Reporter's Notebook: The Gaza looking glass

Business is good for the restaurants and cafes in the vicinity of the Gaza border these days.

ashkelon construction site rocket 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
ashkelon construction site rocket 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
There is a steak house not far from the Gaza border that has a closed military zone inside it, at the back. A sign on a drawing board says: War Room, High Command, No Entry, Closed Zone. Behind the drawing board are three little red road dividers, behind which are two round tables with several clean glasses placed top down on them, ready for use at any moment. The proprietor not only cooks a mean steak, he also briefs foreign reporters on the situation - military and diplomatic. "Hamas is going to beg for peace," he tells a Japanese TV crew, adding, "They're already begging for peace. It won't last too long, but this time the game is different, we're hitting them hard." Business is good for the restaurants and cafes in the vicinity of the Gaza border these days. Apart from the locals, scores of military personnel, as well as local and foreign reporters and camera crews around, consuming large amounts of felafel and coffee. Even the hard-core Dutch TV reporter who believes Israel is no longer a democratic state because it won't allow foreign journalists access to Gaza likes our pita. At a large coffee shop at the Yad Mordechai junction, dozens of reporters and soldiers mill around drinking and eating when a rocket alert rings out, a piercing beeping noise. Home Front Command has provided beepers to many homes and businesses in the "Gaza envelope." I lie down under the table with my hands over my head. Looking around the coffee shop I can't help but notice that while others are also on the ground, some people are just standing around as if a rocket weren't heading our way. Then I see a 10-year-old walking around outside and I feel rather stupid: If a child feels no fear, then what am I doing on the ground here? The foreign press corps is technically allowed to send in a pool of eight reporters into Gaza, but the IDF is not making it easy for them. One Israeli official argues that it is absurd to risk soldiers' lives by opening the crossings to allow foreign journalists into Gaza. Some of the reporters say they really want to go in, and others are quietly happy that they have been forced to stay on the Israeli side of the border. In the meantime, Israel keeps them out, citing safety concerns. So the foreign press is climbing the hills overlooking the northern Gaza Strip on the main road between the Yad Mordechai junction and the turnoff to Sderot. Most of them are on "Media Hill," halfway between Yad Mordechai and Sderot, cameras trained on the Strip. The Dutch TV reporter seems genuinely livid: "Israel is hiding the facts of what it is doing in Gaza. It has something to hide. Israel is no longer a democratic state. We, the foreign reporters, can only rely on the reports of the Palestinians who work for us inside Gaza. The Israelis always complained that the world only heard and saw what the Palestinian side was saying, and now they're getting only that, so why are they not letting us in? I don't report on rockets landing in Israeli towns anymore. I'm not playing by the Israelis' rules anymore," he says on camera. Government Press Officer director Danny Seaman pulls a middle finger at the reporter, who doesn't see it. From Media Hill you get to see quite a few rockets being fired from the Strip. One took off, made its way toward the vicinity of Sderot, and then hit - all without a red alert sounding. An F-16 fighter jet pilot who took part in last week's bombings of Gaza tells me what it's like on a run over the Strip. "Flying at night and at great height, you don't even look at the Gaza Strip; everything is a series of numbers on your screen. The only thing you need to check is that you're not dropping your bombs over Israel. The bombs are extremely "smart" and extremely lethal. "Everything that can be done to minimize collateral damage has been done - but in such a densely populated city there are going to be civilian casualties, it's unavoidable." An MK I run into thinks Hamas is not an army, and that this is not a real war. "Hamas is a criminal gang, like a mafia. They're not an army, they're not even Hizbullah. Hamas is not Syria and not Iran. They're like a mafia organization and that's why we have to go in there and kill them like the criminals they are," he says. The MK, who is on the right of the political spectrum, is not the first legislator I've heard lately who doesn't care who or what fills the power vacuum in the Gaza Strip after the IDF "destroys Hamas." It could be PA President Mahmoud Abbas, it could be the EU, or it could be anyone else, he doesn't care. The war has shuffled the entire political deck. If a second front opens up in Lebanon or Syria, the election will be postponed for sure, the MK says. Right now there isn't enough support for a postponement, but if the war carries on it might happen. Nobody is campaigning now, nobody but Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni. If the war goes well, Barak scores political points and becomes more of a threat to Livni, who until last week focused her negative campaign on Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu. Several commentators have been saying over the past few days that the IDF's success against Hamas - should it continue - would represent the first domino in the rolling back of Iranian influence in the region. The thinking behind this is that a weakened Hamas, and a resurgent Egypt and Israel working together to keep Hamas from getting stronger again, is a big dent in Iran's plan to strengthen its forward divisions: Hamas and Hizbullah. That's why Iran may be preparing a surprise for Israel.