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% of the 40,000 inhabitants of the farming communities along the Gaza border have left, including hundreds today.
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 on Friday by a Palestinian mortar shell.