It’s hard to imagine that over an hour away from Jerusalem, life for Israeli residents in parts of the southern region, the Negev, is riddled with rockets and snipers. Over 130 rockets fired from Gaza struck southern Israel in the month of June, with 65 rockets clobbering Israeli communities in the northwestern Negev in a single day, on Wednesday, June 20.
In the worst of the rocket escalations, a rocket directly struck a home with a mother and her child inside. The mother and child were able to just make it to the bomb shelter within seconds of the rocket striking the house. A few days later, a 50-year-old Israeli man was not as lucky, when a rocket struck a factory in the city of Sderot, seriously injuring him as shrapnel struck his neck and stomach.
In another miracle, children on their way to their last day of school on Wednesday, June 20 were saved when a rocket struck their school bus stop — minutes after they had mounted a school bus on a kibbutz in the Eshkol Regional Council.
For the people of the northwestern and western Negev, these terrifying scenes have colored life for the past 12 years with intervals of calm in-between.
“This has been a very stressful time for us,” Ronit Minaker told me, a spokeswoman for the Eshkol Regional Council, which is comprised of 31 communities located along the border with the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. “You hear the sounds of war everywhere and there is this feeling of constant pressure on your mind and in your body. You’re always watching yourself, thinking where you will take cover the next time the siren goes off,” Minaker explained.
“Not everyone here has a bomb shelter. The worst is for the families. There are parents who lay over their children to protect them when the siren sounds,” she said.
Minaker points out that there are times when there is no Color Red siren — the warning sound system which allows people approximately 15 seconds to find cover — which means that Gaza rockets will strike without warning. “In one of the Eshkol communities this week, there fell a barrage of six rockets with no siren. It was mazal [luck] that none of those rockets directly hit a home. But countless people were left in shock, including several women,” said Minaker.
One Eshkol resident who is recovering from the shock of a sniper attack that recently took place on his kibbutz is Max Yadgar of Kibbutz Nir Oz.
Yadgar, a farmer, was on his tractor plowing fields about 400 meters away from the Gaza border, when a Palestinian sniper opened fire on him Thursday, June 14.
In an exclusive interview, Yadgar described how the sniper shot him above his head and right under his seat. Glass shattered everywhere, leaving Yadgar with just a scratch on his face.
“I crawled down from the tractor and hid behind the big wheel for protection, waiting for 15 minutes until IDF troops came to get me,” recalls Yadgar.
“It was a very scary experience and I’m still not completely past it. I took a few days off and time has been the best medicine so far. I went to a synagogue and prayed. All I have is a scratch on my face from this attack but inside I’m rattled.”
However, Yadgar says he will return to the fields in the following weeks, although he will not work in the same field where he was attacked. A husband and father of four children, Yadgar concludes that he will “plow the fields further away from the Gaza border for now.”
Located in the northwestern part of the Negev, the Eshkol Regional Council was established in 1951, and was later named after Israel’s third Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol, in 1969. The communities of Eshkol serve as strategic outposts, supporting the IDF in the defense of Israel’s Southern Front during war. Made up 14 kibbutzim, 15 moshavim and two residential communities, there are 12,500 Israelis who call Eshkol their home. Today much of the region is engaged in industrial, agricultural and farming activity, producing 50 percent of Israel’s tomatoes and potatoes.
Many farmers like Yadgar have come under Palestinian sniper fire over the past few years. In 2008, the IDF asked farmers from Kibbutz Nir Oz to stop harvesting the potatoes during the day. Instead, the farmers harvested at night when the risk of sniper attacks was much lower.
Despite the challenging conditions, Minaker emphasizes that the people of Eshkol are strong and steadfast. “People aren’t leaving because of the situation, in fact more people are moving to Eshkol. There is a very strong sense of community and a supportive framework here,” she explains.
“We are normal people, we want to live in peace — despite everything we face. At least this current ceasefire will give us a chance to rest and build our resilience for the next rocket escalation,” said Minaker.
What is most distressing, however, is that there seems to be no end in sight for the continuing terror enveloping the lives and routines of Negev residents.
Noam Bedein, director of Sderot Media Center, believes that the next rocket escalation will come sooner rather than later. “Weapons and rockets from Iran and Libya are constantly being smuggled into the Gaza Strip. Many of the 1,000 rockets that have been fired at Israel in the past three years are of Iranian and Libyan origin,” he said.
“There are currently one million Israelis living within Gaza rocket range. We can only hope that this summer will be a quiet one,” added Bedein.