Israelis struggle for normalcy on Sinai border
KEREM SHALOM BORDER CROSSING, Israel — Drivers who reach the end of Israeli Route 232 purportedly face a choice: a sign points them either northwest, toward the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, or southeast, toward the Nitzana border crossing between Egypt and Israel.
But the intersection – located at the meeting point of Israel, Gaza and Egypt – is really a dead end; drivers cannot proceed in either direction. Rafah has been under Egyptian control since Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005. And a year ago, Israel closed off the road that runs to Nitzana, along the country’s southern border.
What drivers do meet at the end of the route is a simple red and white roadblock. To the left is the beginning of Israel’s security fence on the border of the Sinai Desert that is scheduled to be completed this year. To the right is Israel’s Kerem Shalom border crossing with Gaza, which is closed to civilians. Next to that is a concrete wall separating Gaza and Israel. Litter dots the immediate area.
The Israeli army has stepped up security in the area since Egypt’s revolution began last year, and Israel issued a travel warning this month regarding the Sinai. On Aug. 5, terrorists killed 16 Egyptian soldiers and crossed into Israel down the road from the Kerem Shalom crossing, where they were killed by Israeli security forces.
But across the street from the concrete wall, one woman sits smiling in a purple food truck. Bold letters on the side of the truck advertise: “To soldiers with love, from the loving Tami Mommy.”
Tami Muyal, 62, has been operating the truck for 12 years, including the past 3-1/2 years in this location.
“There’s no way a soldier gets to me and leaves hungry or thirsty,” she said.
From 6:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Muyal offers soldiers anything from popsicles to baguette sandwiches at a discount or even for free, depending on how much cash they have on hand. She knows many of them by name.
“I had a dream to open a rest stop for soldiers,” said Muyal, formerly a bookkeeper. “It’s a challenge, not like sitting in an office. There’s sand, dust, heat, and it’s great.”
Muyal has moved her truck around Israel’s south, at one time stationing it in Gush Katif, Israel’s former settlement bloc in Gaza.
“A sniper could hit me right here,” she said, pointing beneath her curly brown hair at a slightly wrinkled forehead.
Muyal doesn’t feel safe where she is on the Egyptian border, either. She says the border crossing has seemed abandoned, save for increased Israeli army traffic, since trouble began in the Sinai last year. She lives in the area, where she raised four children.
“I ask myself, ‘What am I doing here?’ ” she said. “The situation is scary. I don’t think anything is clear. I’m here alone. Where would I go?”
Born in Tunisia, Muyal moved to Israel with her family when she was 10, in 1960. Since then, she has lived in this area – for the past 40 years in the nearby town of Yesha. Despite the frequent threats of violence, Muyal declares confident faith in the Israeli army – “an army I’m proud of.”
While Muyal has inserted herself in the middle of the army’s activities, the nearby Kibbutz Kerem Shalom, less than three miles away, is striving to continue a normal routine despite the unrest across the border. The area was the site of the 2006 kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit by Hamas, the terrorist organization that governs Gaza.
Now the concrete wall that divides Gaza and Israel surrounds two-thirds of the kibbutz. Bright murals cover parts of the wall, but most of it remains grey.
“When you live here, you don’t see it,” Ofer Kissin, who heads the kibbutz’s security, said of the wall. “We’ve returned to routine life. It takes time, but we’re used to situations like this.”
Kissin said that five families had recently joined the kibbutz, bringing its total to 30. The collective nature of the kibbutz helps residents weather the attacks, Kissin says, but the true source of the community’s secure feeling comes from the military presence nearby.
“The army takes care of us,” he said. “Kids run around here at night.”
Kissin declined to give specifics on the Israel Defence Forces’ presence around Kerem Shalom, nor did the IDF provide details on its operations there.
Muyal also says the IDF allows her to stay calm even while working at the intersection of two tense borders.
“The soldiers are brave. They love the land. Nothing scares them,” Muyal said. “I’m not ready to give in.”