The wars that defined us: Operation Protective Edge

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

Police officers duck for cover in Sderot as a siren wails in the background during Operation Protective Edge (photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
Police officers duck for cover in Sderot as a siren wails in the background during Operation Protective Edge
(photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
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.
It was luck and timing that saved us when the mortar shell fell just a short distance from where our car was parked in Kibbutz Nirim, toward the end of the 2014 Gaza war.
Jerusalem Post photographer Marc Israel Sellem and I had gone there to interview residents about life under rocket fire.
The danger was so great in the August weeks toward the war’s end that its residents had been warned to stay indoors or wear flak jackets if they needed to walk outside.
Many of the residents of such communities had left. We were looking for those who had remained.
In this ghost-town-like atmosphere, the kibbutz’s chief security officer, Zeevik Etzion, had an easy time spotting a French-Israeli photographer and a curly haired American-Israeli journalist wandering around the community’s green lawns and narrow concrete walking paths.
In the deep quiet and still hot air, it was hard to imagine that we were in a war zone and not just a dusty remote part of the country. We were more worried about finding a glass of cold water than hiding from a mortar shell.
A tall man with an engaging smile, Etzion not only gave us water but took the time to connect us with kibbutz resident Adele Raemer. As we sat in her living room, a mortar shell fell nearby. In a community with only a 10-second warning time between the sound of a siren and a shell fall, the only way to be safe was to already be inside, as we were.
It was only later, when we walked outside to survey the damage, that we understood what might have happened had we parked just one lot over and arrived just one hour later.
It was a risk that Etzion took every day of the war, in which he was one of its last two Israeli victims.
He was killed along with former chief security officer Shahar Melamed an hour before the cease-fire that ended the war went into effect. They had been outside to help an electricity crew fix broken wires on a utility pole, when a mortar shell struck.
IT WAS our second such moment. We were also among the many reporters and photographers who hit the ground when a rocket-warning siren went off in Ashkelon, just as Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who was then foreign minister, was delivering a statement to the media.
We lay on the ground, with our hands over our heads, next to a home and a small medical clinic that had already suffered a rocket hit. Above us, the Iron Dome missile defense system was able to destroy the incoming rocket in midair over our heads, so that we remained unscathed.
It was only when we left the South and the sound of an aerial bombardment on Gaza behind us that I understood how much danger we had actually been in, because the key to standing there and reporting is to convince yourself that you are not in any danger at all.
I WAS one of the first Post reporters to write about the rockets, heading down to Sderot as early as 2002, when the idea of Palestinians launching rockets against Israel was more a curiosity item than an existential danger. A small metal projectile had caused a dent in the sidewalk and had broken a number of windows.
As a new reporter, I was also expendable and could spend the day traveling down south to verify that a rocket had actually fallen.
Within two years, the story line had changed, as a rocket that fell near a nursery school in Sderot claimed the lives of Mordechai Yosepov, 49, and Afik Zahavi, four. Still, residents who sought safety in a city with few working shelters had a hard time making their case that they were on the front line of a new war that turned their homes and backyards into potential battlegrounds.
Some 13 years and three wars later, Palestinians in Hamas-controlled Gaza can launch missiles and rockets that can hit the entire South and as far as Tel Aviv.
I have written about people spared by centimeters, or because they took a phone call or were late getting home. In one case, a man’s life was spared because he had a heart attack and was in the hospital when a rocket hit his home.
Besides the Iron Dome missile defense system, their only defense is a cement room, which they do not always have and cannot always access. One small girl with no safe room told me that when the rockets fall, she pulls the blanket over her head.
She knows that it won’t do anything, but somehow it makes her feel safer.
One reporter who drove down south for the first time during one of the Gaza wars called me, as he suddenly realized he had no idea what to do if a rocket-warning siren went off while he was driving.
“Get out of the car, lie on the ground, put your hands on the back of your head,” I said.
He had mistakenly imagined that somehow there was a safe place he could enter to hide from the incoming rockets.
“Only if you’re lucky enough to be next to a small protective shelter or a building with one,” I told him.
Then I added, “Welcome to life in the South.”