Gaza Border Towns All but Abandoned, With 70% of Residents Relocating

'We were told not to call it an evacuation, but we left kibbutz since it’s impossible to remain there,’ says resident.

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Members of kibbutz Ein Hashlosha arrived at the Jerusalem hostel, August 24, 2014.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The death of 4-year-old Daniel Tragerman from a mortar shell fragment on Friday marked a turning point in the state’s attitude towards evacuating residents of communities near the Gaza Strip. In contrast to policies in place from the start of Operation Protective Edge until now, Friday’s fatal attack set the Defense Ministry’s National Authority for Emergency Management looking for solutions for families wishing to evacuate the area.

Over the last three days, some 400 families have requested assistance in finding arrangements far away from the border. In contrast to earlier stages of the fighting, such families no longer have to depend on non-governmental agencies or private donations. The state is now committed to financing their stay away from areas at risk.

All sides are careful to note that this does not constitute an evacuation. “This isn’t 1948,” clarified an employee at one local authority. “Don’t label it an evacuation. These are arrangements for living away from home,” said another employee. “We’re not evacuating any community.”

However, semantics cannot hide the fact that most residents living in high-risk areas chose to leave their homes again.

“We were told not to call it an evacuation, only a breather, but we should call a spade a spade. We left the kibbutz since it’s impossible to remain there,” says Yael Stadin, community head at Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha. Yesterday, with the assistance of the Authority for Emergency Management and the Eshkol Regional Council, most kibbutz members left, moving into a youth hostel in Jerusalem. One family, a mother and two adult daughters, decided at the last minute to stay. A few hours later, a mortar shell landed near their house and one of the daughters suffered slight head injuries.

The change in policy came after pressure from residents, communities and local authorities that had to fend for themselves for over a month and a half. The defense establishment emphasized that as far as the Home Front Command is concerned, there is no change in guidelines, and families have not been instructed to leave their homes. However, anyone wishing to do so gets assistance.

The National Authority supervises their move to youth hostels or facilities run by the Association for the Wellbeing of Soldiers around the country. Ten families at a time are relocated. All 400 families were expected to be moved by this morning.

An estimated 30 percent of families remain in the Gazan border communities. In more distant communities, outside the range of mortars, some 80 percent of residents remain. Denizens of border communities received moral support from President Reuven Rivlin at Daniel Tragerman’s funeral, when he stated that no one has the right to demand that residents continue to live there, although he added that everyone is impressed by the resilience they are demonstrating.

During the first weeks of fighting most communities along the border were almost completely evacuated. Families with children were the first to leave, followed by older people and young adults. Over the summer only essential workers stayed behind, as well as emergency crews and older citizens who refused to evacuate. In the absence of an official state of emergency, evacuees were helped by family members in the north and center, and by the kibbutz movement, local authorities and private donors. During the abortive cease-fire two weeks ago, many residents returned home. They now depart and return periodically, based on their intuition and on the number of mortar shells landing nearby on a given day. The death of Daniel Tragerman caused many people to make rapid plans for leaving their homes.

The events of the last few days have drawn a clear distinction between communities lying within mortar range – up to two kilometers from the border – and all other settlements in the western Negev. In the absence of a technological solution such as Iron Dome, the relatively simple mortar has become Hamas’ most lethal weapon against civilians. Residents living within two kilometers of the border find themselves facing a difficult choice, of either remaining at home in a dangerous environment or uprooting themselves for an unknown duration.

“Staying in the kibbutz means risking your life – it’s like Russian roulette. In the end someone will get hurt,” says Stadin, the community head at Ein Hashlosha.

“It’s life-threatening. I heard the incoming shell today and ran to the safe room, but the explosion happened before I reached it,” added Batya Uner, also from Ein Hashlosha, who remained in the kibbutz as part of the emergency team.

The evacuees are now more exhausted than ever. No one feels as if they are on vacation. They are determined not to go back home the next time someone promises quiet.

“This is the third time we’ve packed and left. We’ll stay here until there is real quiet,” said Yaffa from Ein Hashlosha, who arrived at the Jerusalem hostel yesterday.

“Even if the police try to force us back, we’ll only return when we’re convinced that it’s safe,” added Stadin.