On Gaza border, a mother hangs on

Hila Fenlon, a 36-year-old farmer and mother of two, lives in Netiv Hasara, a small Israeli village of 400 residents that caresses the Gaza border. Hila is not religious, but she loves to use the word “miracle.”

She used the word several times when I met her in her village last week, as when she described a birthday party her young son attended several years ago.

“There was a clown putting on a show,” she said in her Hebrew-accented English. “All the kids were happy and sitting on a large blanket on the grass in the park.”

Then, a few minutes after the show had ended and the kids had left the grassy area, the miracle happened. A rocket landed precisely where the kids had been sitting.

Since moving to Netiv Hasara in 1982, Hila said, they have received “thousands” of rockets, in increasing levels of intensity. 

“In the beginning, the rockets would land in back fields. We didn’t take them very seriously.”

That casual attitude didn’t last long. Over the years, the rockets became more frequent, more lethal and more accurate. Bomb shelters were built. Security control rooms were opened. Eventually, the village was put on 24/7 alert.

Of course, none of this is news. Since Israel left Gaza nine years ago, we’ve all been reading about the thousands of rockets that have rained down on the border communities — especially Sderot — and the intense anxiety this has produced.

That anxiety really hits home, though, when you hear the human stories that linger long after the rockets fall — stories like the miracle of the birthday party, or the story of the big red metal bird.

When Hila’s son Jimmy was 4, he misheard the voice that was broadcast with the sirens: Instead of hearing “shachar adom” (red dawn), he would hear “shachaf adom” (red seagull).

Hila never knew this until years later, when her son finally told her that he was afraid a giant red metal bird would come and take him away.

Evidently, little Jimmy couldn’t imagine that these big, dangerous, metal things in the sky could come from other human beings. He figured it must be one of those science-fiction monsters you see in comic books — in this case, a giant bird.

The grownups in the village, maybe as a coping mechanism, have a humorous way of describing the kids of the village — they call them little ducks, or “duckies.” Just as little ducks like to follow their mother everywhere, so do the little kids of Netiv Hasara.

“When my kids were younger,” Hila said, “they never left me. I could go from the kitchen to the living room and they would follow me.”

When they took their showers, she had to stand by the bathroom door, in case the siren sounded and she had to rush them in 15 seconds or less to the nearest bomb shelter.

But it’s not just the kids who have been traumatized by years of indiscriminate rocket fire. It’s also the animals, especially the dogs. 

“Maybe the dogs take it worse than the humans,” she said. “When they see the kids panic, they go even crazier.” 

In the chaos of the sirens, some dogs have wandered and gotten lost. Hila thinks that the piercing sounds of bombs and sirens may damage the dogs’ hearing, and hence their sense of direction. Other dogs, she said, are extra cautious and are the first to run into the shelters.

As far as her own pets, when the Gaza war started a month ago, Hila took no chances. Just as she sent her two kids away to be with relatives, she put her dogs in a dog farm, safely away from the war zone.

Hila was among the minority of villagers who decided to stay during Operation Protective Shield. She said she didn’t sleep much, and spent many nights in the control room. When I asked how she went with so little sleep, she smiled and said, “I live on Red Bull.”

At the height of the war, she said her village did, in fact, feel like a war zone. 

There were moments when everything would erupt at once. The Israeli artillery shelling of Gaza would emit huge booms that would make the earth tremble, while above, the Iron Dome would make a terrifying sound blowing up rockets over Ashkelon, and, as if that weren’t enough, village sirens would wail to warn of incoming rockets.

“We’ve become experts at figuring out the different sounds,” she said. “Every rocket, every bomb, every siren we hear is different.” 

She doesn’t know when all these sounds of war will end. For now, she’s just happy that she and her kids are still around to hear the sounds of better days.