By Ian Deitch Associated Press
JERUSALEM — Tens of thousands of Israelis have fled their homes along the border with the Gaza Strip, reflecting growing fear and frustration over the war with Hamas and the Palestinian mortar fire raining down on their communities.
With the school year fast approaching, the government began offering assistance to residents Monday in the first large-scale voluntary evacuation in nearly eight weeks of fighting.
Officials estimate that 70 percent of the 40,000 inhabitants of the farming communities along the Gaza border have left, including hundreds on Monday.
Fields that once yielded vegetables and flowers are barren and pockmarked by Palestinian mortar shells. Streets are empty and most homes eerily silent.
The fighting has killed more than 2,100 Palestinians, according to Gaza officials, leveled thousands of buildings and left tens of thousands of people homeless.
The death toll on the Israeli side has been much lower, largely because of Israel’s network of air raid sirens, bomb shelters and the Iron Dome missile-defense system.
Yet Israel’s defenses have been largely ineffective against short-range mortar fire — a deficiency underscored when a 4-year-old boy was killed Friday by a Palestinian mortar shell.
“The community is very close to the border, and we have almost no warning of incoming fire,” said Elazar Ashtivkar, a 30-year-old father of four who left Nahal Oz, the scene of the deadly attack, several weeks ago with his family.
He said the family is now staying in a nearby kibbutz, where he has 15 to 20 seconds to get to a shelter, which he said is an improvement.
He said nearly all of Nahal Oz’s roughly 400 residents have left. Only a few workers in charge of taking care of the cows along with some security personnel remain, he said.
“The agricultural fields were destroyed. There is nothing now,” he said.
He said he will return as soon as it is safe. “We just want quiet. We don’t want to be scared when our kids go to school,” he said.
The military says Gaza militants have fired at least 1,400 mortars on the border communities since the fighting began.
It is not the first time residents have left their homes during the fighting. Several weeks ago, heavily armed Gaza militants tunneled into territory near their communities, terrifying residents and sparking an exodus.
Only a few people sat down for lunch at the normally bustling dining room at Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha on Monday. The community was mostly devoid of people. Children’s swings swayed in the wind on the empty playground. Homes bore the marks of shrapnel from Palestinian mortars.
Elena Glass was among the few residents who decided to stay.
“We are not going to move because this is our house and we have to defend this place,” she said. “I understand all the families that moved out because of the children, but someone has to stay here. But it is not simple. I think of my children all the time because they are working outside without shelter.”
The government this week offered to help anxious Israelis close to the war zone leave their homes, the first time it has sponsored a large-scale evacuation.
“It is their right to leave, and we will assist them with temporary solutions,” Finance Minister Yair Lapid said in a TV interview Sunday.
But he stressed the evacuations were voluntary: “The state of Israel will not run away from terror organizations. It fights terror organizations.”
Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules Gaza, hailed news of the Israeli exodus. The group’s spokesman in Gaza, Mushir al-Masri, said the Israelis will not be allowed to return unless Hamas “allows it.”
Israeli education officials said the evacuated children will be absorbed by area schools. But Tamir Idan, a regional council head in southern Israel, said schools will not open as usual next week if rocket fire persists.
The fighting has caused even more disruption for students in Gaza, where U.N. schools have being used to shelter several hundred thousand people. Officials have delayed the start of classes, which were supposed to begin on Sunday.
Throughout the fighting, Israel has charged that Hamas has exploited civilian installations to fire rockets. The military said Monday that the mortar shell that killed the 4-year-old Israeli boy last week was fired several meters (yards) away from a school in Gaza.
The Israeli military said it carried out at least 65 airstrikes Monday, targeting a mosque it said was used to store weapons and another it said militants used as a meeting point. The military also said that Palestinian militants fired more than 100 rockets into Israel.
Palestinian health officials said seven people were killed, including a 42-year woman hit by tank fire. One Israeli was wounded by Palestinian fire.
The latest exchanges came a day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that the Israeli military campaign in Gaza could go into September.