Reflections: My Gaza war

The conflicts in the summer of 2014 were unique in their brutality – my life changed dramatically, as did the lives of countless others in this shell-shocked country.

By
June 25, 2016 00:56
Gaza war

Smoke trails are seen as rockets are launched towards Israel from the northern Gaza Strip. (photo credit: REUTERS)

I rear-ended some settlers in a minivan in the West Bank that afternoon, just before pulling into the settlement of Talmon for the funeral.

There was no damage, and we parted ways with a smile, joining the convoy snaking up to the ceremony.

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Hundreds of people were waiting in Talmon to bury 16-year-old Gil-Ad Shaer, murdered 18 days earlier on June 12 along with teenagers Naftali Frenkel and Eyal Yifrach after they were kidnapped at a hitchhiking post in the West Bank by two Palestinian men. Their bodies were finally found the night before, bringing the national agony to a new stage as the last glimmer of hope was snuffed out.



Shaer’s was the voice heard in the 100 emergency call to police, the one whispering “They kidnapped me” from the back seat. At the funeral, he was described as a kind-hearted kid who threw a birthday party for his pet goldfish, and a young man who showed courage beyond his years.

Like countless mourners before him, Shaer’s father, Ofir, sought comfort in the heroism of the deceased.

“From the moment we heard your courageous whisper, I stood tall,” he said, describing the recording of the 100 call played for the family by police.



“How did you show such courage, someone who was not yet 17 years old?” Ofir said he never expected the quiet schoolboy to become a national hero before he was old enough to drive, and minutes later, his daughter, Shir-el, prayed that maybe her brother’s death would bring the people of Israel closer to redemption.

A half hour or so after that, I somehow found my car and got away from the funeral gridlock. I was on my way to my sister-in-law’s in central Israel when WhatsApp started exploding amid news that the recording of the 100 call had been leaked.

I pulled over to the side of the highway and finally heard what all the fuss was about.

You could hear it clearly – “They kidnapped me,” and then a voice saying “put your head down.” Then there were gunshots, MK Shelly Yacimovich giving a radio interview in the background, some chattering in Arabic and the sound of singing, as the killers danced to celebrate the slaughter of three defenseless young men, including the one I just saw buried.

I must have played it back five or six times. We all knew about Shaer’s whispering and the gunshots, but “Put your head down”? The singing? It was much worse than I’d imagined.

My sister-in-law was hosting a pidyon haben celebration for her son, born a month earlier. It was just the siblings, the husbands and my mother-in-law, and a heavyset Sephardi rabbi who kept imploring me to come back inside from the balcony where I was furiously – and rudely – trying to file a handful of stories before deadline.

That afternoon summed up much of the 2014 Gaza War for me, stories of heartache and young lives lost – often mixed with moments of real fear – all taking place during my wife’s and my first months as proud parents of a baby girl.

I went to sleep that night still trying to make sense of it all, and in the morning woke up in our old apartment on Nordau Street in Tel Aviv to the news that a teenage Palestinian boy had been found lynched and burned in a forest outside Jerusalem.

That was the moment the summer that changed my life began.




This time it actually will be different

The 50-day IDF operation that began on July 8 was similar to others that came before. There were rounds of Hamas rocket fire and IDF retaliation (and vice versa), escalating in force until the IDF announced that the operation had a name (“Protective Edge”), signifying that it was now official.

In the end, there were 72 fatalities on the Israeli side – 66 of them soldiers – and over 2,000 killed on the Palestinian side, an unknown number of them combatants. The war had been preceded by the 18-day “Operation Brother’s Keeper,” launched to find the three kidnapped teens and resulting in the arrests of hundreds of Hamas members in the largest crackdown in the West Bank in years.

Immediately after that saga was over, the murder of Palestinian teenager Muhammad Abu-Khdeir by Jewish extremists launched a wave of rioting across the country, as things began – again – to tilt head-on into the abyss.

A week before Protective Edge’s ground operation was launched on July 17, I was feeling clever. I penned a piece for Tablet Magazine, where I was doing regular freelance work at the time, about the déjà-vu feeling among journalists as yet another Gaza summer war was unfolding.

In the lead, I actually likened it to the film Groundhog Day, all but saying that we had seen the movie time and again, and the only thing that changed were the dates.

I didn’t know that a full-on ground operation would begin in a week, that less than two months later there would be dozens of Israelis and thousands of Gazans killed, and that two years later, two Israeli soldiers would have yet to come home.

In hindsight, it’s strange that I wrote about déjà vu. The kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli teens and Abu-Khdeir were two events of remarkable cruelty and trauma for the two sides, two highly disturbing stories that had already played out well before the war began and didn’t have counterparts in any previous round.

On the Thursday night that the operation was launched, I was at The English Pub on Allenby and Hayarkon streets, one of the few proper dive bars in Tel Aviv. I was drinking with a British journalist friend and watching the news on the TV above the bar when the announcement came in by WhatsApp and then on TV: The ground operation had begun.

We stepped outside to smoke and saw dozens of American college students on a Birthright-Israel trip walk past the bar toward the beach, most of them in shorts and flip-flops, some downing beers, all seeming to be blissfully unaware of what was going on.

We laughed and, yes, may have shouted something along the lines of “There’s a war starting, run!” Not my proudest moment, but the whole night was odd, and for some reason unexpected.

There would be a series of developments in that war that countered my Groundhog Day assessment early on.

Mainly, there were the tunnel infiltrations by Hamas, a new “sum of all fears” weapon that would be used with deadly effectiveness over the course of the war.

There was also the way Tel Aviv was targeted by rockets seemingly every day.

Sure, it had happened during the 2012 war (“Operation Pillar of Defense”), but it was limited to only a few times, and other than an apartment building in Rishon Lezion, there was little damage.

I REMEMBER the first time a rocket was launched at Tel Aviv during that war. I had been in the south chasing rocket strikes and was heading back to Tel Aviv when the news came in.

It seemed so mysterious, so hard to pin down. Some said it had landed in the Hatikva neighborhood in south Tel Aviv; others said they had witnessed it from Jaffa, saying it landed in the water a couple of hundred meters from shore.

We made repeated calls on the way back to Tel Aviv, trying to reach any journalists or cops who knew where it had landed, but to no avail. It was a bogeyman, a phantom, a rocket that everyone heard explode in the air or on earth or the sea, never to be found.

In 2014, it became clockwork. There was the anticipation of the salvos that would accompany the prime time evening news broadcast, so you’d wait in the stairwell or shelter until 8:05 p.m.

or so, after the siren and the explosion, and then go run your errands. There was also one night when Hamas threatened to bring a salvo to shake Tel Aviv to its knees, but the only thing I remember from that night was Neil Young canceling his upcoming concert.

The rockets on Tel Aviv became normal.

They were not the “game changer” people thought they’d be, even in 2012.

What was different for me was the timing.

This time I was a parent, and I was repeatedly caught by rocket sirens with my daughter.

For the most part, this was okay. My daughter – or both of us – were either at my mother-in-law’s in a small town in the Sharon region, or at my wife’s sister’s place, and at both there was a shelter and at least a minute or so of flight time from Gaza for the rocket. In Tel Aviv, at our apartment, there was less time, but still enough to get down to the shelter. Only once were we caught outside during a siren, and I raced two blocks, pushing the stroller until we got to our building and the cellar, fumbling first with the shoulder straps on the stroller and then with the door code.

Luckily, she was only seven months old and oblivious to everything happening around her. Now, two years later, she’s very aware, clever and hard to fool. The next time there are sirens and rockets on Israeli cities – and it’s only a matter of time – she’ll be even more aware. We’ll also have two little girls to rush to safety.

I know a lot of parents who deal with this by coming up with games to explain the sirens and explosions, and joking about it with their kids. But I don’t want to have to do that.



The song of the war

I had my personal theme songs.

In 2012’s Operation Pillar of Defense, it was Tyga’s “Rack City.” It’s a terrible track, but a photographer friend and I thought it was hilarious and addictive.

The hook was that it was perfect to sing while racing around Ashkelon or Sderot, or running for a bomb shelter during a rocket siren.

In the 2014 though, my personal theme song was “Just Like Candy” by 8Ball and MJG. I can’t explain why or when that got to be the case, but it was during a slow moment early in the war, I think in Kiryat Gat, and I was watching videos on Youtube and it just stuck.

Almost every day for the rest of the war, I’d play it at least once in the car, turned up loud on the phone, but not too loud that I couldn’t hear the monotone voice on Israel Radio break into the non-stop news broadcasts to announce rocket siren locations.

Rap Genius might say otherwise, but I’m pretty sure the lyrics to “Just Like Candy” go something like this: Leanin to the left, gold Daytons on that thang Code Red Hof Ashkelon, Nitzanim As the sun goes down, I’m gettin dirty Code Red Zikim, Karmiya, Yad Mordechai It was not the ideal way to listen to music, but it was kinda nice to picture MJG sitting in the studio with the Code Red app going off every time he tried to record the track.

Why that song? It’s pretty dope, but it’s also a track that couldn’t be farther from the reality of those two months.

The song and the video (which was filmed on a beach somewhere that for damn sure wasn’t Memphis) are all candy paint and thick women, wood grain and southern things. They couldn’t be farther from Gaza or sound any less like a hazan chanting at a military funeral.

That’s another mystery that I’ve never figured out – what’s the best way to drive? Is it better to have the radio off with the windows open a crack to hear the siren, or to have the windows closed and the radio on to hear the voice cut in with the alert? They say that if you’re on the freeway and the rocket’s coming your way, it’s best to pull over to the shoulder, get clear of the car and hit the ground facedown with your hands on your head.

That makes sense in Tel Aviv, where you’ve got a minute or so to find a spot, but in the South, where it’s a matter of seconds, I’ve always had my doubts.

Slamming on the brakes and diving out onto the ground next to the shoulder may be more dangerous than the rocket. It might be safer just to floor it – that’s what 8Ball and MJG would do, because they come out hard.

Kfar Azar and the Pomerantzes


Some unexpected inspiration came on July 24 in a town I’d never heard of, that isn’t really a town at all.

Kfar Azar is a moshav that’s home to a few hundred people, squeezed between two highways and Tel Hashomer Medical Center. It’s considered a neighborhood of Ramat Gan for all intents and purposes, but once you pass the little wooden welcome sign, it seems pretty detached from the urban sprawl surrounding it.

It’s a nowheresville speck on the map, like dozens or even hundreds of other villages in Israel. You probably need a good reason to find yourself there. For me, it was a funeral.

Sgt. Daniel Pomerantz was a 20-yearold infantryman in the Golani Brigade when he was killed on the night of July 19 in Gaza City’s Shejaia neighborhood.

Pomerantz and six other Golani soldiers were riding in an aging, Vietnam-era M113 APC that was hit by an RPG fired by a Hamas gunman. They probably died instantly.

Killed along with Pomerantz was St.- Sgt. Oron Shaul, whose remains were seized by Hamas body-snatchers and are still being held for ransom. (In April, Oron’s father, Herzl, announced that he had been diagnosed with cancer, which he blamed on the stress and anxiety of trying over the previous two years to get his son’s remains returned to Israel for burial.) Also in the APC were two Americans – Sgt. Max Steinberg, originally from Los Angeles, and Sgt. Sean Carmeli, from South Padre Island, Texas.

They were all from Golani’s 13th Battalion.

Earlier that day, in a staging area on the Gaza border, soldiers from the battalion had passed time in the shade as three other journalists and I walked around taking pictures and making small talk with them. (I remember speaking for a few minutes with one soldier from Maryland, who shouted at me from atop an APC when he saw my Longhorns hat.) Most of them looked like they’d barely finished basic training.

In the days to come, I looked back at those photos, but didn’t see anyone whose head shot was in the paper after what came to be known as the “APC Disaster,” which only made me wish we’d stayed longer.

THERE WERE several funerals that I covered in the 2014 war.

I had covered who knows how many funerals in the years before while a reporter at The Jerusalem Post. Most had been for soldiers killed in skirmishes or wars in Gaza, or on the Lebanon border, but there were also the funerals of musicians Arik Einstein and Shlomo Krauss, and for six members of the same family – including an infant – from Rishon Lezion who had been stabbed to death in their home in one of the most brutal crimes in Israel’s history. (That was the first article I had written for the paper.) Funerals tend to play out like clockwork, but in the summer of 2014, it was different. For one thing, there was the voice on the public address system instructing that in the event of a rocket siren everyone should remain calm and hit the dirt; it was a notice read before every funeral during the war.

By the time of the funeral for Daniel Pomerantz, I had already been to a couple of others for soldiers killed in Operation Protective Edge, and the novelty had worn off. What was unique here, though – and something that left me stunned – was the family.

Daniel’s mother, Varda, was the former head of the IDF’s casualties department, the branch responsible for – among other things – notifying families that their sons had died during their service. She had paid countless house calls over the years, knocking on doors to tell families they’d never be whole again.

Standing over her son’s freshly dug grave, Varda said: “After I hung up my uniform, after using up all my strength through the years of trying to comfort bereaved families, I have to stand here and tell everyone that I knew – I always knew – that the day would come when those people in uniforms would come knock on our door. I never told you of this fear, but I always knew.”

She pushed on and said how on the previous Friday night, she had a premonition that her son’s days were numbered and decided to record her last conversation with him. Then, in front of the stunned mourners and press, she played the recording, and moments later read the letter Daniel had written to his family before heading into Gaza, a letter he had saved on his phone and decided not to send.

“If you’re reading this, it means my career [in Golani] has come to an end...

All of you must be happy. Stay happy for me,” he wrote, before telling his family he loved them and they should be proud.

At the beginning of the funeral, Varda had walked alongside her son’s coffin as the pallbearers carried it to the grave.

When she got there, she saw his platoon commander, a lieutenant barely older than Daniel had been. He had been wounded and was sitting in a wheelchair after demanding that he be taken from the hospital to the funeral.

The commander blamed himself for the deaths of his soldiers. Later, he said he had been terrified to face Varda. But his fear had been misplaced – when Varda spotted him, she rushed over, saluted and hugged and kissed him.

The funeral was also remarkable because it was never supposed to happen – at least not there.

Kfar Azar has no graveyard, and its residents, including soldiers, are buried in cemeteries in Ramat Gan. Varda, for her own reasons, insisted that he be buried in her village, near her home, and when she was met by refusals, she moved up the IDF chain of command, using every connection she had made over her decades of service.

She refused to take no for an answer, and said later that she had told the army and the municipality that they could continue to refuse; the family would just get a backhoe and dig the grave themselves.

This aspect of the story is perhaps troubling – a classic case of an Israeli using protektzia to get something the rules don’t allow, something less-connected Israelis could never achieve. Still, I was moved, struck by a mother moving heaven and earth just to keep whatever was left of her son as close to her as possible.

Other funerals from that war were remarkable as well, part of a new phenomenon I had never seen. Call it the “flash-mob funeral” if you like, but it began with the funeral for Sean Carmeli in Haifa.

Carmeli had been a Maccabi Haifa soccer fan, and when he died in the APC Disaster, the club put out the word that he had been a lone soldier, without parents living in the country. (He had sisters living here at the time.) The club called on the public to show its support, and in the end, some 20,000 people from across the country came to pay their respects to a young man they had never met or even heard of.

Similar scenes unfolded for Max Steinberg during his funeral in Jerusalem, and at the funeral for Lt. Hadar Goldin in Kfar Saba – which was also remarkable because it was a funeral without a body, the “burial” of a soldier who was listed as missing in action in Gaza.

How to explain this phenomenon? I’m sure there’s a cynical take that attributes it to rising nationalism or the unchallenged dominance of the right wing in Israel, but I’m not sure. It seemed to come from the heart, a desire to show solidarity with the families of these young men, an outpouring that was probably much less likely before the era of social networks.

It also, I think, reflected a certain helplessness felt during the war, the first since the Second Lebanon War of 2006, in which dozens of young men were killed. It probably mattered little to the families, but the strangers who came to salute the dead probably felt through their gesture some sort of control, that they had some impact on the tragedy that had befallen an entire nation.



What doesn’t kill you might make you weaker

The tunnel warfare continued into August. After a series of cease-fires fell through almost before they’d even begun, I decided to take a chance on August 1 and go to the beach, leaving my phone in the car.

I went into the water a little before the latest cease-fire was to go into effect, and came out to see that three soldiers had been killed in an ambush near Rafah, and that at least one (who turned out to be Hadar Goldin) had been kidnapped through a tunnel deep into the Strip.

Within minutes, I started seeing chatter that one of the soldiers was a close relative of the defense minister (again, this turned out to be Goldin), and things seemed, once more, to take a turn for the worse.

By the next morning, the term “Hannibal Doctrine” – a controversial policy in which the military will use overwhelming force to retrieve a soldier believed kidnapped, even at risk of killing the soldier – had blanketed the foreign media. In the days to come, the IDF would eliminate dozens of attack tunnels, the destruction of which had by then become the main – stated – objective of the war.

Fast forward to one evening about a week later. I was driving north from the Gaza border when I got a call from my dad back in Austin, Texas. He’d been driving to the supermarket earlier in the day, listening to NPR interviewing someone about Hamas, tunnel warfare and the new infiltration threat for Israeli communities.

It had been a short drive to the supermarket, so he stayed in the car to finish listening to the segment and the young man on the line from Tel Aviv. It was only when the anchor said “That was Ben Hartman of The Jerusalem Post” that he realized it was me. Knowing him, I’m sure he related this to a few people in the checkout line. This was a highlight of that summer for both of us.

Later that month, on August 22, my wife and I went with our daughter to see a daycare center at an apartment in our neighborhood. It was an absolute mess – kids all over the place, cribs stacked up like it was a toddler prison, no apparent framework, a strange smell, and all of it run by a frantic middle-aged woman and her teenage daughter.

A few hours later, a mortar shell fired from the Gaza Strip struck outside a house at Kibbutz Nahal Oz on the Gaza border, killing four-year-old Daniel Tragerman.

The family had just pulled up to the house when the siren sounded, and had only three seconds to make it from the car into their reinforced security room. Daniel never had a chance and was killed on the spot.

Border locales like Nahal Oz were the scariest places to be during the war, and not only because of the attack tunnels.

Because of their proximity, Hamas often fired patzmarim, mortar shells, weapons that typically gain insufficient height to set off rocket alarms. They just land without much, if any, warning, and were one of the most devastating weapons of the war – especially when used to target staging areas where soldiers were waiting en masse, like sitting ducks, for days on end to receive orders.

Places like Nahal Oz were all but abandoned during the war.

The death of little Daniel Tragerman was a shock, but outside Israel it was eclipsed by the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian kids in the Gaza Strip.

In a wider sense and by any objective consideration, the suffering there was much greater than in Israel. But I don’t live there, and as an Israeli, I cannot visit.

Therefore, I can’t really report on it.

It’s the Israeli side I can see, understand and unpack. It’s the only one I experience and the only one I know.

MY 2014 WAR didn’t take me to Gaza, just like the ones before didn’t, and just like the ones to come won’t, either.

Gaza was, and is, a violent dark shadow on the other side of the fence. It’s close enough to hear the muezzin in the mosques when you stand in the stillness of an abandoned Nahal Oz, but for all intents and purposes, it might as well be on the moon.

Compared to journalist colleagues and friends who’ve reported from there – or from Syria, Libya, Iraq and beyond – I haven’t been touched by death too much. At all the murder scenes, terror attacks and car bombs I’ve covered, the bodies were already bagged or at least behind police tape with the ZAKA rescue and recovery organization guys.

I’ve been in close proximity to death many times on the job, but rarely face to face, and certainly not in an overflowing Gaza morgue, where the blown-apart bodies of children were stored in refrigerators because of a lack of space. It’s not a competition though, and any helping of something terrible is too much.

Since the 2014 war, I no longer think that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Many things that don’t kill you can make you weaker, and the repeated bouts of trauma and fear can wear you down and poison you. Israelis like to say that someone has “the skin of an elephant” to signify the person’s toughness. True, it might take a high-caliber round to kill an elephant, but even a .22 slug can break its skin and make it bleed.

With a series of wars since independence, countless terror attacks and now three (or at least 2.5) intifadas, Israel would seem to embody a country strengthened through warfare, a nation tempered like steel through so many passes through the furnace. Maybe. But I don’t think it’s that simple.

I think that long ago we passed the point where we needed to stop counting shock victims among casualty statistics.

Everyone here is a shock victim. Everybody in this country carries the burden of trauma.

After the cease-fire, a final, fatal mortar strike

On the evening of August 26, the final cease-fire came, and just like that, the war was over. I filed statistics given by the police and the IDF Home Front Command on rocket strikes and casualties.

Then I went to get a pizza.

The next day at work was for Monday- morning football takes on the war, an occasion to decompress. Hamas military commander Muhammad Deif might have survived once more, but we did too. I remember nothing else from that day, but I do remember the phone call the following morning.

It was my mom, calling at 6 a.m. from Austin. It was the phone call that for years had been my greatest fear. She was speaking in a strange, deliberate monotone, saying: “I’m so sorry to tell you this, your pop has had a stroke, he’s not going to make it, you need to come home.”

We got a ticket in the next hour or two, and that night I was on my way to Austin, the whole time thinking “This is just like a patzmar – no warning, no siren.”

The next day, after the funeral, I remember standing on the street outside the house my mom was renting in northwest Austin. I was talking to a friend from Israel (who had flown in from Seattle because he knew my father well), and to another I knew from college at the University of Texas. I kept telling them, “This is just like a patzmar,” and for some reason, I related to them the story of Varda Pomerantz.

(When you’ve just buried your father, people don’t interrupt you.) More than anything else, though, during and after the funeral, and that night while drinking with friends of my brother at my pop’s house, I kept saying: “I’m not supposed to be here right now. I’m not even supposed to be here.”

My father’s death had nothing to do with the Gaza war, and absolutely everything to do with it. It was a stressful, frightening and exhausting two months, and when it finally ended, I was hit by the worst tragedy of my life.

It will always be like a patzmar, and we’ll always be shock victims.

My Gaza war didn’t take me to Gaza, nor did any of the ones that preceded it.

The summer changed my life though, and I think in some way it changed all of us.

To read more:
benjaminhartman.com


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