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Once, Gazans commuted to this Israeli community every day. Not anymore

The conflict, as seen from the border towns.

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An Israeli tank patrolling the concrete barrier dividing the coastal strip from Netiv Haasara in 2011. (MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images)

NETIV HA'ASARA, Israel — Standing under the canopy created by his tomato vines, which during the war have soared to about 9 feet and are brittle and dry, Itzik Shmilovich says he hasn't "had the courage to call Abed in two months."

"It's awful to call in a time like this. I couldn't do it. But I know him: he's disciplined, and smart. I'm sure he found a safe place." He tightens with a worried sigh.

Abed Za'anin, a member of one of Gaza's largest clans, lives about two miles away, over the border in Beit Hanoun.

"He grew up here," Shmilovich says of Za'anin, who started working for him at the age of 15, becoming his top employee on the farm. Za’anin was a father of five when suddenly he was no longer able to come to work — in 2006, Hamas took over Gaza, and Israel and Egypt imposed a siege.

The worlds that separate these men, and the strange intimacy that binds them, fills the greenhouses where Shmilovich's tomatoes are, literally, now dying on their vines.

“We need a magician to give us a long term solution to stop the rocket fire on Israel.”

Za'anin and the men he supervised would sometimes grab a beer before heading back home to Gaza at the end of the day, Shmilovich recalls. Once Hamas came to power, Islamic "moral brigades" at the checkpoint began frisking them, shattering the bottles on the ground, "and beating them a little, just for good measure."

Thai workers have replaced the Gazans who used to work in Israel's southern agricultural communities.

Shmilovich, who produces about 200 tons of specialty cherry tomatoes each year, employs eight men.

But since a Thai employee was killed by a Hamas rocket on July 24 in his neighbor's greenhouse, none have shown up for work, and he hasn't had the heart to force the issue. 

With no one to harvest the tomatoes, he's stopped watering the plants.

Shmilovich is a nimble man of 69 who rides his bike around the fields and has an easy smile. He does not think jokes about going into the sun-dried tomato business instead are funny. He's lost at least $25,000 in the last month.

Netiv Ha'asara is a moshav — a communal village.

Most of the inhabitants have now returned home from wherever they went to escape the war. Those who stayed put through the war were ordered to lock down at home seven times since July — whenever there was fear of an infiltration from Gaza.

The closest cross-border tunnel dug by Hamas was located only 550 yards away.

The second day of a fresh ceasefire was holding on Tuesday, but Israel and Hamas, working through intermediaries in Cairo, have yet to reach a long-term solution to a conflict that has claimed 1,881 Palestinian and 67 Israeli lives since July 8.

More from GlobalPost: Egypt isn't doing much to help Gaza

On Monday, Shmilovich stopped by the moshav's main administrative office on the way to his greenhouses and found Adi Ben Ari, 49, nibbling at a fresh pomegranate friends brought her from the cool Galilee. In Netiv Ha'asara, it was 105 degrees in the shade. She'd spent the previous two hours showing a British journalist around. A father and his two young boys, each with a dripping popsicle, came by announce their return and to say hello.

Ziv Volk, who is in charge of security for Netiv Ha'asara, sat nearby cleaning his rifle. "If only this ceasefire lasts two years," he said, he will feel that at least something was accomplished by Israel during this war.

But he's not sure even that is possible. "There’s no permanence here; the idea of peace and quiet, no rockets hitting us for, let's say, 10 years — it just doesn't exist." In addition to the recent death of on Thai worker in late July, another Thai worker was killed by a Hamas rocket in 2010, and a 22-year-old woman was killed in 2005. 

Ben Ari, who was nearly caught outdoors on her bike when the last truce expired — she saw the first rockets being launched at 7:59 as she sped up the hill to seek shelter — does not believe Israel achieved any of its stated goals in the war. "We didn't get rid of the tunnels or of the qassams," she said, referring to the Hamas rockets by name. 

More than 30 have hit the village and its fields during this war, not counting those intercepted by the Iron Dome, Israel’s anti-rocket defense system.

Expressing a frustration that has spilled over into Israeli cafes, streets and social media forums, she said, "I think we should have acted militarily and then immediately turned to diplomacy. I'm sure there's a solution, but we need more creative minds than what we've got. But this specific operation did not achieve our goals."

In this sentiment, both Palestinians on one side of the fence and Israelis on the other are united. Ben Ari’s disappointment is echoed across the fields, in Gaza, where Ikram Saleima, who has escaped the Israeli shelling of Beit Hanoun with her family, told The New York Times, "We are tired, very tired, the kids are tired. But we are already in," and having suffered so much, “we should come out with a result."

Volk said he believed Israel could have reached the same results it did through war with fewer military fatalities, and that deterrence — Israel's first declared goal in the war — had not been achieved. "They [Hamas] shoot rockets whenever they want."

Another resident, Meir Biton, joined the discussion. Thirty years ago he served in the Golani Brigade, which was the first to enter Gaza in July, and lost the greatest number of soldiers out of Israel's 64 military casualties. Biton questioned the value Volk placed on avoiding military fatalities: A soldier is a soldier, he said. "When I went to war I knew perfectly that I could come back in a coffin, with my dog tags in my mouth."

The current ceasefire could be over on Wednesday night, and matters could still get significantly worse. 

On Monday, Yitzhak Aharonovich, Israel's minister of internal security, predicted the Cairo talks negotiating a permanent end to combat would fail.

"There is little chance of reaching an agreement," he said. "I'm pessimistic regarding the outcome of negotiations. The distance between Hamas' demands and our desire is tremendous. We need a magician to give us a long term solution to stop the rocket fire on Israel."

"By my understanding," he stated, "at the end of the 72 hours we'll return to fighting."

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/140811/once-gazans-commuted-israeli-community-every-day-no-more