During the war in 2014 there were many oddities. For instance the radio would carry explanations on what to do in case a rocket was heading for your area: Stop the car, crawl underneath it or use it as shelter. Great advice, but how to know a rocket was in your area? Radio announcements were confined to communities and so were sirens. A driver had to guess if he was driving near Holon, a community south of Tel Aviv, that when the radio announced sirens were going off in Holon, then he should stop.
The last war included special phone applications people could download on the phone to know in which areas rockets were falling, kind of like an up to the minute deadly weather forecast.
It is a mark of the high-tech nature of Israel, that its confrontation with Hamas has always needed to be one step of the terror group and that technology plays a key role. The Iron Dome Defense system, for instance, is calibrated not to intercept every projectile, but only those destined to fall on an urban area. Rockets falling in open desert are allowed to fall harmlessly.
Now, two years after the war, the border communities around Gaza appear to have returned to normal. At Zikim beach young women and men were sitting in a wading pool. The Gaza border could be seen in the distance, and the highrises of northern Gaza city could be made out through the haze. But children were running and life-guards were lounging. It was here on July 9 of 2014 that Hamas frogmen emerged from the water and tried to infiltrate Israel. After a coordinated battle involving tanks and naval ships, the terrorists were tracked down and killed, but it was a freight for the border communities such as Nativ haAsira, Yad Mordechai and kibbutz Zikim, that Hamas could attempt to strike from the water.
Israeli society has an ability to forget quickly the last conflicts, which is one of its strengths. But what border residents in places like Sderot say, is that the forgetfulness is also something that allows the government to pretendeverything is normal, when it is not.
One woman named Mally Pnina Tapiro, who works as a community activist, says people should have to live for decades under Qassams and mortars. In the apartment she has just moved into a new shelter is being built. In the new buildings such armored rooms are standard, but in the older ones they need to be outfitted specially. Residents say that up to 80% of those in Sderot suffer forms of trauma or PTSD related to the wars with Hamas. Children and youth are especially affected. On Friday July 1 a Qassam slammed into an area near a preschool in Sderot, reminding residents of the threat.
Around Gaza the IDF has been busy trying to deal with the tunnel threat from Hamas. During the 2014 war more than 32 tunnels were reported discovered and uprooted by Israel. Some of these came close to local communities, near schools and residences. Others were in open fields or close to IDF armored towards that overlook Gaza.
Although Hamas has generally been unsuccessful at using the tunnel threat to get men into Israel, it has not always failed. In one incident from the war, Hamas operatives got behind an IDF position and killed men manning an armored lookout, before running back into the tunnel.
Residents around the strip complain of hearing noises that they say is Hamas tunnels. One man I spoke to who routinely farms with a tractor near the southern Gaza Strip, says he feels “like a rabbit in a field” with Hamas snipers focusing on him, mortar teams waiting to fire, and men tunneling underneath. This normalcy has caused much trauma among local communities. At one of a half dozen Resilience Centers that service populations living within 7 kilometers of the border, the therapists say they have seen an increase in people coming with various trauma associated with the threats.
Hamas and the IDF are engaged in a kind of deadly game in which the terrorist group continues to seek different ways to strike at civilians, and the IDF must find a way to counter that threat. It began with Qassams and Mortars up until 2009, and then Grad rockets and other, Iranian-supplied, rockets that could fire further and further in 2012 and 2014.
Effective operations by Egypt under Abdal Fattah el-Sissi, including flooding the Gaza tunnels between late 2015 and early 2016, have sealed off some smuggling routes to Hamas. But other players have emerged, such as ISIS-linked Salafist extremists, that all want to find a way to attack Israel. Some of those are based in Sinai and want to increase their presence in Gaza.
Driving along the border with the Gaza Strip today there is a feeling of quiet. Dust and haze fall over the agricultural fields. Cars and army vehicles both travers the same roads. The border crossings that once serviced the strip at Kerem Shalom, Kissufim and Erez, are quiet. There isn’t much material flowing back and forth.
After the recent reconciliation with Turkey a humanitarian aid ship from the Turkish group AFAD docked in Ashdod and off-loaded goods for Gaza. There are plans afoot for an “artificial island” off Gaza that some say might alleviate civilian suffering in the Strip, while not allowing Hamas to run the import of goods. That seems far-fetched.
The fact of the matter is that Hamas’ grip on the Strip appears as strong as in the past, which means that the low level conflict, a kind of Cold War that becomes hot every few years, will continue.
Seth Frantzman is the Op-Ed Editor at The Jerusalem Post. Follow him on Twitter @SFrantzman