Kibbutz Kfar Aza residents called it a Hanukka miracle. The Geltzer family was not at home when a rocket struck their house on the kibbutz, which is located less than two miles from the Gaza Strip in the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council.
The rocket hit near where their baby would have been sleeping, caused extensive damage to the house, and served as a wake-up call for any Israelis who thought there had been quiet in the Gaza periphery since the IDF pulled out of the Gaza Strip after Operation Cast Lead ended on Jan. 21, 2009.
Residents of the Gaza periphery say Kassam rocket attacks have been escalating over the past eight months, from just five in April to 28 in November. Incidents of sniper fire, rockets, mortars, attempted infiltrations, and placement of improvised explosive devices on the border rose over the same period from 24 to 280.
“The relative quiet is a honey trap, because Cast Lead did not dismantle Hamas’ ability to fire rockets, shells, and mortars,” said Kadima Party Member of Knesset Shai Hermesh, a former Sha’ar Hanegev mayor who lives just 100 yards from the Geltzers. “Whenever there is an attempt to advance the peace process with the Palestinian Authority, Hamas responds by firing at our communities.”
The tension along Israel’s border worries officials of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, which has sister-city relationships with communities in the area, including Sha’ar Hanegev, Merhavim, and Ofakim.
UJC MetroWest president Gary Aidekman said he was visiting the nearby Eshkol region last month when three mortar shells struck the area. A Grad rocket containing phosphorous hit Ofakim the day after he visited the development town. “These ongoing attacks impact our brothers and sisters,” he said. “Knowing they have our support truly helps them face the risks of being on the frontier.”
The escalation has been happening gradually. On Rosh Hashana, 10 mortars were fired at Sha’ar Hanegev.
Along with the rocket that hit the Geltzer home on Dec. 8, five mortar shells were fired that day from the Gaza Strip into the Eshkol regional council. One resident suffered light wounds to his upper body and was airlifted by the IDF to Soroka Hospital in Be’er Sheva.
The following day, two Islamic Jihad terrorists were killed on the Gaza border when IDF troops opened fire on a number of suspects on the northern end of the Strip. The terrorists, who were found with light weapons and explosive devices on their bodies, were apparently trying to infiltrate a kibbutz on the Gaza border.
The Israeli Air Force opened fire at targets in the Strip. The Palestinian news agency reported that IDF jeeps entered Gaza, but this was not confirmed by the Israelis.
The following Saturday night a soldier from the Paratroopers’ Brigade sustained moderate wounds from friendly fire along the Gaza border fence as he prevented a group of Palestinian terrorists from infiltrating into Israel. Two terrorists trying to infiltrate Israel through the border fence were killed the same day.
Senior IDF officers expressed concern that the security situation on the border would continue to intensify ahead of the Dec. 27 anniversary of the start of Cast Lead.
“The IDF must be ready to operate in Gaza in a more extensive way than in the past,” Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi warned on Dec. 14.
‘A matter of time’
In an effort to get ready for the expected onslaught, Sha’ar Hanegev and three other regional councils close to the border filed a petition in court against a government policy funding security rooms only in communities that are within 2.5 miles of the Gaza border. They also reissued their request to the IDF to deploy the Iron Dome missile defense system to protect their communities and not just military bases.
The four regional councils released a joint statement saying that escalation was only a matter of time.
Neither Ofakim nor the Merhavim Regional Council, which are both sister communities with UJC MetroWest in the Jewish Agency’s Partnership 2000 program, is a party in the court case. But they are also on edge after a Grad rocket fell two weeks ago in Merhavim’s Moshav Peduim, which is located directly across the street from Ofakim.
Three cows were injured and a cattle-shed sustained damage. This was the first Grad rocket to be fired from the Gaza Strip since July, and the first to hit the Ofakim area since Cast Lead.
Avner Mori, head of the Merhavim Regional Council, told reporters that the government was responsible for the situation. The rocket fire, he said, “reminds all of us that peace isn’t here yet and that the government must care for the residents’ protection immediately. I don’t want to stress out the residents, but it’s starting to worry me.”
Ofakim Mayor Zvika Greengold said, “Hamas can decide at any moment to attack. That means we must continue getting ready for emergency situations and ensure that the public will be prepared for every possible scenario.”
Greengold has asked the government to provide secure rooms in houses, offices, schools, and public buildings in Ofakim, but so far no funding has been provided. Meanwhile, he has kept large concrete water pipes on the streets to provide semi-secure places for residents to run to in the event of an attack.
The mayor, who won a medal of valor as a tank commander in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, said he did not have advice for how the IDF should be handling the situation.
“I am not telling the army what to do, but I am saying that they have to do something,” he said.
Hermesh told NJJN that the way to stop the rocket fire is to reach an agreement with the Palestinian Authority as soon as possible, which would be contingent on Hamas’ relinquishing control over the Gaza Strip.
“We need to be negotiating with the true Palestinian leadership, while being tougher on the Hamas in Gaza,” he said. “If we do that, the entire world will understand.”
Sha’ar Hanegev Mayor Alon Shuster said he did not foresee an end to the attacks from Gaza. He urges his people to have even more determination and patience than they have shown already. But, he said, in spite of all the challenges behind and ahead of him, he was still hopeful.
“We are unfortunately marking nearly a decade since the shooting, terror, and violence against us began,” he said. “But despite these attempts to weaken us, we have unbelievably continued growing, developing, and strengthening. Our population is growing, Sapir College’s ranks have grown substantially, and our business sector has blossomed.
“This is due to the courage and determination of our residents, the help we receive from the government of Israel, and the support and spirit we get from our friends in the Diaspora, especially the ongoing assistance we receive from our friends in MetroWest, who keep us going despite the terror.”
Max Kleinman, executive vice president of UJC MetroWest, said its support will continue.
“Israel is not an abstraction for MetroWest,” he said. “We have established long-term relations with the citizens of our Partnership communities. When they’re under attack, we feel that we’re being attacked, because the only rationale for the attacks is that they’re Jews.
“We care about Jews wherever they live because we try to follow the talmudic dictum that ‘All Jews are responsible one for the other.’”