Kfar Aza, a kibbutz on the front line of cross-border tunnels, was emptied of all its children during Israel’s war on Hamas operatives in Gaza.
Its 250 children were evacuated along with many families, leaving behind a few dozen adults in the collective farming village which usually boasts a population of 750 inhabitants.
Homes were shuttered, playgrounds left empty and silent, with the only noise coming from Israeli bombardment of Gaza and rocket fire from the Hamas-ruled Palestinian territory.
“We were used to rockets and shells, but these tunnels, from which terrorists can emerge, really frighten us,” said kibbutz spokesman Noam Stahl.
During a walk in the empty streets, Stahl pointed out the damage caused by 12 mortar rounds that struck his community, including one which hit a reinforced wall around the local kindergarten.
“We demand that the government protect us. We are very disappointed that after so many years Israel has not found a solution,” said Stahl.
Israel launched Operation Protective Edge on July 8 to counter militant rocket fire from Gaza and expanded it nine days later with a ground assault to destroy a sophisticated network of the so-called “terror tunnels.”
On Tuesday, the Israeli army completed a withdrawal from Gaza as a 72-hour humanitarian truce went into effect following intense global pressure to end a conflict which killed more than 1,800 Palestinians, mostly civilians, according to Palestinian health officials. Israel says at least half of those were combatants.
Sixty-four soldiers were killed on Israel’s side — including 11 in attacks by Hamas gunmen emerging into southern Israel from the tunnels — and three more civilians.
The military said the previous day that it had destroyed all the known tunnels in Gaza, which Kfar Aza residents view as a threat to their very existence.
The tunnels have been used by Palestinian militants to smuggle men and weapons and to infiltrate southern Israel on the fringes of Gaza to carry out attacks.
Dudi Doron said Kfar Aza has been home for the past 30 years. “We have known missiles but the threat posed by the tunnels made the situation worse,” he said.
He recalled how he would hear noises coming from under the ground and said his neighbors heard them too. “No one took us seriously,” said the 56-year-old.
Kfar Azar lies just inside southern Israel across from the Palestinian refugee camp of Jabaliya in northern Gaza.
Another diehard local who refused to leave his home during the four-week conflict was 77-year-old Israel Degany, a founder of Kfar Azar and resident of 57 years.
“This is my house and I have no intention to leave but I am afraid for the children. How can parents live with such a danger that can rise from the earth at any time,” he said.
Degany said that for the past 14 years, mortar rounds have often struck the kibbutz.
“But now it is different. I would like this to be the last military operation but I don’t believe it will be.”
Doron said he was realistic about the ceasefire. “I would like to be optimistic but it’s difficult now to believe we’re going to find the way to peace again,” he said.
“The Palestinians used to come work here and we shopped there. I don’t think things can go back to what they were but at least we can stop killing each other.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.