On the Gaza border: Rockets fly over Israelis' heads - reporter's notebook

As I began to drive back towards a hill that overlooks the border area I could see streaks of white smoke rising from Gaza. These are the telltale signs of rockets.

Rockets fired from Gaza into Israel are seen being intercepted, on May 10, 2023. (Credit: Seth J. Frantzman)

Around the Gaza Strip, the morning of the second day of Operation Shield and Arrow began quietly. Communities were told to either go to shelters or remain close by. I drove south from Jerusalem, a drive that took about an hour and a half. The police and army had closed off some areas around the Strip. Traffic from Ashkelon was blocked to Sderot, as these areas were expected to be under direct threat, which extended dozens of kilometers inland.

When I arrived on the border, it was still quiet, without much traffic. There are still industries operating around the border, so there are many people who have to use the roads. I had been in this area many times before during numerous conflicts over the last two decades. Most of the landscape is fields, and there were a few soldiers who had set up a checkpoint south of Ashkelon near Yad Mordechai and the turnoff to Karmiya.

I drove out toward Karmiya and Zikim Beach until there were more roadblocks. Then I paused and wondered what would come next. The radio said people could leave their shelters. Israel had carried out strikes against sites in Khan Yunis and Beit Lahiya. I could see smoke rising from Beit Lahiya. As I began to drive back towards a hill that overlooks the border area, I could see streaks of white smoke rising from Gaza. These are the telltale signs of rockets. Soon, Iron Dome was at work overhead, its Tamir interceptor missiles flying toward the rockets.

The rocket fire begins

This was just the opening salvo of a long series of salvos that poured missiles over our heads. It began at 1:27 p.m. and continued at 1:30 p.m., 1:35 p.m. and every five or 10 minutes after that until a brief lull at 2:30 p.m., before restarting around 3 p.m., when more rockets were fired toward areas south of Tel Aviv. The rockets were intercepted by Iron Dome in dozens of interceptions.

Each of these salvos and the interceptors heading toward them could be seen from areas south of Ashkelon. The rocket fire was concentrated here. Smoke filled the skies and slowly drifted away with each round of interceptions. Some rockets fell in open areas nearby, and smoke rose from the fields.

IDF air defenses are seen intercepting rockets fired from Gaza into Israel, on May 10, 2023 (video credit: Seth J. Frantzman)

Inside Gaza, loud booms indicated that Israel was responding. The radio continued to say where the sirens were sounding and to encourage people to go to their shelters. In many areas along the roads, there are no shelters, so cars had to brave the roads south of Ashkelon with nothing more to do than keep driving.

The number of salvos in broad daylight took place as they have in the past. However, standing under the missiles fired from Gaza and the Iron Dome interceptors was still jarring. There were sirens in the distance, but in some areas, there are no sirens, and therefore you can be standing outside and suddenly see small bright lights tailed by smoke rising into the area from Iron Dome interceptors heading to stop the missiles.

As the afternoon continued, it appeared that Islamic Jihad began to use its longer-range rockets, firing them toward areas in the center of the country, such as Rishon Lezion, as well as other areas, such as Netivot. Border areas were spared some of the rockets, as they flew high up in the air, way above the few residents who remained near the border.

Nevertheless, for many of those working industries near the border, or living in the larger towns such as Sderot, there was nowhere to go. Most of them are used to the situation. Trucks continued to go back and forth from industrial areas, and civilians continued to drive on the most essential roads.

I drove over to the industrial area south of Ashkelon, where several roads stretch into the distance, toward the sea, the Rutenberg Power Station and Zikim Beach. As I drove, I could hear sirens, and the radio was saying there were rockets headed for Ashkelon. The loud screams of Iron Dome interceptors grasping upward led me to look toward the coast, where the battle overhead was taking place between Islamic Jihad rockets and Iron Dome. The interceptors did their work. I tried to get a better vantage point, but there were roadblocks.

I know this area well because I’ve covered wars here since 2009’s Operation Cast Lead. The names of the operations fade with time – Pillar of Defense, Defensive Edge, Black Belt, Guardian of the Walls, Breaking Dawn. It has been two years since Guardian began in this same area. It was back in 2014 that Hamas tried to infiltrate terrorists near here in the dunes near Zikim. And in September 2014, Avera Mengistu, an Israeli man, crossed into Gaza near here and is still being held by Hamas. I thought of those experiences as I drove back toward Ashkelon.

The overall sense is that we’ve been here before. This time, the local authorities and home front were quick to encourage people to go into shelters, and children were mostly moved from smaller border communities, while adults stayed home from work in the cities. In Ashkelon, the malls were closed, for instance. Most of the streets were quiet. Most playgrounds were empty, except one that had two kids and their father on it.

The rockets had peaked in the early afternoon, and then there were several more salvos through sunset, when rumors of a ceasefire seemed to encourage Islamic Jihad to fire wildly at cities far from Gaza. Israel’s operations against the terrorist group continue frequently, but it’s unclear if this has become routine – a choreographed series of events where a ceasefire will result, but both sides know the next round is soon. The radio programs playing as I drove back to Jerusalem all seemed cynical; it was only a matter of time until the next round of rockets and airstrikes.