Near Gaza Border, Waiting For ‘Next War’


Kibbutz Ein HaShlosha, Israel — When the latest Israel-Hamas war erupted a year ago this week, Danny Cohen, a member of this kibbutz a mile from the Gaza border, prepared to evacuate his four children while trying to keep the kibbutz’s main factory open — despite the barrage of mortars and rockets, 18 of which hit the kibbutz.

“Ordinarily we have 50 workers, but for two months just 10 people made it to work. Kibbutz families with children fled the area and workers from outside the kibbutz were afraid to come due to the rockets and the tunnels,” Cohen, the production manager, said in the community’s loose-leaf binder factory, the largest in Israel.

Cohen noted that the Iron Dome anti-rocket system that defended much of the country last summer, “doesn’t work here because we’re too close to the border.”

Residents have four seconds at most to run for shelter, he said, “but lots of times we hear the rocket explode before we get the alert.”

Although life on Ein HaShlosha has been blissfully quiet since the war’s end last August (the few rockets Gaza militants have launched in recent weeks have fallen farther inland), “there’s quite a bit of disappointment that we’re no closer to peace,” Cohen said. “I can’t see us achieving a long-term calm. We’re living in anticipation of the next war.”

A year after the start of Operation Protective Edge, Israelis living close to the border say they feel more vulnerable than ever.

Although the IDF has beefed up its surveillance of Hamas’ activities and taken steps to quickly identify the construction of new “terror tunnels,” many residents cannot envision an end to the cycle of violence with Gaza militants. They are worried, too, about the growing threat of Islamic State (ISIS) fighters in the nearby Sinai, whose violent clashes with Egyptian forces have escalated in recent days.

At a military briefing at Ein HaShlosha last week, Maj. Nir Peled, deputy operations officer of the IDF’s Gaza Division, acknowledged that monitoring the border “is a difficult task.”

“We realize there are many enemy troops within our defense lines, and the distances between our communities and the Gaza Strip are very small. If you add to this the enemy’s maneuvers underground, it’s not easy,” he said.

Peled said one of the 34 Hamas-built tunnels the IDF discovered during 51 days of fighting, all of them now “neutralized,” ended just a kilometer from Ein HaShlosha.

“Hamas has declared many times it is rebuilding its forces and the tunnels we destroyed,” he said.

The officer said the IDF is utilizing “a variety of technology” to discover any cross-border tunnels, but declined to elaborate.

“It’s only when you slide down 30 meters [98 feet] below ground into one of these tunnels do you realize how high-tech they are and how close they are to our communities. It’s definitely not a comfortable situation for the people who live near the Strip,” Peled acknowledged.

Hamas, Peled said, spent years building the tunnels, each costing up to $3 million, in order to send terror squads into Israel either to murder border residents and soldiers on Israeli soil or to abduct and imprison them in Gaza.

During a tour of one such tunnel located less than a mile from Ein HaShlosha — discovered two years ago and kept as a kind of IDF show-and-tell venue for visiting dignitaries and journalists — military spokesman Maj. Aryeh Shalicar pointed out the communications and electrical wiring running along either side of the structure, which goes down 75 feet at its greatest depth.

Above ground Shalicar pointed to the miles of now-dissembled metal tubing, which he likened to homemade train tracks, Hamas used to transport tons of sandy dirt.

“This tunnel is a sophisticated piece of construction,” Shalicar said.

At nearby Kibbutz Magen, less than two miles from the border, Martin Sessler, 68, eating in the community’s communal dining hall, said “there is no possibility of peace here and that is sad.”

Sessler, a 45-year-resident of Magen and professor of Jewish law at Ben-Gurion University, said he spent most of last year’s war in a northern kibbutz with his young grandchildren, who were evacuated from Kibbutz Nirim, a mile from the border.

Some 50 mortars and rockets touched down in Nirim during the war, killing two residents and blowing the legs off a third the hour before the final ceasefire went into effect.

In Sessler’s view, the conflict between Israel and Arab countries “has turned from a nationalist conflict to a religious conflict. If you, as a Jew or a Muslim, believe God gave only you this land or this place to build a temple or mosque, it makes compromise much more difficult.”

Not that Sessler, a secular left-wing activist, believes Hamas or any other Islamic regime will accept Israel if Israel withdraws to its pre-1967 borders.

“I have no illusions that this is a question of the ‘occupied territories.’ For them, Tel Aviv is occupied territory, and Jews should go home to where they came from.”

Nava Etzion, whose husband, Ze’ev Etzion, 55, was one of the two Kibbutz Nirim members killed by a mortar the last day of the war, also has no illusions. But she does have dreams.

“We want to ensure that children on both sides of the border will not live in fear,” said Etzion, a mother of five. “Both sides need to learn how to stop making war.”

Asked how this could be accomplished, she signed and said, “That’s the million-dollar question. Our leaders need to speak to each other and perhaps we, the residents on both sides, will be able to speak to each other as well.”

Etzion said the first year without her husband has been difficult for her and her children, ages 13 to 23, but that her family and friends have been with them every step of the way.

Although several families have moved away from their homes near the Gaza border during the past year — most of them to spare their children the trauma of intermittent war — Etzion said she is staying on Nirim.

“This is my home and we live within the internationally recognized borders of the State of Israel. Our lives, like Palestinian lives, are worth saving,” she said.