The traffic on roads heading south toward communities near Gaza thinned beyond the city of Ashkelon.
On Tuesday night, after a day of rocket and mortar fire directed at Israel, the public was waiting to see if some kind of cease-fire might come into effect, or if the day was just the beginning of a new round of conflict. I decided to drive down to the area, in case the violence expanded overnight.
Just south of Ashkelon, driving with the windows open, the slow, chilling wail of the sirens began. It was several minutes before midnight, and two Iron Dome missiles flew skyward above Route 4, and intercepted a projectile fired from Gaza. There was a slight thud and a momentary bright light framed by a power line. The sirens went on for another half a minute before stopping.
Tuesday began the way it ended, with attacks on Israel. In the early morning hours, Islamic Jihad had fired almost 30 mortar shells at Israeli border communities. One hit next to a kindergarten. As the day progressed, dozens more rockets were fired by both Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The IDF responded throughout the day, hitting military compounds, munitions storage sites and other targets.
There was little evidence of the crisis unfolding south of Ashkelon. A full moon was rising. Convenience stores were open, and there were no military checkpoints.
I made my way past Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, a border community frequently under fire from Gaza, and then passed Sderot, a city targeted for two decades by mortars and Kassam rockets from the Strip.
There’s a lot of new construction in Sderot, the looming shells of housing starts can be seen stretching out from the city. Right on the border with Gaza, next to Kibbutz Kfar Aza, there are armored shelters next to the bus stops and a small concrete wall was erected a decade ago to protect from sniper fire. The constant buzzing of drones could be heard overhead.
I stopped at a gas station near Kibbutz Alumim. The place was new and its lights bright, like an oasis in the night. As I pumped gas, loud thuds pierced the air. It felt like the percussion of outgoing artillery. One thud, two thuds, three thuds. So I thought I would wait around, and I parked my car on the side of the road, until police came and wondered if I was drunk and sleeping in the car.
“You’re a danger to yourself parking here; pull off at a bus stop instead,” they suggested.
When they left, the loud, soul-wrenching crescendo of thuds from what seemed like outgoing artillery began again. Birds in a nearby tree, spooked by the booms, flew up in the air. A car alarm went off, and then an aircraft flew overhead. The whole overture of war at night feels different because there are less sensory distractions; it purifies the sound and chisels it down.
Around the same time, the Red Alert application on my phone said that rockets had been fired at Netivot and other communities in the Eshkol region. The IDF said it had struck 25 military targets
in Gaza belonging to Hamas.
“The targeted strikes included sheds of drones used for terrorist purposes, a rocket-manufacturing workshop, advanced naval weaponry, military compounds, training facilities” and other sites, the army said.
I had to find a place to sleep, so I drove back toward Yad Mordechai, where there is a parking lot and an armored shelter for cover. By the time I got there, after 2 in the morning, more sirens were sounding along the Gaza border in Nirim, Kerem Shalom and Kissufim.
I thought I had dozed off for a second, when the wailing began. It felt like a dream and brought me back to a night in 2008 before Operation Cast Lead, when I’d been in Sderot crouching down and taking cover from incoming Kassams. In those days there was no Iron Dome, and all we could do was hope for the best. Now, in 2018, I got out of my car into the warm night air and listened to the sirens with a feeling of total safety because of Israel’s defensive systems.
The last round of rockets was fired at 5:15 a.m. near the border community of Kissufim, near the old crossing that people used before 2005 to travel to the Jewish communities in Gaza, such as Kfar Darom and Gush Katif. Now that crossing is overgrown with plants from disuse.
The day’s short conflict was the latest round in conflicts that stretch back decades. In 24 hours around 100 rockets and mortar shells had been fired from Gaza, and the IDF said that it had struck 65 targets in total in the Strip.
By morning, rumors of a cease-fire were again in the air
. They’d been discussed the night before. The local radio stations were waking up the residents of Gaza border communities to do interviews about the trauma of taking kids to school after the mortar fire on Tuesday. Then music played, and everything seemed to return to normal.
I got in my car and started the drive back to Jerusalem.
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