This 3-part series presents personal profiles of Jewish residents of Gush Katif, portaying the human dimension behind the politics.
Noga Cohen is a vivacious woman who smiles constantly and laughs easily. Except for the elevator in their two-story home and the wide, wheelchair-accessible bathroom door, a visitor to the Cohen home would never know that three of Noga's children were permanently crippled when a terrorist bomb targeted their school bus in November, 2000. Ten-year-old Orit's foot was blown off, 7-year-old Yisrael lost his leg below the knee, and 8-year-old Tehilla lost both legs below the knee.
The Cohen family, which now numbers eight children, lives in the Gush Katif settlement of Kfar Darom. "Kfar Darom is mentioned in the Talmud," Noga announces proudly. Her husband, Rabbi Ofir Cohen, wrote a book about the Jewish people's historical connection to the Gaza region. Except for short periods, Jews have lived in the area ever since the Maccabees' victory over the Greeks in 145 BCE.
The modern Kfar Darom, built near the site of the ancient Talmudic village, was founded in 1946 at the instigation of Israel's founding father, David Ben Gurion. During Israel's War of Independence in 1948, Kfar Darom was overrun by the Egyptian army. It was reestablished in 1970 after the victory of the Six Day War.
Noga's grandparents made aliyah from Bucharia. Ofir's family has lived in Israel for eight generations. As newlyweds, Noga and Ofir were committed to settling the land; their only question was where. In 1990, they came to spend a Shabbat in Gush Katif.
"We saw people from another realm," Noga recalls. "We saw such love, we felt embraced, like we were all one family. We felt like we were in the clouds -- such closeness, such warmth. I have goose bumps just remembering." They moved to Kfar Darom one month later.
Aftermath of the Attack
For two years after the disaster, the Cohens lived near the Tel Aviv-area hospital where the three children went for daily rehabilitation and to learn the use of their prostheses. Only when Orit, Tehilla, and Yisrael clamored to return home did the Cohens move back to Kfar Darom.
"The real question is whether it's fair to the children to impose our ideological commitment on them."
When her children were injured, Noga did not feel she had made a mistake coming to such a dangerous place. "If we thought it was a mistake, we wouldn't have come back. The real question is whether it's fair to the children to impose our ideological commitment on them. Look, I'm an adult, and I can decide how much I'm willing to pay for what I believe in. But, essentially, I also decide for my children to pay the price for my beliefs.
"That's on the one hand. On the other hand, I educate them to believe in Zionism. I can't educate them to believe in Zionism and not live here. They would ask me, 'Mommy, if you believe in settling the Land of Israel, then why don't we live there?'
"And if I would answer, 'Because I'm afraid,' they would say, "Oh, you believe in something but you're afraid to do it? You believe that somebody else should get killed instead?' If I don't live my ideology, my children can accuse me of hypocrisy or cowardice, and they'd be right."
Noga spills her words out spontaneously, effusively.
"Yes, my children have paid a steep price," she continues. "Even if something had happened to me, not them, they'd be paying the price. There are children here in Kfar Darom whose mothers have been killed. Whatever happens, the whole family pays the price. It's an enormous responsibility. But if I consider what the country gains, what the whole Jewish people gains, by my being here? I'm not here for myself. I have a duty here in this world. That's what I believe.
"I have a big duty, and it's hard -- not just hard, very hard. If I want to look for an easy life, I can do it. But, we, the Jewish people, have a big problem with our enemies, so if no one will take the responsibility to stand against our enemies, we will be destroyed. If I give in here today, the Jewish people will be defeated. The terrorists will win and we will lose. I don't want to give in to terror. How can I give my home to terrorists who will use it against Israel?""
Tehilla, the Heroine
The Cohens' next-door neighbor Hadassah and her baby are a frequent fixture in the Cohen house, evidence of the Gush Katif ethos of "everyone helping everyone." Hadassah remarks, "They're a completely normal family. The kids never seem depressed. I'm here, in and out, all the time, and I never hear crying, screaming, or even sadness."
"Our family has never had psychological counseling," Noga says. "We didn't feel we need it. Tehilla [who lost both legs] always says that whatever God wants, that's what will be. It doesn't matter where you are -- in Kfar Darom or in Tel Aviv. She helps us to prevail. On the way to the hospital, with both legs blown off, she was conscious. She didn't freak out. She said Tehillim (Psalms) the whole way to the hospital.
"There's a lot of pain. They hate the wheelchairs. They hate the prostheses. But they're happy. Don't ask me how."
"My children think that they paid less a price than others here who lost a mother or a father -- or their own lives. They're alive! They can play, they can smile, they can learn, they can do everything. Not the same, of course. There's a lot of pain. Sometimes they can't go somewhere because they can't go in a wheelchair. They hate the wheelchairs. They hate the prostheses. But they're happy. Don't ask me how.
"Tehilla asks me, 'Why do people call me a hero? That one's a hero, and this one's a hero, but I'm not a hero.' I tell her: 'Because you could sit in bed every day and say, "I don't want to go to school today," or "I don't want to do the test today because my legs hurt." But you don't do it.' Tehilla answers: 'Nonsense!'"
The Cohens have not made any preparations for the disengagement. "Ninety-nine percent of us don't think it will take place. We believe that something will happen to open the eyes that are presently closed. My children and I asked Ariel Sharon, who built this place and laid the cornerstone of the synagogue across the road 10 years ago, 'So, you sent us here to give up our legs, for NOTHING? If you knew that you're going to give up this place, you didn't have to send us here.' And he answered: 'I know that you are heroes.' That's it."
How does Noga herself answer that question? When the disengagement takes place, will she feel like her children's legs were wasted?
Noga takes a deep breath and exhales. "No," she replies emphatically. "And that's what I'm telling them: 'We did what we have to do. We're doing what we think is right.'" She pauses and corrects herself: "What we know is right.
"Most Israelis think that we are heroes and we're doing the right thing, but they don't have the strength to stand up for their beliefs. 'You,' I tell my children, 'have the strength and faith to fight for this place, whatever the price? I'm doing the work for those who live in Ashkelon [a city north of the Gaza Strip]. It's quiet in Ashkelon because we're here. And they know that. And what really hurts is that they should love me and say thanks every day that we are here."
Noga's words spout up from her heart like a geyser, then fall back as she reconsiders and corrects herself: "No, I don't blame them that they don't love me. What hurts me is that they mistakenly think that if we leave Gaza, there'll be peace."
Noga pauses, remembering some semblance of peace before the Intifada. "Years ago, before our terror attack, when the fence ran right along the perimeter of the settlement, my children used to stand there and throw candies to the Palestinian children on the other side. And if a candy hit the fence and fell back, my children would retrieve it and throw it again -- and again."
Noga's mouth curls up in a bittersweet smile at the memory. "Now the fence has been moved to I don't know where, and my children no longer stand."
On the Cohens' front door hangs the sign, ubiquitous on Gush Katif homes, proclaiming: "TOGETHER, WE'LL PREVAIL."
With everything they've already gone through, it's hard to imagine the Cohen family not prevailing.
Click here to read the first part of this series.
Support for Needy People of Gush Katif:
1. Avital and Natan Sharansky have started a short term emergency fund for families who have been evacuated from Gush Katif. They are evaluating each case carefully and would like to have funds available in an account so that they can give funds to these people who are currently in crisis as soon as possible to help them with their immediate needs. Thus far they have helped families having weddings in the coming weeks and several other short term emergency needs. There are many families with serious needs.
Checks can be made out to Avital Sharansky and mailed to:
Avital and Natan Sharansky
c/o Richard Kovler
Rechov Mishmar Ha'am 1/4
Questions or further information can be obtained from Richard Kovler who works closely with the Sharanskys at firstname.lastname@example.org
2. An organization called Lemaan Achai -Emergency Campaign for Gush Katif- is trying to be the coordinating body of all those interested in helping. One can call 1-700-501-300 to donate items, services or to volunteer one's time. People willing to donate funds are being asked to call 1-800-351-012 and to specify that the money is for Keren Lemaan Achai. Israeli tax deductible receipts will be issued through an organization called Paamonim.