The children's sandbox in Kfar Darom was obviously built for peaceful times. It sits beneath a ficus tree, shaded from the Middle East sun. But these days the box is mostly empty, since the tree provides no cover from the "sniper house" across the road. Regular salvos from the second floor of the unfinished Palestinian house rake the settlement, home to 250 people.
It's not just during playtime that the children of Kfar Darom face harm. With the Palestinian tactic of attacking settlers in full swing, danger is always present. Last Tuesday a bomb ripped into an armored school bus, killing two teachers. Since the shooting began, Irit Zweig's three children crawl into her bed for comfort every night. "I'm afraid for them," says Zweig. "We are all in real danger, but we can't leave. This place belongs to Israel."
Despite the danger to their small children and themselves, the Jewish settlers here stay largely out of religious conviction, a belief that the land they occupy was deeded to the Jews by God. It's an opinion few share. The U.S. has repeatedly condemned the settlers, and even within Israel, many see them as an obstacle to peace. "You are endangering yourselves and us in vain with your hopeless obstinacy," novelist A.B. Yehoshua wrote in an Israeli paper last week.
This difficult life requires obstinacy. There are no stores for shopping. The settlers must travel the roads outside their homes in high-speed convoys, for fear of snipers. Last week the army uprooted crops for 50 yds. on either side of the road and cut down palms on the median strip. But few doubt that the snipers are even now looking for new roosts. Perhaps most stressful is the fact that life is filled with the tension and rage bred by living among people who hate your presence. Zweig's family lives in a small mobile home, and although she had a chance to live in a less controversial settlement, she turned it down. Kfar Darom's tenuous situation is part of the message: the settlers will give no ground.
The settlement of Neveh Dekalim is a harrowing 10-min. drive from Kfar Darom. As darkness comes, so does the time of greatest risk, when gunmen can move about with near impunity. Inside this largest of the 15 Gaza settlements, Noam and Leora Koenigsberg's three-year-old son Binyamin knows what darkness means. "Boom, boom," he says.
Sure enough, the fireworks crackle of machine guns can soon be heard. "This is our music," says Leora, 25, a teacher, with a shrug. Noam, 28, murmurs psalms when he hears the firing. "This is a God-given land. God wills that we fight for this land," he says, pointing to a map of Solomon's biblical kingdom, which shows the border of Israel extending south of the Gaza Strip into Sinai. "If you believe that the land is truly yours, it's natural to give up your lives to protect it."
--By Matt Rees. With reporting by Aharon Klein/Kfar Darom