August 28, 2006

Eyeless in Gaza

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The engine of a Qassam rocket fired from Gaza into Israel by Palestinian terrorists

SOUTHERN ISRAEL, NEAR GAZA – All eyes turned from Gaza to Lebanon as Israel fought a hot war with Hezbollah across its northern border. Before the Lebanon war broke out, the fighting in and around Gaza was the big story in Israel. But once the media coverage ended it stayed ended, even after foreign correspondents were free to pick up where they left off. Perhaps the kidnapping of two Fox News journalists by the latest in a long line of Palestinian terrorist groups -- the Holy Jihad Brigades -- all but guaranteed reporters wouldn’t go back.

Even though I’ve been in Israel for a couple of weeks, I still didn’t know any more about what’s going on down there than people who have never been here before. News from Israel’s other rocket war barely trickles up to Tel Aviv. So I hopped in my rental car and drove down to Mishav Klahim, just east of Netivot and 20 kilometers from Gaza, to meet Shika Frista who promised to show me what’s going on.

I missed a turn on the coastal road when I was supposed to veer left to avoid driving straight into Gaza. Suddenly mine was the only car on the road. An aerial surveillance balloon hovered in the air up ahead. It looked just like the one I saw flying on the border with Lebanon while Hezbollah fired barrages of Katyusha rockets into Israeli cities.

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The war of the rockets was supposed to be over. But I was back in it.

The left turn I needed to take was behind me. But I kept driving, slowly, so I could see what was ahead. I rolled down the window and listened for sounds of war. All was quiet, oppressively hot, and still.

The road dead-ends at the Erez Crossing Point. No one was going in or out of Gaza that day. It looked like no one was even there working or watching, like the place had been abandoned and left to itself.

I took a quick picture…

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…then turned the car around and realized I had made a mistake. Any Israeli military personnel who watched me drive up, take a quick picture, and leave right away would have good reason to be suspicious and even arrest me. But no cars followed in the rear view mirror.

The map led me straight to Shika Frista’s house on his Moshav. We sat at little table under the shade of palm trees next to his swimming pool.

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Shika drank a glass of red wine.

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It was too hot for wine, so I asked for a beer. The air outside is drier in the south, though, not humid and heavy like it is in Tel Aviv.

“I can hear the Qassam rockets fired at us from Gaza,” he said and gestured to the farmland beyond. “They shake the windows of my house when they hit.”

Israel ended up with two rocket wars at the same time. One in the north, and one in the south. Unlike Hezbollah’s arsenal, Qassam rockets aren’t made in Iran. They’re made in Gaza itself. They’re smaller, though, than Katyushas. The south has not been evacuated like the north was, even though people still occasionally are killed by the rockets.

“How often does Hamas fire rockets?” I said.

“Hamas doesn’t shoot them,” he said. “Islamic Jihad shoots them.”

“How close to your house has a Qassam hit?” I said.

“About…four or five kilometers away,” he said.

“And you can hear them here,” I said, “even from that far away?”

“Oh,” he said. “Of course.”

We finished our drinks and drove toward Gaza in his truck.

“Ariel Sharon’s farm is near here, right?” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “A Qassam landed twenty meters from his wife’s grave on the family property.”

We passed Sharon’s farm and in minutes reached the city of Sderot.

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“Lots of Qassams hit this city,” Shika said. “Most people killed by the Qassams live here.”

“How many rockets are hitting the city right now?” I said.

“Not as many today,” he said. “Because of the war in Lebanon.”

“What does Lebanon have to do with it?” I said.

“All the journalists forgot about us during the Lebanon war. So the terrorists are waiting for the media to come back before firing rockets again. They don’t want to waste those they have.”

“That can’t be the only reason,” I said. “The IDF has been active in Gaza this entire time. Surely that has something to do with it.”

“Yes,” he said. “Also because of the IDF.

Later two more Israelis repeated what Shika said about Hamas and Islamic Jihad cooling their rocket launchers while the media’s attention was elsewhere. I haven’t heard any official confirmation from either side that it’s true.

“How long do people here have from the time they hear an air raid siren until the rockets land?” I said.

“About 20 seconds,” he said.

We reached a small IDF base near the Israeli town of Nir Am where Shika’s friend Zvika waited for us.

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Shika’s friend Zvika

The parking lot was shielded by concrete bomb-blast walls.

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A civilian overlook tower was erected next to the military compound. It was not shielded by walls of any kind. But Gaza was still a comfortable distance away. No sniper could possibly shoot us from the other side of the vast and eerily empty no-man’s wasteland that lay between the de-facto end of Israel and the beginning of Gaza.

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An aerial surveillance balloon flew right over our heads.

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Zvika knew the area well. Shika had asked him to meet us so he could tell me what we were looking at.

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“Over there,” Zvika said, “is the town of Beit Hanun.”

Beit Hanun was far, and I had to zoom my camera lens all the way out to take a picture.

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The Gaza city of Beit Hanun from Nir Am with a zoom lens

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Here is a severely cropped piece from the photo above

“You see those towers off in the distance,” Zvika said. “With the sun shining on them? Those are apartment buildings in Gaza City that Arafat built for members of Fatah.”

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“Where are those smokestacks in the distance off to the right?” I said.

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“That’s Ashkelon,” Zvika said. “Islamic Jihad fires Qassam rockets at that city all the time.”

“Is this overlook point always open to the public?” I said. It felt strange just driving up to an IDF base, even if it was just a small one, and hanging out right next to it without having to even say hi to a soldier guarding the road.

“Very few civilians know about this place,” Zvika said. “Only the people who live nearby ever come here.”

“Is this interesting to you?” I said. “Or is it normal?”

“It is normal,” he said.

“It is interesting for me,” Shika said. “It has been three years since I saw anything like this.”

“There used to be plantations just on the other side of the fence,” Zvika said. “But the IDF uprooted them because Qassams were being launched from there. Now they have to fire Qassams from the buildings farther away.”

“If they fire a rocket you will see it,” Shika said.

“Will we see a trail of smoke?” I said.

Oh yes,” Zvika said and raised his eyebrows. “You will see the smoke.”

Just then several IDF soldiers in the base below shouted something in Hebrew and ran to one of the tanks.

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Several men jumped in, cranked up the tank’s engine, and roared with surprising speed into the field toward Gaza in front of the overlook tower.

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I braced myself for the thunderous racket of combat or a possible incoming or over flying Qassam. Nothing happened. The Gaza area was tense and sporadically violent, but the conflict was significantly dialed down compared with the just-ended open war against Hezbollah in the north.

It was time to move on. Shika and Zvika had much more to show me.

Zvika hopped in his van. Shika and I climbed into the truck and followed Zvika as he drove south down the length of the Gaza Strip.

“You see that dirt road on the other side of the trees next to this one?” Shika said.

I did, and I took a picture of it.

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“Every day a machine goes over it and smoothes it out,” he said. “Trackers, mostly Bedouin, search the dirt every day for fresh footprints. They can tell when someone has come out of Gaza and which direction he’s going. If you put one foot on that road right now you will be arrested.”

“I’m partly relieved that I can’t go into Gaza right now,” I said. I’m being prevented from going into Gaza for a variety of security, logistical, and bureaucratic reasons beyond my control. “But I also partly wish that I could.”

“The beach in Gaza is amazing,” Shika had told me earlier. “It is virgin. You wouldn’t believe it.”

“You’ve been there?” I said.

“Of course,” he said. “We used to go there and eat in the restaurants.”

“When?” I said.

“In the early 80s,” he said.

“It was friendly then?” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “Israel ruled there. The Palestinians were friendly, I think they miss that period. They had money, they could walk freely.”

We continued following Zvika in his van to the abandoned Karni Terminal.

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“That’s Gaza, man,” Shika said. “Do you want to go inside?”

“Yes and no,” I said. “Not without the army, though. If you and I go in there right now, we’re both in trouble.”

“Me more than you,” Shika said.

We were much closer to Gaza this time than we were at the overlook tower. Buildings inside the strip loomed just over the tops of concrete bomb-blast and sniper-fire walls.

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“We are probably over some tunnels right now,” Shika said. “It is very dangerous and we have to be careful.”

The Karni Terminal was a major crossing point for people and goods into and out of Gaza before the place went completely to hell. Today it is abandoned.

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The spooky silence and emptiness only hinted at the violence and anarchy being walled off on the other side after the Israeli withdrawal.

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It wasn’t a safe place to linger. So we moved along and headed further south without getting out of our vehicles.

“The last three prime ministers want peace,” Shika said. “They go out of Lebanon, they go out of Gaza. And look what [Arab terrorists] continue to do.”

“Do you think it was right to leave Gaza?” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “Of course.”

“Even though there are rocket attacks?” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “This is occupied land. They always have excuses to do what they do. Do you know what’s going on in Gaza now?”

“No,” I said. “I don’t.”

“Whew,” he said. “You can’t imagine.”

“What do you know about it?” I said.

“Everybody has weapons,” he said. “The strongest is the ruler. It is not like in Ramallah.”

Smoke rose from Gaza off to the right.

“You see that fire?” Shika said. “It is from missiles. Israel is shooting at where the terrorists hide.”

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Vicious dogs chased the truck and ran right alongside it, furiously barking, snarling, and threatening to lunge at us.

The only thing less dodgy about this environment than the war zone on the northern border is that I couldn’t hear or see live explosions.

I did, however, see a tank moving fast among some trees.

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Once again I braced myself for the unspeakably loud explosions of combat. Once again, though, the IDF just seemed to be moving its forces around. There was no fighting at that particular time on that particular day.

We kept driving and passed by more tanks.

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“They are getting ready to go into Gaza,” Shika said.

Some of the tanks looked idle, though. Notice in the photo below that a cover of some sort has been placed over the barrel.

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“Roll down the window,” I said. “I want to talk to these guys.”

Shika rolled down the window and shouted at an IDF officer. The officer shouted back.

“I told him you are a journalist,” Shika said. “And he said It’s about time you got down here.”

“Ask him if I can interview some of the soldiers,” I said.

Shika asked my question in Hebrew.

“No,” the officer said.

“Can I take pictures?” I said and held up my camera.

“No,” the officer said. Then why did he say It’s about time you got down here? He didn’t send us away, but he didn’t exactly roll out the welcome wagon.

It was okay, though. Noah Pollak and I were already wrapping up the week-long process of securing interviews with IDF soldiers and military intelligence officers out of Gaza. We had plans to get that side of the story soon enough from people who know who we are and are willing to talk.

You can drive from Tel Aviv to Gaza in an hour. How strange, then, that there’s a little war down there that no one else in Israel – not even the foreign correspondents – have any interest in or are really even aware of. I felt like I had slid off the edge of the country and through a hole in the dimension into a violent alternate reality. It’s as if the Gaza war does not exist in Israel now even though it’s right down the road.

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If a terrorist army fired rockets into Jersey City and the US military deployed tanks and heavy artillery against them, those who live in New York would take a keen interest in the goings-on. So would, I suspect, the people of Britain, France, Israel (!), and Cairo.

People get used to war, though. So do countries. Arabs are firing rockets at Jews? Israelis are sending tanks after their hides? Yeah, well, what else is new. Right?

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It’s tourist season now, just one hour north. And the beach is calling.

To be continued…

Post-script: Please hit the Pay Pal link and help pay travel expenses for independent writing. I am not a rich person, and I can’t do this without help.

If you would like to donate money for travel expenses and you don't want to use Pay Pal, you can send a check or money order to:

Michael Totten

P.O. Box 312

Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

All photos copyright Michael J. Totten

Posted by Michael J. Totten at August 28, 2006 12:40 AM
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Winner, The 2008 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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