ neighbor.

Crouched in the saferoom with his husband and their dog, Tzabari heard shouting in Arabic and the staccato of rifles. When it quieted briefly, he dashed to the shed, grabbing gardening tools that might serve as weapons.

Inside the Reijnens’, Raymond tied bedsheets from the window to the door of the saferoom that, like others, did not lock because they’d been designed to protect against rockets, not invasion. With an Army base next to the kibbutz, help was minutes away, the couple told each other. Later they learned that Hamas had overrun the installation, killing dozens of soldiers.

The initial barrage had been a distraction. After plowing through fortifications Israeli officials had billed as virtually impenetrable, dozens of attackers breached the fence around the kibbutz before assaulting neighborhoods.

In a video livestreamed on a phone snatched from one resident, they marched 15-year-old Tomer Arava from his home at gunpoint, forced him to coax neighbors from hiding, then opened fire.

Arava, his mother, and her boyfriend were killed. The boyfriend’s daughters were taken hostage, released 51 days later.

Next door to Tzabari, gunmen burst into the home of Yonatan and Shoshana Brosh, who had taken to mothering the new arrivals. She was killed by shots fired through the saferoom door.

Ariel Zohar, a 12-year-old resident out for a run when the assault began, was rescued by Fiorentino, the security director. Later, Zohar’s sisters, mother and father – a former AP video journalist — were found dead in a bedroom, their arms wrapped around one another. Fiorentino was also killed later, trying to fend off the assault.

In all, 15 people from Nahal Oz were killed, including a Tanzanian intern just arrived to study farming. Two of the seven taken hostage are still being held.

The toll extended to the fields, where attackers destroyed computers regulating the irrigation system and broke the pipes. They shot up the kibbutz’s new $1.4 million dairy barn, killing cattle, and stole nine tractors.

“They came to kill us, to burn us alive, to take all the agriculture down and to make us not want to come back,” says Moran Freibach, 53, who was raised in Nahal Oz and oversees farming operations.

When Israeli forces finally reached homes that afternoon, they ordered residents to continue hiding. It was well after dark before soldiers returned, giving residents minutes to pack.

In her kitchen, Tami Halevi, 86, had a fleeting thought: How long would it be before they could return? She rushed to divvy a pot of stew prepared for the anniversary celebration, shoving containers into the freezer.

Nearby, Tzabari and husband Rotem Katz hurried for the door with their dog, Tom, leaving behind all the trappings of home – a hammock in the backyard, the fish tank in the hall.

Outside the Reijnen house, Mirjam and her children clambered into the bed of a military vehicle packed with neighbors and belongings. But what had become of her husband?

Then Raymond appeared with a basket filled with his daughter’s stuffed animals and climbed aboard. As the vehicle sped down a road littered with bodies and burned-out cars, the kibbutz where his family had made a new life grew fainter and fainter.

Then, the Nahal Oz of memory vanished in the darkness.

Weeks after the attack, inside an assisted living complex near Tel Aviv, Tami Halevi gratefully appraised the bare walls and basic furniture she’d been offered. There was no way of knowing how long it would take before she and 16 other elders who’d arrived together might get back to Nahal Oz.

“One of my friends here told me: ’I’m bringing nothing. I don’t want to feel at home,” says Halevi, a grandmother of 14, welcoming a visitor. The embroidered armchair one of her grandsons retrieved from the kibbutz beckons from the center of the small living room. Framed drawings by a friend decorate a spot over the sofa.

“I’m living here. I don’t know for how long. And I want a few pieces of my life,” she says.

Halevi, a retired college administrator, laughs when some of the others teasingly call her “the child,” because she did not start her life in Nahal Oz until two years after its founding. But it is a reminder of the very deep roots the seniors have in the kibbutz.

Many memories are sweet ones, of the early years when all kibbutz children were raised together in a single building; of drives into Gaza to seek out the most delicious hummus. But the lessons of that experience are complicated.

After the 1967 war, Halevi and her husband, an agronomist, hosted a farmer from Gaza in their living room at the request of Israeli officials, eager to encourage economic ties. In 2000, after the first rocket fell on Nahal Oz, her husband planted a tree in the crater. The kibbutz continued its dependence on Palestinian workers.

“We have been, in a way, kind of naïve,” says Cohen, now 89.

Still, the kibbutz always sustained itself. Past crises, though, were mere shadows of this one.

“The young families that recently built new homes in Nahal Oz, I’m sure there are part of them who will never go back,” Halevi says. Her own daughter, who was evacuated from her home in a nearby kibbutz, is uncertain about returning.

She and other elders have come to a few decisions of their own. They will stay together. They will offer counsel, while acknowledging that the future belongs to the next generation. And they will return to Nahal Oz. It is not so much a plan, Cohen says, as a belief.

“It is our home,” he says. “We built it. And we’re going to die there.”

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A month after fleeing Nahal Oz, Amir Adler decided to go back.

Together with wife, Naomi, and their three sons, they’d found safety in one of the dormitory rooms assigned to families at a sister kibbutz in northern Israel, Mishmar HaEmek.

But the assault had destroyed pipes irrigating the avocado plantation he supervised, and Palestinian workers he’d employed had been ordered back to Gaza. Without its crops, Nahal Oz’s odds of survival would be much lower.

Before he could re-enter the grove, soldiers combed it for enemy fighters and explosives. Once at work, he kept thinking about his responsibilities as a husband and father, says Adler, walking through the dorm where families have propped laundry racks in the halls.

Just before he left for Nahal Oz, residents had held a ceremony marking a month since the attack. For the first time, the Adlers’ 6-year-old realized how many neighbors had been killed and took his father’s departure hard.

“I said ‘let’s call him … See, he’s picking up his phone,’” recalls Naomi, who asked her son’s teachers to do the same. “He needs to know that, yes, just going to Nahal Oz doesn’t mean you die.”

Neither of the Adlers grew up in Nahal Oz. When they first visited seven years ago, they noted how people knew their neighbors and children played without supervision, so different from Jerusalem, where Naomi grew up. On the day before last fall’s attack, they bought eight fruit trees to plant in the yard, imagining it as the place they’d welcome grandchildren someday.

Naomi has worked since the attack as the kibbutz event planner, trying to maintain a sense of togetherness. One recent afternoon, she coordinated a picnic daytrip to mark a holiday. On another, she organized a workshop in a tent outside the dorms, helping children plant terrariums.

But the Adlers say it is all but impossible for now to think about returning.

“Do we want to stay part of this community? Hell, yes. Can we? We don’t know,” she says. “We have to be OK with not knowing, because trying to control that will drive you crazy.”

After Nahal Oz was evacuated, most residents landed at the same kibbutz in northern Israel that had provided refuge during the 2014 war.

“They were traumatized. … You could see it in their eyes,” says Lee Falcon, a resident of Mishmar HaEmek. “We just wanted to give them the place to, just, be.”

The single-story dorms made for tight quarters, with families of four or five in a single room. Still, the refuge 2 ½ hours from Nahal Oz, kept the community largely intact.

“I knew for sure that I wanted to be here,” says Weitz, the college student, who was away on the day of the attack and quickly decided to join other residents. “It’s the closest thing to home that I have right now.”

Months later, relocated residents continue to meet with counselors. Some of the greatest comfort, though, has come from one another.

A few of the younger men began spending hours together in a basement pottery studio, gatherings that turned into a form of group therapy.

One sculpted a figure of himself, lying on the ground and covered with brush, just as he’d done to hide from attackers. Another shaped a tsunami out of clay, poised to swallow up one of the red wildflowers that are symbols of the border kibbutzim.

Tzabari’s husband, Katz, spent hours in the studio, making ceramic houses to substitute for the shattered one he’d left behind.

Kibbutz leaders, meanwhile, began wrestling with plans for the future. When the community meets, they link up online with the elders at the assisted living facility and another group of residents who have settled close to jobs in southern Israel. Some of those conversations have been trying.

“There is much disagreement. Look, you have to take so many things into consideration,” says Yael Lachyani, a native of Nahal Oz who is part of the team working to chart its recovery.

Some residents say they won’t go back. Others insist they will, as soon as it’s safe. Still others say they need to see what will change before deciding. Opinions shift constantly, depending on developments in the war, Lachyani says.

In January, workers leveled an almond grove at Mishmar HaEmek to make way for prefabricated homes that will provide larger quarters for families until the school year ends. Leaders also polled all residents 18 and older about what should come after.

Based on the results, they set a goal of moving the community to an interim site in southern Israel in August, pending a government decision on the location. That would allow children, who have been attending school in Mishmar HaEmek, to return to their regular classrooms, while putting residents closer to jobs and Nahal Oz.

But the question of return remains unresolved. The kibbutz has fielded calls from Israelis inquiring about moving to the community. Israeli officials recently declared a few kibbutzim to be safe, though Nahal Oz is not among them.

In January, Tzabari began traveling to the kibbutz a few days each week, clearing trees and planting flowers in preparation for its next chapter.

Returning to Mishmar HaEmek, often he’d find Katz in the pottery studio, shaping houses from clay.

When it’s safe, Tzabari told him, he hopes they can return to life at Nahal Oz. Katz, who’s taken over security planning for the kibbutz, says he cannot imagine going back permanently. But he is reassured by a promise from Tzabari that, if he continues to feel that way, their priority will be on staying together.

“Home is somewhere out there,” Katz says. “But it’s not in Nahal Oz.”

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Days after the Reijnens arrived at Nahal Oz in 2018, incendiary balloons launched from Gaza set the fields of southern Israel on fire.

It was fortuitous timing – the couple, who’d come to Israel seeking distance from antisemitism in Europe, are former firefighters and felt welcomed by a community anxious for their expertise.

By last fall, the Reijnens, who’d been alarmed when they first found Nahal Oz on a map, had bought a house there. Mirjam had become a tour guide. Raymond was a dairy supervisor. Their Dutch-born kids, fluent in Hebrew, had become Israelis.

For weeks after the attack, both vowed they’d never return. When Raymond began going back to care for the cows, Mirjam supported him, but disagreed. She avoided a bedroom in their rented apartment, plagued by a nightmare of “terrorists … entering in through the window.”

“My heart says go back, it’s your home. And I can be really sad if I think about not going home ever again,” she says. “But I have no idea how to do it.”

In Nahal Oz, meanwhile, Raymond sleeps in their old house. Even when bombing shakes the foundation, he sits in front of the television with the family cat and feels a measure of peace. Still, there’s no clear path to whatever will be.

On one of the evenings the family is together, Mirjam and daughter Arielle light candles in a holder shaped like Dutch canal houses, while Raymond finishes cooking. Nearby, a stenciled Bible verse Mirjam chose for their home before Oct. 7, fills a wall of their temporary one.

“Be strong and courageous,” it counsels. “Do not be afraid or discouraged. For the Lord your God will be with you … Wherever you go.”

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Associated Press writer Julia Frankel in Jerusalem and video journalist Sam McNeil in Nahal Oz contributed to this story.

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