KIBBUTZ NIRIM, southern Israel — As the hours ticked by on Tuesday and the 72-hour ceasefire with Hamas continued to hold, residents of the Gaza border communities raised their heads to take stock of the damage for the first time since the rocket barrage began six weeks ago.
But their fears centered not on the rockets, but on a relatively new threat, or rather a threat they have newly internalized: the network of at least 14 tunnels crossing into Israel that the IDF found and destroyed. Though residents knew something of the tunnels’ existence, that the network was this vast and sophisticated came as a complete surprise to most. In all, the army said, it has destroyed 32 Hamas “attack” tunnels, including the 14 that crossed the border; residents wonder how many are still undiscovered.
My 11-year-old [who is staying with friends outside of Sderot] is calling and asking every five minutes, ‘Mom, did they take care of the tunnels?
“We used to look up to the sky in fear, but now we are looking down at the ground,” said Tzofit Peretz, a mother of four from Sderot who has spent the entire operation coordinating volunteer activities for housebound people in the city. “The idea of the tunnels, I just don’t know how we’re going to absorb that… It’s a new trauma,” she said, starting to cry.
“We built a new house from reinforced cement, to protect us from rockets. But what will I do if there’s something under the house that I don’t even know about? I don’t even know how to deal with this. My 11-year-old [who is staying with friends outside of Sderot] is calling and asking every five minutes, ‘Mom, did they take care of the tunnels? How do we know if they got all the tunnels? What is daddy going to do to protect us from the tunnels? How can I stay home alone if there are tunnels?’ And I have no way to answer these questions.”
Peretz’s house is close to a hill overlooking Gaza. “Every day, our house is just shaking. The booms are incredible, it’s like the whole house moves,” she said. On July 21, when five soldiers were killed in a tunnel attack near Kibbutz Nir Am, she could hear the gunshots from inside her home.
After the shooting stopped, she ran out to the supermarket and bought 60 rolls and 100 eggs to make breakfast for the soldiers. They stayed for hours, playing with her kids, relaxing, restoring a sense of security. A number put on tefillin and prayed.
“Every soldier’s death I just took so hard,” she said, tears running down her cheeks. “I felt so guilty, that they died for me, to protect my house.”
Still, Peretz said, she has no plan to leave Sderot, where she was born and raised and her parents still live. “We built this house, we built our lives here, our jobs. This is Israel. We have no other country. Here in the periphery, we have amazing people, we have friends to support us.”
On Tuesday, Sderot was bustling, with the streets full of people shopping and going about their routines in the city where bomb shelters are sprinkled every hundred meters. But it was a completely different story for the small kibbutzim and towns along the border with Gaza, where barely a fifth of residents had remained as Operation Protective Edge rumbled on through the past four weeks.
Eshkol Regional Council spokeswoman Ronit Minaker said all the children left from the communities west of Road 232 — the communities closest to Gaza, like Kibbutz Kerem Shalom, Kibbutz Nirim, Ein Hashlosha, and others.
About 70% of the 14,000 people in the Eshkol region are still in the area, but in the communities closest to Gaza that number drops to 20%. The area’s council head instructed residents who left not to return until the 72-hour ceasefire, initiated Tuesday, has passed quietly in full.
Adele Raemer, who immigrated to Israel from the Bronx in 1973, is one of the few people left at Kibbutz Nirim. “I stayed because somebody has to stay,” she said. “It’s important to have a civilian presence. We can’t abandon the community.”
Kibbutz Nirim has about 400 residents, and 100 have stayed behind, many of them elderly people with mobility issues, she said. Every day, Raemer opens the community center for an hour so the elderly people can try to get out of the house a little bit and watch the news together.
“I’m doing my own self-imposed Tzav 8 [reservist call-up notice],” Raemer said, after hosting a regular stream of international journalists in the past weeks. “My son can do his bit and be a helicopter mechanic, and I can do my bit and be interviewed — to stay here and get the word out that somehow makes an impression on the world. Because otherwise it’s just that the Palestinians are being slaughtered and the Israelis are so unfair. There’s got to be somebody here that’s saying, Wait a minute, I don’t want this to be happening to the Palestinians, but how can I live with the fear of tunnels, with the fear of mortars that don’t give warning when they fall, and the fear of rockets?”
Raemer said she hoped people would come back to the kibbutz soon, but her own daughter, who was supposed to be married in a simple ceremony next to the kibbutz swimming pool on July 4, is looking for another place to live. The wedding was moved three days before the ceremony to Kibbutz Ga’ash in central Israel.
“She used to have this terrible fear, from when she was a kid, that a terrorist would come into the kibbutz and kill her in our home,” said Raemer. “And when she was 9, I said to her, don’t worry, Gaza is 2 kilometers away, we’re in the middle of the kibbutz, we’re safe. And now she’s 32 and I can’t tell her that it’s an irrational fear.”
‘When I came to live in this area in 1975, we’d all get in a car and go to Gaza and go to the beach and go to the shuk. A Gazan built this house in 1996’
A tunnel entrance from Gaza was discovered a few hundred meters from Raemer’s house. (In a series of attacks last month, Hamas gunmen emerging from the tunnels into Israel killed 11 IDF soldiers. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Hamas was planning to use the sophisticated tunnel networks to carry out “catastrophic” mass attacks on kibbutz dining halls, homes and kindergartens, and on army bases, in southern Israel.)
When people wonder how she can live so close to Gaza, Raemer reminds them it wasn’t always the front with the enemy. “When I came to live in this area in 1975, we’d all get in a car and go to Gaza and go to the beach and go to the shuk. A Gazan built this house in 1996,” said Raemer. “I didn’t go live in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] and I didn’t go live on the Golan Heights because those are areas that could be given back some day. This is Israel proper. I chose to live in a place that’s not contested. So this is where we stick in our heels and say, No, I’m not going anyplace.”
Raemer said the army and government will have to take a number of concrete steps to make the residents feel safe again. “If it means having the army here all the time, I don’t know. [Along with the anti-rocket Iron Dome], we need an Iron Shovel to deal with the threat coming from under the ground.”
On a tour of the kibbutz, Raemer points out a parking lot that’s been hit twice by rockets, now the butt of a neighborhood joke: “That’s where you park the car you want to get rid of.”
She pointed out a number of holes in the ground made by rockets, the metal still embedded into the asphalt. Just 20 meters from the playground, caution tape warned residents to stay away from parts of an unexploded missile. On Saturday, for the first time, a member of the kibbutz was injured, from shrapnel from a rocket that landed in a tree next to his house.
The Eshkol Regional Council, where Kibbutz Nirim is located, has been the hardest-hit area of the country, with more than 850 of the 3,000-plus rocket shot at Israel falling inside its boundaries. The council, home to 14,000 people living in 23 different kibbutzim and villages, shares 40 kilometers of its border with Gaza and 12 with Egypt.
Since the beginning of the escalation six weeks ago, 79 rockets have fallen inside populated areas, damaging fields, greenhouses, agricultural buildings, and homes. Three civilians have died from rockets across Israel. Seven of the tunnels the army has discovered leading from Gaza into Israel emerged inside the Eshkol region.
‘People here aren’t trying to say, “Poor us”; they’re really staying strong’
The area is too close to Gaza for Iron Dome to be effective; sometimes the rockets are so close there is not even a chance for the Home Front Command to activate the Code Red alarm. “People are scared, and it’s natural to be scared,” said Minaker, the Eshkol Council spokeswoman.
Agriculture is the main business in the Eshkol Region. But the rocket barrage has destroyed many fields around the border, because the rockets start fires where they fall and turn the soil into a powder that will take at least a year or two to regain nutrients for agriculture. Then there are the small business that have suffered since many of the residents left.
“People here aren’t trying to say, ‘Poor us’; they’re really staying strong,” said Minaker. “They’re not playing that game, but it’s a difficult situation and we need the state to support us, to strengthen and invest in the infrastructure in this area, to create incentives for people to live here and for companies and factories to come here.”
Eshkol Council members have already presented an initial recovery program to the prime minister and the Defense Ministry with three requests. First, they want to improve their physical security. This includes continuous army presence in the various communities, improved physical barriers to protect communities both above and below ground, and continued funding for existing community security initiatives that were previously under threat of losing their funding, such as security representatives in each community.
Second, they need money for what are called “psychological resilience” programs, which include private counseling and therapy, as well as funding for individual needs that differ across communities, such as improving the rocket alert system.
Third, they want the government to designate the area surrounding Gaza as an area of “national preference,” which will give tax breaks and incentives to citizens and businesses who move here.
‘We want a simple life, not war, that’s certain’
The best way to help the area, Minaker continued, is a long-lasting political agreement for peace, otherwise they’ll be facing the same problems in a year and a half. How to achieve it? That’s a question for another day.
Despite the threats, Minaker said the region is growing steadily. “This area grew by 35% since Operation Cast Lead [in 2008-9],” she said. “People come for the atmosphere, the views, because we are really invested in the education here, and the feeling of community is really strong here. Children come back here to raise their families because they like it, not because of ideology.”
The settlers in the West Bank, she points out, benefit from millions of shekels in government aid, but they are there for political ideology. “They are in areas where there is a conflict about whether or not that area is legitimately part of the state of Israel. Here we’re sitting in area that is clearly Israel,” she said emphatically.
“If we’re not here, the country will definitely get smaller. But that’s not our goal. We’re here to live here quietly, to play outside, to go to school. We want a simple life, not war, that’s certain.”
As the ceasefire continued to hold, a weary community began to come back to life.
Near the center of Kibbutz Nirim on Tuesday, resident Zare Vartanian was overseeing the sweet potato packing plant for the second day in a row, scrambling to catch up after losing a month of work. Vartanian said he hoped the ceasefire would hold so they could continue working and living their normal life.
“Only this morning, I finally understood how scared I was,” he said. “This fear is simply exhausting. I hope it’s the end.”