‘See that forest? The clash happened on the other side.”
Micha Ben Hillel of Kibbutz Nir Am near the Gaza Strip pointed to a line of trees on a hill separated from the kibbutz’s perimeter fence by several hundred feet of parched thistle and overgrown grass.
Kibbutz members used to play soccer and picnic beyond the perimeter. But that all changed last week after Hamas terrorists infiltrated Israel through what Israel calls one of Hamas’ terror tunnels. The tunnel ended about a mile from the kibbutz.
The terrorists, wearing Israeli Defense Forces uniforms, emerged from the tunnel July 21. They were detected by an IDF lookout. Although an Israeli air strike killed the first wave of terrorists, a second squad surfaced and managed to fire an antitank missile at an IDF jeep — killing four Israeli soldiers — before being killed by the IDF.
Now, walking even inside the IDF-patrolled road is a risk.
For 14 years, this border farming collective has accustomed itself to frequent barrages of terrorist rockets. According to members’ tallies, Nir Am ranks ahead of Sderot, which has received the lion’s share of publicity as the most-targeted southern city. Residents here said they were aware of the threat from border tunnels, but didn’t give it much consideration until last week’s attack.
In fact, when they heard the sounds of gunfight in the pre-dawn hours July 21, kibbutz members said they thought they were hearing the sounds of war from inside of Gaza Strip. That has become something of the norm here; they never suspected it was from Hamas terrorists almost on their doorstep.
“This is a new threat,” said Betty Gavri, a member of the kibbutz emergency response team. “We knew it existed in theory, but until you experience it, you don’t really know.”
In the last week, eliminating the threat from those tunnels has been elevated to Israel’s main goal in its assault on Hamas’ military infrastructure in Gaza. Israel reported uncovering at least 32 such tunnels, many with dozens of entryways.
The tunnel operation became fodder for the newest spat between Israel and the United States over a cease-fire proposal by Secretary of State John Kerry. In a very public move, Israel’s cabinet rejected the Kerry plan last Friday night, alleging that it would force the Israeli army to halt destroying the tunnels mid-way. It insisted that had it been accepted, the cease-fire proposal — brokered with the help of Qatar and Turkey — would have been a victory for Hamas. (The Obama administration said cease-fire talks with the two countries were preliminary and the proposal was not a final one.)
The Kerry proposal was never given a real chance of success. Even before the cabinet discussion began, Israeli Justice Minister Tzippi Livni, considered one of the most sympathetic members in the Israeli cabinet to the U.S. position on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, informed Kerry that she objected.
“There were ideas that were totally unacceptable,” she told Israel Radio. “The bottom line was a boost to extremist forces in the area. It was bringing Qatar and Turkey into the issue, when they are part of the broader world view of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
For Israeli officials, it was yet another example of a chasm of world views between the Netanyahu and Obama administrations.
A senior Israeli official familiar with the cabinet deliberations faulted the U.S. for not better utilizing what the official characterized as a “unique unity” of interests between Israel and the so-called moderate Arab governments in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority — all of which want to see Hamas weakened by the conflict. From Israel’s perspective, Egypt’s original cease-fire proposal, which ignored all Hamas’ demands, was preferable — and Israel believed Cairo had enough leverage of its own to force Hamas to accept it.
The Israeli official said also that Israel found it “strange” Kerry left Egypt and the Arab League out of the cease-fire talks.
“Egypt is the only country that has leverage on Hamas — Egypt can’t be ignored,” he said.
Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. under Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, faulted Kerry for his remarks in Cairo, in which Kerry said the world was “wondering when the sides come to their senses.” Oren said equating Israel and Hamas came across as “detached” to Israeli ears.
“That was an extraordinary statement in my eyes, because it means that a democratic country, an ally of the United States that has been hit by 2,600 rockets and was the target of tunnels designed to kill and maim and kidnap, is somehow acting irrationally in trying to defend ourselves. Like lost we our senses.”
The issue now is whether the Israeli cabinet will decide to launch a major offensive into the heart of the Gaza Strip where Hamas leaders and its military wing are hiding and adopt a different approach.
Gilead Sher, former chief of staff to Prime Minister Ehud Barak who co-chairs Blue White Future, a non-partisan group supporting a two-state solution, said what is needed now is a fresh look at the entire situation once the Hamas military structure is dismantled with an eventual goal of demilitarizing Gaza.
“If the U.S., Egypt and other regional actors are part of the international community working on a scheme to demilitarize Gaza in a way that is acceptable to Israel, there will be a timeline and benchmarks,” he told The Jewish Week in an interview Monday. “And simultaneously we will see the restoration of civilian life in Gaza. What kind of timeline, guarantees and security we get remains to be seen.”
He said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas should continue to speak for the Palestinian people, both in the West Bank and Gaza.
“It is high time we consider reintroducing Abbas and the Palestinian Authority into Gaza, first at crossing points and then with a broader presence in Gaza,” Sher continued. “This is an opportunity to restore the Palestinian Authority over Gaza, little by little. This will also pay dividends because the international community will be able to channel money, investments and donations for the rehabilitation of Gaza through the PA.”
Asked about an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, Sher suggested that the U.S. “recalibrate its expectations and allow two states for two people to emerge even in the absence of a full-fledged final agreement. We need to incorporate transitional agreements, partial agreements and even unilateral independent constructive moves to make two states a reality. Then we can resolve the core issues gradually.”
Sher said the previous round of Israeli-Palestinian talks should “serve as an anchor” or a reference for new talks and that agreements on each issue should be implemented immediately.
“Create a reality on the ground,” Sher said. “It makes sense politically and allows for a development that is positive traction on the ground.”
Netanyahu said Monday that he favors international help to demilitarize the Gaza Strip. In that way, the entry of people and goods into Gaza could be monitored to ensure that money and supplies are not used for terror activities.
“Dismantling the tunnels is a first and necessary step toward demilitarizing the Strip,” he said in a statement. “A mechanism for preventing the rearmament of terror organizations and a demilitarization of Gaza has to be part of any solution. The international community should forcefully insist on this.”
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz said Netanyahu doesn’t believe Hamas will agree to disarm and hand over its thousands of rockets, anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, so he wants the international community to deal with the issue. The European Union’s call last week for the disarmament of Hamas and other terror groups in Gaza is seen as a first step. And the paper said Netanyahu wants Gaza’s borders supervised to prevent Hamas from rearming.
Back on Kibbutz Nir Am, residents are still getting used to the idea that they might one day again find terrorists on the kibbutz’s doorstep and they want the offensive to continue so that won’t become a reality.
Like many of the other kibbutzim around the Gaza border, families with small children here have evacuated. Instead, there are Israeli soldiers in full combat gear who sweep the entire kibbutz to ensure that no terrorists slipped into the kibbutz and are hiding here.
Security around the kibbutz has also been beefed up. Infantry in bulletproof vests patrolled the kibbutz fence looking out to the forest where the gunfight took place. A sniper checked his rifle magazine, and a soldier behind a cement cube embankment cocked his gun.
In the distance toward the Gaza border, the hills thundered with the Israeli army’s assault on Hamas terrorists inside the Gaza Strip.
“You’re not scared being out here?” one of the soldiers asked a reporter. “Just now there was a penetration close by. There’s no guarantee it couldn’t happen a second time.”
Joshua Mitnick is Israel correspondent; Stewart Ain is a staff writer.