The morning of Simchat Torah 2023 was supposed to be a day of celebration - marking 70 years of Kibbutz Nahal Oz. But with chilling similarity to another event that took place just three years after Nahal Oz was founded, this day ended entirely differently – in unimaginable tragedy. Is this what life is like for those whose homes are the border itself?
At first, there was no fence – just fields. And young men and women whose hearts were full of faith, courage, and love of the land they worked.
Kibbutz Nahal Oz began life as the first agricultural settlement of the IDF’s Nahal program. This program combined military service with community-building and agriculture. Members of the founding core group arrived with the declared intention of settling the border area. They were young soldiers (some very young) who had been given agricultural training in order to fulfill the role of settling and protecting the country. The furrows of their fields were the border, and they – its guards.
They ploughed and sowed and planted and built and established a home on the lands of the old Kibbutz of Be’erot Yizthak, whose members had decided to move north after a heroic battle during the 1948 War of Independence. “Nahlai’m Aleph – Opposite Gaza” is how they were called in the first two years, a kind of declaration of awareness of what they faced, what they could see from their windows.
In the heavy shadow of the terrible massacre of Simchat Torah 2023, we spoke with Yankel’e Cohen, one of the two members of the original settlement group who are still members of the kibbutz. He lived there for 70 years, among the greening fields and opposite the Gazan neighborhood of Shejaiya in the distance. He told of an idealistic group which succeeded – despite and perhaps even thanks to the security tensions – in founding a family community. “The togetherness,” he said, “was always stronger than elsewhere. The gathering of welcoming people who were much less individualistic.”
They paid in blood almost from the first for this effort. Shortly after celebrating the founding of the settlement in 1953, Yaakov “Tommy” Tuchman was murdered. After the murder, kibbutz members continued to suffer from infiltrations by the fedayeen, mines laid in the area, and thefts from the fields. The peak came in 1956, with the tragic murder of Ro’i Rothberg.
Ro’i Rothberg was the model Nahal soldier – a good-looking Israeli, an educated man who didn’t neglect his physical health, a military officer and farmer who didn’t let the hard work coarsen his gentle conduct, and above all – a beloved friend who refused to let the hard life on the border affect his natural happiness and sharp wit.
He volunteered to serve in the army despite being younger than the official draft age, and registered into the officer’s course as soon as he could. At age 21 he was in charge of regional security, married to beautiful Amira, and father of a baby boy – Boaz.
That spring morning when his life was taken, kibbutz members were excitedly preparing for a major event: a “quadruple wedding” for four young couples from the community. A stage was strewn with flowers and twigs, some of the food was already being prepared, and guests had even started to arrive – including Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan and reporters from the IDF magazine BaMahaneh, who meant to document the celebration.
Earlier that morning, there were reports of fedayeen infiltrators raiding the fields for the umpteenth time. Ro’i set out on his beloved horse to scare them off. It was something he did every day. But this time ended differently. He ran into an ambush and was cruelly murdered. His body was mutilated and dragged beyond the last furrow – and into the Gaza Strip.
It was only after threats were issued by the security establishment and the UN intervened that his body was returned through the fields he defended.
Instead of dancing at the weddings (which still took place, though they tearfully moved to another location), the kibbutz members dug the first grave on their land.
Moshe Dayan stayed for the funeral of the young regional security coordinator, who deeply impressed him in their short meeting a day before. The IDF Chief of Staff gave a famous eulogy which over the years has been interpreted politically in complex ways.
“Have we forgotten that this group of young people dwelling at Nahal Oz is bearing the heavy gates of Gaza on its shoulders?” he asked clearly above the fresh grave, as though he knew how heavy those gates would be. How similar they could be to the gates of Hell itself.
“How do you continue to live in such a place, for so many years?” we asked Yankel’e. “A great deal of Zionism. And faith,” he answered without hesitating. Matters of the spirit.
When Gaza was occupied in the 1956 Sinai Campaign, the Egyptians withdrew from that last furrow. But there was no real quiet.
Less than a year after Ro’i’s murder, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion himself arrived along with Dayan to visit Nahal Oz. They sat with the kibbutz members in the local social club and explained their approach – why and how Gaza was being returned to Egyptian hands. Don’t worry, they tried to tell the kibbutz members – it will be quiet now. The UN will keep the peace.
Ben-Gurion (whose view of the UN was well-known even then) respected the members of the “security settlements”, as they were sometimes called, often mentioning his belief that without them “security will not be established in the country.” He came to promise them that he truly believed quiet would come, but when he left that meeting in the clubhouse, he left men and women behind who were frustrated and fearful.
Thus far, a well-known story.
Yankel’e told us what happened afterwards: Ben-Gurion left, but Moshe Dayan stayed as the members spoke more freely of their fears. The army chief wasn’t impressed. To the contrary, he railed against the “complaints”, reminded them of the compensation they’d receive if something happened and contemptuously added – those who don’t like it, can go back to Ramat Hasharon [a safer town in central Israel].
The offended members wrote to Ben-Gurion, and he – who always respected deeds more than words – forced Dayan to return to Nahal Oz and apologize to the members he considered to be the shield of the state.
Years passed. Gaza was conquered in 1967, before Israel again withdrew decades later, in 2005. The “Um Shmum”, as Ben-Gurion called the UN, was very limited in its ability to keep the peace. The fields flowered, and burned from time-to-time following terrorist actions or shelling. Each time they were sown anew. New graves filled the small cemetery. The furrows continued to be carefully cultivated but were far from sufficing as a barrier to the repeated attacks out of Gaza. A fence was built, and then another one, and then another one deep underground.
But like that furrow in 1956, the fence was also crossed by the successors of the fedayeen on the cursed Shabbat of October 7, 2023.
In a chilling repeat of that day in 1956, the Saturday morning in October of 2023, the day of Simchat Torah, was supposed to be one of excited preparations for a major event – the celebration of 70 years since Nahal Oz’s founding.
In congratulations recorded in advance for the celebrations, some of those visiting wished “that we should hear from you and about you not just when there’s sad and scary news, but precisely when there’s good, of which you have so much.”
But there were no celebrations. On the Saturday morning of October 7, 2023, bloodthirsty terrorists broke into Kibbutz Nahal Oz and massacred its members, murdering whole families and taking others hostage. There was hardly a home that was unaffected.
“Ro’i,” Moshe Dayan said at that eulogy in 1956, “who left Tel Aviv to build his home at the gates of Gaza to be a wall for us was blinded by the light in his heart and he did not see the flash of the sword. The yearning for peace deafened his ears and he did not hear the voice of murder waiting in ambush. The gates of Gaza weighed too heavily on his shoulders and overcame him.”
“But we will rise,” Yankel’e says with chilling simplicity, 67 years later, as we hear of the kibbutz dairy resuming its work. “We have no other way.”
Even if the gates of Gaza are heavy, Nahal Oz – its spirit and its people – stand defiant and unconquered.
Many thanks to Yankel’e Cohen, a member of Kibbutz Nahal Oz, for helping in the preparation of this article.
Pictures appearing in the article are held at the Nahal Oz Archive and are now digitally available thanks to the collaboration of the archive, the Ministry of Heritage, the Landmarks Program, and the National Library of Israel
This article is part of our special series: “Life on the Border: A Tribute to the Communities of the Gaza Border Region”. Click here to see all of the articles and stories.