Shelter, snacks and soldiers: War on the Gaza border

These wars and escalations are a bit repetitive. I’ve covered them since 2009 when I first volunteered in Sderot to help civilians. 2012. 2014.

A view of the northern Gaza Strip as seen from the Israeli farming community of Netiv Haasara (photo credit: REUTERS)
A view of the northern Gaza Strip as seen from the Israeli farming community of Netiv Haasara
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Four hours after I arrived at a vantage point near the Gaza border the soldiers who had been tasked with securing a road were replaced by a new group. “Guard our country,” one of the soldiers who was leaving said to his comrade. His colleague shared a musical choice of a new Hebrew rapper he had discovered. Then they were off, their rifles slung, plastic knee pads snug against their legs, ammo pouches on their tactical vests, helmets at their side.
The new crew were wearing their helmets when they’d arrived. We’d had several sirens and warplanes had pounded the northern Gaza strip several times throughout the morning. Smoke was rising from near Beit Hanoun. It wasn’t clear if the smoke was billowing from the Israeli side, from a warehouse we heard was hit near Sderot, or from a Palestinian Islamic Jihad team who had been struck.
We were a small crew, two soldiers and two other journalists. The houses in nearby Netiv Ha’Asara were quiet and appeared mostly deserted. I’d entered Netiv Ha’Asara, a community that abuts the northern Gaza Strip. We were 225 meters from the border, 2.74 km from Beit Hanoun. Distances matter here. Mortars and rockets don’t have to travel far to find you. In fact you’re so close to the border that the rockets probably won’t hit you because Islamic Jihad is aiming them further north. On the way to get to the south I’d driven along route 4 when a rocket landed near Gan Yavne. It struck a meter off the road, leaving a crater and churning up asphalt. It was a kind of introduction to this round of fighting. Despite Iron Dome and Israel’s impressive air defense system, not every enemy projectile can be stopped.
These wars and escalations are a bit repetitive. I’ve covered them since 2009 when I first volunteered in Sderot to help civilians. 2012. 2014. The Great Return March. October 2018. November 2018. May 2019. The only way I can really remember all the times I’ve been on the border now is to open  my phone and choose “show nearby photos” and then look back over the years.
My natural inclination when covering the conflict in Gaza from the Israeli side is to find a place close to the border where rockets are likely to fly over. From a purely visual point of view, this is a better place to get video and photos. It doesn’t necessarily mean one will meet any civilians, because they are likely in shelters or at home in the most exposed areas. Netiv Ha’Asara was like that. The police had closed the border road with Gaza, route 34. So I had to drive the back way into the community, through the dunes. In 2014 several Hamas commandos had entered the dunes from the sea, penetrating toward Zikim, before they were killed. In July 2014 Narakorn Kittiyangul, a worker from Thailand, was killed here, felled by a mortar.
Driving to Netiv Ha’Asara one feels a bit exposed. This is a combination of factors. A car gives a false sense of security.  You don’t hear sirens in a car. Also you don’t hear them along roads usually. Every conflict has its new tweaks from the Home Front. Back in 2014 there were sirens on the radio and they would announce where they were. But this probably spreads some panic. This time Radio Bet had some explanation of what to do if you hear sirens in a car. If you’re in the Tel Aviv area you have more than minute to find shelter. So you can run if you like. Or you can shelter near the car on the ground. The real secret is that there probably isn’t a good way to do it if you’re closer to Gaza because you just don’t have time to safely pull over and leap out of the car. Back in 2009, when there was no Iron Dome and you just had to find shelter, we were taught that if you can’t get to a shelter you should shelter behind a wall or building between you and Gaza so that the trajectory of the rocket is less likely to hit you. So you’re always walking around wondering, “is that electrical box big enough to shelter behind,” and “is that wall to the vegetable garden one that I can leap over and get behind.”
It’s 2019, ten years later, and Iron Dome has given people more choices. Also the communities near the Gaza border are festooned with colorful shelters, usually disguised as bus stops. They have rural scenes painted on them, or psychedelic graffiti. It’s a nice community project that has been done throughout the border area of 60 kilometers of border communities. Old habits die hard though, so as I drove toward Netiv Ha’Asara, I opened my windows to listen for sirens, kept the radio on to hear the updates and looked for places to shelter. I drove through the greenhouses where mortars killed Mr. Kittiyangul. There’s no clear shelter there still today. Nearby on a road blocked by police and an open Humvee, there was an old style shelter. Old style? The ones that were basically concrete culverts plopped in fields as if a giant had discarded them. These giant culverts are probably to put electrical lines underneath a city, or for water and sewage or something. But they became life savers. They remind me of those old days sitting in Sderot, waiting for the sirens to end. Today they are like old museum pieces.
In Netiv Ha’Asarot the community looks bucolic and well established. There is a new neighborhood being built with views of Gaza. But on one end there is a giant concrete wall and an IDF pillbox-style tower. A communications array hangs over the whole scene. This is where the civilian life ends and the war begins. But it’s not really war, it’s another escalation. In the last year and a half more than 1,000 rockets have been fired from Gaza.  Actually the number must be closer to 1,500 or more. In May 2019 there were more than 400 rockets fired in a few days. In November 2018 there had been 460 rockets fired. On Tuesday, November 12, 2019 around 160 rockets were fired by nightfall. So if we do the math there were more rockets fired in the last year than in the 2009 war. In the 2012 war a total of 1,500 rockets were fired during Operation Pillar of Defense. That means that the last year or so has seen more rocket fire than two major wars. In a sense we are at war.
This is a new kind of war, the one that Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza have perfected. The rockets rarely impact because of Iron Dome. Israel also does not cause major casualties in its attacks. The strike on the PIJ commander Baha Abu al-Ata in the morning that started the escalation on November 12 was quite different than years ago. In July 2002 Israel struck the house of Hamas member Salah Shehadeh with a one-ton bomb. The bomb killed Shehadeh and killed one of his Hamas comrades. It also killed his wife, their daughter and 13 other civilians. Dozens were injured. Israel was still reviewing this incident in 2011 to learn from it. No more one-ton bombs. Now the precision strike just takes out the apartment. In retaliation PIJ fires at a bunch of cities with increasing range.
On the border what we know is just what we see. From the vantage point at Netiv Ha’Asara there were the two soldiers, tasked with closing a road that goes to Erez. There is a nice colorful shelter the soldiers have turned into a kind of temporary redoubt. It’s easy to go inside at a moment’s notice. And a moment’s notice is all we have. A gate to the community has a kind of office attached to it. Atop the little one-room office, which a man can sit in and control the gate, are eight giant loudspeakers. When they sound the “red alert,” that traumatic wailing that conjures up ten years of war for me, there are only seconds to seek shelter.
Most of the time on the border was relatively quiet. Rockets were being fired in other directions, but not over our position. Then around 11:48 an airstrike could be heard in Gaza. The loud, soul-wrenching, percussion reverberated outward from the distant buildings that mark northern Gaza’s Jabaliya. An hour of air strikes followed until 12:43 when a loud bang impacted near where I was standing. Smoke rose from near the border. A minute later the sirens sounded and I crammed into the shelter with the soldiers and a team from Ynet. We waited. I was curious so I went back outside. I stood with my shoulder to the shelter, so it was between me and Gaza, and poked my camera around the side, like one of those movies where you put a metal item over the top of a trench to see if a sniper is active. But this is the Gaza border, there aren’t usually snipers.  
At that moment, around 12:50, two streaks in the sky marked the Iron Dome interceptors that had been fired to find a Islamic Jihad rocket. The sirens sounded again. Here is the moment where one has to decide: Take photos or go back in the shelter. So I took a few photos and then went back in the shelter. By then the whole thing was all over. The soldiers remained in the shelter but I went back out to see Israel’s response. The response did come in the form of a strike near Beit Hanoun. At least that’s what it seemed where we stood. It’s hard to get a good perspective from the ground, because what looks like the apartment buildings of Beit Hanoun gives the illusion that you can determine where an airstrike has taken place.
For the civilians here they wish the war would pass. Israel does not want escalation. It is prepared to escalate, but no one wants another Gaza war. Gazans don’t want it either.
As I got back in my car for the hour drive back toward Jerusalem I thought that I would miss my shelter and the soldiers and the little community that had formed for a few hours. We’d talked about rap music and why the education system in Israel doesn’t teach good English, and how one them liked Laguna beach. Now I had to drive back through the fields and back to the deserted highway. I hadn’t eaten the whole day. That’s what struck me after the ordeal of sirens and ducking and tweeting and writing by the side of the road in the hot sun. No food. Just a bit of adrenaline. On the way home it seemed every major shopping center for 40km was closed. The government had warned people to avoid large gatherings. The radio station was trying to help a couple whose wedding was cancelled. A sports game had to be moved north. Finally I found a McDonalds on the road to Jerusalem. And I could relax with a fountain soda and a hamburger inside the familiar colorful walls beneath the Golden Arches.