A night on the Gaza border, waiting for another war

The concern is always there that the next round will come.

IDF tanks sit near the Gaza border communities at daybreak, March 27th, 2019 (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
IDF tanks sit near the Gaza border communities at daybreak, March 27th, 2019
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
The Gaza border is haunted by memories of former wars.
In 2014, the fields around Kfar Aza were churned up by the D-9 bulldozers, Merkava tanks and aging M-113 armored personnel carriers.
IDF tanks situated on Gaza border as tensions simmer, March 27, 2019 (Reuters)
On Tuesday night, the area was quiet. The fields were troweled, ready for springtime. They did not want to be trampled by tank treads.
But the fields, like the people of Gaza and the surrounding communities, have no say.
We are waiting for the next war that will be decided in Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar’s bunker, or in the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv.
Every round of violence along the Gaza border of the past year, since the March of Return began in March 2018, has brought the same cycle of tit-for-tat exchanges. Hamas has tried to innovate with its mass human wave protests along the Gaza security fence. It has made balloons.
It has tried sniper fire. It even used an anti-tank missile in November. And it still fires its long-range rockets, feigning “mistakes” after they struck Beersheba last October and Mishmeret this week.
I went down to the Gaza border, as I’ve done so many times, making the 58-minute drive from Jerusalem down Route 3 to Ashkelon and then to Yad Mordechai. Sometimes, I take Route 232 over to Sderot, in case the road has been blocked near the border.
On Tuesday night, the drive down was interrupted several times by lumbering M-109 self-propelled howitzers nesting on flatbed trucks, being taken south. This is called the long “tail” that follows armies into the war zone, the massive logistics operation involved in deploying an armored brigade like the Seventh Armored, which was deployed this week as tensions rose.
What is perhaps remarkable about Israel is how it has gotten so used to preparing for war that armored units and the men attending them can be rushed to the South without disrupting civilian life everywhere. People can drive along the border and intermix with an army that is being deployed. Often one wouldn’t know there was a conflict brewing, if one didn’t know where to look and kept the radio off.
On Tuesday night, there were the familiar police blue and white lights flashing near the Black Arrow Memorial park near the border. This is where one can look into Jabalya and Gaza City during times of peace. During times of tension, it gets closed. The process of shutting down sensitive areas around the Gaza Strip always follows similar patterns. Certain roads have checkpoints; sometimes concrete blocks are put down.
Then they will be taken away when it is all over.
I sat next to a gas station near Kfar Aza. I’ve been there before. There is a green oil drum. I’d eaten some crackers on that in November last year, when 460 rockets were fired at Israel. It was near constant red alert rocket-warning sirens then.
But Tuesday night, it was quiet. A rocket fired at Ashkelon brought concern that a round of fighting might begin. Instead, airstrikes targeted the southern Gaza Strip. It was only in the early hours of the morning that another rocket was fired at Ashkelon and was quickly intercepted. By the time dawn began to break, it was clear that another day would pass before escalation might begin again.
War has a rhythm, especially the Gaza front. Hamas and its lesser terrorist partner, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, tend to fire rockets at dusk and dawn, sometimes throughout the night, but less frequently during the day. Why do they do this? It’s not clear. Before or after morning prayers at 4 a.m.? Do they think they can hide better at these hours? There’s no evidence that they can.
THE DECISION to deploy armored forces near the Gaza border this week conjures up memories of the 2014 war.
This illustrates how seriously Israel takes the escalation.
But the past year has shown the reticence that Jerusalem has for a conflict with Gaza.
Most of these calculations are well known. They appear to be well known in Gaza as well.
Ilanit Chernick, my colleague who accompanied me down to the border Tuesday night, said it seemed like a game of cat and mouse. The cat and the mouse both know the rules, and they know the consequences.
Important considerations are at play on the border.
Hamas has indicated that Iran is trying to stir the pot in Gaza. Egypt is trying to calm it down. No one wants a war.
But Hamas also understands that Israel is having elections soon.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stressed that Israel views the situation in the north, particularly Iranian entrenchment in Syria, as the major challenge for Israel.
Gaza’s threats are well known, they have been checked at each attempt over the past decades, whether it is tunnels or long-range missiles, or balloons and protests.
Gaza’s leaders understand they cannot achieve much against Israel. A recent Hamas propaganda film showed a giant Hamas fighter being pummeled by Israeli tanks and aircraft. It was symbolic of Hamas’s own understanding of its limitations. Gone are the videos of the heroic “frogmen” that were decimated in their 2014 attack on Zikim. Gone are the videos of snipers dressed like Tusken Raiders in Star Wars.
I SLEPT in the car Tuesday night, briefly attempting to catch a few minutes’ nap on the cold concrete parking lot, sheltered from the lights by the rear of my Toyota. It reminded me of a different war, a different cold night.
All wars seem to be the same in this respect. The waiting.
The cigarettes. The coffee.
That moment at dawn when everything becomes so melancholy beautiful, only to be dragged back to the reality of conflict and struggle.
For the residents of the Gaza Strip and for the Israeli communities that ring the enclave, this constant cycle is burdensome. The Israeli residents speak to the media about their children growing up in the shadow of constant alerts. Even though the area has developed, with new construction, parks and shopping areas in Sderot, the concern is always there that the next round will come.
At dawn on Wednesday, we drove around to see some of the armored units deployed near the Gaza Strip, the tanks bathing in the morning sun, resting amid fields still wet from the dew. The fog was being chased away, and the men were getting up.
A truck with portable toilets was humming. The long logistics tail had brought the bathrooms. An army marches on its stomach, but it also leaves behind excrement.
And the excrement will become part of the soil and give new life to plants, until the next round, when those plants will be churned up by tank treads