The wars that defined us: A battleground in Israel's backyard

A Jerusalem Post correspondent reflects on his time covering Operation Protective Edge.

By
April 18, 2018 14:00
idf gaza

IDF FORCES operate inside the Gaza Strip during Operation Protective Edge. (photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN’S UNIT)

For every Israeli triumph over the past 70 years, there was unspeakable loss. The Jerusalem Post has dutifully chronicled those victories and defeats and their inevitable accompanying anguish. As such, here are reflection pieces from our reporters on the ground who literally dodged bullets so that we could understand the decisions being made, what was at stake, and tell the stories of people whose very lives were on the line.

On the second evening of Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, a group of Hamas naval commandos crossed from Gaza into Israel, landing on a beach near Kibbutz Zikim.

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I was driving to the border of the Gaza Strip that afternoon and passed next to the kibbutz without knowing how serious a security incident was unfolding.

Everything seemed calm. Police and soldiers eventually cordoned off the road toward the kibbutz. A truck pulling an armored personnel carrier sat at a gas station. Only later would we see the videos of the Hamas members in the dunes, being hunted down by a tank and drones.

The war in Gaza unfolded in front of our eyes from a small hillock in Sderot. The town that was once the target of Hamas Kassams and mortars became the place to go to watch the air strikes in Gaza.

Because Hamas had retooled its rocket arsenal to strike deep into Israel, Sderot was mostly passed over in the war. We sat on couches and smoked and looked over Beit Hanun in Gaza. Hamas usually fired its rocket volleys toward dusk and I desperately wanted to photograph the rockets lifting off. The second night of war, some shelling from Hamas lit trees on fire in Kibbutz Nir Am. We watched the fires and the IDF flares hanging in the air.

For a week, I spent almost every day on the Gaza border, getting up early in Jerusalem and driving down, or taking a bus or hitching rides. We would usually drive into Sderot and ascend the hillock and see what was happening. Then we’d go over to Kibbutz Mefalsim and Kfar Aza, around 1,000 meters from the Gaza border. From there, one could see the IDF drones, the helicopters, flares, air strikes.

Seth J. Frantzman. (Credit: Courtesy)

We were supposed to be worried about snipers and mortars. During the drive back and forth, there was frequently a “red alert” sound and it would be blared on the radio with a list of places threatened by the incoming rockets. There was also some bulletin about “what to do in your car if the rocket is over your area.” We were supposed to pull off to the side of the road and seek shelter. But the whole process seemed ridiculous. It’s more dangerous to swerve off the road and jump out and take shelter, than to just keep driving. Nevertheless, we could often see the Iron Dome puffs of smoke that resulted from interceptions.

By July 12, the IDF had deployed throngs of armored vehicles to the border of Gaza. In one melon field, a tank regiment was parked and I thought it was a bit funny that the treads had churned up the ripened melons. All around Gaza armored vehicles flocked to staging areas, preparing for a ground incursion. I snapped my best photo of the war when we were driving toward Kissufim and a 65-ton Merkava tank was driving parallel to us in the sand next to the road, churning up a massive dust storm. I remember sticking my camera out the window and snapping dozens of shots, hoping one would come out. One of them did, showing all the fierce, massive, strength of a tank bearing down on us.

Six days after the incursion finally began on July 17, I spent a day with IDF paratrooper reservists who had been given a day of relaxation at a pool in Netivot. Their guns were stacked in a square or leaning against a wall and the men were playing and singing. It was one of those strange scenes in war where the everyday normalcy of life can take place with the reverberations of artillery in the background and the knowledge that tomorrow one may be searching Gaza for tunnels, but today will be normal. For the most part, the 2014 war seems too much forgotten today. Some 67 IDF soldiers were killed and hundreds wounded. Dozens of Israeli civilians were wounded and six killed. More than 2,000 Palestinians were killed, many of them civilians.

The ability to keep the war out of sight and out of mind took place even when the war was still going on. Covering the war became a routine.

The success of Iron Dome to intercept rockets, even those fired at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, led to complacency. People sat in cafes and watched the interceptions. But the war continued.

In the last week of July, I made a final trip to the border. We spent a day with some armored corps soldiers. A group of volunteers had come down to give out food and ice pops and some religious guys from Chabad brought tefillin for the soldiers to put on. We had to tramp into a dusty field to find the soldiers, caked in the tan dirt tossed up by the vehicles. We sat and joked with the men in their APC. I snapped some photos. Birds were flying over the field and I turned my lens away from Gaza. The birds had become more poignant a sight than the tanks, the guns and the machinery of war. Eventually we would all go home – the young men, the reservists, the volunteers, the journalists and the civilians who had come to watch. The fields would be plowed again.

When you go to Sderot today, the hillock where journalists and people gathered and sat on old couches has been bulldozed to make a new subdivision.

The bunkers for people to hide from rocket fire are still there.


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