The prefabricated temporary homes that currently house evacuees of the 2005 Gaza disengagement plan, even the larger “caravillas,” were never meant to be permanent. They have no reinforced areas to protect against rocket attacks, no built-in bomb shelters. But nine years later, in the temporary neighborhood in Nitzan between Ashdod and Ashkelon, as the fourth military conflict since their evacuation rages in Gaza, the former residents of Gush Katif are still living in them.
The ad-hoc bomb shelters provided by the Home Front Command are thick concrete sewage pipes, about two meters in diameter, which have been optimistically decorated on the outside with painted flowers, and outfitted with wooden benches on the inside, though there isn’t enough sitting space if the entire neighborhood is home when a siren goes off.
“When there’s a siren, we run out to these sewage pipes like rats,” said Deborah Israeli, a 34-year-old mother of four who used to live in the settlement of Netzer Hazani in Gaza.
“These little protected areas are really a ripoff; they will only work if a missile lands far away and there is some debris falling in the area,” Israeli explained. “If there’s a direct hit,” she said, knocking on a hollow wall, “all of this is cardboard. You’re not protected here, everything is drywall and cardboard.”
“Just imagine I’m alone with four small children,” Israeli continued. “When it happens in the middle of the night, which it does, and my husband isn’t at home, it’s a problem. Whom do I pick up first? The six-month-old baby? My two-year-old girl? The two older boys, because I have to get them to hurry hurry hurry? And in the background there’s this terrifying siren, especially in the middle of the night.”
Eviatar Cohen, a neighbor of Israeli who is also originally from Netzer Hazani, forces his family to run to the miguniot, or “little protected areas,” at every siren, even if he doubts the efficacy of their protection. “Why are we going there? For the kids. Will they actually protect us? No,” he said. “But we tell them, you must, must, must go to the sewage pipes so we have some kind of routine for the kids — what to do when there’s a siren… Because if you don’t have these actions on automatic pilot, you start to get confused… when there’s no routine set, that’s when the biggest tragedies occur.”
A spokeswoman from the Israel Defense Forces, which oversees the Home Front Command, denied that the shelters are inadequate. “These shelters were modified specifically in order to provide appropriate protection from rocket attacks,” she said. “The Home Front Command is in close contact with the local authorities, including the Hof Ashkelon regional council [where Nitzan is located].” She added that Nitzan received the temporary shelters in 2012 during Operation Pillar of Defense, though a few were in place as early as 2009’s Operation Cast Lead, according to residents.
The lack of protected spaces in their “temporary” neighborhood are just one item on a long list of difficulties the evacuees face every day, Cohen said. But Israeli added, as her children ran in and out of her home, that nine years after the disengagement, she is no longer furious with the state.
“In the period after we left, we had a lot of anger,” Israeli said. “We were so, so angry. It took us a long time for this anger to dissipate. We’re still angry. You can definitely still find people who say ‘we want to go back.’ I personally am not of that opinion. I’m not sure that I would go and raise my children there, in the situation we had there. Nine years later, I look back and say maybe God actually gave us a miracle when he got us out of there. Because who knows what they would have done to us today. They could be building tunnels underneath our settlements and blow them up. They could blow up entire settlements!”
Still, she said, there is a feeling that the current violence in Gaza was exactly what the settlement leaders warned would happen: Hamas control, a barrage of rockets, an extensive network of tunnels.
“The whole time we were talking about leaving, we said, we’ll leave there, and the missiles will start reaching even farther. And what did they say against this, all the people on the TV? They said, no way. Once you’re out of there, we’ll have a justified reason to really go after [terrorists in Gaza]. At the end of the day, look, the missiles reached Ashkelon and then Tel Aviv and even farther.”
“The international community, the European Union, they promised that if we left Gaza there would be quiet,” said Cohen. “To us it was clear that it would happen, what is happening today. The really surprising thing is that it took so long — nine years.”
Still, Cohen echoed Israeli’s reluctance to go back to Gush Katif. “Personally, I’m not going back to Gush Katif, I have two small daughters, four and a half years and six months,” Cohen said. “I’m not going back unless they promise me a new Garden of Eden. The reality for the last period in Gush Katif was not a place to raise children. Anyone who says differently is living in a fantasy world or too strong in their ideology.” Cohen emphasized that many evacuees disagree with his position, including his own wife, who is desperate to return to Gush Katif under any circumstances.
Like many families in the south, the residents of Nitzan are feeling the strain of an extended operation in addition to the longstanding emotional stress of being an evacuee. In Israeli’s neighborhood there are five young families and normally 25-30 children of different ages running around. But as Operation Protective Shield stretches into its third week, many families fled to stay with relatives in quieter areas or in hotels. Only one other family is in her neighborhood right now.
“There were two weeks when it was completely empty,” said Cohen. “It was like a ghost town. I’d come to shower and change clothes and not see a single person.” Now, families are beginning to trickle back to Nitzan, including both the Israeli and Cohen families, who just returned after leaving for a few weeks. “How long can you stay with relatives?” asked Cohen. “And anyone who was staying in a hotel has run out of money.”
The streets of Nitzan were almost completely empty on Sunday afternoon just before dinnertime, just a few siblings chasing each other in a game of tag. The local convenience store, which usually stays open until 8 pm.. in the summer so families can stroll by and buy ice cream, shuttered at 4. A clinic, grocer, and post office were also working on reduced schedules. The local council has canceled nursery schools and summer camps for lack of protected spaces.
“They’ve been without a framework for over a month,” said Israeli, after a fight over a bag of Bamba snacks disintegrated into a tantrum with at least one child in tears. “For over a month we have to keep them busy from morning to night.” The challenge is even greater for families like Israeli where one parent is in the military reserves or otherwise involved in the conflict. Israeli’s husband works with the police’s bomb disposal unit, which is working overtime to deal with all of the debris from falling rockets, and he is rarely at home.
“The kids have questions and you just don’t know how to answer,” said Cohen. “They need a lot of hugs, they’re always crying ‘Daddy, daddy!’ And then you have this,” he said, as his phone notifies him of a red alert in Beersheba. “She’s always asking ‘Daddy, was that our explosion? Did Iron Dome shoot that down?’”
As the army uncovers more and more evidence of the tunnel network, Cohen and others said they are not surprised by the size of the network.
“If I said I were surprised by the tunnels, I’d also need to say that I’m surprised by the size of Hamas, and I’m not,” he said. “Everyone knew that they were here. What about Syria? Everyone knew that Assad was crazy, but did anyone imagine his craziness would reach the level that it has?… That is what evil does – if you allow it to grow, it will multiply. On the other hand, the same thing happens with good. If you allow good to grow, it will multiply as well.”
“We know [about the tunnels] from the Philadelphi crossing 20 years ago,” said Aviel Eliaz, the secretary of Nitzan and nearby Nitzanit, who lived in the Nitzanit settlement of Gush Katif. The only thing that surprised him is that the military and the government kept quiet about the issue for so long.
“We knew from the moment we left there, Gaza would immediately turn into Lebanon, and that’s exactly what happened,” he said.
“From the house I was still paying a mortgage on a few years ago, Hamas is standing on that roof and shooting rockets at me and my children. From my own basement, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re using it as an entrance to a tunnel to [Israeli border town] Netiv Haasara.”
While Eliaz refused to comment on the safety of the sewage pipe bomb shelters, insisting “that’s what we have for the moment,” he had a clear message for the government, one which was echoed among many people at Nitzan.
“Be strong because we’re strong,” he said. “We give you all the time to continue this operation and to finish it. If we have to sit here [in shelters] for two more months, we’ll do that, so let’s do that and finish it. But do not stop in the middle, so that we have to run every three months into the bomb shelter in the middle of the night with our children.
“I’m not going to ask for 40 years of quiet, I will just ask for 10 years of quiet,” he said. “Right now, we will give them all the strength and all the support they need. But if this operation ends in the middle before the goals are achieved, we will not rest until we topple the government. We will not allow the State of Israel to gamble with the lives of our children.”