Herzl Campers Among Protesters Heading Toward Jerusalem

JERUSALEM – Food, water, and signs in hand, more than 100 Israeli teens living on the Gaza border are marching to Jerusalem to protest their reality: Bombs, missiles, and incendiary balloons from Gaza, along with the 15 seconds they have to run to shelter from it all. They are hoping that the Israeli government, and the rest of the country, will finally pay them the attention they deserve.

Since I was born, since everyone on this trip was born, we have rockets,” said Netta Epstein, a member of the march and a senior at the Shaar HaNegev high school, where most of the marchers are from. “Last year, we got the [incendiary] kites. And like, this is our life, this is how we live. And it’s really not okay. This has to change right now.”

Israelis living on the border with Gaza have become fed up with a situation they see no end to, with over 7,000 acres of farmland burned since March and a near-constant barrage of rockets coming from the strip for over a decade. Over the past month, some residents tried to send a message to the Israeli government by blocking roads in Tel Aviv, while others protested by blocking one of the Gaza-Israel border crossings.

Residents feel abandoned by the government. “We’re not from the center of Israel, so we’re not important. We’re just like part of a game,” Netta said.

So students decided to take matters into their own hands and organize the 43.5-mile protest march to Jerusalem, at the end of which, on Thursday, they will arrive at the Knesset. This comes a week after other teens living on the border gained over 60 thousand followers for a new Instagram account, otef.gaza, where they are sharing pictures and video of their lives under constant fear, anxiety, and danger.

“In seven months, nothing serious was done to change the situation,” said Meshy Elmkies, a 16-year-old manager of the otef.gaza account. Neither she nor those involved in the march to Jerusalem, say what exactly should be done by the Israeli government to get that change.

But their message is crystal clear.

“I want silence, to live my life in a regular routine – to wake up in the morning and not to smell fire and smoke,” Meshy told me. “To go to school and not think about if something burns my house, or if my family now can’t breathe because of the smoke from the burning tires. To study without hearing booms…and to go to sleep in quiet and peace, and to succeed in sleeping a full night without sirens, booms, and smoke.”

Netta Epstein (left) holds a sign with the slogan of the march: "Let Us Grow In Quiet"

Netta Epstein (left) holds a sign with the slogan of the march: “Let Us Grow In Quiet” (Photo courtesy Netta Epstein)

Meshy and I spoke through WhatsApp, and my heart fell to the floor when I read her messages. For me, this is a conversation. For these kids, it’s their entire life. And many of those marching, like Netta, aren’t just some random students. They’re former Herzl Camp campers. They’re my campers. And for this piece, here I am, asking them to tell me what it feels like to live on the Gaza border.

It feels horrible. And it feels even worse to know that my campers, who have lived through war all their lives, are now desperate enough to march to Jerusalem just to be heard.

I couldn’t separate reporting from emotions. When Netta came back to Israel from Herzl this past summer, where he was a staff-in-training, he went almost directly to the bomb shelters to hide from a days-long rocket attack from Gaza. During the interview about the march, I asked him how that had felt, and when he said “normal,” I did a double take.

It felt normal?!

“Yes, it did feel normal because that’s what all of my childhood is built from,” Netta told me. “I have the bomb shelters, and I have the alarms, and I have all of that.”

I didn’t know what to say. “…honestly, that’s fucked up,” unwittingly came out of my mouth.

Netta laughed. “Yeah. A little bit,” he said quietly. Then his voice picked up over the phone with energy and mission.

“That’s the reason! That’s exactly the reason, because of your reaction, that’s exactly the reason that we’re doing this trip, to show that it’s so fucked up that we have to change it. Immediately. As soon as we can.”

And the march, though happening for terrible reasons, is also a point of pride. “We’re really happy we can do it,” Netta said. “We’re really happy we had that idea. Because we think that the government can listen to us and they can change something. They can really do it.”

The protest march isn’t just an appeal to the Israeli government. Even other Israelis don’t always understand what life is like on the border with Gaza.

When friends living in the center of Israel messaged Netta about the march, “they asked me a lot of questions, why we are doing this,” he said. “They can’t really understand the situation of having 15 seconds to run as fast as you can, run for your life to a bomb shelter. Once, they told me ‘I didn’t hear the alarm, there was an alarm on my phone so I walked to the bomb shelter’ because they have more than one minute [to reach the shelter before a rocket hits].”

“For me, as one who has been with that his whole life, it’s really hard to imagine someone who doesn’t know that, that you have to run as fast as you can to a bomb shelter the first time you hear the alarm. It’s really weird for me, that some people don’t know that feeling.”

Still, Israeli students across the country are standing with the marchers, as many showed up to school on Tuesday wearing black, holding signs, and canvassing social media with the hashtag “black south,” invoking the farmland that has been burned by incendiary kites and balloons from Gaza.

In many ways, this is a bittersweet moment to witness.

“To see my fellow schoolmates marching to Jerusalem because they are so tired of the situation makes me feel both happy and unhappy,” said Ori Peretz, another former Herzl camper who lives on the border.

“In my opinion, no one at that age should feel the necessity to rise up and say enough is enough. On the other hand, it shows that they have leadership qualities, that they are not afraid and that they are the true fighters against terror.”