United by Friendship, Divided by Politics; Israelis Reach out to Old Co-Workers Living in Gaza Strip
Byline: Joshua Mitnick, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
KIBBUTZ KFAR AZZA, Israel - Their homes separated by a wheat field, multiple layers of barbed wire and Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip, it has been more than two years since Amir Efrat last saw the Gazan employee who helped him maintain the water systems in this farming collective.
But in occasional telephone calls, Mr. Efrat could decipher the despair through the mundane small talk. About a month ago, he instructed the kibbutz treasurer to wire 500 shekels to a bank account in Gaza to help his unemployed friend provide for a family of nine children, even though his friend never requested it.
"I felt him ask," said the rumpled 72-year-old kibbutznik, who refused to divulge the identity of his former colleague out of fear for his safety. "There's no work. His situation is rough."
While the impoverished territory's growing isolation has driven Palestinians to flood over the border into Egypt in search of scarce food and medicines, it hasn't choked off personal links between Israelis and Gazans who once worked together daily.
Talking regularly by phone, they update each other about families and friends, and about the toll of the ongoing hostilities.
The Gazans inquire whether anyone has been hurt by the Kassam missiles fired by Palestinian militants, and the Israelis ask about the movements of their army inside Gaza.
Although politics is rarely discussed, the cross-border friendships leave the Israelis conflicted about using relentless pressure on Gaza's population of 1.5 million to stop the stream of rockets on nearby cities and towns.
Only six rockets have landed on the kibbutz, but hundreds have hit the city of Sderot, a five-minute drive to the north.
"The power outages are just, but it still breaks your heart," said Mr. Efrat, who points out the kibbutz's children's house, which has been reinforced against rockets.
"I don't think [Gazans] need to suffer so much. It definitely plays into the hands of Hamas."
Egyptian police and Hamas security forces have begun controlling the flow of tens of thousands of Palestinians who streamed into the border town of Rafah last week.
The stampede relieved acute shortages of food, medicine and daily supplies such as soap; but in the short term, it looks set to create more misery for Gaza's Palestinians.
Israel's deputy defense minister, Matan Vilnai, said that with the Gaza-Egypt border breached, the supply of water, electricity and food should come from Cairo.
"We need to understand that when Gaza is open to the other side, we lose responsibility for it," Mr. Vilnai said. "So we want to disconnect from it."
For years before the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in 2000, Israel and the Gaza Strip were joined at the hip.
Hundreds of thousands Gazans worked inside Israel and brought home salaries that were the mainstay of the coastal strip's economy.
Kibbutz Kfar Azza - Hebrew for Gaza Village - used to employ more than a dozen Palestinians from Gaza.
The economic links have been reduced gradually. After Israel dismantled settlements and army bases in Gaza, it stopped granting entry permits save for Gazans in need of medical treatment.
When Hamas took control of Gaza in June, Israel reduced operation of commercial crossings, allowing only limited humanitarian aid to pass over the border into Gaza. …