NAHAL OZ (ISRAEL), 20 April 2011 (IRIN) - Israeli civilians living near the Gaza Strip are feeling the strain as a result of the recent escalation of violence between militants in Gaza and the Israeli army, and are calling for increased protection - though not another Gaza offensive.
Measures being taken by the Israeli government to protect civilians in the area (known as the southern district and covering nearly a third of the country) have increased, and include Israel's newly implemented missile defence system, Iron Dome, to intercept rocket attacks.
"Today one million Israelis live within range of rocket-fire from Gaza - around 60km from the Gaza border and growing," Israeli army spokesperson Lt-Col Avital Leibovitz told IRIN.
"Iron Dome is a technical solution, but it's still under operational adjustment," she said.
Two Iron Dome batteries have been deployed in Beersheba and Ashkelon as part of the operational trial. Four additional batteries are expected to be operational within two years.
Meanwhile, Israeli communities living in the southern district are increasingly anxious in the wake of the recent violence.
During the last two weeks the 6,500 residents covered by the Sha'ar HaNegev Regional Council, including 10 kibbutzim (collective Israeli communities, often sharing common social or religious values), have been under constant threat of rocket attacks, said Council spokesperson Michal Shaban-Kotzer. Many communities have been forced into protected shelters daily, sometimes for hours, multiple times per day, she said.
The Council's territory [ http://www.sng.org.il/eng ] lies midway between Beersheba and Ashkelon, bordered on the west by Gaza.
Municipalities are providing trauma counselling for mothers and children.
Hannah Tal, therapist and social worker from the three-year-old Resilience Centre that has treated some 400 members of the Sha'ar HaNegev community, said children suffer from bed-wetting, nightmares, and fear of being alone.
"Very few have been killed or injured by the attacks," said Tal. "The trauma results from the apprehension of not knowing where or when there will be an attack."
For the past few weeks movement on the street and children's playtime outside has been restricted, she said.
Tal and her own family, living in Karmia, between Ashkelon and Gaza, were forced to take shelter in the "safe-room" of their home 45 times last weekend, warned by loudspeakers announcing "code red".
Militants in Gaza fired at least 140 rockets (mostly crude, home-made Qassams) and mortars at Israel during four days of fighting on 7-10 April, reported the Israeli army, during which hundreds of thousands of Israelis took shelter in secure areas. Protective shelters are also located in public places, like bus stops and playgrounds. Two Israeli civilians were injured.
Most of the rockets fell in open areas, but several homes in the Eshkol region were hit.
During the same period the Israeli army launched a series of air strikes, tank-shelling and live ammunition fire at numerous targets throughout Gaza, killing 23 Palestinians, including 10 civilians, and injuring 65 Palestinians, including 46 civilians, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). [ http://www.ochaopt.org/documents/ocha_opt_protection_of_civilians_weekly_report_2011_04_15_english.pdf ]
In the past UN officials have denounced israel's disproportionate use of force against occupied Palestinian territory.
Ronit, a 40-year-old mother of two from Kibbutz Nahal Oz, part of Sha'ar HaNegev, who preferred only to give her first name, is visibly shaken by the recent wave of rocket-fire. She and her family, like many from the area, are spending the Jewish holiday, Passover, away from home.
"We stayed in the secure room of our house for hours at a time during the attacks. We read stories and I told my three-year-old daughter we can't leave until we receive a text message from Uncle Yossi," said Ronit. Municipal authorities coordinate with the Israeli army to instruct civilians via text messages to their cell phones.
All homes in the area have "safe rooms" by Israeli law. Sha'ar HaNegev's new primary school is bomb-safe, and a new, safer high-school will be completed this September.
"My parents live in Ashkelon and I feel secure to go there because of Iron Dome," said Ronit.
Ronit and her husband, Dan, a high-school teacher, were part of an influx of new residents that came to the kibbutz during the two-year period of calm since Israel's Operation Caste Lead which ended in January 2009. Many young couples found the community's cheap real estate and good schools attractive.
Violence between Gaza militants and the Israeli army reignited in mid-March.
School bus hit
"I do not feel safe here after the school bus was attacked last week," said Ronit.
The school bus in the southern district was hit by an anti-tank rocket on 7 April, badly wounding the driver and a 16-year-old boy. It had dropped off children from the kibbutz just minutes before the attack.
Ronit and Dan are considering moving.
Hamas took credit for the attack that hit the school bus, but did not intend to target children, Hamas deputy foreign minister Ghazi Hamad in Gaza told IRIN.
The attack was a reprisal for the Israeli air force's killing of three figures in Hamas's military wing on 1 April.
"Hamas is against targeting civilians," said Hamad, adding: "Israel purposefully targets civilians in Gaza, and they have the military capabilities to be sure of their targets."
Hamad says outside forces, like Iran and Syria, are not influencing attacks against Israel emanating from Gaza.
Historically, Hamas has characterized its rocket attacks against Israel as part of its "resistance" to Israeli military occupation of Palestinian land.
Egyptian and UN mediators achieved an informal truce on 10 April, according to officials from the Gaza foreign ministry, ending weeks of cross-border violence, though the truce appeared to be unravelling on 15 April as tit-for-tat violence between the two sides started up again.
Israeli President Shimon Peres visited Nahal Oz on 14 April to show solidarity with residents, many of whom feel the government is not doing enough to protect them.
Few residents support another Gaza operation, knowing they will bear the brunt of attacks emanating from Gaza during a ground offensive.
Also, the success of Iron Dome has taken the pressure off Israeli leaders to launch such an offensive. The Israeli-developed system, funded in large part by the USA, uses cameras and radar to track incoming rockets and is designed to shoot them down within seconds of their launch.
Egypt's instability could be another reason why Israel might prefer to desist from launching further ground offensives, particularly near the Rafah border crossing in southern Gaza.
Nahal Oz resident Dan Solomon, aged 73, said: "One of the worst effects of this situation is that our children and grandchildren are too afraid to visit."
"Israel should target Hamas leaders," said Dan. "The people of Gaza bear the brunt of this conflict, not the leaders."
Four Israeli civilians died and 45 were injured due to incidents related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2010, says OCHA. [ http://www.ochaopt.org/documents/ocha_opt_the_humanitarian_monitor_2011_04_12_english.pdf ] During the same period, 35 Palestinian civilians died, and 1,500 were injured due to incidents related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Israeli national police and emergency service, Magen David Adom, were unable to confirm these figures upon IRIN's request.