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‘We’re staying,’ say olim as Israel’s north heats up



South African olah Shelley Liss Barkan is risking her life living in the northern Israel town of Shlomi long after it was evacuated because of Hezbollah rocket attacks in October. She’s one of just a few remaining residents who didn’t leave despite being on the firing line of Hezbollah rockets and living under the shadow of war.

Liss Barkan is one of several South African olim who have chosen to stay in the north despite the possibility of war with Lebanon growing by the hour.

Deeply committed to her home, her family, her job as a teacher, even her animals that she didn’t want to abandon, Liss Barkan is also risking her life by staying in the north for a crucial reason: to feed soldiers.

“When the war started, I decided to cook for the soldiers because I noticed that they weren’t getting hot meals, only army rations,” she says. “So, I started in my own little kitchen. My sister in Los Angeles raised donations from the Jewish community there. That’s how I got the ball rolling.”

The mayor of Shlomi gave her a larger kitchen to use for as long as war went on. Today, she and a team of brave volunteers provide 3 500 hot meals for soldiers in the north on a Friday. For most soldiers, it’s the only hot meal they will eat in the week. During the week, they also make about 400 meals.

Liss Barkan has been just metres away from falling rockets. “It’s scary, but not enough for me to move out,” she says. “I will leave only if I have absolutely no choice.” Her adult children live on Kibbutz Hanita, which is very far north, and Nahariya. “Hanita is very dangerous, so of course I worry. But there are families who have lost their children, not to mention the hostages, so I consider myself lucky,” she says.

Michelle Aharon, another South African olah, has chosen to stay in her town of Katzrin, which is seen as the “capital” of the Golan Heights. “We hear the rockets, smoke comes into our house, jets are constantly over our heads, even at night,” she says. Rockets have landed close to her home, friends’ homes, her kids’ school, the supermarket, and the soccer field. Fire and smoke often comes too close for comfort. A rocket landed in the front yard of a home just 1.5km from her home.

Aharon lived in Israel many years ago, then in South Africa, returning to Israel in 2022. She and her husband chose to settle in the north for its quieter lifestyle, close-knit community, and access to nature. They are extremely settled and would hate to uproot their 14-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter. In addition, no-one has chosen to leave the town or been evacuated. So, for now, they stay.

She says many children have become extremely anxious, including her own. Her daughter won’t sleep in her own room, and won’t go to the bathroom or shower alone. The family sees a therapist to work through these anxieties.

Parents are also anxious. “You don’t let them go out as much anymore. You’re constantly checking up on them, ensuring that they have a phone with them, that there’s a bomb shelter near them, that their friend’s home has a safe room,” says Aharon. As a teacher, “We’ve had to do drills at school so that the kids are used to it and we know how to deal with it.”

Paul Mirbach, who has lived on Kibbutz Tuval since the 1980s, says his kibbutz hasn’t yet been targeted. Even if there was a war, he would never consider leaving. “I built Tuval. It’s as much a part of me as an arm or a leg. I cannot contemplate living anywhere else,” he says. “I want to be a part of whatever Tuval endures. Our children are grown up and don’t live here, so that consideration isn’t relevant.”

Regarding a war with Hezbollah, “It terrifies me, because I cannot see us succeeding right now,” Mirbach says. “Our soldiers are exhausted, and to fight another war while we’re mired in Gaza, is folly. We need to end the war in Gaza and recuperate before we would have a chance of achieving anything in Lebanon. Every day that we delay bringing our hostages home exhausts us and makes a war with Hezbollah a disaster waiting to happen. It would be a death trap for our soldiers and a huge strategic blunder. But if there’s a war, we’ll deal with it.”

Taryn Rubin lives on Moshav Nov in the southern Golan Heights. “In the first few days and weeks after 7 October, it was quite scary as my moshav is a few kilometres from the Syrian border, so it was a feeling of ‘all hell’s broken loose’ and we could be next. But pretty quickly, security was restored. There have been a few rockets from Syria.

“The reason we’ve stayed is that ultimately, we feel safe. The situation for Jews is better here than overseas. Even if there is a war, there’s a whole country to look after you, so you’re not as vulnerable as anywhere else.

“You can definitely feel things heating up, so the possibility of a war with Lebanon is highly likely,” she says. Some families that have been evacuated from other northern towns have come to her moshav. “They need to return home, and the only way to do that is to secure the border.”

Craig Sher, who lives with his family on Moshav Hazorim in the lower Galilee, says, “Up until now, we had limited exposure to rockets. The general atmosphere is that war with Hezbollah is a necessary evil because a repeat of what happened in the Gaza area isn’t an option.”

However, he and his family wouldn’t leave if that came about. “We have 13 dogs, two horses, cats, ducks, geese, and chickens that rely on us, so we wouldn’t leave. Besides, where would we go? There are many from the north and south that have come here seeking protection,” Sher says.

Sid Kaplan is a founding member of Moshav Manof, and still lives there today. “We haven’t been affected by the bombardment because we live in the southern Galil, about 45km from the border. Life on Manof is quiet and ‘normal’, but things can change at any moment.

“To consider leaving Israel is out of the question,” he says. “Coming on aliya was the best decision I made. I’m a passionate Zionist and feel strongly that this is where we Jews belong.

“Tragically, there are so many people suffering from anxiety and a general feeling of helplessness,” says Kaplan. “There’s a constant fear of further attacks. The situation regarding those who have been evacuated is heartbreaking. They cannot return to their homes or jobs, and the economic and psychological effects are enormous.

“Israel cannot accept the existence of a terrorist army on any of its borders,” he says. “In Gaza, hopefully this immediate threat has been removed. For us living on Manof, war in the north isn’t a question of ‘if’ but ‘how’ and ‘when’. Pretty frightening. But we continue.”

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