An insider's guide to life on a kibbutz

In the summer of 1978, like thousands of other idealistic teenagers, Andy McSmith volunteered to work on a kibbutz. Israel's great experiment in socialist living captured his imagination and broadened his horizons. But nearly three decades later, the settlers who welcomed him into their peaceful community on the edge of Gaza are divided from their neighbours as never before - as he discovered when he returned to Nahal Oz
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One way for a student to see the world in the Sixties and Seventies was to work on a kibbutz. It was neither difficult nor dangerous. A visit to the London office of the National Union of Students would fix you up with a cheap air ticket; you were given the address of a youth hostel in Tel Aviv, run by an old man who regaled you with the story of the day he met Moshe Dayan, the one-eyed hero of the Six Day War; and in the morning, you were handed a bus ticket and told that the driver would give you a shout when you were at the gate.

Aged 20, I was keen to sign up. I'd grown up fascinated by the Middle East. My father had picked up Arabic when he was serving in North Africa and sometimes took engineering jobs over there. I was born in Egypt, went to a primary school in Beirut, at the age of four or five, so - I'm told - I spoke English with an Arabic accent. My Arabic is long lost, unfortunately, but I grew up thinking that Nasser was the greatest statesman of his day, and that the Israelis were marauders who built their state on stolen land.

But just as it is possible to be appalled by the treatment of North America's aboriginals and yet admire the white settlers who tamed that continent, so you could abhor the Israeli state's military excesses and admire the kibbutzniks. They were the pioneers, brought up on socialist ideas nurtured in European ghettoes, who braved danger to make the desert fertile. Instead of just talking about the end of the capitalist system, as we western idealists did; they removed themselves from it, working for the collective, not for wages, and producing for need, not the market.

And so, in 1978, I headed towards the southernmost tip of Israel, on the edge of the Negev desert, near the Gaza border, where I spent three uneventful weeks in late August and early September picking apples and oranges, and discovering that life in an agrarian socialist enclave was rewarding, if not exactly exciting. There were four western students already at Kibbutz Nahal Oz - two English boys, and a pair of American girls. We worked through the day and sat around chatting in the evenings, there being nowhere to visit and little to do. It did not matter that we were working for nothing but our board and lodging, when the kibbutzniks were paid no wages either.

Hard work and habit were the order of their lives. One day, when there wasa film showing in themain hall, we English boys arrived tofind the chairs already set out, and took seats at the front, provoking an agitated reaction from the kibbutzniks. The girl who liaised with us was urgently summoned. She explained with some embarrassment that the seats we had taken were the very seats that certain older kibbutzniks had always occupied since thefirst projector had been brought in for the first film showing, in the Fifties. Some extra chairs were rustled up so that we could sit with a good view of the screen, without upsetting unalterable arrangements. In the end, I said a regret-filled farewell to these good people to return to the less altruistic world of metropolitan capitalism, I had never been back.

No one mentioned the war while I was there. There were Arabs living near the kibbutz, in uneasy harmony with the Jewish settlers. On only one occasion was I warned that I might be in some danger, when I turned up to pick oranges barefoot, and an old kibbutznik advised me sharply, in a mix of Hebrew and broken English, about snake bites. A fence, just a few hundred yards beyond the orange groves, marked the Gaza border. I cannot even remember whether we were advised not to stray across it.

There is a fence there today, too, but it is an altogether more emphatic boundary, fitted with electronic sensors. Crossing it, in either direction, could get you killed. I saw it last month, when a London based organisation called Bicom, an independent, not-for-profit organisation, took a small party of leftist journalists out there in the hope of making us more sympathetic to Israel's cause. I joined the trip with enthusiasm, and looked forward to revisiting this happy, idealistic place I had not seen since I was 20.

Tami and Tzvi Halevi are true Zionist pioneers. Tami's parents left Nazi Germany in 1934. Tzvi's mother fled Russia soon after the Bolshevik revolution. His father was born in Palestine. Aged 15, he came to live at Nahal Oz, when it was founded by a group of young Israelis in 1953. Over dinner in a small restaurant on a neighbouring kibbutz, I offered my memories of the place as they talked about their lives there. The table where we sat was just 1,600m from the border with Gaza - within easy range of Hamas's rockets. Nahal Oz itself is only 800m from its Arab neighbours.

Nahal Oz was always regarded as an elite kibbutz; a settlement which was able to choose its members, its attractions undiminished by its proximity to Egypt. There were raids and clashes, but it must have seemed back then that once Israel and Egypt had made peace, as they did in the mid-Seventies, nothing could threaten the enduring idealism of the kibbutz's founding fathers.

Except that the kibbutzniks would learn that though Israel could make peace on one front, they could not prevent the conflict breaking out in another form. And though the pioneers could shut out international capitalism at their front gate, they could not stop it creeping around the back. Almost anyone who starts up a business in today's Israel first examines the European and the US market: every Israeli company is a multinational. In the Eighties, largely because of the cost of the ongoing conflict, and as it moved more decisively into highly competitive world markets, the country underwent rampant inflation. Under financial pressure, the government cut support for the kibbutz movement. Even more than the hostility of the neighbouring Arabs, economics threatened the survival of Nahal Oz.

So its founders went back to their first principles and rewrote them (rather in the way that Tony Blair ripped up Clause Four of the Labour Party constitution). They built a metalwork factory producing industrial-size ratchet mechanisms. Each kibbutz member now draws a salary according to his work and qualifications. Two years ago, they opened a hi-tech factory to help meet the ever-expanding demand for security cameras, as Israel covers itself with more and more surveillance systems to keep the Palestinians out.

But having adapted to the changing market, the kibbutz was hit again by the changing nature of the war. There were to be no more open conflicts like the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and earlier, when Arab armies faced the Israelis on the field of battle. Then, the Arabs lost, taking fearful casualties; Israel occupied whatever territories she wanted for strategic purposes.

Most Israelis date the start of this year's conflict from 12 July, when the news broadcasts reported that three of their soldiers had been taken prisoner. But for the kibbutzniks of Nahal Oz, the day to remember was 17 July, when in 80 shattering minutes before their home was hit by 17 Qassam rockets. The attack killed a bull, destroyed 10 cars, broke windows and strafed a farmhouse. "All the media was focused on Lebanon, so we had that pleasure to ourselves," remarked Tsvi, drily.

In all, according to the Hale-vis, the kibbutz had been hit 300 times since spring 2000 - an average of once a week. Hundreds more rockets have peppered the surrounding countryside. Two months ago, the kibbutz was suffering five to six hits a day, then at the height of the Lebanon war, it all suddenly went quiet, as if the missile suppliers had been called off, to concentrate on keeping Hizbollah equipped. Ominously however, Hamas declared that the summer campaign was "just the beginning". That day, its fighters had hit a neighbouring kibbutz. Nahal Oz had been spared, but had been hit the previous day, and the day before. "You never get used to the missiles, but it becomes like a psychological mechanism," Tami said.

The Hamas rockets, fortunately, are not as powerful or accurate as those available to the Iscisively raeli Defence Force. Human casualties are rare, but the kibbutzniks spend much of their lives picking up debris and repairing damage. Nahal Oz is one of the few kibbutzim in which each family now has its own bomb shelter. Installing them, just on this one kibbutz, cost 7 million shekels (£860,000). They fear that more accurate and more powerful rockets may soon find their way across the porous Egyptian border and into Gaza. They have a very low opinion of the Egyptian border patrols.

Ronnie, a part time policeman who was also at the dinner table, told a story about one of his colleagues who was on patrol in Gaza, and stopped an elderly Arab who was leading a donkey. At the bottom of a saddle bag, a rocket was discovered. The old man explained: "Someone paid me to fire it that way [towards Israel] - but I like you, so if you'll pay me, I'll fire it that way [towards Gaza] instead."

The tale has the feel of an urban myth, a story the teller would very much like to believe. But the Halevis are also adamant that the Palestinians who fire the rockets do so for money. Given the level of poverty in Gaza, and an unemployment rate of more than 30 per cent, it is not difficult to believe that bored youngsters would happily take a few dollars for firing a rocket over the security fence, if someone is prepared to pay them. On the other hand, if you live under daily bombardment, it might be a comforting delusion to believe that your torutes before breakfast, mentors are doing it for mercenary motives alone, rather than because they hate you.

The worst affected, inevitably, are the children. Medical studies reveal that kibbutz children in southern Israel are three or four times more likely than their urban contemporaries to suffer symptoms like nightmares and bed-wetting."

Our youngest daughter is now 30 years old," Tami said. "She loves life on the Kibbutz but two years ago she left to have children, because you cannot stay on the Kibbutz as a young mother with missiles falling down on you."

The children feel secure enough to play outside but mentally they are affected by the constant barrage. They are very frightened of the rockets. Some of the classrooms have been made rocket-proof - but not all - so children are receiving less schooling. There are 95 children on the kibbutz, from babies to 18-year-olds. Six years ago the Kibbutz had 200 children. The young go to serve in the army, and they don't come back."

After dinner, we drove to a high point on the Gaza border. It was a lovely, peaceful, star-lit night. The distant lights of Gaza could have been any town anywhere. In the other direction were the lights of an Israeli town; it looked no different in the darkness. There was a road, evidently, leading to the Palestinian settlement. In the dark it was impossible to see the road itself, but in the distance came the lights of three vehicles moving very slowly towards us. As we stood on flattened ground near a large hut, the light and the low buzz of a generator told that there were people at work inside. Beside it was a white balloon, about 10ft high, which slowly, gracefully, ascended into the dark sky until it was almost out of sight.

The balloon was no toy. It was carrying a heavy cargo of surveillance equipment. Inside the hut, 18-year-old female conscripts in military uniforms were gazing intently at their computer screens. There's nothing unusual about teenagers spending hours in front of a computer, but these young women are not chatting to their friends on MSN. Theirs is a dull task, whose success is literally a matter of life and death. Each has 10 kilometres of the security fence to monitor. If anything touches the fence, an alarm is triggered on the screen. If anyone steps up close to the boundary, even in the dead of night, a thermal image is immediately picked up by heat sensors. When a conscript spots trouble, she will summon her sergeant (who may be no more than 20 years old), and they decide whether to deploy ground troops. If they make a mistake, Israelis could die. If they do their job well, the only dead bodies will be Palestinian.

Just after we left, Israeli military commanders decided that the appropriate response to the damage done to property and livestock by Hamas's rockets would be to charge into Gaza and slaughter 18 people. The spy equipment that directed their artillery barrage into Beit Ha-noun last week, just a few miles north from where we were standing, may have been in the innocent-looking balloon outside the surveillance hut.

Kibbutzniks are generally on the liberal side of Israeli public opinion. The Halevis supported Ariel Sharon's decision to dismantle Israel's military facilities in Gaza and order all the Jewish settlers to leave. Most members of Nahal Oz looked upon the right-wingers who opposed the pull-out and encouraged resistance as extremists and troublemakers. They wish that peace talks could resume, and that lines of trucks would once more trundle past their kibbutz taking food and equipment into Gaza - if only there were an administration across the security fence that would talk to Israel. " The trouble with the Palestinian leadership," Tzvi said, ruefully, "is that they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity." When there is a rocket attack, he wants to shout across the border: "Don't you realise you'll suffer worse than us?"

Yet they find it hard to oppose Israel's ruthless policy of shooting to kill any Palestinian caught on the wrong side of the fence. One night, in October 2004, as the kibbutzniks slept, one of those young women who spend the hours of darkness sitting before computer screens spotted the outlines of four men, who had crossed from Gaza by hiding in the back of a truck, close to the security fence. They were heading towards Nahal Oz. She alerted the army. On the young Arabs' corpses, after the army had disposed of them, they found automatic weapons and grenades. "I will never forget that day," said Tzvi. "We owe our lives to that girl, who was awake."

The atmosphere is febrile - and the danger, for both sides, is real. Ronnie described how a friend, a policeman, stopped a car, driven by a young Arab, at the border. The officer saw a flash of something that looked like a rifle barrel, and in a split second opened fire without hesitation. Horrified that he might have killed an unarmed man, he searched the car and found the rifle.

We said goodbye to the Halevis at the border post, and they went back to the little corner of Israel to which they have given their adult lives. Its founding principles of socialism have given way to a more worldly realism. Its primary purpose is no longer to coax crops from the harsh land on which the community was built. Instead, it is an anachronistic little commercial enterprise, kept going by these people and their love for the place where they have lived all their lives. But who knows when the war, or economics, or the restlessness of the young - or some other calamity - will extinguish the dream. All the Halevis can hope for is to grow old in peace.

The kibbutz movement

Kibbutz (the plural is kibbutzim) translates as "gathering" or "together" in English.

Kibbutzim are based on the principles of joint ownership of property and co-operation of production, consumption and education.

The first kibbutz was founded in 1909, at Degania, in what was then Palestine, by Joseph Baratz, together with nine other men and two women.

The early pioneers believed in the establishment of a Jewish homeland, but also wanted to start an entirely new form of society; Many early kibbutzniks valued their communist beliefs over their religious and cultural ties and kibbutzim remain secular today.

By 1940 there were 82 kibbutzim, with 26,500 members.

At its high point in the Sixties, the kibbutz movement accounted for 7 per cent of Israel's population. Members were widely respected throughout Israeli society, making up 15 per cent of the Knesset, Israel's parliament.

Kibbutzniks were a key part of the Israel Defence Force. During the Six-Day War, 200 of the 800 Israeli soldiers who were killed belonged to kibbutzim.

There are now some 270 settlements, housing 116,000 people - around 2.1 per cent of Israel's population.

Kibbutzim still account for 33 per cent of Israel's total agricultural produce and 6.3 per cent of manufactured goods.

Once, kibbutz children were brought up communally but now they remain with their parents until high-school age - 40 per cent of kibbutz children return after completing their military service.

Where once the kibbutzim focused solely on agriculture, they have now evolved, with many serving as tourist attractions while others provide computer data services, child care facilities and catering outlets.

Labour shortages mean that many kibbutzim now employ outside workers; Palestinians and, increasingly, Thais work in the settlements.

Kibbutzim rely on subsidies from the Israeli government. Following years of decline, they have been increasing in membership since 2003.

The median age of the kibbutz population is now 30, compared with 25.8 in 1989.

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