The inhabitants of Israel's south, mainly those who live in the area around the Gaza border, are tired. They are fed up with the promises heaped on them, and are mostly confused. This is what Aviva Fuld, 54, of Netiv Ha'asara had to say: "For the people who live near the Gaza border, Operation Protective Edge was completely lacking in direction. They're not sure whether the tunnels have been demolished or not, whether the rocket terror was destroyed or not; whether we should leave our homes until the fighting is over or not; whether to believe the promises made by the chief of staff [Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz], the OC Southern Command [Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman] or the politicians; whether things are going to be quiet or not to believe that; whether to come home or not. The lack of consistency, the lack of a clear policy of the government and the security cabinet. We don’t know where we're headed -- whether to welcome quiet or a period of attrition in which they fire rockets and the army crushes them, and it all starts again. We've had enough. We're tired.”
In short, Aviva, one of the members of her community's emergency response team, thinks that the country is not doing enough for the community closest to the border fence. "With all the difficulty in living close to the Gaza Strip, Netiv Ha'asara is a slice of heaven that the government doesn't do enough to strengthen, in terms of the budget, building homes, public investment or making it attractive for families to come live here. The families have a hard time here with the rocket fire and the tunnels. With all due respect to the wonderful work of the Resilience Center, we want to live in quiet.”
The numbers support what Aviva is saying. Of the community's 180 families, 120 left during the military operation. Most of those who evacuated were couples with children. This state of affairs is similar to what is happening in other Gaza periphery communities. Many of the residents have come back, but Aviva says, "The fight that's going on now is against the government. We want to eliminate the concept of Color Red sirens from our lives. This cannot go on. All we want is for our children to live like the children in Tel Aviv want to live."
Eshkol Regional Council Chairman Haim Yellin, Hof Ashkelon Regional Council Chairman Yair Farjoun, Sha'ar Hanegev Regional Council Chairman Alon Schuster and Sdot Negev Regional Council Chairman Idan Tamir estimate the damage done to local industry and the economy in the tens of millions of shekels. Two major reasons for this are the departure of dozens of foreign workers employed in the agriculture sector and the closure of hospitality businesses and other services.
"The [local] economy and morale have taken a big hit," says Amnon, a local farmer. "Many of my friends and I have had a tough time staying on our feet during this time. Orders were cancelled, workers fled, fruits and vegetables rotted on the trees and in the greenhouses. Worst of all, the residents, with their wives and children, left everything behind until the fighting was over. It was almost the final nail in the region's coffin. It makes us feel really badly, but thank God, they've started coming back."
Despite the tough economic situation, the main thing that has the residents worried is the unending rocket fire. Jonathan Shimriz, 24, a student from Kfar Aza and one of the organizers of the rally that took place yesterday evening in Tel Aviv, said, "The residents of the area are exhausted. We're frustrated that no long-term, strong, stable solution has been reached. That's why the residents want to leave the community -- because of lack of confidence in the government, whose role is to provide us with security.
"Our lives depend on it. [Life in] the communities around the Gaza border is not the same as that in Tel Aviv or Ramat Gan. This kind of situation, this kind of routine, is unacceptable. As someone who was born here, leaving isn't an option. This is my home and I will fight for it with dedication and devotion. But I also need the state on my side. I need the state to provide me with personal and military security. Without that, what good is living in this area?"
Hoping for the best
The people who remain in the area around the Gaza border are definitely glad to welcome back their friends who evacuated. There is a great deal of understanding for those who packed up their families and headed north, far away from possible attacks. "We left because of the infiltration incident," says Revital Solomon, 34, of Zikim. She is married to Sharon, 35. They have two children: Yahel, five, and Yotam, two.
"We were going through hell, and when we realized it was only going to get worse, we decided not to endanger the children. We agonized over it a lot. Lots of families got up and left, so I took my family to Kibbutz Sasa in the north. We were hosted beautifully, but the children brought their fears and anxieties with them -- the sound of a door slamming frightened them. We came back home after more than three weeks because I wanted to believe that the cease-fire would last. I wanted to believe the promises of the politicians and the army and give my children a normal life again."
Irit Maoz, 40, of Netiv Ha'asara left with her children, Yam, 12; Sivan, nine; and Ma'ayan, six. They came back during the cease-fire before the most recent one. "The children were already so used to the explosions that they didn't want to leave. As sad as it sounds, that's normal, and it mustn't be that way. Actually, the only ones who stay are those who have to. Now I've come back, hoping that we'll have peace and quiet and no more war."
Ma'ayan and Yosi Shnior, a couple in their thirties, also hope that their wanderings are over. With two daughters, Reut, six, and Alma, four, they are not ashamed that they evacuated from Netiv Ha'asara. "It would have been crazy for us to stay," Ma'ayan says. "It was insane and bizarre that they dug a tunnel underneath our home. We went to Eilat, and the rockets reached there, too. We went to Hadera, and the rockets reached there, too. Now we've come back home, and I hope we won't be wandering anymore."
But not everybody left. Amit Caspi, 44, of Kerem Shalom, stayed to guard his community while his wife and three children went north for some R & R. "This past month was very hard," he recalls. "I understand the parents who took their children and left. It's impossible to raise children in an awful situation like this. Out of 140 families, 10 stayed. Many have come back already, but we know that from now on we're going to have to deal with fear and anxiety. Now we're praying that they'll invent an Iron Dome for tunnels."
Ofer Liberman, 54, of Kibbutz Nir Am stayed too, and assessed the damage caused during the operation, mainly because of the lack of workers. "Four hundred people live here," he says. “Sixty left during the operation. Families have come back, but they're still afraid of the tunnels. Despite the declarations, it's not definite that everything was destroyed. We're a resilient family, so we stayed put. It's a character-building experience that shakes you up, and all that we want now, if and when the operation ends, is that the government not forget us and keep its promises to provide us with security."
"An infuriating promise"
For the residents of the area adjacent to Gaza -- those who left and those who stayed -- the crisis came when Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz arrived and asked those who had left to return to their homes, promising quiet. The statement that there would be no more Color Red Alerts, only the red of anemone blossoms, was later proven wrong.
"It was an infuriating promise," one woman from Kibbutz Zikim said. "Based on that, with all due respect and appreciation for the chief of staff, I came back home with hundreds of other families with children. After the fact, as everyone knows, the chief of staff's promises had no substance. It was awful for us. What kind of situation are we in, that we can't trust the word of the chief of staff?" The residents' anger is understandable. The disappointment was frightening, and evidently also led to a visit by ministers and senior army officers to the region's communities some days after the promise had been broken. They tried to calm the angry residents, but that was an impossible task given the situation.
One woman from Kfar Aza who spoke about the people's anger directed her own fury toward the chief of staff. "We took him at his word, which he gave knowing the situation and the intelligence assessments, so we came back home with our children. But then we got a shock. We were in a lot of pain once the rocket fire started continually [again.] It was irresponsible to treat us that way. With all due respect to the chief of staff, if you aren't sure of what you're saying, then don't say it. Don't get people's hopes up for nothing."
Rachel Tabibi of Sha'ar Hanegev spoke about "the residents' terrible feeling of betrayal and abandonment," adding, "They've abandoned us. They deceived us with pretty words, especially the chief of staff and the commander of the Southern Command. They talked with us about peace and security and the red of the anemones, about peace and quiet. It was all a trick. It's awful that citizens feel that way about their leaders. In the days before the cease-fire, they asked, even pleaded for us to come back home because quiet was assured. Many families took the bait and came back home with their children. Many of them went back to their homes right as the cease-fire was ending, and headed straight into a barrage of rockets and mortar shells."
The feeling of betrayal over the violated tranquility and unkept promises went as far as a complete lack of confidence in the government. Residents of Gaza border communities could no longer restrain themselves, and some communities even told the families that were still in the north: Stay there. Don't come back home. When one resident of Kibbutz Nahal said, "We demand quiet and security," the anger in his voice was audible.
He added, "Like thousands of people who live in the communities on the Gaza periphery, I don't want to come back to that insane situation. Enough. It's inconceivable that rockets and mortar shells are still being fired 'only' at the Gaza border communities -- that's just fine, it's a routine we can accept and go on with business as usual. If they were to fire on Rishon Lezion or northeast toward Jerusalem, only then would that be treated as a violation of the cease-fire. Only then would it be permissible to strike Gaza and Hamas hard. What am I supposed to feel in this kind of situation? That a resident of Tel Aviv is worth more than I am? What is this double standard that says it's all right to fire on us, and firing on Tel Aviv means crossing a red line?"
A scarier situation
It was to be expected that after six cease-fires were violated when Hamas resumed its rocket fire on Israel, the residents of the Gaza border region would express their feelings without inhibition. They are no longer reining themselves in, no longer showing a reverential attitude toward government and army officials, as shown by the way they spoke of the chief of staff.
A week ago, several government ministers also took some harsh words when the residents expressed their anger at the heavy barrage of Qassam rockets fired at Sderot that morning, two of which struck homes. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but Mayor Alon Davidi went on the offensive. He directed his statements at Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon and held nothing back. Ya'alon had failed dismally in providing security for Israel’s residents, Davidi said, calling him "a minister without defense."
"That's not the way to obtain deterrence or security," Davidi continued. "On the contrary -- that's how to create a situation of victory for the other side and perpetuate the rocket fire on us for many more years. I would have expected the defense minister to beat Hamas senseless for all the rocket fire at us, until Hamas shrieked bloody murder and was clearly defeated. Only in that kind of situation are peace talks possible: when both sides know very well who won and who lost, who has the right to make demands and who doesn't. But it seems that nothing was accomplished in the current situation."
The term "cease-fire" no longer speaks to the families of the Gaza border region even though many of them have already returned home. Merav Cohen of Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha promised that she would not remain indifferent if the rocket fire from Gaza continued. "The way it looks now, it seems that Operation Protective Edge is about to end. We saw no accomplishment, either military or political, against Hamas. The fear of the tunnels has become more real and tangible than ever. We're about to re-enter an extremely complex reality that's scarier than the one that existed before the operation began."
In this state of affairs, residents of the Eshkol area communities have launched an initiative that is sweeping all the Gaza periphery communities along: to make sure that Kerem Shalom or Netiv Ha'asara are treated in exactly the same way as Tel Aviv or Ramat Gan. As part of a support and solidarity rally for the residents of the south that took place in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square yesterday, they intend to put into practice the new slogan: "Don't stay silent during a Color Red siren."