Truce or Not, Israelis on Gaza Border Know It’s Only a Matter of Time Until Rockets Return

Residents of border communities are skeptical cease-fire will hold and describe the intensity of the latest barrage as ‘worse than the most difficult days’ of 2014 war

A kindergarten in southern Israel where a mortar fell on May 29, 2018.
Ilan Assayag

SDEROT – A few hours had passed since the last barrage of rocket fire on southern Israel, but Alegria Ben-Attar was not holding her breath – not even after reports of a cease-fire had been confirmed on Wednesday.

“I don’t believe them,” said the 78-year-old great-grandmother, as she waited to have her hair colored and styled at the local beauty salon. “During the last war, every time they announced a truce, before we knew it, there were rockets flying over our heads again.”

Ben-Attar has been living in this town, located less than a mile from the Gaza border, for more than 60 years.  And although Sderot has long been a main target for Hamas, Ben-Attar said she has never felt as helpless during a rocket attack as she did the previous day.

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“I was in the middle of an acupuncture session when the red alert sirens went off for the second time during the day,” she recounted. “Everyone else in the clinic ran for cover, but I was stuck on my back with all these needles in me. Even though I cried out for help, nobody heard me.”

A day after at least 70 rockets were fired at southern Israel, residents of the war-weary Gaza border communities greeted the news of a cease-fire with a mixture of skepticism and disbelief. In the best-case scenario, they predicted, the latest truce between Israel and Hamas might last for a few months or a few years – that is to say, until the next inevitable round of violence. In the worst-case scenario, they said, it would break down within a day or two.

Five Israelis, including three soldiers, were injured from shrapnel during Tuesday’s attacks. Israel carried out 30 strikes in Gaza in retaliation. Rockets from Gaza continued to hit Israel throughout the night until the early morning hours of Wednesday.

“Based on past experience, there is no one on the other side that we can count on 100 percent,” said Yigal Hanoch, the kitchen manager at Hahummus Shel Thina, a popular eatery in town. “I have to admit, though, that things have been pretty quiet here this morning.”

 Yigal Hanoch, the kitchen manager at Hahummus Shel Thina, a popular eatery.
Ilan Assayag

Tuesday was his day off, and Hanoch, 32, had planned to take his son on an outing. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t leave the house because we were instructed” to stay close to a shelter, he said.

When rocket alert sirens go off, residents of Sderot have 15 seconds to find shelter. At the kibbutzim situated right on the border, there is even less time.

Reflecting on the latest flare-up of tensions on the border, Hanoch said: “I don’t know if there is a solution to what’s going, but it certainly can’t be only a military solution.”

On the one hand, he said, Hamas refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist and exploits the suffering of the people in Gaza.  “On the other hand,” he said, “if we get rid of Hamas, I fear that whoever replaces it will be even worse.”

Down the block, it was almost business as usual at the neighborhood mini-market. “People are still a bit apprehensive,” observed Daniel Dahan, who manages the place. “But here in Sderot, we have years of experience in returning to the daily routine after going through something like this.”

Daniel Dahan, who manages a neighborhood mini-market.
Ilan Assayag

 “Basically, we’re like the kid on the block who gets punched every day,” he said. “Yesterday, we just got more punches than usual.”

Just hours before the final cease-fire in the last Gaza war in the summer of 2014, Hamas exploited the opportunity to get in one last big round of mortar fire. Two members of Kibbutz Nirim were killed in that attack and another had his legs blown off.

This could explain why Adele Raemer, an English teacher who lives in Nirim, had butterflies in her stomach while driving to work on Wednesday morning. “Sure, the school is fortified, but you have to get to the school, and that’s the scary part,” she said. “Even if you have soldiers going with you, they can’t stand between you and a mortar shell.”

Raemer, who moved to Israel in 1975 from New York, started a Facebook group several years back called “Life on the Gaza Border – Things People May Not Know.” 

“I had been sitting at a computer Skyping with a cousin from New York when I kept on having to dodge into the safe room because of the red alerts,” she recounted. “She was surprised because there was nothing in the news about the rocket attacks then, so I decided to start this group so people would be able to understand what daily life is like for those of us living here.”

In the summer of 2014, Raemer’s daughter was supposed to have gotten married on the kibbutz. The wedding venue was changed a few days beforehand over fears of a rocket attack at the large poolside gathering that was planned. That daughter, she relayed, still lives on the kibbutz and has since given birth to two children.

Adele Raemer, an English teacher who lives in Nirim.
Ilan Assayag

“Yesterday, after the first attack, she put the kids in the car and drove to her father, who lives out of mortar range,” said Raemer. “I doubt she’ll come back today and will probably wait at least another day to see if things remain quiet.”

Tuesday’s barrage was “worse than the most difficult days of the summer of 2014,” she said.

Kibbutz Be’eri is a little further away from the border, which could explain why most of the children there went to school as usual on Wednesday morning. Most, but not all.

Over lunch in the kibbutz dining room, one little boy, sitting at a table between his parents, stood out among the overwhelmingly adult crowd. He had been too scared to get on the bus in the morning, somebody at the kibbutz explained.

“From what I hear, we had a much higher rate of kids attending school today than some of the kibbutzim closer to the border,” said Ayelet Goddard, the education coordinator at Be’eri. “At the same time, we’re well aware that during times like this, we sometimes see signs of regression in the children.”

Vivian Silver, a longtime member of Be’eri, was preparing to head out to the Gaza border when the first sirens sounded on Tuesday morning. Silver is a member of Road to Recovery, an organization of volunteers who help transport patients from Gaza to hospitals in Israel so that they can receive proper medical care. She had been planning to pick up a group of six Palestinians and bring them to a hospital in Jerusalem.

Vivian Silver, a resident of Kibbutz Be'eri and member of an organization of volunteers who help transport patients from Gaza to hospitals in Israel.
Ilan Assayag

“I had to wait to leave the kibbutz because we had been instructed to stay near safe spaces,” she recounted, “but I eventually got to the border and drove them to Jerusalem. On the way there, I wasn’t too worried because I thought it was a one-time incident, but driving back was a different story. By then, there had been ongoing attacks throughout the day, and it was frightening to be on the road.”

The Canadian-born kibbutznik is a prominent activist in Women Wage Peace, an organization founded several months after the last Gaza war. “With what’s happening now, I think our message is more timely than ever,” she said. “The only way to bring all this violence to an end is by negotiating a peace agreement. This cease-fire may last a few weeks or a few months, but until the two sides sit down and talk, it’s not going to be over.”

Years of living on a border kibbutz have turned Esther Marcus into an expert on handling panic and distress. Hoping to help little ones and their parents cope with the anxieties caused by constant rocket attacks, she published a children’s book several years ago titled “Tzeva Adom” (“Red Alert”). On Wednesday morning, this longtime member of Alumim, a religious kibbutz, was answering calls on a hotline for people in distress over the recent rocket barrage.

“Since about 6 a.m. this morning, I have been getting calls every five minutes,” she reported. “It was mostly parents concerned about their children. A lot of the calls came from people who’ve just moved to this part of the country in recent years.”

Does she believe the cease-fire will hold? “Not really,” she responds, “even though I want to.”