On the morning of July 8, a colleague and I went South, down to the border with the Gaza Strip. After almost a month of tensions with Hamas, beginning with the kidnappings of the three Israeli teenagers, exacerbated by the retaliation murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir and brought to breaking point with incessant rocket fire on Southern Israel – the government declared the start of Operation Protective Edge.
It is the third, or fourth depending on the count, of such similar conflicts since Hamas took over the Strip in a coup in 2006. The brief conflict after the kidnapping of Gilad Schalit in 2006 called Summer Rains could be referred to as the first such operation; but let’s start with 2009’s Cast Lead. That was followed by Pillar of Defense in 2012.
On the way to Ashkelon, skittish passengers asked the bus driver what to do in the case of a siren. His reaction was nonplussed; he said he would tell them if he heard one. When we arrived in the city, the parking lot at the local mall was filled. Despite suffering from rocket attack that morning, life continued as normal.
Cafe workers shrugged off the notion that life should be paralyzed. “I get down under the counter and cover my head,” one worker said as he mimicked the action. His biggest fear was for the safety and well-being of his children, but for him, this was life.
We walked towards the entrance to the city, to try and find a bus heading towards Sderot. With the sun beating down, little shade and an almost absent sidewalk, an older man pulled his car over and offered a lift the few hundred meters to the intersection. Speaking of the escalation, the driver said that after 1967 he frequently went to Gaza for business with Palestinians.
“In those days before Hamas it was peaceful; everyone got along. They came to Ashkelon, we went there.”
But now he fears only for his grandchildren when the sirens sound. “I am not afraid.” And why should he be? The Iron Dome defense system, integrated with the sirens, gives between 15 and 30 seconds’ warning to find shelter.
We thanked him for the ride and caught a sherut taxi towards Sderot. Getting off on an empty stretch of road, a turnoff led to an observation point overlooking the Gaza Strip. Rockets had been fired that morning and we cased the situation quickly. Where should we run if another rocket is fired? Fifteen seconds is a relatively long time, more than it seems, but in a field or on a dirt road, is there even a siren? And here in Sderot, it’s Kassams and mortar fire, not large missiles.
But walking towards the lookout, we weren’t the only curious observers. News teams set up cameras for live feeds, yeshiva boys relaxed under the shade of a tree, a father and son had driven in from Ramle, complete with binoculars to try and catch some action.
Large granite slabs gave testament to Jewish donors, putting money towards developing the Negev – did they know their monument would be a tourist attraction to “watch the war”? Gaza City, Beit Hanun and the sea were not far in the distance.
A French news team said mortars had fallen only a few hundred meters away earlier in the day; after 20 minutes, my colleague and I decided to move on. Hitching a ride with a Russian news crew, we arrived at the entrance to Sderot. Despite the endless fire it has suffered over the years, a construction boom is under way. Through the massive, wrought-iron gate that serves as the entrance to the city, a clearing in the distance shows the preparation for a new commercial mall. Here are the toughened southern residents, with no fear of this war. They have seen far worse, before Iron Dome, before the “color red” alerts. They have state-of-the-art bunkers now, professionally graffitied armored bus stops.
The stores and cafes in the center of town were open, the market in the center of town was finishing business for the day. We went to the bus stop and prepared for our trip back to Jerusalem.
The only remarkable thing about the sherut ride back to Ashkelon was the traffic caused by an armored column of tanks being transported on tractor trailers.
Our driver had no problem overtaking them. After a short sojourn in Jerusalem, I went back to the Gaza border in the evening. This time we took a slight detour via Kiryat Gat. The radio station was interrupted every few minutes with alerts of where sirens were sounding. They even explained that “if you are in your car during a siren, get out and lie on the ground with your belly down and place your hands over your head.”
In Sderot, the key was always to put an object, like a car or wall, between you and Gaza, but the announcer didn’t say if this would help in the case of a Katyusha.
Either way, as we were driving, we heard that sirens had sounded over Ashkelon, and when we looked towards Gaza, we could see the rocket trail and interception cloud. At the turnoff for Yad Mordechai, a kibbutz on the Gaza border, police were turning traffic around. Hamas terrorists had infiltrated and a soldier was wounded. The radio continued updated announcements, saying the road was closed as the army feared other infiltrators could be in the area. We circled around and took a different road to Sderot – the sun had set and a brilliant sunset painted the sky over Ashkelon and the Gaza Strip.
We arrived at an overlook northwest of Sderot.
Around 50 people had gathered to watch the conflict unfold. Smoke billowed from fields near Kibbutz Nir’am, a few kilometers from the border, and percussions and booms from tanks and artillery could be heard. They palpitated the heart and seemed to shake the ground and eardrums. At the overlook, people were clapping the apparent shelling of Gaza. Smoke pillars rose as the result of recent exchanges, but no missile launches were seen. Police cars sped back and forth on highway 34 that runs alongside the Strip; the road was still cordoned off and military vehicles were rushing in as well. From time to time a bright light would appear above the Strip; a type of hanging flare that we got used to seeing. Sometimes red tracers would erupt from nearby hillsides, that residents were convinced were tanks getting their range.
But all in all the scene was surreal. Fifty people with lawn chairs watching a war, mostly men in tank tops.
Some sucked on cigarettes, others on nargila water pipes. Some were teenagers, admitting that their parents would worry. A few men had driven up in large flashy SUVs and a news crew was filming. A yeshiva student from the UK who had come from Jerusalem explained that he wouldn’t tell his friends where he was, but this was the most fascinating thing he had seen in Israel. Was he afraid? No.
Someone wondered where to run if a siren sounded. People admitted they couldn’t make it to a safe location.
There was a collective feeling of fate and nonchalance; of risk and bravado. It wasn’t just about wanting some revenge on Gaza for the years of rockets fired on Sderot; it was about prurient interest, and the beauty of it all. They were not the first to think that, among the misery of war, was beauty.
Back in our car, we drove on. Gaza was on our left as we neared the Yad Mordechai intersection. It was ghostly now; as a deserted highway overpass loomed overhead. Was this the “ghost highway” that was once meant to connect Gaza with the West Bank? A symbol of the failed hopes for peace? The radio announced another siren in Ashkelon. We were only a few kilometers away and it was clear the rocket should be visible. I peered into the darkness and stopped the car. Other traffic zoomed by and it was clear we might have more to fear from them than the rockets.
And now we could see it; a light shooting across the sky and then a deafening boom as it was intercepted.
News crews had gathered at Kibbutz Zikim, where Hamas had tried to infiltrate earlier, and tanks on trailers waited for the apparent offensive. Israel had announced massive call-ups of reservists and thousands of soldiers were moving towards Gaza, according to reports. Stuck again, we made a U-turn towards a coffee shop. In the backroom soldiers gossiped. Border police with helmets hanging from their shoulders, M-16s and body armor stood like giants looking at little cakes. We went out into the warm night. And then the sky seemed to fall in.
Boom, boom! The earth shook and everywhere around us artillery seemed to open up. Light streaked into the sky from Gaza. Flares hung in the sky. Now it felt like a war. Before, we had asked “where is the escalation?” Now we didn’t. But it wasn’t clear what was happening. Were there incoming rockets? We were only a few kilometers from Gaza and Beit Hanun.
There were no sirens at the coffee shop, which was a watering hole for the military and police. At that point we could tell that whatever had come overhead had apparently been intercepted by a nearby Iron Dome battery. The employees came out to watch. They gossiped. Even this barrage seemed like a big one.
As 10 p.m. approached we headed back to Jerusalem. Speeding past Ashkelon, the radio said rockets had been fired at Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and all over Israel.
The irony was that the closest areas to the Strip were not getting much. Sderot was quiet. Hamas wanted to show it could hit further and further. And Hamas knew what Sderot residents gossiped about on that hill. “Did you see how they run for the shelters in Tel Aviv, how they trip over each other in panic to get off the buses?” Hamas knows that for Israelis Sderot is an “old story”; the “periphery” in Israelospeak, the third world. But Tel Aviv, Netanya, the Sharon, Binyamina, those are the places people will pay attention to. When the media said that a million residents of the “south” were in shelters, middle Israel didn’t necessarily notice. And anyway, they were not in the shelters in Ashkelon or Sderot when we were there. But in the greater Tel Aviv area and the center they evidently were. There, the escalation was truly taking place.