NAHAL OZ Israel (Reuters) - Israelis living on the Gaza border have warily returned home after fleeing mortar and rocket fire during a seven-week war but they are angry with the government and fear it is just a matter of time before their villages are targeted again.
An open-ended ceasefire nine days ago halted the deadliest fighting between Israel and the Palestinians in a decade - a war that residents of southern Israel had hoped would finally put a stop to years of occasional rocket and mortar bomb attacks by militants in the Hamas Islamist-dominated Gaza Strip.
But the border communities are incensed that while hailing what he said had been the unprecedented battering of Hamas, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after the truce that it was too soon to tell whether the calm would be prolonged.
“We went to war, our soldiers and civilians were killed, we sustained huge damage to our economy, to our image, we killed hundreds of Palestinians and where are we today? Same place we were at three months ago,” said Raz Shmilovich, a 38-year-old father of three from the farming community of Netiv Haasara.
“It was too little, too late,” he said.
According to the Palestinian Health Ministry, more than 2,100 people in Gaza, many of them civilians, were killed during the Israeli offensive. Israel said it lost 67 soldiers. Six civilians, one of them in Netiv Haasara, were also killed on the Israeli side.
During the conflict, mortar bombs - which could not be intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system - showered down on the farming villages, which typically number about 200 families.
Tunnels dug by Hamas under the border were used to launch ambushes, and an exodus began from the area, leaving towns and villages almost deserted. Shmilovich said he sent his wife and three young boys away during the fighting, but stayed himself.
Israel says it destroyed all the infiltration tunnels it knew about, more than 30 of them. But Shmilovich, like many others, does not feel reassured.
“I have my gun on me all the time,” he said. “At night we lock the door, the windows. Locking the door in our community was once unheard of,” he said.
OLIVE BRANCH AND AMMO BOXES
Netiv Haasara is only a few hundred yards away from the Gaza border fence. A concrete wall against sniper fire faces the Palestinian enclave, on which a mural shows a white dove clasping an olive branch in its beak. Next to it someone has written ‘Path to Peace’, in Hebrew, Arabic and English.
Up the road, a pile of empty ammunition boxes and rocket cases left by Israeli soldiers during the last conflict litter the sandy ground.
Israel launched its offensive on Gaza on July 8 with the declared aim of ending Palestinian rocket fire into its territory, but some feel they did not do enough damage to Hamas’s military capabilities.
The Israeli military says Gaza militants fired around 4,000 rockets and mortars during the conflict and that it destroyed another 3,000, leaving an estimated 2,500 and 3,000 projectiles remaining in the hands of Hamas and other groups.
Most the civilian fatalities in Israel were killed by mortars. Unlike the longer range rockets which reached deeper into Israel, mortars give a person only 15 seconds to seek shelter.
In Kibbutz Nahal Oz, a collective farm, a plough turns over the flattened earth in one of many fields used by Israeli tanks and artillery units to pound neighboring Gaza, its damaged gray housing blocs clearly visible in the distance.
A few days before Israel and Hamas agreed to the truce, a four-year-old boy was killed in the kibbutz by a mortar bomb.
Sitting outside the kibbutz’s empty kindergarten, which is surrounded by a new three-meter (10 ft) high concrete wall meant to protect the children from rockets, Yanina Barnea, a mother of two, said it had not been easy to return.
“No one feels it’s over, so it is difficult for us to come home. I’d like the government to approach the truce talks seriously, but I am skeptical,” she said. “The solution is not a military one.”
The border communities maintain sympathetic coverage from Israeli media and their criticism could have ramifications for Netanyahu, who once campaigned under the slogan: “Netanyahu - strong against Hamas”. When the ceasefire was announced, his approval ratings dropped.
Hila Eibbo, a 46-year-old woman from Kibbutz Nir Am, believes it is only a matter of time before the violence restarts.
“The quiet is temporary. Nothing has changed.”
Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Raissa Kasolowsky
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