By Maayan Lubell
NIR AM, Israel, Aug 5 (Reuters) - Many Israelis living on the Gaza border were unconvinced by their military's announcement that its mission was accomplished in a nearly month-long campaign aimed at ending rocket strikes and tunnel infiltration.
Israel's government, they said, had taken too long to deal with the network of underground passages Palestinian militants had been digging for years, and it may have acted prematurely in pulling the army out of Gaza on Tuesday, just before the start of a 72-hour truce.
"They knew about it for so long and did nothing. Who can promise me that all the tunnels have been destroyed? I am angry that they are not pressing on with the offensive," said Leah Musafi, 30, who lives in Nir Am, a kibbutz next to the Gaza border.
Two weeks ago, residents of the kibbutz, or collective farm, were locked down for hours after militants from Hamas, the Islamist group that dominates Gaza, crossed through a tunnel about 1.5 kilometers (one mile) away. Ten Gaza gunmen and four Israeli soldiers were killed in the ensuing gun battle.
After the Israeli offensive began on July 8, lockdown quickly became a regular event, with several infiltrations during the fighting. Musafi and her children, along with many other families, left Nir Am while the battles raged.
"There are soldiers here now, but for how long? A week? Two? Then they'll forget us. There will be an infiltration, people will be killed. If we are told one more time to lock ourselves up at home, I am taking my kids and leaving," she said.
Another Nir Am resident, who asked not to be identified, stood guard, weapon in hand, with two soldiers guarding its gate.
"The army knew about the tunnels but they tried to keep it from the residents," he said. "There are probably more tunnels here. Maybe not thirty, maybe only three, but it just takes one. There is a lot of anger here over it. A lot of people wanted the army to go in deeper and root the problem out."
Israel says it destroyed 32 attack tunnels but believes many more, which serve as bunkers and weapon caches, criss-cross the densely populated Palestinian enclave.
As the ceasefire took hold, Major-General Sami Turgeman, chief of Israel's southern command, offered words of assurance to the border communities.
"I can say to the residents of the south that they can return home, and feel secure. We accomplished our mission: we destroyed all of the tunnels we knew about and those we uncovered."
Ten minutes drive from Nir Am, past abandoned fields of dry, wilted sunflowers covered with sand raised up by hundreds of military vehicles, is Nahal Oz, another border kibbutz. The massive damage to the cramped grey housing blocks of Gaza caused by Israeli shelling can be seen across the fence from the leafy, flowering grounds of the kibbutz.
Last week, Hamas gunmen crossed through a tunnel and shot dead five Israeli soldiers at a watchtower near Nahal Oz. Empty shellcases fired into Gaza lay in an adjacent field, where forces now gone had been stationed.
"Who knows what will happen now when the army leaves? That's the big question hanging over the heads of the families who left and must now return. They are waiting to see if it stays quiet," said Ester Taranto, who has lived in the kibbutz for 36 years.
Taranto said some residents in the farming communities had known about the tunnels for years. "The army didn't take it in. Now the penny has dropped," she said.
An Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday promised local officials on the Gaza periphery that a border fence will be improved with movement sensors and cameras.
Netanyahu also said military units would be stationed at the communities for quick response to future infiltrations. The official said Israel was working on development of tunnel sensor technologies but their deployment would take time.
Taranto said that before the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, in 1987, her family would travel to Gaza regularly to spend Saturdays at the local markets and restaurants.
"We were good neighbors back then. I wish we could go back to those peaceful days, but look where we are." (Editing by Jeffrey Heller, Larry King)
BEFORE YOU GO
08/08/2014 2:47 PM EDT
White House Concerned By Renewed Fighting
The White House on Friday urged Israel and the Palestinians to resume talks and do what they can to protect civilians after Egyptian-mediated negotiations failed to extend a ceasefire and rocket fire resumed.
"The United States is very concerned about today's developments in Gaza," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.
"We condemn the renewed rocket fire and we are concerned about the safety and security of civilians on both sides of that conflict," he said.
08/08/2014 1:42 PM EDT
Official: 5 Palestinians Killed In Gaza
Five Palestinians, including a 10-year-old boy, have been killed in Israeli airstrikes on Gaza since a ceasefire fell apart on Friday, a Palestinian medical official reported to Agence France Presse.
Meanwhile, the Israeli army said Palestinian militants fired 35 rockets into Israel on Friday, injuring a soldier and a civilian.
The father of a ten-year old Palestinian boy, who was killed in an Israeli air strike on the Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood in northern Gaza City, mourns at the city's Al-Shifa hospital, on August 8, 2014. (MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images)
08/08/2014 9:23 AM EDT
Palestinian Delegation Says Gaza Talks Will Continue
Palestinian factions will remain in Cairo and press on with Egyptian-mediated talks despite the end of the ceasefire in Gaza, the head of the delegation, Fatah official Azzam Ahmed, said on Friday.
"We are not for escalation. We are ready to continue through our Egyptian brothers in negotiating to reach a final agreement that would return the rights to their owners," Ahmed said. "I mean here lifting the blockade of Gaza."
Ahmed said Palestinian negotiators were due to meet Egyptian intelligence officials, who have been mediating the talks, later in the day. He said Palestinian factions were united in their decision not to extend the 72-hour truce that ended at 0500 GMT and had been clear about their basic demands to end the conflict.
08/08/2014 9:13 AM EDT
Egypt: Agreement Close In Gaza Talks
Egypt called on Friday for an immediate resumption of the ceasefire in Gaza and a return to the negotiating table, saying that only a few outstanding issues remained in negotiations it was mediating between Israel and the Palestinians.
"The foreign ministry calls on all sides to rise to their responsibilities ... and to return immediately to the ceasefire commitment and exploit the opportunity available to resume negotiations on the very limited sticking points that remain in the fastest possible time," the foreign ministry said in a statement.
08/08/2014 3:58 AM EDT
Israeli Airstrikes On Gaza Resume
BREAKING: Israel says it's resumed strikes on Gaza in response to rocket fire, after end of 3-day truce.— The Associated Press (@AP) August 8, 2014
08/08/2014 3:02 AM EDT
Cease-Fire Ends With New Rocket Attacks
A 72-hour cease-fire expired at 8 a.m. today, and not long after, Gaza militants began firing rockets at Israel, The Associated Press reported.
The Israeli military said at least 10 rockets had been fired at Israel since the truce ended. Prior to the attacks, a senior official for Hamas said the militant groups would not extend the cease-fire.
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08/06/2014 2:46 PM EDT
Official: Israel Agrees To Extend Ceasefire
Israel has conditionally agreed to extend a ceasefire that ended a month of fighting in Gaza beyond a Friday deadline, an Israeli official said on Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official did not say for how much longer Israel had agreed to extend the truce, only that: "Israel has expressed its readiness to extend the truce under its current terms," referring to the deal brokered by Egypt that took effect on Tuesday.
Hamas had no immediate comment.
08/06/2014 2:12 PM EDT
IDF: Rocket Sirens Were False Alarm
IDF confirms rocket sirens in southern Israel were false alarm http://t.co/QN677jtlXE— Haaretz.com (@haaretzcom) August 6, 2014
08/06/2014 1:18 PM EDT
Report: Rocket Sirens Sound At Gaza Border
ABC Foreign Editor Jon Williams reports that the IDF have confirmed the rocket sirens are sounding, but are checking to see if it is a false alarm.
08/05/2014 4:20 PM EDT
Israel Arrests Kidnapping Suspect
Reuters reports that Israel has arrested one of the suspects in the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank in June.
Hussam Kawasme, a 40-year-old resident of the West Bank city of Hebron, was arrested on July 11 in connection with the killing of Israelis Gil-Ad Shaer, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrah, who went missing on June 12 and were discovered dead a couple of weeks later.
Their kidnapping sparked a cycle of violence that led to the month-long conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.
Kawasme's arrest was made public for the first time on Tuesday in a document from an Israeli court case over whether houses belonging to him and two other suspects - who remain at large - should be destroyed as a punitive measure.
The lawyers listed as representing Kawasme were not reachable for comment.
The court document said Kawasme had admitted to helping to organize the kidnapping - securing funding from the Hamas Islamist group in Gaza and purchasing weapons which he passed on to the two other suspects who carried out the attack.
Kawasme also helped to bury the bodies of the teenagers in a plot of land he had bought a few months earlier, it said.
Israel has named the other two suspects in the case as Marwan Kawasme and Amar Abu Aysha.