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Israeli border communities fearful of Palestinian protests and threats of fire

“I've always said, living here is 95 percent heaven and 5 percent hell,” said one resident of a kibbutz near the Gaza fence.
Image: Israeli Farmers
Daniel Rahamim, an irrigation specialist in Nahal Oz, stands in a wheat field that was set alight by an incendiary kite.Dusan Vranic / for NBC News

NIRIM, Israel — When Lilach Naftalyahu was a girl, she dreamed that a terrorist would infiltrate her kibbutz, sneak into her house and kill her. As an adult with daughters of her own, she worries her childhood nightmare will become a reality.

“My big fear is that they will come out, that they will come to the kibbutz,” Naftalyahu, 36, said of the imaginary attacker from the nearby Gaza Strip, where tens of thousands of Palestinians have been protesting for weeks against Israel’s land, sea and air blockade.

“You worry that when you go to throw your garbage out, go see a friend, something might happen,” she added, as she swayed 6-month-old Raz to sleep. “I’m afraid to go to the toilet at night.”

Anxiety has been running high here and across other communities near the Gaza fence in southern Israel since March 30, when Palestinians started the “Great March of Return” demonstrations to demand the right to enter into Israel and reclaim homes lost after the country was founded in 1948.

Image: Israeli Farmers
Lilach Naftalyahu, left, holding daughter Ziv while her mother, Adele Raemer, sits with Raz in Nirim, southern Israel.Dusan Vranic / for NBC News

Now, hundreds of incendiary kites and explosive balloons have joined rockets, as well as tunnels transporting terrorists, on a list of fears for Naftalyahu and others in communities hugging the fence.

Warning of “swarming” attacks, Israeli forces have used live ammunition to stop Palestinian protesters from breaking out of Gaza en masse, injuring some 13,000. At least 142 demonstrators have also been killed, according to Gaza's health ministry. Israel's use of deadly force has provoked an international outcry.

Protesters in the desperately poor enclave say they are demonstrating against Israel’s crippling blockade and the U.S. decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem, which undermines Palestinians’ own claim to the city as the capital of their future state. Senior international humanitarian officials warn that Gaza is on the verge of collapse.

Israeli officials say Gaza demonstrators have thrown rocks, "firebombs and explosive devices” toward the 40-mile fence. They also contend that Hamas, the Islamist group that has controlled Gaza since 2007 and that is considered a terrorist organization by many countries, is encouraging civilians to put themselves in harm’s way and has used them as cover to commit violence.

Powered by the wind from the Mediterranean Sea, hundreds of flaming kites and explosive balloons have swept into Israel and started some 450 fires that have burned thousands of acres of farmland and nature reserves. Israel has responded with strikes on Gaza, which in turn has triggered a barrage of rockets.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump's special adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his adviser on Israel, Jason Greenblatt, traveled to the Middle East last week to try to develop an international aid package for Gaza. The agreement is widely thought to be a precursor to the president’s “deal of the century” aimed at a long-term resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though there have been few indications that the Palestinian leadership will accept it.

So while moving to a kibbutz — a traditional collective community — is the culmination of a lifelong ambition for many Israelis, the neighborhood's tensions and fears can make it a trial.

“I've always said, living here is 95 percent heaven and 5 percent hell,” said Adele Raemer, Naftalyahu’s mother.

Raemer, a Bronx native who settled in Israel four decades ago, described a more peaceful time in Nirim. It was before Israel withdrew Jewish settlements from Gaza, which it had occupied since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. A Gazan built her ranch-style home, Raemer said, and she and a fellow teacher from the Strip once tried to collaborate across cultures.

Crisis on Israel's southern border

Raemer, who runs a Facebook page about life on the border, believes Israelis and Palestinians can and should live in peace.

Smoke from burning fields hung in the warm air as Raemer pointed to where a mortar killed two Nirim residents in the last hours of the 2014 war with Gaza. Nearby sits a heavily fortified kindergarten building that does not have windows facing the direction of the Strip.

She said that in spite of criticism for using deadly force against protesters, the military’s response to the demonstrations had been proportionate.

“The force used by the IDF here on the border prevented thousands of Gazans from walking into Israel,” Raemer said, referring to the Israel Defense Forces. “Had that have happened, there would have been no choice but to kill many, many Gazans infiltrating, preventing them from entering Israeli communities like my own.”

Conscription is near universal in Israel, and faith in the military is pervasive.

“The IDF are my son, my son-in-law, my husband and me. It’s us. I know these people and I trust them,” Raemer said.

Daniel Rahamim, an Israeli irrigation specialist in Nahal Oz, another kibbutz near the Gaza Strip that that has been hard hit by fires set by incendiary kites, acknowledged that there may be a very few soldiers “who are just out to kill Palestinians.” Like Raemer, though, he also trusts that the military is overall doing the right thing in trying to control the protests in Gaza.

“I can tell you for sure — our army is a moral army. If there are bad soldiers, there are few,” he said. Aside from having a vested interest in keeping the kites away from the kibbutz’s fields, Rahamim, 64, is a longtime advocate of a two-state solution and reconciliation.

“When I was young, I met lots of Palestinians,” he said.

Image: Daniel Rahamim
Daniel Rahamim stands in Nahal Oz kibbutz.Dusan Vranic / for NBC News

For now, though, Nahal Oz is trying to cope with the fiery kites and exploding balloons — and these just keep coming, burning some 20 percent of its 1,240 acres. A layer of sooty black blankets patches of the kibbutz’s fields, which are also ringed with razor-wire fence.

“It is so frustrating because we really work hard to grow a field with wheat,” Rahamim said. “The government isn't taking the fires seriously.”

It isn’t just that — there’s the danger of simply being so close to Gaza, which can be clearly seen from the fields.

“Snipers from the other side who can shoot you,” he said. “I have binoculars, I can see Hamas.”

Sitting on his front porch on Nahal Oz, he points toward the house where the 4-and-a-half-year-old son of neighbors was killed during the 2014 war with Gaza.

Rahamim admits he’s an optimist on the subject of reconciliation, but peace talks between Israel and Palestinian leaders in the West Bank have ground to a halt. Israel and Hamas have fought three conflicts in the last 12 years, and there is a growing sense that another war is inevitable.

Not everybody near the fence feels that talks and deals are the way to make the kites, balloons and rockets stop. Some believe the time for talks is over, if it ever existed.

“Too late — you had your opportunity,” Rabbi David Fendel, founder of the Hesder Yeshiva in Sderot, a town northeast of Gaza, said of Palestinian leadership.

Image: Rabbi David Fendel
Rabbi David Fendel, right, talks to workmen building a new dormitory for the yeshiva. Dusan Vranic / for NBC News

The Hesder program integrates military conscription with Bible study, thus allowing men to serve in the army and continue their religious work. Fendel himself has spoken out in favor of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which Palestinians feel are dooming any possibility of a contiguous independent state, and against gender mixing in the Israeli armed forces.

“We don’t believe you,” he said speaking in his cramped office on the yeshiva grounds. “When it comes to southern Israel, Israel moved the borders to the ’67 borders against our better judgment."

"Israel made that area totally Jew-free,” he added, referring to the dismantlement of Jewish settlements from Gaza in 2005. This was followed by Hamas winning elections in 2006 and the next year’s violent struggle with Fatah, a rival Palestinian party dominating the West Bank. Israel then imposed its blockade of the enclave, constricting trade and the movement of people. Egypt has followed suit on Gaza's southern border.

Fendel's yeshiva is renowned for its “rocket menorah” made of explosives fired from Gaza, which sits atop the bomb and bullet-proof building and has become an important symbol of both faith and perseverance.

While it was hard-hit in previous conflicts, Sderot has thrived and its population swelled in recent years — proof that repeated conflicts and ongoing tensions with Gaza are not deterring many Israelis from settling in areas nearby.

Image: Israeli Farmers
Mechi Fendel, wife of Rabbi David Fendel of Sderot Yeshiva, in front of a menorah created with rockets fired from Gaza.Dusan Vranic / for NBC News

But Sderot is still close enough to be shelled by machine-gun fire, as a few homes were last month.

Fendel added that he was “100 percent against” the deal aimed at easing the ongoing suffering in Gaza that Kushner and Greenblatt were currently trying to hammer out.

“A humanitarian response is always important but not as a precursor for negotiation, and not as a response for terror,” he said.

The country’s military should also stop being so "defensive" — including on the subject of kite makers, Fendel said.

“We have to go on the offensive and show the population that we are not going to stand for this,” he said. He added, however, that he was not in favor of targeting children who were identified making kites, as some in Israel’s government have suggested.

Dvir Pedael, one of the yeshiva’s 850 students, also advocates a more aggressive response to the current threat from Gaza but he suggests going a step further.

“The situation is not so nice — the sirens are very terrifying,” said the 19-year-old from the coast city of Ashkelon. “The government needs to up it a level.”

And what of children were spotted making incendiary kites and explosive balloons?

“Kill them,” Pedael said.