Israeli Residents Near Gaza, Aka Members of the 'Tunnels Club,’ Say They Don’t Feel Safe

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Israeli soldiers sleep beneath a tree in the farm community of Kibbutz Nir Am, just outside the Gaza Strip, July 21, 2014.Credit: Reuters

Despite the declarations by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other cabinet members that Operation Protective Edge was not over, residents of the Gaza border communities yesterday couldn’t miss the dismantling of military staging areas, the large forces moving eastward away from the Strip and the loading of tanks and armored personnel carriers onto trucks for transport elsewhere.

Most of those who had left these communities to seek shelter further north had yet to return, but those who had remained had a hard time accepting what they were seeing.

“I can’t say that today we feel better in terms of our personal security,” said Ron Dalba, the secretary of Kibbutz Zikim. “We would like nothing more than to return to our routine, but we are scared to death, and we’re not afraid to say so. We are seeing the army withdraw to rear positions and yet we haven’t gotten any answer to the question of whether the army has really eliminated the tunnel threat. Our fears have not dissipated; no one has come to tell us that we can sleep soundly now.”

Zikim Beach is where the Israel Defense Forces foiled an attempted terror attack by Hamas naval commandos on July 9, early in the operation. Between that and the tunnel threat, kibbutz residents say they feel anything but secure.

Lilach Nehemia, whose husband was called into the reserves, returned to Zikim yesterday with her three children, not because she felt safer, but because was simply tired of moving with them from place to place. She had left the day after the beach infiltration.

“I don’t think this war is over at all,” she said. “After the other operations, Pillar of Defense and Cast Lead, there was a type of quiet at the end that made us feel that it was indeed over. But this time the feeling is totally different. I’m a lot more afraid now than I was before the army launched this operation. We feel like we can’t go to the beach. I’ll be sleeping at home tonight and my husband is on reserve duty and I’m afraid that someone is going to emerge from the sea again. If this is how it’s ending I have no doubt that we’re going to see another round in another year or two.”

Elah Fuchs, a resident of Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak who works as a community manager at Kibbutz Zikim, added, “We lost dozens of soldiers, we paid a heavy prices in lives, and when I look around as a resident of the south I can’t understand what’s different today from what we had before the operation. It’s true they found 30 tunnels and blew them up; they dealt with 90 percent of the tunnels. But how do we live with the remaining 10 percent? How can we live with a tunnel near our home that the army doesn’t even know about?

“The residents’ personal and emotional resilience is eroding from round to round,” Fuchs said. “Getting a phone call ordering you to lock yourself in your home for fear of an infiltration is a difficult emotional experience for all the families, and it would be very difficult to accept that as a way of life.”

An emergency meeting was held yesterday at Kibbutz Nir Am to discuss a list of demands the residents planned to submit to security and political officials that they believe are necessary to make the residents feel secure. At that meeting residents began to speak of the “exclusive club” — the tunnels club — comprising those communities in presumed range of the attack tunnels, and they are demanding that the communities along the perimeter fence get a heightened level of security funding once the operation is over.

“There’s no doubt that the tunnels have created a new reality and uncertainty in a number of communities, as well as expectations for a complete solution from the security establishment,” said Eitan Rosenblatt, Nir Am’s community manager. “We are saying to the army and to the state that to return the mothers and children to the kibbutz [we’ll need] a high level of protection. We want a real quality fighting force [here]…We want an announcement of a national project [to dig] obstacle tunnels, technology, and most important a dialogue between the IDF and the residents.”

Rosenblatt says that the kibbutz has been waiting some 18 months for its kindergarten to be reinforced against rockets so that it can be used. “We reinforce [the state’s] kindergartens with money we don’t have that’s been promised to us by the Defense Ministry. The problem is that we are fighting for budgets that go primarily to protect the settlements. The situation is that despite the dangers here, there’s a preference for giving budgets to the settlements and not here.”

Rosenblatt took us to view a map full of red dots, each representing a mortar shell that fell on the kibbutz. They started marking the falls in 2004, but stopped in 2007 when the map had filled with dots. “People don’t know this, but per square meter, Nir Am has absorbed the most mortar shells of any community,” he said.

An Israeli soldier inside a tunnel uncovered in Gaza. Credit: Reuters

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