NIR AM, Israel (AP) — With deadly fighting raging next door in the Gaza Strip, southern Israeli towns along the border have turned into mini army bases as most residents have fled.
Those left behind say they are long inured to near-daily salvos of rocket fire from Gaza but newly discovered tunnels that have been dug by Islamic militants nearby have them spooked.
“It’s changed our viewpoint entirely. The rockets we somehow got used to. This is something else. They are under our homes,” said Ofra Benudiz, a 52-year-old mother of four in Nir Am, a kibbutz near Sderot. “Our greatest fear is that they will infiltrate.”
Earlier this week 10 Gaza militants dressed in Israeli army uniforms popped out of the ground less than a mile (1.6 kilometers) away. They killed four Israeli soldiers before an airstrike killed them, preventing them from moving deeper into the country.
Most of Nir Am’s 350 residents had already been relocated to safer areas in central and northern Israel, as happened in two previous wars with Hamas militants in Gaza, kibbutz spokesman Ofer Liberman said. Those remaining were shocked as Israeli troops entered the agricultural community in full combat gear fearing that gunmen had sneaked inside.
Soldiers have taken over communal areas, ready to act in case of emergency. The sunflower and avocado fields have become staging grounds for troops going in and out of Gaza, with jeeps and tanks kicking up sandstorms as the smoke from the Gaza bombings wafts close by.
The army often orders residents to stay in their homes, mortar shells and rockets have been raining down and sounds of outgoing Israeli artillery fire makes it almost impossible to sleep at night, residents say.
“This is no place for children now. They don’t need these traumas,” said Liberman, 53, who has four daughters of his own.
Israel launched a massive air campaign on July 8 in what it said was a bid to stop relentless Hamas rocket fire into Israel. That was expanded last week to a ground war aimed at destroying tunnels the military says Hamas has constructed from Gaza for attacks against Israelis. Nearly 700 Palestinians and more than 30 Israelis, including two civilians, have been killed in the fighting.
Israeli soldiers have uncovered about 60 shafts leading into 28 underground tunnels, some as deep as 90 feet (30 meters), the military said.
Liberman said residents felt fortunate that the military was around in such large numbers to protect them when Monday’s infiltration took place.
After years of living under the threat of rocket fire, he and others in the border area were among the most vociferous advocates for a strong Israeli military move against Gaza militants. Despite the current discomfort, he said he hoped the military would finish the job.
“My realistic hope is that this will give us 10 years of quiet, because I know it won’t give us 40 and I’m tired of it only giving us two,” he said, as he fielded phone calls from volunteer organizations offering to host families and deliver goods. “Finally the state of Israel has put this at the top of its priorities.”
The local regional council covering about a dozen communities says more than 50 percent of its 8,000 residents are now elsewhere, with the numbers as high as 80 percent in those that straddle the border with Gaza. Those with families have mostly left and only the elderly and essential members like security officials and those caring for the dairy farms and livestock have stayed.
Palestinian militants have fired more than 2,000 rockets since the fighting began, some reaching deeper than ever into Israel.
In Erez, another kibbutz, residents have rocket dodging down to a science. Almost everyone has a shelter in their home and people know to be within 15 seconds of finding cover from an incoming projectile.
Having somehow conquered that anxiety, residents say they are having a hard time coming to grips with a threat not only from above, but also from below.
Some swear they have heard suspicious sounds under the ground in recent months and remain concerned about the uncertainty that could remain even after the military wraps up its operation in Gaza.
“It’s like living next to a volcano, you never know when it is going to erupt,” said Ronnie Levine, 62. “We’ve worked so hard to learn how to deal with the rockets. Now we’ll have to figure out what to do with the tunnels. That’s life here.”