“Are you at your best at 3:45 in the morning? I’m not, but that’s when we had to run to the bomb shelter again yesterday.”
So related on Monday Glen Eilon, 73, of Netiv Ha’asara, a moshav whose land abuts the separation barrier between Israel and Gaza.
Having been informed by the state late last week that it was safe to return to their homes, many residents of the southern communities bordering Gaza who traveled northward to escape the threat of rockets, mortars and terror tunnels returned to their dwellings over the weekend only to come under fire once again.
The next morning there was a polite message by the moshav’s pool saying, “Due to our neighbors, the swimming pool will not be open today because of a technical problem,” a wry reference to the fact that one of the incoming mortars had put it out of action for a while.
Netiv Ha’asara is the closest Israeli civilian community to Gaza, and the community has felt the harsh reality of the conflict with the Hamas regime there for many years, having been the target of hundreds of rockets and mortar bombs.
During Operation Protective Edge, a farm laborer working in the moshav’s hot-houses was killed by an incoming mortar shell, and an assault tunnel was discovered just 100 meters outside the community’s perimeter fence.
“Usually we’re very stoic, but this time people were angry and felt the IDF had left Gaza too quickly and that the situation hasn’t changed too much, the rockets are still coming,” Eilon said of the renewed rocket fire that took place over the weekend. “The feeling is that we can’t trust anyone to keep their word. We come back and the situation just continued as it had done. Hamas wasn’t sticking to the cease-fire, and we were naive enough to think that they would.”
Despite the uncertainty, most residents of Netiv Ha’asara have now returned to the moshav.
According to Eilon, who was one of the founding families of the village, 80 percent of the residents left during Operation Protective Edge, including himself, his wife, and his son's family, including their young children.
Eventually, the combined threat of the rockets along with the new threat of the tunnels forced his son to take his family away and strong-armed Eilon and his wife to join them up north at several different homes of friends and family.
He said people are still concerned about the tunnel threat in particular, despite the claims by the army that they have destroyed the attack tunnels that penetrated Israeli territory.
“People still think they’re there and it’s only a matter of time before someone pops up where he shouldn’t,” Eilon said.
“People are frightened, the first time I’ve ever seen a whole community frightened. This has been different than in the past.”
He said he didn’t believe the cease-fire would hold for too long and that the rocket and mortar fire the moshav has gotten used to over the past decade will start up again in short order.
Itzik Shimlovitz, 69, another long-time resident of Netiv Ha’asara, was similarly circumspect about the chances for long-term security, but expressed great stoicism with the situation he and his family find themselves in. He thought it would take only a month or two before the rockets start falling again on the moshav.
“We feel the government doesn’t really care about us but I don’t say this critically, although one can be critical. I understand the government’s logic,” he said acknowledging the heavier price that would have been exacted to deliver a more fundamental blow to the Hamas regime in Gaza.
“I’m sad about every soldier that gets killed. I have three sons who are in the reserves in the army, I was in the army too, and like every citizen I know what catastrophe awaits us there. Although I am sure there is a way to deal with it a lot of soldiers would be hurt doing so, and we’ve already had more than 60 who have been killed as well as the several hundred that have been injured.”
Shimlovitz did however criticize the international community and the foreign press for insufficiently covering the perspective of Israeli citizens living in the South.
“They have deadly weapons, which kill, and people don’t talk about it. They fire tens of thousands of missiles and no one says anything,” he said.
“I don’t want people to be pro-Israel. Don’t love me, if you want to hate me then hate me, I don’t mind. Just be faithful to the truth.”
Netiv Ha’asara is not the only Gaza-border community that experienced a mass exodus. Many residents of Kibbutz Erez, which lies less than two kilometers from Gaza also left in fear of what might come out of the ground among their community or what might strike them from the sky.
“There was terrible sounds the whole time, helicopters firing their missiles from above us, the Iron Dome launching its missiles, we heard the tanks and the artillery batteries every time they would fire,” said Arlette Koren, a kindergarten teacher and resident of Erez.
“We were basically in a battlefield and you could feel the war every moment. It was a real war here,” she said.
Koren said it was the fear of the tunnels in particular that led families with young children to leave.
“The new fear was the tunnels.
We always knew at the back of our minds that tunnels probably existed. We knew this nightmare existed since [Gilad] Schalit was kidnapped, and that one day someone could come up through a tunnel and enter a home or something similar.
And we’ve done a lot of practices for such an eventuality.
But we never thought it would really happen,” she said.
“This war exposed something that is very hard to deal with, and reduced the confidence of people to come back and live in peace and quiet in their homes,” she said, expressing concern that the new phenomenon would frighten away some of the young families that have recently joined the kibbutz.
She also expressed doubt that all the tunnels have been successfully identified and destroyed.
“Who can guarantee that they’ve dealt with all the tunnels. I’m not relaxed about this, and I never will be because I know because even if there aren’t any today, tomorrow there might be and they’ll dig them again. I know today its just a matter of time.”
Koren said she believed Hamas had taken a serious blow to its capabilities and its motivation to wage war, but she expected the drizzle of rockets and mortars to return in another three months or so.
“I’m not angry with anyone though, because I know its very hard to deal with this problem,” she said resignedly.
“The only solutions is to enter into dialogue but my concern is that I don’t believe that they will stand by their word. I don’t believe they want peace. Their interest is to eliminate us.”
These organizations are crazy, they take children as shields, fire from hospitals and churches and holy places.
They’re crazy, how can you speak to them? It’s impossible.
I despair of this. I don’t think it’s going to be OK, I don’t think there’ll be peace, I don’t think there’s anyone to speak with.
“There are only temporary solutions. There will be a little quiet because they need to recover, and then again they’ll recover their losses, and regroup and we’ll have another round.”