NAHAL OZ – Despite the touted cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, residents of the Israeli communities bordering Gaza appeared reluctant to return home on Wednesday.
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In many of the kibbutzim targeted these past eight weeks by Gazan rocket and mortar fire, houses remained shuttered and communal dining halls empty. The swimming pool at Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak was still locked; at Kibbutz Kerem Shalom, the children’s playground was deserted.
The one place a sizable number of local residents did gather Wednesday was at Nirim Cemetery, where Shahar Melamed – one of two kibbutz members killed a day earlier by a Hamas mortar shell – was laid to rest. The attack took place an hour before Tuesday’s cease-fire took effect. Hundreds of residents of neighboring kibbutzim attended the funeral.
“We haven’t told anyone to come back or not to come back,” said Daniel Rahamim, a longtime member of Nahal Oz, which is situated just a few hundred meters from the Gaza border.
“The last time there was a cease-fire, people rushed back because they were homesick,” he continued. “This time, I think they’ll wait a few days to see what happens. I predict many will start coming back on Friday, and if the cease-fire holds over the weekend most of the rest will come back by Sunday.”
Almost all the young families with children at Nahal Oz, as well as other communities right on the border, fled their homes soon after the latest round of fighting broke out in early July, taking refuge elsewhere in the country, mainly at other kibbutzim.
Rahamim’s wife, Sibhon, said she was not convinced fellow members would return so soon, especially after a 4-year-old boy was killed here last Friday by a mortar shell, while playing in his home. “I think like a mother,” she said. “The women with children, it’ll take a while for them to gather their strength and believe they can come back.”
At Kerem Shalom, a tiny kibbutz whose homes are situated just a few dozen meters from the border, about half of the 25 families were still away. Ilan Regev, who runs commercial activities at the kibbutz, said he anticipated they would return by the weekend.
Despite the recent fighting, he noted, a new family had moved to the kibbutz last week and another was expected to join in September. “But I wouldn’t be surprised if another one or two families leave because of the situation,” he said.
Residents of communities along the border – the majority of them kibbutzim – said they welcomed the cease-fire, but at the same time expressed concern that it was a stopgap measure that would provide only temporary quiet.
Many warned that if the government did not move ahead with a political solution, residents would begin evacuating the area permanently. “People are not going to tolerate this much longer,” said Dr. Alon Pauker, a historian of the kibbutz movement and member of Kibbutz Be’eri, the largest in the region.
“The solution is not a military one. You can’t just make Gaza and Hamas disappear. Rather, you have to strengthen moderate forces and give the Palestinians their own state. But right now, there’s no political horizon and we’re all being held captive by [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu.”
In recent weeks, Pauker and other members of local kibbutzim have founded a new political organization called The Movement for the Future of the Western Negev, aimed at promoting a political solution.
Tsafrir Haimi, director of the agricultural cooperative at Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak, was also pessimistic. “The long term doesn’t depend on whether the Palestinians get this port or another,” he said. “But nobody here is thinking long term.”
Yehiel Tchlenov was part of the group of soldiers who founded Nahal Oz in 1953. The past two months, he said, were the most difficult the kibbutz had ever experienced. “It’s hard for me to trust Hamas,” he said, when asked if he believed the current cease-fire would last. “I take them quite seriously – not only militarily, but also ideologically. To talk to them about peace is like talking to Naftali Bennett [the hard-line cabinet minister] about a Palestinian state.”