A Thousand Roi Rotbergs: Israel, Gaza and Kibbutz Nahal Oz

The significance of Kibbutz Nahal Oz, the significance of Roi Rotberg's death—and its impact on Israel's resolve

Published: Oct 26, 2023  |  

Foreign affairs analyst and commentator

Remixed photo of Nahal Oz celebrating its 70th anniversary, taken from Kibbutz Nahal Oz’s Facebook page.

In the heart of Israel’s historic journey, in the northern Negev desert, lies Kibbutz Nahal Oz—a place that holds within its borders a timeless tale of bravery, resilience and the enduring spirit of a humble yet powerful nation. Founded just five years after Israel’s independence in 1948, Nahal Oz is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, marking both a tribute to its unwavering strength and a poignant reminder of its sacrifices.

The massacre that struck Nahal Oz on October 7, as it did other small towns and kibbutzim near it, is a stark reminder that even in moments of relative peace and calm, Israel must remain vigilant and alert. Nahal Oz is more than a village; it is a living embodiment of Israel’s indomitable spirit. It is a testament to the enduring commitment of the kibbutz’s members and their unwavering belief in the promise of a home they fought so hard to establish and nourish.

Situated right up against the border with Gaza, Nahal Oz has faced its share of challenges in its history. The very location of the small community numbering less than 500, nestled on the frontier of a nation still finding its footing, made it vulnerable to the ever-present threats that loomed a mile or so away.

Roi Rotberg, a brave Israeli who served in the 1948 Israel-Arab war, chose to make Nahal Oz his home. Three years after its founding, in 1956, Rotberg became the kibbutz’s security officer, a role for which he would pay the ultimate price for his dedication.  In April, 1956, at the age of 21, his life was taken by Arab assailants who lured him while on patrol by horse. A group of Arab Gazans shot and killed Rotberg, then dragged his body into Gaza where they mutilated his remains. Rotberg’s mangled body was returned to Nahal Oz—an act of violence that would forever scar the hearts of those who loved him and left a permanent stain on the soul of Israel.

Roi Rotberg’s death was not just a personal loss; it had a profound impact on both Nahal Oz and the Israeli state. He became a hero, not only for his role as a security officer but also for the unwavering resolve he represented. His murder served as a stark reminder of the perils faced by a young nation still struggling to secure its place in the world.

Six months after Rotberg’s death, Israel launched an invasion of the Gaza Strip and Sinai, then under Egyptian control.  It became clear that Israel would not stand idly by while its citizens were killed. It was a realization that the Jewish state would do whatever it took to protect its people.

Moshe Dayan, the Israeli Army Chief of Staff, delivered a powerful eulogy for Roi Rotberg that would echo through the annals of history. Dayan’s words captured the essence of Israel’s determination and are as poignant and relevant today as they were in 1956:

“Early yesterday morning Roi was murdered. The quiet of the spring morning dazzled him and he did not see those waiting in ambush for him, at the edge of the furrow…How did we shut our eyes and refuse to look squarely at our fate, and see, in all its brutality, the destiny of our generation? Have we forgotten that this group of young people dwelling at Nahal Oz is bearing the heavy gates of Gaza on its shoulders? Beyond the furrow of the border, a sea of hatred and desire for revenge is swelling, awaiting the day when serenity will dull our path, for the day when we will heed the ambassadors of malevolent hypocrisy who call upon us to lay down our arms. Roi’s blood is crying out to us and only to us from his torn body. Although we have sworn a thousandfold that our blood shall not flow in vain, yesterday again we were tempted, we listened, we believed.”

Dayan continued, “We will make our reckoning with ourselves today; we are a generation that settles the land and without the steel helmet and the cannon’s maw, we will not be able to plant a tree and build a home. Let us not be deterred from seeing the loathing that is inflaming and filling the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Arabs who live around us. Let us not avert our eyes lest our arms weaken. This is the fate of our generation. This is our life’s choice—to be prepared and armed, strong and determined, lest the sword be stricken from our fist and our lives cut down. The young Roi who left Tel Aviv to build his home at the gates of Gaza to be a wall for us was blinded by the light in his heart and he did not see the flash of the sword. The yearning for peace deafened his ears and he did not hear the voice of murder waiting in ambush. The gates of Gaza weighed too heavily on his shoulders and overcame him.”

Dayan’s eulogy was reminiscent of another powerful address—the Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln. Both speeches conveyed the weight of their respective nations’ trials and tribulations, the unwavering resolve to protect their people, and the commitment to uphold the principles on which both nations—the United States and Israel—were built.

Today, as the world watches the devastating events unfold, we are reminded of the sacrifices of Roi Rotberg and the countless others who have given their lives for the safety of Israel since its founding 75 years ago. The recent attack by Hamas has left the nation reeling and serves as a stark reminder of the hatred directed towards Israel. The attack across the Gaza border into Nahal Oz was unprecedented in the Jewish state’s history.

The October 7 attack has brought Israel back to the beginning. The massacre is the story of Roi Rotberg, a thousand-fold. October 7 is the story of Nahal Oz and it is the story of Israel.

Oz in Hebrew means “strength.” Nahal Oz was the Nahal movement’s first kibbutz of more than 100 kibbutzim established since Israel’s founding. The movement consisted of early fighting pioneers who settled along Israel’s borders in order to both protect Israel from its enemies and develop the young nation and its citizens through education and social programs.

Kibbutz Nahal Oz’s opportunities, and real dangers, were Israel’s at the beginning. And, they are now too.

Since Roi Rotberg was killed in 1956, Nahal Oz has stood as a symbol of strength and resilience. Still, the kibbutz has suffered other losses over the decades.  Ten kibbutz members were murdered by Hamas in this latest attack and thirteen were taken hostage. Like Israel itself, Nahal Oz is doing its very best to endure.

Nahal Oz has sent its best and brightest to serve the nation. One member served in the Israeli parliament and then became a minister in government. Most all its sons and daughters served in the army, and one lost his life fighting Hezbollah on another border, with Lebanon, in 1992. The young son of kibbutz members, age 4 ½, was killed in 2014 by a Hamas rocket fragment.

The concept of communal life, once the cornerstone of the kibbutz movement, has evolved in Israeli society. The transition from tightly knit communities to more individualistic ways of life reflects the changing dynamics of a nation becoming more independent.

Yet, the recent terrorist attack by Hamas has rekindled a sense of unity and communal strength. It has brought the people of Israel together, rallying around the shared pain and loss; a loss and pain that reverberates across the world, and is bringing Israelis back home.  Reservists are answering the call in the hundreds of thousands, and the nation is speaking in one voice.

As Israel faces renewed threats to its existence, the lessons of history, embodied by Nahal Oz, are coming into focus again. Today, the kibbutz is burying its dead.  The October 7 attack is the kibbutz’s greatest catastrophe and Israel’s as well.

The story of Nahal Oz is a story of sacrifice, resilience and hope. Its story stands as a living testament to the valor, tenacity and unyielding spirit of an entire nation. It is a story that reminds us of the indomitable spirit of Israel and its people. As we remember the sacrifices of the past and confront the challenges of the present, we must also look towards the future—a future where peace and security are the order of the day, not a dream.

In the echoes of Nahal Oz’s history, we find a timeless message: the strength of a nation lies not only in its ability to defend itself, but also in its capacity to seek peace. This is what Roi Rotberg wanted, and we must not forget that.

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