Fear of Gaza tunnels emptied kibbutz of children

Kfar Aza, a kibbutz on the frontline of cross-border tunnels which Israel vowed to destroy, was emptied of all its children during Israel's war on Hamas militants in Gaza.

Its 250 children were evacuated along with many families, leaving behind a few dozen adults in the collective farming village which usually boasts a population of 750 inhabitants.

Homes were shuttered, playgrounds left empty and silent, with the only noise coming from Israeli bombardment of Gaza and rocket fire from the Hamas-ruled Palestinian territory.

"We were used to rockets and shells, but these tunnels, from which terrorists can emerge, really frighten us," said kibbutz spokesman Noam Stahl.

During a walk in the empty streets, Stahl pointed out the damage caused by 12 mortar rounds that struck his community, including one which hit a reinforced wall around the local kindergarten.

"We demand that the government protect us. We are very disappointed that after so many years Israel has not found a solution," said Stahl.

Israel launched Operation Protective Edge on July 8 to counter militant rocket fire from Gaza and expanded it 10 days later with a ground assault to destroy a sophisticated network of the so-called "terror tunnels".

On Tuesday, the Israeli army completed a withdrawal from Gaza as a 72-hour humanitarian truce went into effect following intense global pressure to end a conflict which killed more than 18,000 Palestinians, mostly civilians, and 67 people on Israel's side, almost all soldiers.

The military said the previous day that it had destroyed all the known tunnels in Gaza, which Kfar Aza residents view as a "threat" to their very existence.

The tunnels have been used by Palestinian militants to smuggle men and weapons and to infiltrate southern Israel on the fringes of Gaza to carry out attacks.

Doudi Doron said Kfar Aza has been home for the past 30 years. "We have known missiles but the threat posed by the tunnels made the situation worse," he said.

He recalled how he would hear noises coming from under the ground and said his neighbours heard them too. "No one took us seriously," said the 56-year-old.

- 'Danger from the earth' -

Kfar Azar lies across from the Palestinian refugee camp of Jabaliya in northern Gaza.

Another diehard local who refused to leave his home during the four-week conflict was 77-year-old Israel Degany, a founder of Kfar Azar and resident of 57 years.

"This is my house and I have no intention to leave but I am afraid for the children. How can parents live with such a danger that can rise from the earth at any time," he said.

Degany said that for the past 14 years, mortar rounds have often struck the kibbutz.

"But now it is different. I would like this to be the last military operation but I don't believe it will be."

Doron said he was realistic about the ceasefire. "I would like to be optimistic but it's difficult now to believe we're going to find the way to peace again," he said.

"The Palestinians used to come work here and we shopped there. I don't think things can go back to what they were but at least we can stop killing each other."