Reporter's notebook'I wish I could magically transport my house away'

Residents near security barrier protest ‘abandonment’ amid Hamas gunfire from West Bank

A Palestinian border breach and regular shootings at Emek Hefer towns since October 7 force a new wartime reality and fears of mass incursions

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Resident of the central Israeli town Bat Hefer protest for improved security measures along the security fence on May 29, 2024, after Hamas terrorists fired at the town from Tulkarem in the West Bank. (Shahar Yaari/Flash90)
Resident of the central Israeli town Bat Hefer protest for improved security measures along the security fence on May 29, 2024, after Hamas terrorists fired at the town from Tulkarem in the West Bank. (Shahar Yaari/Flash90)

Protesting months of armed Palestinian intimidation of Israelis living near the West Bank security barrier, dozens gathered in Bat Hefer to demand greater army presence and to warn of what they view as an impending security crisis.

The protest Wednesday came after a video that showed men who identified themselves as Hamas gunmen firing automatic weapons at Bat Hefer from the neighboring Palestinian city of Tulkarem. The Israel Defense Forces confirmed the shooting was carried out by Hamas operatives. 

A similar shooting incident occurred on Monday. On that day, about 30 Palestinian men also crossed over the security barrier, of whom at least 19 were captured and detained.

The incidents briefly brought media attention to Bat Hefer and the region, which have been the focus of a campaign of intimidation by gunmen from Palestinian cities that began on October 7 but has been largely eclipsed by the fighting in Gaza and the north that broke out on that date.     

In the intimidation campaign against the Hefer Velley Regional Council — a mere 30 kilometers (19 miles) northeast of Tel Aviv — Palestinians have been firing guns and rifles mostly indiscriminately in the direction of Israeli communities. Some houses have been hit by bullets in recent months — including one in Kibbutz Yad Hannah near Bat Hefer on Wednesday. But the terrorists do not appear to be attempting the targeted sniping that had killed Israelis during the Second Intifada.

The relentless gunshots and the demonstrated ability of Palestinians to cross over the barrier raise fears in locals that they may be targeted in a cross-barrier invasion like the deadly onslaught staged by about 3,000 Hamas terrorists on October 7 from Gaza, in which they killed some 1,200 Israelis and abducted 252.

The protesters, who came from multiple communities in the Emek Hefer, or Hefer Valley, region east of Netanya, demanded the army beef up its deployment in the area and take firmer action to stymie the escalating armed hostilities.

‘This is the heart of the country’

Limor Rehney, who has lived in Bat Hefer since its establishment in 1996, said she had never felt as unsafe here as she does now — including during the Second Intifada that began in 2000 and ended in 2005 with more than 1,000 Israeli fatalities and at least 3,000 Palestinian ones.

“It was scary, it felt dangerous, but the army was here. There were tanks guarding us. We didn’t feel abandoned like we do now,” said Rehney, 59, about the Second Intifada. Bat Hefer, which has about 6,000 residents, is located along Route 6 about 13 kilometers (8 miles) east of Netanya, Israel’s sixth-largest city.

“This is not the north. This is not the south. This is no [West Bank] settlement. This is the heart of the country, and if we can’t defend it, I don’t want to think what that means for our future,” Yosef Karasik, Bat Hefer’s rabbi, said at the protest.

Rabbi Yosef Karasik speaks into a megaphone at a protest rally outside Bat Hefer on May 29, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

“Just like the Gaza Envelope communities were abandoned before October 7, we in the ‘Samaria envelope’ communities are being abandoned ahead of a future October 7 that’s already being prepared before our very eyes,” said Rehney, an accountant who has two daughters.

The Israel Defense Forces deployed several dozen troops to Bat Hefer after October 7. But in recent weeks, the troops left Bat Hefer.

Life changed drastically in Bat Hefer immediately after October 7, said Rickie Barda, a longtime resident.

“The gunfire that broke out on October 7 continues each night, sometimes also in the morning,” said Barda, who is also an accountant and a mother of two.

Before October 7, she used to recommend moving to Bat Hefer to friends and family, Barda said.

“It’s a place to raise children, I would say. But now I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. If I could magically transport my house away, I would in a heartbeat,” said Barda. She obtained a firearm license and pistol after October 7.

“A 49-year-old mom from Netanya’s suburbs with a gun. Ridiculous,” she said.

Limor Rehney attends a protest rally in Bat Hefer on May 29, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Children in danger

Wednesday’s shooting happened as high school students were gathered not far from the barrier at a bus stop, waiting for the school bus.

“They began running all over the place, looking for shelter,” said Karasik, Bat Hefer’s rabbi and a father of 11 children, as he walked from the protest outside the town’s yellow entrance gate to the local synagogue.

Security has always been an issue in Bat Hefer, which was built with a robust eastern barrier years before it was incorporated into the larger security barrier separating the bulk of the West Bank from Israel. For years, locals used to place mannikins dressed in uniforms along the wire fence behind the barrier’s wall to fool potential infiltrators into thinking the place was more heavily guarded than it was.

But now, some are already leaving town, Karasik said.

“The wealthier 20%, who can afford to rent outside Bat Hefer, are already doing it,” he said. One woman, who spoke to The Times of Israel anonymously at the protest, said she is among those considering leaving. “I’m done living like this, I’m looking to rent elsewhere and maybe sell eventually,” she said.

Hamas terrorists shoot at the Israeli town of Bat Hefer from the Tulkarem area in the West Bank. (Screenshot X: used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

There have been reports of tunneling into Bat Hefer from Tulkarem. Several sweeps by the army and the local regional councils designed to locate tunneling have revealed none, the council said in December.

“I don’t rule it out,” Barda said about the possibility of terror tunnels being dug. “I don’t trust our army’s leaders anymore after October 7 and I certainly don’t trust our politicians. We’re in the dark.”

Contacted by The Times of Israel, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said it has at any given moment more than 1,000 troops ready to be deployed for “regional defense” in the Central Command.

“Lateral processes continue to improve security components in communities, from surveillance and detection posts to obstacles and fortified positions,” the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit told The Times of Israel.

Limor Efraim stands outside her car at the commercial center of Bat Hefer on May 29, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

‘I truly thought this was the end’

In Bat Hefer’s commercial center, businesses that depend on shoppers from Netanya and Hadera are starting to feel the effects of the security situation, said Limor Efraim, who works at Idit, a boutique clothes store. “This week especially, it’s been slow,” she said. Efraim used to live in Bat Hefer but recently moved to Herzliya. (Her move was unrelated to the security situation, she said.)

Bat Hefer’s sickle-shaped outline comprises rows of cottage houses in streets forming a semicircle around its manicured central park and community facilities, straightening into a panhandle along the barrier. The houses in the southern panhandle are closest to Tulkarem and the most exposed to sniper fire from its tall buildings. Some parents have forbidden their children from venturing south.

“We used to have communal activities all the time. Mostly for kids. Now it’s much less. Who would want their kids attending a class party at the park when you hear gunfire all the time?” said Barda, whose youngest daughter lives at home with her. “She’s in her twenties and she doesn’t feel safe being left alone at home.”

A view of the community of Bat Hefer. (CC BY-SA GevBen/Wikipedia)

For all its challenges, Bat Hefer is in a better security situation than some of the smaller communities of the region, known as Emek Hefer, or Hefer Valley, residents of those locales said at the protest.

On Wednesday morning, Shelley Levin Hatam, a 40-year-old mother of three from Kibbutz Yad Hannah just south of Bat Hefer, woke up to gunfire that sounded so near that she was sure terrorists were on her street, she said.

“I truly thought this was the end, that they’d murder all of us in our home,” Levin Hatam, a management engineer who is on maternity leave, said. Her older children are 5 and 8 and she likes being outside with them because the family’s home, whose construction was completed only two months ago, is among the kibbutz’s easternmost. “If we’re outside, we’re deeper in the kibbutz,” she said.

Yad Hannah has an emergency team of about five men and no army presence, she said.

“It’s insane. If 30 men with ladders climb over the fence tomorrow, we will be overrun and at their mercy,” she said, noting that a bullet that hit one of the eastern houses of Yad Hannah was recovered on Wednesday.

Shelley Levin Hatam holds her daughter at a protest rally in Bat Hefer on May 29, 2024. (Canaan Lidor\Times of Israel)

Locals here worry about sniper fire, including with RPG rounds, but their worst nightmare is a cross-border onslaught, they said.

In Sha’ar Efraim, a moshav of some 600 people situated about 8 kilometers (5 miles) south of Bat Hefer, “we all wish we had the security arrangements they have here in Bat Hefer,” said Nir Bazak, a legal adviser who moved to Sha’ar Efraim two years ago.

The moshav, which is situated about 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) from the barrier, has no emergency team. Bazak regularly guards the entrance on his own initiative, armed only with a sidearm.

A passerby who heard him describe this activity at the protest walked up to Bazak and commended him for taking this initiative.

“Yeah, well, I’m only trying to protect my kids,” Bazak said and shrugged.

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