Heavy smoke and fire billow following an Israeli military strike in Gaza City on July 29, 2014
Heavy smoke and fire billow following an Israeli military strike in Gaza City on July 29, 2014 © Ashraf Amra - AFP
Heavy smoke and fire billow following an Israeli military strike in Gaza City on July 29, 2014
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Daphne Rousseau
Last updated: August 13, 2014

Israel's frontline families scared to return home when fighters might pop up anywhere

Banner Icon Israelis living on the frontier with Gaza have fled in their thousands from fighting that turned rural backwaters into combat zones and after weeks away, many are still too scared to go home.

Israelis living on the frontier with Gaza have fled in their thousands from fighting that turned rural backwaters into combat zones and after weeks away, many are still too scared to go home.

The thud of falling mortar rounds and the scream of incoming rockets have been part of the soundtrack to life on the border for years.

But the latest round of fighting has brought a terrifying new spectre into residents' nightmares: the discovery that Gaza militants have been industriously tunnelling beneath their fields and could emerge to strike anywhere.

On the first day of Israel's Operation Protective Edge campaign to stop rocket fire, Hedva Gabriel, 33, swept up her two children, threw a few things into the boot of her car and drove deep into the Negev desert -- away from Gaza and away from her beloved home in the agricultural collective of Kibbutz Nahal Oz.

It was right next to Nahal Oz that on July 28 Hamas fighters slipped out of a tunnel and into an army lookout post where they shot dead five soldiers before retreating back underground.

A harrowing video, taken by Hamas and posted online, showed the attack, with the kibbutz fields in the background.

"They took our 'home sweet home' to make a battlefield in this war," says Gabriel who has taken refuge in the bucolic calm of Revivim, a kibbutz about 60 kilometres (37 miles) from her home and the volatile Gaza border.

Three other young families from Nahal Oz have been there for more than a month, installing their suitcases, baby strollers and foam mattresses in vacant houses and rooms.

Others have scattered across the country, staying at kibbutzim, with friends, family or elsewhere.

- Stewards of the land -

Around 14,000 Israelis live in 20 kibbutzim along the border with Gaza, many guided by the founding fathers' principles of communal production and possessions, and the secular Zionist ethic which saw them since as stewards of the Jewish state and its borders.

In Israel's early days, they wielded tremendous influence with the succesive leftwing governments that ruled from 1948 to 1977.

Today, their voices are drowned out by those of nationalist hardliners, including West Bank settlers whose religious nationalist mindset is shared by much of rightwing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ruling coalition.

Regional council officials said that the vast majority of frontline kibbutz residents had fled and not returned so far, but they could not give a precise number.

An official at Nahal Oz said that of its 350 residents who fled, only 90 had so far gone home.

At Revivim the displaced -- who are given free board and lodging and in return help with kibbutz duties -- meet daily on the lawn outside the communal dining hall. And every day, they have come to the same conclusion: they cannot return.

"The only ones you can believe in this war are Hamas," Hedva says angrily. "They said that they would fire and they did what they said."

- Sitting ducks -

Despite a 72-hour truce that started early Monday and negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians to formalise a longer ceasefire, these families do not want to risk raising their hopes too soon.

Last week, as a previous 72-hour truce went into effect and Israel withdrew troops from Gaza, the army told frontline residents it was safe to go home.

But three days later, the truce collapsed in tatters as the two sides exchanged withering rocket and artillery fire.

The Israeli general in command of the Gaza region met locals on Sunday and acknowledged that the order to return had been premature.

"We woke up one morning, the army had evaporated overnight but the war continued and (the Palestinians) were firing mortars at us like never before," says Justin Becker of Nahal Oz.

"And we were supposed to stay there, like sitting ducks?"

Although they have given visiting politicians a hard time, the kibbutzniks have no criticism of the army. It is the politicians who draw their ire.

Becker's wife Ella plans to abandon Nahal Oz, where she was born, like her parents before her.

"Even without the war we still live in constant fear of our (Palestinian) neighbours, " she says, watching her children play on the Revivim lawn.

"Here they have a freedom they will never have at Nahal Oz."

More than 1,940 Palestinians and 67 on the Israeli side have been killed since the conflict began on July 8.

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