The wars that defined us: Memories from Gaza

A former military correspondent reflects on her time covering the most turbulent years in Israel's history.

By MARGOT DUDKEVITCH
April 18, 2018 15:34
gaza disengagement

OPPONENTS OF the disengagement plan from Gaza confront Border Police at the synagogue in the settlement of Kfar Darom in August 2005.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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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. Nothing can prepare you for the bloodshed, the sight of bodies lying on the ground blown apart in suicide bomb attacks, families wiped out in Palestinian terrorist shootings, their distorted bodies lying in bullet-ridden vehicles. Babies and children killed and maimed in stone-throwing attacks, and interviewing bereaved relatives.

Attending countless funerals of terrorism victims whose families were torn apart by Palestinian terrorists.

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The years I worked as military correspondent for The Jerusalem Post were considered to be among the most turbulent witnessed in the Jewish state.

Years in which thousands of Israelis were killed and injured. My stint began months before the outbreak of the Second Intifada in September 2000 and continued several months after Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

I traveled the length and breadth of Judea and Samaria and the Gaza Strip, visiting the Jewish communities, reporting on events. I came under stone-throwing attacks and was pinned down by Palestinian sniper fire on more than one occasion.

As the intifada unfolded, the attacks escalated from stone throwing and firebomb attacks, to stabbings, bombings and live fire. My editors demanded I wear a helmet and bulletproof flak jacket everywhere I went. Details released by the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) in September 2005 noted that in the first five years of violence 1,061 Israelis were killed in some 26,159 terrorist attacks carried out in Israel, Judea and Samaria and the Gaza Strip.

I frequently visited settlements in the Gaza Strip – Neveh Dekalim, Morag, Elei Sinai, Kfar Darom and Netzarim, to name a few, interviewing Jewish residents and soldiers deployed inside the communities and along the access roads leading to them.

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The settlers living there came from all walks of life: doctors, social workers, academics, teachers, farmers and religious scholars. Many of the pastoral communities had large hothouses tended by Jewish farmers who worked alongside Palestinians from Gaza.

I recall the particularly bloody month of May 2004. It began with the despicable murder of 38-year-old Tali Hatuel who was eight months pregnant when she was fatally shot along with her four daughters aged 11 to two, by two Palestinian terrorists who opened fire at Israeli cars traveling near the Kissufim crossing at the entrance to the Gush Katif settlement bloc. I remember her husband David, shortly after he was informed of the devastating news, speechless and white-faced unable to fathom that his wife and children were gone forever.

Days later, the horrific images of Israeli soldiers crawling in the sand in the Philadelphi Corridor searching for the remains of their five comrades who were killed when their armored vehicle was hit by anti-tank rockets fired by terrorists during a routine operation to detect tunnels used by terrorist organizations to smuggle weapons. Just days earlier, six soldiers were killed when Palestinian terrorists blew up an armored personnel carrier laden with a vast amount of explosives left from an IDF operation in the Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza, where troops destroyed terrorists’ weapons factories.

October 2000 also saw the start of rocket attacks on Israeli communities. The nearby town of Sderot was hit by numerous rockets, and as time went by the list of Israeli communities living under the threat of rocket attacks continued to grow.

It was in 2003 that prime minister Ariel Sharon announced plans for a unilateral withdrawal from 21 Israeli communities inside the Gaza Strip and the expulsion of some 8,500 Jews – a move that would end the permanent Israeli military and civilian presence there. His plans were met with anger and disbelief.

Sharon was harshly criticized by politicians and members of the public affiliated with the Right, as well as supporters of the settlement movement. Many viewed the move as “surrendering to terrorism.”

After the government approved it, in the months leading up to the 2005 disengagement that also called for the removal of four communities in the West Bank, the country was covered in orange banners and ribbons. Nationwide protests became a daily event. Those who opposed wore orange T-shirts and called on soldiers who were to take part in the evacuation to refuse orders. Others demanded Sharon step down. Some expressed fears that violence would break out between settlers and security forces; others feared civil war.

Days before the withdrawal began on August 15, 2005, I bade farewell to my husband and children and headed down to Gaza. For weeks, some 14,000 policemen and soldiers had been training for the withdrawal that would be conducted unarmed.

MARGOT DUDKEVITCH seen running in Gaza while embedded with Israeli troops there. (Credit: ARIEL JEROZOLIMSKI)

Already half of the Jewish residents had left Gaza voluntarily. Checkpoints and roadblocks were set up on roads and highways leading to Gaza and the northern Negev to prevent their return. Media outlets from home and abroad monitored the entire procedure, watching security forces enter the communities.

Others were deployed on the outer perimeters to safeguard the withdrawal.

“This is not an easy mission,” Maj. Amir, who participated in the evacuation of Tel Katifa and Kfar Darom, told me at the time, adding while there were instances where soldiers burst into tears as they removed residents from their homes, he was proud of the way they handled themselves despite the difficulties. Facing the soldiers and police who had come to remove them, settlers called on them to disobey orders, others their eyes red from crying, declared “Jews don’t expel Jews.”

Some had to be carried to waiting buses; others were led. Inside the homes, their belongings were packed in boxes. As he boarded a bus, a resident from Atzmona said to me “at least if we are assured this will bring peace, it may be hard to accept, but it will be worth it.” As soldiers marched silently along the access road leading to Morag, a banner strung up at the entrance said “Who dares to expel me from my home?” Toys from the local kindergarten lay in a sandbox, and elsewhere in the community cardboard boxes containing residents’ possessions were loaded onto waiting trucks.

After communities were emptied, bulldozers demolished the homes. Public buildings and synagogues were left intact, their contents removed. It was an exhausting, heartbreaking process.

On the morning of September 12, after 38 years, the army completed its withdrawal of all personnel and equipment from the Gaza Strip.

After a brief, solemn ceremony, soldiers sang “Hatikva” and the last soldier left, locking the border gate at the Kissufim Crossing behind him.

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