Once Flourishing, Gaza Border Communities Now Virtual Ghost Towns

The tipping point for many residents who have chosen to flee was the discovery of Hamas-built tunnels virtually under their homes.

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

KIBBUTZ NIR AM – Usually at this late afternoon hour, young couples would be sitting on their porches here sipping cold drinks with their little ones underfoot. Today, aside from clusters of soldiers milling about, hardly a soul is in sight.

Like dozens of other communities situated a few kilometers from Israel’s border with Gaza – most of them kibbutzim – Nir Am has become a virtual ghost town in recent weeks. The young families who populate these Gaza border communities have almost all relocated temporarily to safer zones in an evacuation virtually unprecedented in scope.

Some began leaving even before Israel’s ground invasion, when the constant barrage of Hamas rocket fire became too much for them to bear, considering that in these areas along the border, residents have less than 15 seconds to run for cover after a “color red” alert. But the tipping point for many was the discovery of Hamas-built tunnels virtually right under their homes.

In Israeli history, even before the foundation of the state, the borders were always defined, not by the army and its fences, but by the fields of agricultural settlements. This has been the case as well around Gaza where in many places, farming still goes on just a few hundred meters from the border fence. The semi-evacuation of the kibbutzim, even though temporary, is a moral blow to many local residents. In fact, the local authorities of Sha’ar Hanegev and Eshkol, which border Gaza, have requested that Israeli reporters refrain from mentioning in the future the names of kibbutzim near where tunnel openings have been found and their distance from the kibbutz, hoping to calm nerves.

One Israeli security official with long experience of operations in Gaza refers to the phenomenon as “the biggest success of Hamas that nobody is talking about.”

“We never had a situation in the past in which two-thirds of the people living on the kibbutzim on the border left,” according to that official. “The tunnels may have failed their objective to penetrate civilian homes and massacre large numbers of people, but they succeeded where the rockets and mortars failed, in causing a deep fear.”

It was just outside this kibbutz on July 21 that a group of armed militants, wearing Israeli army uniforms, emerged from a tunnel and killed four Israeli soldiers.

“This place used to be a paradise,” laments Guy Lavie, whose wife grew up on Nir Am and who moved here about a year ago after they were married. “We never used to lock our doors, but now we do. And now, I find myself constantly looking over my shoulders.”

70 percent have relocated

About 70 percent of the members of Nir Am have deserted in recent weeks, with other communities in the area reporting similar numbers. Those who remain tend to be either the old-timers or essential workers, especially those responsible for the agricultural fields.

Lavie, who returned to the kibbutz a day before with his wife and 11-month-old baby, says he couldn’t bear being a nomad any longer and desperately missed his home. Most of his friends, however, have still not come back.

Lavie and his wife, along with many of their friends on the kibbutz, first packed up when the constant barrage of rockets became too frightening for their children. “We just couldn’t leave the baby outside anymore because we were constantly forced to run for cover,” he recounts.

They spent five days at Kibbutz Kalia near the Dead Sea and then decided to head back to Nir Am. It was two days after they were back home that the Gaza militants tried to infiltrate their kibbutz through the tunnels. “Somebody came around with a loudspeaker and ordered us to stay inside and not move,” he recalls. That day, he and his wife packed up again and joined the rest of their group from Nir Am, which had meanwhile relocated to Kibbutz Ma’aleh Hahamisha, just outside Jerusalem. After a few days there, they moved into Lavie’s sister’s apartment in Tel Aviv so that they could have their dog join them.

The children’s house at Nir Am is closed these days, as is the kibbutz pub. The only sign of life in the communal dining hall is a stray cat searching for non-existent scraps of food. A flyer tacked onto the bulletin board outside advertising a new Pilates class stands out as a relic from days gone by. At the local canteen, the proprietor, a young woman named Linoy, is getting ready to close up for the day, even though it is barely 5 in the afternoon. Usually, she says, the canteen stays open until 10 at night. “Our only customers these days are the soldiers,” explains Linoy.

Lavie’s father-in-law Eli says he never considered leaving the kibbutz. “I’ve been here 25 years, and this is my home,” he says. “As long as my grandson is in a safe place, I’m calm.” Born in Holland, Eli immigrated to Israel as a teenager with his parents. He fondly recalls a long-lost era when he and his family would travel for the day to Gaza, lured by its beautiful beaches.

Moshiko, a neighbor of Lavie’s who moved to Nir Am almost two years ago, says he takes breaks away from the kibbutz when he can, but more often than not, he has no choice but to stay because he works at the nearby Strauss dairy factory. “I’m not going to say I’m not scared,” he says.

An old-timer passing by on an electric scooter says he’s not interested in sharing his thoughts about the mass evacuation at his kibbutz, but when asked if he himself is not scared, he responds: “And if I am?”

‘Take the gun ...’

Sde Avraham is an agricultural community just down the road from Kibbutz Sufa, where Gaza militants attempted, but failed, to carry out their first attack via a cross-border tunnel. Maayan Zweig, a resident of this moshav, was in the house alone with her three children at the time. “My husband was on guard duty that night,” she recalls. “He heard that something was happening and called me. He told me to take the gun and lock myself in a room with the kids.”

The next day, together with two other friends from the Sde Avraham and all their children, she headed to Ein Yahav, a moshav in the southern Arava region. “My husband couldn’t come because he’s needed in the cactus orchards,” she says. After a few days at Ein Yahav, the group moved to Yotvata, a kibbutz in the same area, and from there to Eilat.

Her other friends from Sde Avraham are still not back, but Zweig says she felt she couldn’t stay away any longer. “There are so many soldiers around who need to be take care of – basic things like food, showers, and getting their laundry done,” she says. “I felt guilty being away.”

On July 19, two soldiers were killed when Hamas operatives infiltrated Israel through a tunnel near Kibbutz Be’eri. For members of her kibbutz, says Canadian-born Vivian Silver, who has lived on Be’eri for 24 years, the tunnels have been a game-changer. Although it is close to the border, Be’eri has until now been spared some of the other damages of the war. “Because of our location, we’re too far for the mortar shells to get to us, and to close for the Qassem rockets, which go right over our heads.”

In a briefing on Tuesday with reporters, a senior officer of Southern Command said that the IDF had not given the order to evacuate the kibbutzim near the border so as “not to give Hamas a victory.” He emphasized that the IDF was totally capable of defending the civilians there, and that in none of the seven attempts thus far by Hamas to use tunnels for cross-border attacks was there any contact between the Hamas fighters and civilians.

Most of the young families with children on Be’eri have evacuated, driven away not only by fear of terrorists emerging from the ground but also because of the constant background noise of war. “For the children, the sound of artillery fire is very unnerving,” says Silver.

Like many of the other communities on the border these days, Be’eri has become a makeshift army base, offering rest and respite to soldiers making their way in and out of Gaza, providing them with food, laundry services and a few hours of rest on a mattress. “Over the weekend, we hosted hundreds of soldiers,” notes Silver.

Over at Alumim, a religious kibbutz right on the border, a very different scene is playing out. The communal dining hall is bustling at this hour, as kibbutz members load their dinner trays with fresh vegetables, rice and lentils. Children are riding their bicycles outside on the paths surrounding Alumim’s beautifully tended gardens, and young parents are roaming about with children in strollers. According to Avi Appelboum (better known as “Eppele”), “almost 100 percent” of the families have remained on the kibbutz, unperturbed by the battles raging just five minutes away.

Unlike most other kibbutzim in Israel, Alumim still retains many of the traditional elements of communal life, like the big dining hall where members convene three times a day for their meals. Eppele, a member of the kibbutz for the past 40 years, says that could explain their determination to stick it out. “There’s a very strong sense of community here.”

In addition, as he notes, “We’re religious people, so there’s also that bit about having faith in the Holy One Blessed Be He.”

Esther Marcus is one of a relatively large contingent of British immigrants living on Alumim. Far be it from her, she says, to judge any of the other communities that have evacuated, noting that some of the others have suffered much more than Alumim.

Trying to explain her own decision to stay, she points to a group of soldiers sitting at a table in the corner of the dining hall. “These 18- and 19-year-olds,” she says, “their parents sent them so they could protect me. So of course I’m going to do anything I can to help them.”

An Israeli army officer gives journalists a tour, Friday, July 25, 2014, of a tunnel allegedly used by Palestinian militants for cross-border attacks, at the Israel-Gaza Border. Credit: AP

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