We Shall Return: The Spirit of Kibbutz Nirim Will Prevail

"We shall return" - these were the words printed in Hebrew on t-shirts made by the survivors of Kibbutz Nirim. These words embody a history of heroism, pioneering, culture and Zionism which should serve as a model for all of us. Kibbutz Nirim, founded in 1946, faced a desperate battle for its very existence just two years afterwards. It survived then and survives now thanks to the unique spirit of its members.

25-year-old Dora Avni, a member of Kibbutz Nirim, cleans her rifle as her two sons, six-year-old Amir and two-year-old Arnon watch her, 1955. Amir was killed at the age of 22 when his tractor hit a mine while he worked in Nirim’s avocado grove. Photo: Moshe Fridan, courtesy of the Government Press Office; the Hebrew words in the lower left corner are "Anachnu Nachzor" (We Shall Return), this logo was designed by Arnon Avni, a graphic artist and member of Kibbutz Nirim

“Three elements came first to Nirim in the desert: the cows, the babies and the library. The cows – a testament to the growth of the farm, the babies – a testament to faith in the future, and the library – a sign and parable of high culture.” (Shula Ram, one of the founders of Kibbutz Nirim, in her introduction to the book The First Fifty Years, 1946-1996 (Hebrew), published in honor of Nirim’s fiftieth anniversary)

Nirim’s beginnings were very modest – just four shacks comprised the first settlement point for Kibbutz Nirim (then Dangur), on land just a few kilometers from its current location. The kibbutz was set up before the State of Israel had even been born, just after Yom Kippur in 1946, as part of the “11 points” plan, when 11 new settlement points were established overnight and under the nose of the British authorities, most of them in the southern Negev region.

Aerial photo of Kibbutz Nirim at the Dangur settlement point, 1946. Unknown photographer. Source: National Photographic Collection, Government Press Office

Nirim is a kibbutz established by Jews born in Israel, or “sabras” (the nickname refers to a desert cactus known to be prickly on the outside but sweet and soft on the interior). They were alumni of the Hashomer Hatza’ir youth movement affiliated with Labor Zionism, who also served in the Palmach, a branch of the Haganah. Later, they were joined by additional groups of immigrants from various countries, but some of that rough and stubborn “sabra-ness” stuck to all the members of the kibbutz’s founding generation, and helped them overcome the many difficulties they encountered over the years.

39 young men and women lived in the small outpost that comprised Kibbutz Nirim at the time, cultivating and protecting it. They worked in agriculture, in difficult conditions where water was brought in wagons and handed out sparingly. Aware of the dangers of residing in a border community, the kibbutz members fortified their location as much as they could, building bunkers and defensive trenches.

Kibbutz Nirim members on their way to work in the fields, 1947. Photo: Zoltan Kruger. Source: National Photographic Collection, Government Press Office

In their difficult and heroic battle during the War of Independence, members of Nirim faced an attack by hundreds of Egyptian soldiers who stormed the simple fence erected around their settlement point in Dangur. Somehow, someway, they managed to stop them. With the few weapons they had, they systematically and intelligently fought in order to create the impression that they represented a far larger force than they actually were. They suffered casualties, but so did the Egyptians, who were apparently stunned by the ferocity of the fighting, which they did not expect from such a small outpost and which led them to flee. 11 of the members of the young kibbutz, almost a third of the male and female fighters, were killed in that attack.

Members of Kibbutz Nirim digging trenches before the War of Independence, 1948. Unknown photographer. Source: National Photographic Collection, Government Press Office

Before the battle, a celebratory sign was hung over the shack serving as Nirim’s dining hall, an expression of the spirit of the times: “It is not the tank that will win, but the human being in it.” After the battle, the destruction left behind was so great that hardly anything remained in Dangur. The entire shack was destroyed. Only the wall and its sign remained standing, a symbol of the spirit of the members of Nirim, who survived that difficult day of battle.

Sign on the wall of the dining room shack, the only one standing at the end of the battle: “It is not the tank that will win, but the human being in it” – left from a celebration of May Day, 1948. Photo courtesy of Dr. Eldad Haruvi of the Palmach Museum
This article from Davar describes the mourning process of the members of Kibbutz Nirim, a year after the battle. The headline quotes the slogan on the sign in the previous photo. May 16, 1949

Hardly a year passed, and the bruised but proud kibbutz published a special commemorative booklet in May, 1949: “Nirim Against the Enemy,” telling the story of the attack on Nirim and its fallen. This booklet is an early example of the cultural activity and spirit that would yet develop and flourish in the kibbutz in the years to come. This booklet includes the first appearance of a unique memorial Yizkor prayer, which would serve Kibbutz Nirim throughout its existence during Israeli Memorial Day services:

“We will remember our comrades – our finest members who saturated the parched ground of the Negev with their blood.  A malicious hand plotted against the little we built, which we planted and sowed, it could not defeat us for before it stood the faces and arms of the builders of the Negev, of the liberators of Jerusalem, brave soldiers – of eleven comrades who swore: They shall not set foot on our land!”

“Nirim Against the Enemy”, published a year after the Battle of Nirim in the War of Independence

In the 1949 memorial booklet, members expressed both mourning over the destruction and the loss along with hope and determination to press on:

“The beautiful Dangur with its red thatched roofs, which we so often took pride in, was destroyed and burned, shack by shack. Everything above was burned, but the Egyptians didn’t penetrate the [settlement] point. Nirim in Dangur was destroyed and another Nirim will be built. In a place close to the place where our comrades fell, we will erect our homes. And there in our new place, we will erect a monument, a dear living witness to our comrades who fell.” (Benny, p. 39)

Members wanted to preserve the memory of their fallen comrades as a living, vital thing, not as a silent monument. The flourishing of the kibbutz was their monument, as they promised in the memorial booklet:

“A year passed. Months passed – and we were not healed. The signs of the disasters that befell us in just one year were etched deep in our hearts. Correct are those who say that everyone carries a small cemetery inside them.

We need a monument bearing witness to the lives that were cut down. We want a home which will preserve their image, with their smile.

We will erect a house of culture. A house of culture which will be for the leisure of a comrade after his work is done. A place of emotional and cultural refreshment – such as they, our comrades who are not with us in this hour, would want it to be.

Not a memorial monument alone, not a silent stone. A house thrumming with life, a house for generations and for our children after us.

And in this house their image will be preserved, everything that was and remains alive in our hearts and all they had will be preserved. For them to be with us day after day, hour after hour, and for the expression of our shared lives to be deeper, more honest.

This needs to be a good, warm and pleasant house of culture, a house which will bind to it the parents, the relatives and friends. This is the project which will be erected in their memory.”

The first decade was also hard on the members of Nirim, who had to deal with innumerable challenges of survival in the impossible conditions of a desolate wilderness, little water, blinding sandstorms, and impassable access roads.

Kibbutz Nirim members opposite a work chart, showing their assignments for the coming day or week, 1955. Photo: Moshe Fridan. Source: National Photographic Collection, Government Press Office
Nirim children taking a walk through the kibbutz’s defensive trenches, at the entrance to the shelter adjacent to the children’s home. Likely early 1960s. Photo: Benno Rothenberg. Source: the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Although life in Nirim was never entirely peaceful when it came to security, the hardships didn’t dampen the spirits of the kibbutz members. They remained proud of their heritage, and lived up to the vision of the kibbutz’s early members. This was expressed in the songs which were a central part of Nirim’s culture.

When the kibbutz decided to print its own song book, the members chose the unequivocal title – This Is How We Sing Here – Nirim 1956-1967. The songs were collected by Orah Chasin, a kibbutz member who eventually departed Nirim, for whom this collection was a sort of farewell gift for those she left behind. It was likely published around 1967, before the Six-Day War, when things were relatively quiet on the kibbutz. The booklet is an example of the unique and wide-ranging culture which developed in Nirim, which strengthened the sense of pride and belonging its residents felt.

Cover of This Is How We Sing Here – Nirim 1956-1967, copy held at the National Library of Israel

 

The first song appearing in the collection is a local Nirim version of Shir HaShalom – “The Song of Peace” – a song that was well-known throughout the kibbutz movement and which was written by Nirim member Tziki Dinstein during the Sinai Campaign of 1956. The song courageously expressed the striving for a shared, peaceful life with Arab neighbors, which seems like a distant dream now but which was sung innumerable times in Kibbutz Nirim. The opening verse could be translated as:

“See gentlemen, there will be a new order,

There will yet be peace on our border

And we’ll travel to Khan Yunis to see a move flick,

With Abdul Wahab, in spoken Arabic.”

The Lyrics of Shir HaShalom – “The Song of Peace”

The booklet ends with the representative statement:

“You will yet see what kind of kibbutz there will be here in Nirim! The kind that others will come to from other Kibbutzim to learn their lessons [Hebrew: shi’urim – lessons]!!”

Over the years, the kibbutz was considered one of the undisputed pillars of Jewish settlement in the Western Negev and the Gaza border region. A well-known joke in neighboring Kibbutz Nir Oz demonstrates this nicely:

“When you ask a Kibbutz Nir Oz member where he’s from, the answer is ‘next to Nirim’…when we were kids, we tended to make fun of the children of Kibbutz Nirim who thought they were the center of the world; so we said that we are ‘next to Nirim.’ Or in other words: we are next to the center of the world (important, but less so).”

-Hadar Rubin, on her Facebook page

T-shirts printed at Kibbutz Nirim also express this sense of local pride, a pride which even the events of October 7 could not trample. They were all designed by Arnon Avni, an illustrator, graphic artist, and caricaturist and a member of Kibbutz Nirim. On this shirt, the first to be printed, the kibbutz is placed among the largest, most famous cities in the world:

“Paris, New York, London, Nirim.” Photo courtesy of Yinon Hefetz, from Kibbutz Nirim. Design: Arnon Avni

The shirt below, printed to mark the end of Operation Protective Edge in 2014, reads: “Not Giving Up on Nirim.”

Ela Bargil of Kibbutz Nirim, with a shirt reading – “Not Giving Up on Nirim” – printed in Nirim in August 2014 to mark the end of Operation Protective Edge. Design: Arnon Avni. Photo: Arnon Avni

During the October 7 Massacre, five people were killed in Nirim – three kibbutz members and two guests. Four kibbutz members and one guest were also among those kidnapped to Gaza. Now, with 2023 nearing its end and after the tragic events which struck the kibbutz and the whole western Negev region, the strong spirit of Kibbutz Nirim is being felt once more, and a new shirt (not yet printed) now bears the simple message – “We Shall Return.”

Proposed shirt design by Arnon Avni. Regarding the thought process behind the shirt, Avni writes: “…it features an anemone [type of flower] which is a kind of symbol of the whole [Gaza] border region which we are all part of and also two petals which have wilted. Those who choose to see them as drops of blood or a kind of broken heart – will not be missing the point. The words ‘We Shall Return’ are the journey we have begun. They are written in a freestyle which can be seen as a signature, as a guarantee.”

The shirts are a moving testament to the kibbutz members’ sense of belonging to their land and the amazing project they built on it, despite the enormous difficulties. It’s the kind of local pride which strengthens those who remain. It’s perhaps not surprising that Nirim was the first kibbutz to publicly declare that its members have decided to return home as soon as this becomes possible.

We will end with the final lines of that Yizkor memorial prayer from 1949:

 “We will remember them, their nicknames, the times of comfort and pain that they lived through with us. For in all that we will build and erect, their name will yet arise and be remembered. Without words – in the founding of a building, in every dunam of land we sow and reap – for that was the yearning of their soul, in life and in death.”

May the kibbutz recover its former glory in our own day, as well, with the same speed and the same passion that was felt after the War of Independence, a passion to build and grow. May the memory of the murdered serve as fuel for rebuilding, for pioneering activity and cultural creation, things they know so well in Kibbutz Nirim.

 


In the preparation of this article, we made use of Galia Heller Kramer’s seminar paper:
 יצירה עצמית של חברי קיבוץ נירים בשנות החמישים והשישים [Hebrew].

We would like to thank Kibbutz Nirim members Bar Hefetz and Anat Marla, for their help in preparing this article.

 

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

 

What Is the Meaning of “Um-Shmum”? David Ben-Gurion vs. the World

What did David Ben-Gurion mean when he shouted “Um-shmum!”, in reference to the United Nations? Did this expression of disdain convey his diplomatic worldview? This is the story of how a controversial phrase entered Israeli national mythology, a strange little historical episode that touches on a much larger question…

Ben-Gurion speaking before the 25th Zionist Congress. Photo from the Ben-Gurion House Archive

On March 25, 1955, a wedding was held at Patish, a moshav near the border with Gaza. All the members of the community were dressed in their holiday best. Kerosene lamps illuminated the improvised dance floor in the backyard of the Kalami family home and cast their light on the young, beautiful faces of the revelers.

But uninvited guests crashed the celebration. A squad of fedayeen terrorists from the Gaza Strip broke up the wedding by throwing grenades in every direction before opening fire on the wedding guests.

19 people were injured. 22-year-old Varda Friedman, who had come to Patish to help out as a social worker, was murdered.

Varda Friedman

When David Ben-Gurion arrived two days later to show support for the moshav, he was shocked to see some of the residents packing up their belongings, clearly preparing to leave their homes that no longer felt safe.

After spending more than a year in retirement from political life, he had come back to serve as Defense Minister. In his own eyes and in the eyes of many Israelis, he was still the leader of the young country, though for the moment, he was no longer Prime Minister.

Ben-Gurion felt responsible for what had happened when facing the newly-arrived immigrants who had settled in Patish. He knew and understood that the state was responsible.

“Look at these Jews,” he said at the time to the journalist Moshe Zak. “They’ve come from Iraq, Kurdistan, North Africa…they’ve come from countries where their blood is worthless, where it’s permissible to abuse them, torture them, beat them, to be cruel towards them. They’ve gotten used to being helpless victims of the gentiles. Here is where we must prove to them that their blood is no longer worthless; that the Jewish people have a state and an army that won’t allow them to be slaughtered again; that their lives and property are worth something. We need to make them stand upright, instill in them the feelings of sovereignty and pride. We need to show them that those who rise up against them will not escape punishment, because they are citizens of a sovereign country that is responsible for their lives and their safety.”

Those who were around Ben-Gurion said that the murder was a watershed moment for him. Was this the straw that broke the “Old Man’s” back? Was it the fact that he himself had spent the last two years living on a kibbutz in southern Israel and better understood what these infiltrations meant for the lives of those who lived there? Or was it Varda Friedman herself – the esteemed sergeant who chose farm work over a military career and didn’t hesitate when she was called on to help the new immigrants in Patish – whose death touched his heart?

Ben-Gurion in the Negev, the southern region of Israel where he believed settlement was critical for the country’s security. Photo from the Ben-Gurion House Archive, IL-BTBG-PH-066

A few days later, in Jerusalem, he worked vigorously to promote a plan that he thought was the only logical solution for the situation: Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip, without taking into account what the superpowers and international organizations might think, including the United Nations. IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan and many members of the Mapai political party mobilized to assist him.

Prime Minister Moshe Sharett, on the other hand, was strongly opposed to the plan.

Sharett, along with most of the government, feared it would attract fierce international criticism. They feared economic sanctions, diplomatic delegitimization of Israel, and diplomatic isolation. They believed that without UN Resolution 181, the State of Israel could never have been established.

Ben-Gurion thought otherwise.

He was never in favor of political isolation. When the “United Nations Special Committee on Palestine” was established in May, 1947, Ben-Gurion appeared before the committee’s members, speaking with historic and national fervor, while still expressing respect and appreciation for the UN.

However, when Israeli interests collided with the national or international interests of the superpowers, he argued that Israelis needed to learn to work for themselves and that no one else would fight for them.

He never sought political isolation but didn’t hesitate to stand his ground when necessary. Pictured: Ben-Gurion surveying the honor guard at the IDF headquarters before U.S. Ambassador James McDonald presents his credentials. Photo from the Ben-Gurion House Archive, IL-BTBG-PH-04

After the murder in Patish, during a meeting of the government on the 29th of the month, Ben-Gurion spoke and explained his theory in great detail. You can understand how Sharett felt about the Defense Minister based on his journal entry that day:

“[Ben-Gurion] spoke for about an hour. To the extent that he rolled out his analysis, the tension around him increased until, when he read out the proposal to expel the Egyptians from the Gaza Strip, this no longer came as a bombshell but rather as a solution to a riddle that most of the people had already guessed. The reasoning was poignant and made a great impression but I was once again startled by his narrow-mindedness – as if he stopped at fixing his eyes on one point only, without seeing the vast territory surrounding it – and his short-sightedness – as if he decided to determine that the operation itself was the final goal and not to delve deeper into the consequences that would come from it.”

David Ben-Gurion with Moshe Sharett. Fundamental debates. Photo from the Ben-Gurion House Archive, IL-BTBG-PH-028

After Ben-Gurion’s speech, a sharp debate developed between Prime Minister Sharett and his Defense Minister. The debate reflected not only their disagreements about the subject being discussed, but also the gap between the worldviews of many parts of the Israeli public: Should the State of Israel, which seemed almost like a helpless baby opposite the various superpowers, simply be grateful to the world in general and to the UN in particular for granting Israel the right to live in and govern this stretch of land, or should it ignore all the background noise and rely only on its own power?

A month later, Ben-Gurion would speak eloquently in front of an IDF parade, and offer an expression of his worldview that would remain with us for years afterwards:

“It is not in the global arena but rather from within that Israel will be strengthened and stand…these are the things that will determine our destiny more than any external factor in the world. Our future is not dependent on what the gentiles will say but rather what the Jews will do!”

Ben-Gurion giving a speech at an IDF parade. Photo from the Ben-Gurion House Archive, IL-BTBG-PH-110

But now, in that long and emotional government meeting, his intense feelings inspired him to coin a new, perhaps less elegant and somewhat more catchy turn of phrase:

“Definitely not!” he exploded at Sharett, who for his part had spoken about the UN’s role in the establishment of the state.

“Only the daring of the Jews established the state, not some decision by that Um-shmum.

In Hebrew, the acronym או”ם used to designate the UN is pronounced um, or more precisely, oom. Therefore, “Um-shmum!” is akin to saying “United Nations-shmoonited nations!” in English.

More than disdain, the expression “Um-shmum” expressed great disappointment with the United Nations. Ben-Gurion had always believed that cooperation between great democracies was the key to prosperity – both in Israel and around the world.

“As a member of the Jewish people I say: With all due respect to the institutions of the United Nations and its members, until Isaiah’s prophecy that ‘nation shall not lift up sword against nation’ is fulfilled, and as long as our neighbors plot to destroy us, we won’t have security unless it’s through our own strength…There is no nation more fervent than us in following the principles laid down in the foundation of the UN – but the UN whose success and authority  we wish for is currently only an ideal. And the Security Council acts out of bias and glaring discrimination…in our region, acts of murder and sabotage, robbery and trespassing by our neighbors are becoming more and more frequent, and we must put an end to it – even if no one else wants to or is able to do so.”

Almost 70 years later, Ben-Gurion’s words echo the same question that follows us to this very day. Perhaps it has become even more acute: How are we possibly supposed to best protect the security of our country and its citizens against the backdrop of international diplomatic pressure? Even today, Israel faces bias, discrimination, and antisemitism in international institutions, on university campuses, and on social networks, as we are simultaneously trying to defend ourselves against the immediate threat of our enemy.

The photos that appear throughout this article are from the Ben-Gurion House Archive and are available digitally as part of a collaboration between the archive, the Ministry of Heritage, and the National Library of Israel.

The Man Who’s Been Documenting the People of Ofakim Since October 7

Nadav Mishali founded the cinematheque in the southern Israeli city of Ofakim. His personal story is bound up with that of the city itself and its brave and exceptional residents. Mishali has now taken on an even bigger mission – to document the stories of hardship and heroism that took place in Ofakim on Saturday, October 7, 2023

Nadav MIshali next to a sign at the entrance to the city of Ofakim that reads “Ofakim: City of Heroes. We will Remember and Prevail”, 2023. Photo: Lior Pingale

By Yael Ingel

On October 7, Nadav Mishali wasn’t actually in Ofakim, the southern Israeli which is his home. Instead, he was visiting family who live in central Israel. Two days after the most terrible Saturday we have ever known, he returned to help his hometown and its people.

A few days later, he was approached by Tal Biliya, a good friend of his from his high school days. Tal lost his brother on that awful day. He knew that Nadav was very familiar with Ofakim and that he was a filmmaker, so he said to him: “Go out and film what’s happening here. People have stories to tell. People need to know what happened here!” This appeal, which came straight from the heart of a bereaved brother, gave Nadav the push he needed to get up and do something – to do his part to preserve the history and the tragedy of this southern city.

Nadav Mishali at the entrance to Ofakim, 2023. Photo: Lior Pingale

Over the years, Ofakim had been relatively peaceful, aside from occasional rocket fire which is common in this region. The city is situated about 19 kilometers from the Gaza Strip and had never experienced terrorist infiltrations, unlike some of the communities located closer to the Gaza Strip. On that dark Saturday, Ofakim suffered the worst day in its history. Around 50 of the city’s residents were murdered, including civilians and members of the security forces. The shock was enormous, as was the heartbreak. Now, a few weeks later, more and more people can be seen on the streets as they attempt to resume their daily routine. The attempts to pick up the broken pieces and go back to normal can be felt throughout the city, and civil servants and other local functionaries have mobilized to respond to the residents’ needs.

Hanging out for the evening in Ofakim, 1972. Photo: Aliza Orbach, the Aliza Orbach Archive, the National Library of Israel

 

A report marking the tenth anniversary of the establishment of Ofakim. Al HaMishmar, June 27, 1966, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

Nadav, who serves as the director of the Ofakim Cinematheque, took it upon himself to do the sacred work of producing video documentation of the stories that unfolded in his hometown on October 7. With the help of Miriam Toizer, a social activist and Yad L’Banim volunteer, he has been recording the difficult testimonies of the events that took place in this quiet city that was taken by surprise and subjected to brutal attack on the morning of the Simchat Torah holiday.

The first account Nadav recorded was that of the Biliya family, the family of his friend Tal whose brother Ariel was murdered that Saturday. Nadav spoke with them while they were still sitting shiva – mourning their terrible loss. Ariel was 28 years old. He was murdered while trying to protect ten members of his family, including his wife and their two young children. He made sure to get everyone out through the window in his parents’ home where they were all gathered, over to the small balcony that holds the home’s solar water heater. Their lives were all saved but Ariel was not able to escape the terrorists in time.

The late Ariel Biliya. Photo from a family album.

At first Nadav was dissuaded by the enormity of it all. “Who am I to point a camera at these people while they’re in mourning, during these difficult moments? I felt like I was pulling out a weapon when I took the camera out of my bag in front of the bereaved families.” He quickly noticed the effect that the camera had on the people around him. “Ariel’s wife started speaking to me, telling me what had happened, and she suddenly got up from her chair to show me the window they had all escaped from. She started to reenact everything that happened, totally spontaneously, without having planned it out, without me asking her to. That’s when I remembered the power of film.”

That same day, Nadav also interviewed Michal Biliya, Ariel’s mother, in whose home they all hid and where he was murdered. The Biliya family’s home is burned and completely destroyed from the battle that took place there, but when Nadav asked Michal if she’d be willing to go back, she answered, “Of course! It’s my home!” Nadav says that he has gotten the same response from other interviews as well; Ofakim residents aren’t willing to leave and in fact they feel even more connected to their city ever since the terrible events that took place there.

Nadav documenting a story in Ofakim. Photo: Miriam Toizer

That first interview encouraged Nadav to continue documenting the families of those who were murdered, especially once he saw how valuable this documentation was. “I quickly understood that the camera wasn’t something threatening but rather comforting, and I do everything I can to make it transparent so that the person sitting across from me sees me, speaks to me. I’ve realized for example that it’s best if the camera isn’t standing on a tripod; that seems too threatening. But if it’s in my hands, it’s more humane.”

Ofakim kindergarteners in the early 1960s (estimate). Photo: Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Even before he started this special project, Nadav (37) was a known figure in the cultural life of Ofakim and had influenced it a great deal. He was born in Ofakim to parents who had emigrated from Morocco, and was raised in a traditional but open-minded home. Nadav chose to attend a religious school and later joined a yeshiva, but when he enlisted in the IDF, he decided he’d no longer wear a kippah, though he remained faithful to his beliefs.

During his student days, he decided to make a film about an old movie theater that had operated in Ofakim during the 1970s and 1980s. He cherishes childhood memories of visiting the old “Cinema Merchavim” theater and it was a painful moment for him when the establishment went out of business in the 1990s and became an abandoned ruin. When Mishali moved back to Ofakim, he started working on a plan to reintroduce film culture and its accompanying discourse into the city.

Nadav knows that having a movie theater in Ofakim is no trivial matter, explaining that in a city with such a hometown feel, a movie theater has special significance. “It’s something that opens up your mind as well as your heart.” He laughed while telling us about the seemingly conservative city, that allows its own residents, living and working inside it, to change the community from within.

This place where everyone knows everyone is unique in that it has always enabled its residents to initiate, invent, and impact the reality around them. Instead of living and working in central Israel, Nadav chose to live in the city where he was born, and to affect change there. In addition to being a creative artist, he has also become a social activist and entrepreneur. He has undertaken his life’s work in Ofakim: his cinematheque has been in operation since 2016.

 The theater can hold up to 90 people, who come to watch movies from the past and present. The Ofakim Cinematheque also serves as a cultural center that hosts lectures, meetings, and cultural events with artists from all over Israel. At first, the cinematheque was treated as a bit of an oddity, something that seemed out of place, but now, the locals can’t even imagine the city without it.

A May 2023 pre-screening ahead of the national premiere of the film “Let the Party Begin”, starring Aki Avni (left) and Galit Hershkovitz (right). Avni had the idea to hold this special screening in Ofakim due to the tense security situation, as a tribute to the citizens of the south and a way to show solidarity with them. Photo: Ofakim Cinematheque PR team

During the first few weeks of the war, the cinematheque moved its screenings to various shelters, schools and gardens, but once it became possible, the films returned to the theater, which has its own bomb shelter, in order to provide a sense of normalcy. The movies being shown are meticulously selected, with the main goal being to empower and encourage anyone who has made the decision to leave home and go see a movie.

A packed audience at the Ofakim Cinematheque. Photo: Nadav Mishali

“The community in Ofakim is amazing. The people are amazing. I know all of them and of course that helps me to enter their homes or go to their memorial services or tombstone unveilings. The heroism that we saw here takes different forms. I’ve seen nobility and enormous soul in every story.” Nadav views his project as an opportunity to reveal a city whose people are often invisible to external eyes.

One Ofakim resident who has received a lot of publicity is Rachel Edri, whose home was taken over by terrorists on October 7. She offered these Hamas jihadists cookies and drinks as well as medical care, thus buying time for security forces to organize a rescue operation that saved her and her husband’s lives. Nadav says: “Rachel’s story is obviously amazing and represents Ofakim and its sense of hospitality, but I interviewed everyone who was willing, not only bereaved families but also people who were injured or who bore witness. I made it my goal to interview all of them. Including people who didn’t do something we might consider heroic. I wanted to interview everyone who is invisible to the media.”

Ofakim, 1972. Photo: Aliza Orbach, the Aliza Orbach Archive, the National Library of Israel

 

Visting towns in the southern part of the country – Ofakim and Sderot, 1984. Photo from the Dan Hadani Archives, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

One of the many interviews he recorded was with the family of the late Aharon Paresh, a Sergeant Major in the IDF’s Technology and Maintenance Corps, who served on the Re’im Base near his home in Ofakim and was called up to report for duty there on that awful morning. He engaged in combat with one of the terrorists before he was murdered. His wife spoke with Nadav about the deep sense of loneliness that has remained with her ever since.

Another interview that remains deeply etched in Nadav’s heart was with the family of the late Aharon Haimov. “Aharon was a senior medic with the Magen David Adom ambulatory service. He was a Haredi man who generally didn’t work on Shabbat, but he was called up that day and of course he didn’t hesitate to head out towards Kibbutz Urim,” Nadav says. “He hadn’t even made it past the city’s western exit when the terrorists got to him and shot him, he was killed on the spot. When I spoke with his wife, I heard about what a special personality he was, and what a huge gap he left behind. She held a picture of him, and you could feel the love with which she spoke of him.”

Nadav interviewing people in Ofakim. Photo: Dana Arielli

The testimonies that Nadav Mishali is documenting in Ofakim, along with other projects aimed at documenting the testimony of those who were in the Western Negev region on that horrible day of October 7, are being collected for safekeeping at the National Library of Israel.

The Library which, among other things, is dedicated to the preservation of the cultural heritage of the Jewish People and the State of Israel, has established “Bearing Witness” – a project dedicated to documenting the events, testimonies and aftermath of October 7, 2023.

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For further information and inquiries about collecting testimony, click here.

To help support the documentation team in Ofakim, which is working on a completely voluntary basis, please call Nadav at 054-5887669 or email him at nadav.mishali@gmail.com

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.

 

 

When Israel Conquered Gaza for the First Time

During the conflict known as the Sinai Campaign, the State of Israel conquered the Gaza Strip. Military documents and rare color photographs reveal what this brief period of Israeli control of Gaza looked like - back in 1956

“Life in the city is very tumultuous. The streets are full of people, most of the stores are open. Lively commerce is taking place in the markets. The appearance of the residents is happier and seems to have reconciled itself with the occupation. They try to come talk with the Israeli soldiers and civilians. In the refugee camps, Israeli citizens are received with commotion and are immediately surrounded by masses of children and adults. The faces of the refugees have a very kind appearance. The camps excel in their cleanliness. The elderly among the refugees are interested in the wellbeing of their friends [across the border].”

(Report in the Davar newspaper, November 29, 1956, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel)

“Tonight our forces will break into the Gaza Strip.” This was the news given to IDF soldiers on November 1, 1956. After almost a decade of hostile activity from the Strip which led to the deaths of hundreds of Israelis, Israel was now taking the initiative. The Sinai Campaign, or “Operation Kadesh” as it is sometimes called, was a war initiated by Israel in the face of increasing cross-border terrorist actions by Palestinian groups known as the fedayeen. Once and for all, Israel hoped to put an end to the threat posed to the Israeli communities along the Gaza border. During the war, Israel succeeded – with French and British support – in taking over enormous tracts of land, including the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip.

הפקודה על כיבוש עזה. 1 בנובמבר 1956
“Tonight our forces will break into the Gaza Strip! Gaza – A living limb that has been torn from the body of the State of Israel. A fist raised before the state, a base for Egypt’s murderous emissaries […] And facing it – Nahal Oz, Be’eri, Kissufim, Nirim – a chain of flowering settlements facing a hostile border.” The order to occupy Gaza. November 1, 1956

The IDF occupied Gaza relatively easily, and the Strip, then controlled by Egypt, capitulated within three days.

הארץ, 4 בנובמבר, 1956
“Gaza’s Request of Surrender” Haaretz, November 4, 1956, the Historical Jewish Press Collection. Gaza’s Egyptian governor General Mohammed Fuad asked the Israeli commander to “accept my unconditional surrender”

Life in Gaza City in those days was beautifully documented in a series of rare color photographs taken by American Jewish photographer and journalist Moshe (Marlin) Levin, who documented daily life in the city under Israeli military rule.

Taking a picture of a camel, 1956. The Moshe Marlin Levin Archive, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

 

Street salesman in Gaza, 1956. The Moshe Marlin Levin Archive, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

 

Gaza, 1956. The Moshe Marlin Levin Archive, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

 

Flying over Gaza. The Moshe Marlin Levin Archive, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

 

White donkeys on a Gaza street. The Moshe Marlin Levin Archive, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The truth, which the State of Israel did not know back in November 1956, was that it would only control the Gaza Strip for a brief period. Israel’s military successes and territorial gains created a sense of euphoria in the country, and the occupation of the region was referred to as the “liberation of Gaza” – hinting that there was little intent to give up the newly-conquered territory. It’s worth remembering that there had been a long-standing Jewish presence in the Gaza Strip which only ended in the 1929 riots, such that the conquering of Gaza was seen by many as a return to a part of the ancient Jewish homeland, rather than an occupation of a foreign territory.

“The joy of the conquerors of Gaza after the surrender and the cessation of gunfire”, Davar, November 5, 1956

Upon occupying the Strip, Israel imposed military rule and quickly began taking practical steps to establish Israeli control.

This can be seen in a series of orders which established martial law over the territory: the city’s judicial and administrative powers were transferred to the army.

מנשר לתושבי עזה. נובמבר, 1956
“All governmental, administrative and judicial authority over the region of Gaza and its residents is from now invested in me and will be executed by those acting on my orders or by those I have appointed to do so […] – Lt. Col. Haim Gaon, IDF commander in the Gaza region” – An IDF notice to the residents of Gaza. November, 1956

Israeli currency became legal tender in the Strip.

A notice issued by the IDF announcing Israeli currency would now be accepted in Gaza. November, 1956

Steps were also taken to restore “routine” to the occupied territory. Thus, alongside a curfew imposed on residents of Gaza during the night hours, an order was issued to open the stores in the daytime to allow continued trade.

A military order requiring business owners in Gaza to open their shops during regular business hours. November, 1956

And this is a rare picture of the home of the military governor in Gaza, complete with an Israeli flag.

Home of the Israeli military governor in Gaza. The Moshe Marlin Levin Archive, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Today we know that the period of Israeli control of Gaza in 1956 was very temporary. Israel quickly discovered that its partners in the Sinai Campaign – Britain and France – were no longer among the world’s true superpowers. Pressure from the USSR and especially the United States, was placed on Israel to withdraw its forces. On March 8, 1957, just four months after Gaza capitulated, IDF forces left the Strip in a long column of armored vehicles, and control was returned to Egypt.

Until the next war.