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Returning to the Kibbutz: A Journey of Heartbreak and Hope

K.T. Collin's visit to the kibbutzim of southern Israel after the October 7 attack, evoked in him memories of the civil war in Iraq in the early 2000s and the devastating results of the conflict | "The once vibrant oasis brimming with the light of life, now stood shrouded in the darkness of war-induced death and destruction"
Kilian1

In 2019, my first encounter with Israel was through the lens of a sponsored Birthright trip. I embarked on a three-week journey, traversing the diverse landscapes from the northern regions to the eastern territories and finally to the arid southern desert. I had the opportunity to visit different communities within Israel and Palestine. Amidst this exploration, I spent an unforgettable three days and two nights in a Kibbutz situated near the Gaza border. The memories etched in my heart were ones of unbridled joy, resilience, and the harmonious coexistence of the desert dwellers – an emotional tapestry that forever imprinted itself on my soul. Coming from an Iraqi heritage, I viewed these expressions of coexistence through a lens shaped by my own region’s history of conflict and diversity.

As I recall the Shabbat dinner at the Kibbutz, the air resonated with the sacred call to prayers (Adhan) from a nearby Bedouin Arab-Muslim town. The juxtaposition of cultures and faiths was a poignant reminder of the shared humanity that bound the Jewish and Arab Israelis in this region. It was a journey that transcended the ordinary, leaving an indelible mark on my consciousness. Filled with memories of peace and unity, I returned, only to confront a reality far removed from my cherished memories.

Fast forward to last month, when I returned to the Negev Desert, specifically to Kfar Aza—one of the 22 Kibbutzim targeted by Hamas on that fateful day, October 7th, 2023. The once vibrant oasis, brimming with the light of life, now stood shrouded in the darkness of war-induced death and destruction. The very bench where camaraderie blossomed in 2019, while sharing a moment of connection with an Israeli companion, lay reduced to ashes. The thriving pathways, once bustling with life, had metamorphosed into haunting reminders of blood and rubble. The faces that animated Shabbat gatherings, weaving tales of peace advocacy between Palestinians and Israelis, were now conspicuously absent. In the wake of Hamas’s brutality, no entity—be it human, animal, or plant—escaped unscathed. The aftermath resembled scenes from an apocalyptic movie, a tableau of sensory deprivation dominated by the stench of death and the echoes of destruction. This destruction, while uniquely harrowing, echoed the all-too-familiar scenes of conflict from my childhood in Iraq, underscoring the universal tragedy of war.

While my roots trace back to Iraq, a land marred by wars and the brutality of conflict, the devastation witnessed in Kfar Aza struck a chord that reverberated with the echoes of my past. My personal journey, from witnessing Saddam’s reign of terror to observing the aftermath in Kfar Aza, underscores a broader narrative of resilience and the enduring hope for peace. Born during the Iraqi-Iranian war, my father’s absence for the first six months of my life spoke volumes about the toll of conflict. The invasion of Kuwait and subsequent wars entrenched the narrative of war as an unwelcome companion in our daily lives. Memories of the U.S. invasion in 2003, the ensuing civil war, and the subsequent loss of rights for women, secular individuals, and LGBTQ+ members further underscored the harsh reality of conflict.

Yet, Kfar Aza was a unique chapter in my journey, revealing a form of malevolence that transcended my prior experiences. In their assault, Hamas meticulously targeted specifically peace activists who wanted nothing but peace and prosperity between Israelis and Palestinians, sparing no atrocity in their pursuit. This was not just about taking lives; it was a heinous assault on the very prospect of peace. The evil that unfolded reminded me of the forces mentioned in the Quran – Yaajooj and Maajooj – entities of pure malevolence against whom even Alexander the Great erected a wall, according to Muslim prophecy.

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My upbringing in Iraq, under the shadow of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, fanned the flames of anti-Semitism. A once diverse Iraq, home to 165,000 Iraqi Jews, witnessed their forced exodus through decades of genocide. Subsequently, Christians, Yazidis, and Sabbea Mandaeen fell victim to ethnic cleansing orchestrated by dictatorial regimes, Nazi pogroms, Iranian militias, and ISIS. The slow erosion of tolerance and coexistence occurred methodically, propelled by hate campaigns championed by Arab nationalists and later fueled by Islamist movements, plunging Iraq into its darkest era.

My school days were marked by compulsory flag-greeting ceremonies, ostensibly patriotic but laden with hate. The chants of “Death to America; Death to the Zionists; Death to the Jews” echoed through the air, fostering a culture of animosity. Arabization and Nationalism classes further fueled this bigotry, leaving an indelible mark on impressionable minds.

The recent horrors in Kfar Aza echoed memories of a similar brand of terror perpetrated by Saddam’s regime – the Fedaeen of Saddam, a precursor to Hamas’s brutality. The parallels were chilling – beheadings, brutal punishments, and a reign of terror continued even after the fall of Saddam, as they joined Al-Qaeda, leaving a trail of atrocities in cities like Falluja and Al-Ramadi.

As I witnessed the devastation in Kfar Aza, the echoes of war in nearby Beit Hanoun City, Gaza, resonated hauntingly. The pain echoed from both sides – the Israeli people enduring Hamas rockets since 2015 and the Palestinians suffering daily under the same regime. My heart shattered for the children left orphaned, the LGBTQ+ Gazans now without shelter or life-saving medications, and the vulnerable girls and boys exposed to the horrors of Human trafficking and rape. The theft of humanitarian aid by Hamas left many without food and water, and the lip services to Palestinians by Arab and Muslim majority nations, painting a grim picture of a future hanging in uncertainty for those who survived.

Despite the deep scars of conflict, both in my homeland and here, I see glimmers of hope that guide us toward a shared future. I have endured the darkest chapters of conflict in my past, and I hold onto the belief that one day, this war will end. I dream of a future where Israelis and Palestinians coexist in shared spaces, attending the same schools, dining at the same restaurants, and dancing in the same nightclubs. Having witnessed such unity among Jews, Druze, Muslims, and Christians in Israel, I pray for a day when this reality extends to Gazans and Israelis in the Negev desert. The journey towards peace is arduous, but the human spirit, resilient and compassionate, holds the promise of a brighter tomorrow.

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