Gunmen Tunneling to Kibbutz Show Israeli Fears Behind WarJonathan Ferziger
By the time Dana Bar-On had fully woken up, nine of the 10 Palestinian gunmen who tunneled out of the Gaza Strip near her kibbutz were dead and Israeli commandos were moving house to house hunting down the last one.
“I’ve never felt so personally threatened and scared,” Bar-On, 27, said in an interview sitting under a tree outside her one-room cabin. “They’re just digging their way up into our homes and they want to kill us.”
As the United Nations increases pressure to end attacks on Gaza after hundreds of Palestinian civilians died, a visit to Kibbutz Nir Am gives an insight into why Israelis are backing the campaign. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his country to prepare for an extended effort to “neutralize” the tunnels that have penetrated Israel from Gaza, a band of sandy territory on the Mediterranean coast. The premier says Hamas must be disarmed under any truce.
The July 21 incursion at Nir Am has been repeated across the Gaza frontier, most recently this week, as masked militants emerge from underground passages. While the majority are spotted and slain, they killed 11 Israeli soldiers outside the tunnels and set off an exodus from the Jewish communities as fighting within Gaza rages into its fourth week.
“It’s horrifying to know so many Palestinians are being killed but there is also a terrible misunderstanding,” said Omri Yadlin, president of Sapir College in Sderot, walking across the grass outside his office as explosions echo 5 kilometers (3 miles) to the west. “When Hamas attacks through tunnels or rockets, we have no choice but to fight back hard.”
Captured by Israel from Egypt in the 1967 Six Day War, Gaza was the birthplace two decades later of the Palestinian uprising, or intifada. It has been the source of thousands of cross-border rocket attacks since Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlers from the strip in 2005.
About 95 percent of Israeli Jews said the so-called Operation Protective Edge was justified and less than 4 percent said the military had used excessive force, according to three surveys in July by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University.
Since the latest conflict erupted on July 8, Palestinians fired more than 2,600 rockets into Israel. The army says 55 Israelis have been killed in the conflict. Israel has struck about 3,300 targets in Gaza, killing more than 1,200 Palestinians, mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and European Union.
Palestinians point out that the majority of Gaza residents killed in the violence have been non-combatants, many of them children, while almost all the Israeli dead have been from the military. The UN Human Rights Council voted on July 23 to investigate allegations of Israeli war crimes by Israel, a step condemned by the government, which said the panel is biased.
“Israel is claiming that this is some new massive threat while the only ones who have been killed are its soldiers,” said Diana Buttu, a former legal adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team in peace talks with Israel. “Gaza is under a ground, air and sea embargo, and when you keep people in a cage, it’s natural that they try to dig themselves out.”
U.S. President Barack Obama called Netanyahu on July 27 to urge a humanitarian cease-fire. The UN Security Council called for an “immediate and unconditional truce.”
At the same time, National Security Adviser Susan Rice told MSNBC television in a July 28 interview that the U.S. “fully supports Israel’s right to self-defense” and that it can’t be expected to tolerate the use of tunnels for “kidnapping or murder operations.”
The constant rocket fire has made it tough to reassure people the army will keep them safe, said Shimona Grodzin-Ceasary, a psychologist at the regional “Resilience Center” on the Sapir campus. Sirens wail as much as 10 times a day.
“We’re all experts in denial,” she said.
Back at Kibbutz Nir Am, Bar-On remembers what it used to be like living adjacent to Gaza.
The Israeli army said the concrete-reinforced tunnel that ended near Nir Am was about 2 kilometers long, took more than a year to build and cost more than $1 million.
“It’s kind of surreal how beautiful and normal this place is, considering our location,” said Bar-On, who works as a counselor for epileptic youths at Soroka Hospital, 25 miles away in the city of Beersheba.
Founded in 1943, Nir Am has about 400 residents and about three-quarters of them have moved northward temporarily to safety. The kibbutz farm grows oranges, sunflowers and potatoes, while its factory produces “Michsaf” branded silverware and ceramic kitchen pots. Students and residents from nearby communities flock to Nir Am’s Green Pub, where local bands have developed a lively music scene.
Between the kibbutz homes and the Gaza fence to the west are fields and a reservoir. There’s a forest area and a road and sandy buffer zone adjacent to the fence, which the army patrols and monitors with electronic surveillance equipment.
Pointing to the tree-shaded meadow, Bar-On recalls family picnics and reading alone on tranquil afternoons. Not anymore. “That’s where they came through the tunnel,” she said.