The first sign that I was crossing from one world, calm Israel, into planet confrontation Israel, was billowing smoke in the distance as I approached the Gaza border.
I passed staging areas of sizable groups of IDF troops and border police on their way to the front to deal with the confrontation from the Palestinian side. Preparations and the mood were intense, more an atmosphere of war footing than handling a minor flare-up.
As I got closer, I stopped driving on automatic pilot and turned down the radio as my survival instincts took over, and I swallowed a bit, realizing it was my job to drive toward the black smoke.
The position the IDF set up for journalists could only be reached following a winding dirt path around Kibbutz Nahal Oz into agricultural fields with no signs or clear direction, and mostly, after taking several wrong turns, I arrived at the spot by following the smoke.
I passed several scorched portions of fields – presumably burned by “fire kites” sent from the Palestinian side of the border.
Our spot was a couple of hundred meters from the soldiers, probably a one- to two-minute sprint, and they were about a minute or so sprint across some obstacles and fencing from the massive crowd of Palestinians.
At first, the large Palestinian crowd was centralized and mostly chanting slogans, with very few signs of intense conflict. Journalists were discussing whether we should rotate to a different spot to catch more action.
However, at a particular moment around 30 minutes or so after I arrived, it appeared that the Palestinian crowd was given an order or a signal. All at once, thousands of them started sprinting and streaming along the border.
The original plume of smoke was soon dwarfed by multiple larger plumes, presumably from burning tires, Molotov cocktails or other explosives. Sirens blared and vehicles seemed to be rushing around on the Palestinian side, either to handle logistics for the confrontation or to provide medical attention.
Several kites and fire kites sailed across the border, with at least one appearing to be taken down by an Israeli drone.
Israeli jeeps and armored vehicles started streaming toward the border to reinforce the troops already there, including an increase of a group now stationed closer to us and off the border, possibly as backup in case there was a Gazan breakthrough.
GUNSHOTS STARTED to ring out, though usually not more than a few at once.
While reportedly more than 60 Gazans were killed on Monday, most of the Palestinian activity did not seem to be greeted by gunshots, and in several hours, there was no sustained volley.
Of course, part of what characterized Monday’s confrontation was that it was spread out at more than a dozen locations, so that many of the 60 Palestinians claimed killed were slain away from Nahal Oz.
Smoke eventually blended in with tear gas, some of which we got a whiff of even from a few hundred meters out.
But if on the Israeli side of the border you could feel, hear and smell the conflict far more than in the world of “quiet Israel” away from the border, it still appeared to pale in comparison to the chaos and tragedy in the third world on the Palestinian side.
Both from our vantage point and from pictures and videos posted on social media, once the organized stage of the conflict started, the Palestinian side seemed to descend into mayhem and mortifying scenes. One could not help but feel the tragedy of the average Gazan who seemed like a pawn caught up in a bigger dangerous game playing out between Hamas and the IDF.
While there were nonviolent Palestinians demonstrating, thousands of Palestinians were also involved in more aggressive or hostile actions, and the numbers were so large that it was hard to imagine that most of them were not pawns. IDF intelligence has indicated that the real and senior Hamas operatives were told not to approach the fence, so as not to get shot, other than in the few instances where rioters got closer to a breakthrough.
Talking to some soldiers afterward in the nearest restaurant and gas station, located in the world of calm Israel only a few kilometers away, where both they and many journalists took a break, their return to calm and the absence of the smoke, fire and gunshots was striking.
The soldiers indicated this was just their lunch break, and that right afterward they would be back on the front line. Unlike the border policeman I had seen earlier, who were immediately heading to the front line, these soldiers were temporarily safe in the quiet Israel of the restaurant before returning to the action. An IDF spokesman who also happened to stop at the gas station indicated that Hamas had greatly escalated the confrontation.
As I drove away into calm Israel, I assumed that on Tuesday, the conflict would be less intense. But this latest tragedy and conflict is just another page in the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which in Israel’s 70th year, appears to have no end in sight.