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The beautiful south: An afternoon in the Gazan firing range

No. I don’t like the concept of conflict tourism, but you see, people put me down for not engaging in it. Whenever exchanges of fire erupt between the IDF and the militants in the Gaza Strip, I find myself being discarded as “the detached Tel Avivian who’d rather sip his cappuccino then spend two hours in Sderot under fire.”

Try and make a political comment after being thus accused. Try saying that the IDF was first to strike this time around (as it often is) and that Netanyahu may well be maintaining tension in order to keep the Israeli public scared and out of focus pre-elections. No one here would listen. They’d say it’s the cappuccino talking.

So today, with four dead in Gaza in two days and several scores of rockets shot into southern Israel, I left the coffee behind and headed down to the fence. It’s not very far, to be sure. The train from Tel Aviv takes less than an hour to reach the city of Ashkelon, which was hit several times this morning. From there I thought of going on to Kibbutz Nir Am, sandwiched between the boundary of the Strip and the town of Sderot. It is the point in Israeli territory which is closest to Hamas territory that remains approachable, despite a heavy military presence.

Asher, a school bus driver, gave me a lift from near the railway station. When I told him that I plan to look over Gaza, he instantly asked: “Are you a leftist?”

“Why jump so soon to definitions?” I asked him, “Are right-wing people not curious?” I knew full well that saying “yes” would derail the conversation. It inevitably does in today’s Israel.

Asher pointed to a hill to the right of the road. “There,” he said, “this is where the army position is, from there you can see the F16s going in to bomb the Strip. Crazy assholes are really going at us today.”

“Well,” I said, “so are we. We are going at them, and with even greater might.”

“That’s nonsense,” said Asher,

“Didn’t you just mention the airplanes bombing them?”

“See?” he said, “I knew you are a leftist.”

Einat, a kibbutznik from Nir Am, picked me up at the junction and drove me all the way to the lookout, located a mile or so past the kibbutz. She wasn’t at all pleased at doing so. “You are supposed to stay at all times no more than fifteen seconds away from a secure zone,” she reminded me.

“I’m the Tel Avivian with the cappuccino,” I explained, “I live my life in a secure zone. It shouldn’t be too bad to leave it for a couple of hours.” While I did doubt that I’d be hit directly, the thought of running away from a field set aflame by a Qassam rocket certainly wasn’t a very pleasing one. Still, I was even more bothered by the idea of seeing smoke coming from Gaza and definite death materializing before my eyes.

All worries seemed to soften by the sight of the lookout. Members hung a row of tubular bells here in memory of one of its young members who died in the war in Lebanon. The bells sang softly in the evening wind, telling of tragedy but also making this sad life strangely more bearable. The sunset was approaching and the clouds were gorgeous over Gaza, its suburbs and the sea beyond it. Moreover, I wasn’t alone, an entire crowd of photojournalists chose this very same hill for a fine angle and was waiting for action. One of them, bored by a few hours of quiet, lay on his back and said: “Hey, look at this beautiful rainbow.”

The light conditions indeed produced a small spectrum that shone between the clouds, over two faint pillars of smoke rising from the urban-scape stretching ahead of us. Here was the world’s densest region, practically a prison for a million and a half individuals, on fire and yet gorgeously peaceful.

I waited with the photographers, as well as with a kibbutz member from nearby Netiv Ha’asara, who also came up for a view. While we waited, things were happening: a tank drove beneath us, filling the air with dust. Unmanned IDF drones buzzed loudly above. Loud thuds were heard in the distance and at one point a mortar shot from the Strip exploded midair right ahead of us, over the rooftops of Beit Hanoun.

Things were happening, but we were waiting for the big one, for actual mayhem. “If they shoot now, those will be the best shots,” one photographer said to another. “In this light they’ll leave nice orange trails.” Another photographer reminisced about his time in service, less than four years ago, and over the colorful weapons he himself used. “We shot one flechette bomb during Cast Lead,” he said, “then they told us, that’s enough, it’s against the conventions.”

Here I was, standing on a hill with eight Israeli men, all of us looking down at impoverished, futureless Gaza and at neglected southern Israel, secretly hoping for them to burn for our amusement. I began to miss the cappuccino. At least over the cappuccino people were discussing ways of breaking the sick status quo and moving onward to long lasting solutions. Tonight, the only solution was a temporary one: the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha was drawing near and we all assumed the IDF would spare the Gazans for the occasion, on the condition that they themselves refrain from shooting.

When they did shoot after dark, it was fireworks. The holy day of Waqfa is at hand. I caught a lift back to Ashkelon with Nati, the kibbutznik, who didn’t seem at all offended by my leftist Tel Avivianness.

Nati told that his house sits right under the shade of the concrete wall lining the northern boundary of the Gaza Strip. “This is great, because no matter what angle they shoot, they can’t get me. Then again, we got 26 rockets this morning, all of them shot in our direction. They knocked out the electricity and the water supply. How can one live this way?” he wondered, “I couldn’t brush my teeth. I couldn’t fix myself a cup of coffee if my life depended on it.”

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    1. Be'er Sheva

      The most interesting aspect of war tourism is not-yet-in-war tourism. the whole atmosphere changes in Be’er Sheva, Omer, Meitar etc’ when Kipat Barzel echoes in the distance even when nothing happens here.
      try to check that out next time.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Kolumn9

      I think that is the point. If Tel Aviv was under bombardment you wouldn’t be discussing long lasting solutions. You would probably be demanding that your government end the bombardment by any means necessary. Well, not you perhaps, but normal people anyway.

      Also, you didn’t bother to mention the casualties on the Israeli side caused by the rockets fired from Gaza. It is almost like you want the reader to accept a reality where the worst damage caused by the rockets from Gaza is the inconvenience of not being able to make coffee.

      Reply to Comment
      • ish yehudi

        agreed– kolumn0- this comment is really for yuval though:
        so many of the articles here (and perhaps the burn-out cynicism of the tel aviv cappacinostos) do no part on portraying the complexity of the conflict- and our readers are treated to the childish sense of there being a very clear right and wrong in this world.
        you meet the jaded other war photographers “hunger for the kill” to prove that we israelis are racist blood thirsty beasts… and don’t try to expose the feelings/ betrayed hopes or even anger that lay just below these easily bandied retorts.
        at this point- where there are no shortage of lefties/ righties screaming at each other- can’t a site like this try to offer a little bit more depth and complexity to our struggles instead of continuing these zero-sum reports?
        You may have succeeded in leaving Tel Aviv but you did absolutely nothing in any of your quotes to meet the humans that are your brothers and sisters… no wonder asher talked to you as he did… its not just a rant about this piece- but about a large amount of what gets written on this site… which is why many people i talk to lately are not coming to visit 972 anymore-
        but why should you care if settlers read you

        Reply to Comment
    3. Dear Ish Yehudi,

      I’ll start at the end, please notice that this piece ends with the voice of an Israeli who suffers in earnest from the situation. True, He’s neither dead nor wounded (The Israeli casualties Kolumn9 mentions have fortunately been extremely few over the years, especially when compared with casualties of the same bouts of violence across the fence), but he does live in an impossible situation and I feel for him deeply.

      I would like to give a proper explanation of what this post is meant to be, and perhaps shed light on what I see as the raison d’etre of the site. As an Israeli, I am mostly exposed to the Hebrew media, and in the Hebrew media, as well as in any world media effected by Hasbara rhetoric, only Israelis are human. Only they have names, only they have life stories. when they die or suffer, it’s a tragedy, whereas when a Palestinian dies or suffers, it’s always a necessity, always an inevitability.

      I do not seek to balance this pattern out in my posts by dehumanizing Israelis. rather, it is important to me to point out this problem, the fact that we learned to dehumanize. This problem does not exist only in the media. When most Israelis speak of destruction in Gaza, it’s hard to tell that they are speaking of actual people who go through actual things. It’s more like a computer game. I left out many things that were said on top of that hill, but it was a lengthy conversation that followed this principle throughout.

      This is disturbing to me, because my education was different. I learned to see every human being as equal to me and to others. You suggest that my colleagues and I look down on our settler readers. This is not at all the case. While I feel that settlers are deeply mistaken for contributing to the atrocities of the occupation, I respect them exactly as I do anyone else on this earth. I make mistakes too. We are all made up of the same stuff.

      I did not know what I would write when I left for the south today. I ended up writing about our problem of perception. We have a serious problem of perception, and it is not addressed elsewhere, not nearly often enough. It must be addressed, and it must be addressed deeply, openly, urgently. We do this here and this is part of why I think of this website as worthwhile.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Aaron Gross

      This is one of the best columns I’ve read at +972.

      Reply to Comment
    5. XYZ

      A few points:
      (1) Everytime the South heats up, I am reminded of Ariel Sharon’s assurances that Israel was not taking any chances in pulling out of the Gaza Strip and destroying Gush Katif. He told everyone that it was “not in the interests of the Palestinians to shoot rockets at us, but if they should, we will bomb the hell out of them and the whole world will support us”. Sharon’s fan club of right-wing supporters who went along said “Do you think Sharon would do ANYTHING to endanger the security of Israel?” When Olmert decided finally to bomb them in Operation Cast Lead, Israel was condemned and we ended up with the Goldstone Report.

      These events, added to the fact that Rabin, Peres and those who supported Oslo knowing that Arafat would turn loose an unprecendented wave of terror against Israel, have convinced me that the people at the top in Israel, particularly the so-called “security establishment” don’t care about the lives of the citizens of the country, especially as K9 points out, if they don’t live in Tel Aviv.

      (2) I am curious as to what HAMAS thinks it will accomplish by doing this. Menachem Begin (!!) said about the ETZEL that their attitude was “we fight, therefore we are”, maybe HAMAS thinks the same, even though their aims are far more ambitious than Begin’s were (Begin wanted to get the British out of the country, HAMAS wants to eradicate Israel).
      IIRC Khaled Masaal said recently that trying to run a country and maintain a war of attrition at the same time against Israel turned out to be more difficult than they imagined. Anyone have any theories about this?

      (3) I am absolutely convinced, that if we really sent in the IDF and reconquered the Gaza Strip, the large majority of the population there would greet us as liberators (before turning against us within a week or two).

      Reply to Comment
      • sh

        1) Sharon pulled out of the Gaza Strip was in order to be able to bomb them to bits without bombing ourselves to bits in the process. Just that he left for the Twilight Zone To End ‘Em All before he got the chance.

        You are right that the security establishment doesn’t care about the lives of the citizens of this country but, take comfort, it cares even less about the lives of its non-citizens.

        2) Hamas won a free and fair election agreed by us (and US) and was rounded up and jailed by us wholesale before it could even attempt go down any political road. Unlike Etzel at the time, Hamas rules Gaza, helped by us who ensure their “safety” by making sure they can’t go anywhere except by precarious hand-built tunnels and even then…. Hamas has to show those under its hegemony, sandwiched as they are between us and it with no escape, that it is doing something about their imprisonment. They will go on doing that until the Gazan population is free to move around again.

        3) They would be unlikely to greet you – us is a hard word to use for those one sees as blind and deaf to the fact that this club’emalltosmithereens strategy has never worked notwithstanding all Israel’s great victories – as liberators even for a week or two. They – the Lebanese, the Syrians, the Jordanians, the Egyptians and above all the Palestinians – know “us” much too well by now.

        Reply to Comment
      • ‘Menachem Begin (!!) said about the ETZEL that their attitude was “we fight, therefore we are”, maybe HAMAS thinks the same, even though their aims are far more ambitious than Begin’s’ : certainly many do. They have lived conflict their entire lives. And many, many others undoubedly feel trapped by others’ need to fight, so to be. Peace, or moves to it, is a fight within your own people, those living the same stress you live, as well as with the object opponent. In fact, peace often makes you the opponent of all sides.

        Reply to Comment
    6. AYLA

      Yuval–thank you as always, and especially for your comment in the comment section. Meanwhile, I live in the Negev, out of rocket range but in range of the sounds of our own army, and I can tell you that it has been non-stop sonic booms and low/fast flying planes for days. I’m on the lefty email lists, so I saw photos of Gaza being hit from citizen journalists a full day before the south of Israel was hit and knew it would escalate, by design. I knew, too, that certain Israeli acquaintances of mine would begin circulating news of Israel-under-fire on Facebook. It’s all so predictable, it’s numbing. Just now, as I was writing this there was a sonic boom and my poor dog, and American Water Spaniel in the desert, went crazy. Lately, I’ve been commenting a lot less, here and in my own venues, because I no longer know what to say — how to be a part of change, rather than feeding the same, numb dialogue. People like you, Yuval–this is your calling. All of you at 972–this is what you’re meant to be doing, and you are affecting change. I’m supposed to be writing a novel, and most of the time, I leak energy into all this that isn’t really helping, and is distracting me from what I’m meant to be doing. What should we, non-journalists, *do*?

      Reply to Comment
    7. AYLA

      I just saw a fb post from “Israel loves Palestine” or vice versa, I can’t remember, that expressed sadness for the citizens in Israel’s south and in Gaza, and said that the only way to fight this is to fight together. I agree. I know that groups like Israel <3's Palestine turn-off liberal intellects because they sound Rainbow Festival / Peace-And-Love, meaning that they sound surface and don't take any responsibility for the inequity or context. But at the same time, I really believe that citizens on both sides have to work together to end the insanity if anything is going to change. I was talking to a Palestinian woman named Lailah in Hebron–some of you may know her because she's part of the Women of Hebron group that works alongside Breaking the Silence–and I asked her what I should *do*. She said, raise your children not to hate. Raise children who could never hold a gun. I'm not raising children, but I hear what she's saying. It sounds very peace-and-love, (not that there's anything wrong with that…), but it's true. This is why Moriel Rothman is absolutely right not to hold a gun in the name of trying to change things from the inside of the IDF; nothing can be changed while wearing an army uniform. The whole paradigm needs to change. immediately. I'm going to work on my novel, now. Thanks for all you do. That photo of the photographers lined up was worth your trip… They probably all know each other from the last time they lined up. Enjoy a cappuccino today, Yuval.

      Reply to Comment
      • Elisabeth

        Amen to that, Ayla. I should have stopped after reading your posts. The contrast with the next poster could not be bigger.

        Reply to Comment
        • AYLA

          means a lot coming from you, Elisabeth. Take care. Don’t read comments. Speaking of which, Aaron, below, has called me, “callow”, not to mention a “city seeker”, which is pretty funny given the view out my window. I’m not sure how Lailah would feel either about being called a “noble savage”. What can you do.

          Reply to Comment
      • Aaron Gross

        Not so much peace-and-love, more like the Noble Savage speaking Words of Wisdom to the callow seeker from the city.

        Reply to Comment
        • AYLA

          realized just after posting that, above, that you were probably just being funny, and you’re right (about the Words Of Wisdom, out of context). my skin’s grown thin.

          Reply to Comment
    8. Ed Frias

      We have Yuval Ben-Ami a typical radical trying to defend these murderous thugs called Hamas who are terrorizing Israel with thousands of missles fired at Israel.

      Ben Ami cant understand, that Israel is dealing with Islamo Fascism.

      Over 80 rockets that have been fired into Israel over the last 24 hours. Poll after Poll shows the majority of Arabs support the mass murder of Israeli women and children?
      75% percent of Arabs supported the homicide bombing of Maxims restaurant in Haifa in 2003 that murdered 21 people and injured over 100?
      It should be know as i’m writing this, the Palestinians are glorifying the Palestinian mass murderer who committed this attrocity.
      But dont worry, that dont bother
      Yuval Ben-Ami

      Suicide terrorist who killed 21
      receives “highest honor”
      from Palestine Committe
      of Arab Lawyers Union
      Union is observer at UNESCO,
      in consultative status with ECOSO
      Itamar Marcus and Nan Jacques Zilberdik
      Oct. 18, 2012

      Over 80 percent of the Arabs supported the point blank execution style slaughter of 8 Israeli students at the Mercaz Harav yeshiva school 4 years ago?

      Every single one of those 80 rockets was aimed at Israeli civilians.
      But the left is silent as usual.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Ed Frias

      Oct 3, 2011
      Hamas brags about eleven years of terrorism

      The Palestine Times website published an article today listing Hamas’ terrorist accomplishments since the beginning of the terror war that began in September 2000.

      They brag about three specific acts of terror:

      The massacre at the Mercaz Harav yeshiva killing 8 students
      The attack by a laser-guided anti-tank missile against a schoolbus, killing a child (that they claim was a “soldier”)
      The Park Hotel Passover massacre killing 30, mostly elderly, Jews. (Hamas inflates the number of victims to 36.)

      The article says that in the past eleven years Hamas has committed:

      4303 terror attacks
      61 suicide attacks
      24 attempts to capture Israelis
      423 bombings
      90 sniper attacks
      146 ambushes

      In addition, they claim 8085 projectiles fired from Gaza, of which 2627 were Qassam rockets and 303 were Grad rockets.

      They claim to have killed 910 “Zionists” in that time period, while losing 1697 of their members. Not civilians – 1697 dead Hamas terrorists. This doesn’t include members of other terror groups like Fatah and Islamic Jihad.

      It is clear from the article that Hamas considers the second intifada to still be going on.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Ed Frias

      The Palestinians usually fire rockets from a school or a home.
      Hamas and Fatah send children to pick up the rocket launchers knowing full well that return fire is on the way.
      Then they can use the dead and wounded children for media propaganda, instead of protecting them.
      Pallywood at its finest.
      Golda Meir 40 years ago talked about Palestinians and their child abuse.
      Even animals defend their young.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Ed Frias

      Yuval Ben-Ami, do you know whats its like for Israeli civilians in the south having hundreds and hundreds missles fired at them from Gaza.
      Do you know the psychological terror Israelis there have to deal with?

      Southern residents: We’re living on borrowed time
      In wake of rocket attack, southern Israel residents say they feel abandoned, defenseless and angry at country that prioritizes certain communities over others; ‘Our lives are like a game of Russian roulette. How long will this so-called luck last?’ says one resident
      Ilana Curiel

      Reply to Comment
    12. rsgengland

      I liked the bit about a futureless Gaza , without the pictures of the Emirs visit . When all those houses are built with the Emirs money, Gaza will have something to protect .
      Maybe no more rockets and mortars from built up civilian areas anymore .
      When they fire their missiles and mortars from Gaza ,they are targeting civilian areas (on purpose) to terrorize the local Israeli population . The Israeli response/attack is always targeted at the Gaza ‘MILITANTS’ and mostly hit their targets , mainly in built up areas without collateral damage .
      The purposeful targeting of civilian areas by Gaza militants falls in that area called ‘WAR CRIMES’

      Reply to Comment
    13. Jan

      Let’s remember that almost every rocket attack on Israel has been preceded by an Israeli attack on Gaza which always ends up with dead Palestinians and destroyed buildings. In 2008 Israel broke the truce with Hamas and when Hamas fired back Israel went in with bombs and missiles blazing killing at least 1300 Palestinians and maiming God knows many more.

      Israel has locked the Palestinians into the world’s largest outdoor prison and has maintained a seige ever since Hamas won a free and fair election. Fishermen trying to ply their trade cannot take their little boats more than a mile or two from the shore. If they do they risk being killed by Israeli navy sharpshooters who undoubtedly delight in yet another kill.

      Israeli bombs destroyed the water purifying system and will not allow into Gaza the materials to fix the system. So the Gazans, men, women and children, are drinking polluted water.

      I do not believe that Jews would stand for the conditions under which the people of Gaza have to live – walled in, surrounded by walls and watch towers – and not take action against their jailers. Probably what Jews would do would be even more lethal than what the Palestinians do. Have you forgotten the Warsaw Ghetto?

      It is past time to end the damned occupation of Gaza (yes it is occupied) and the West Bank.

      Sadly this will likely not happen and Israelis will NEVER be able to truly live in peace.

      Reply to Comment
    14. nsttnocontentcomment

      Reply to Comment
    15. Ed Frias

      Jan, do you believe your lies?
      There have been 8000 rockets fired at Israel from Gaza.
      Israel warned Hamas over and over to stop firing the missles.
      Its Hamas terrorism which was responsible for Cast Lead. No country could stand by while Terrorists were firing thousands of missles at you.
      on Cast Lead, everyone knows Hamas fires missles behind civilians, schools and mosques.
      Google, Pallywood.
      Golda Meir warned the world of this Palestinian child abuse 40 years ago.

      Reply to Comment
      • aristeides

        Ed Frias – do you believe your cliches?

        Reply to Comment
    16. ginger

      great column, great writing, great ideas

      I’ve previously avoided this author

      Reply to Comment
    17. OA

      This article is a joke. Any self respecting human being ought to think before they write. This epitomizes lack of foresight, planning, and understanding of any implications that will arise out of what is said, (or unsaid for that matter).

      By being on here dear Yuval, I take it that you write for the sake of conveying your point of view, your thoughts and your impressions. What you seem to forget, and most others on 972mag, is that writing first and foremost, is a method of expression wherefrom thought is carefully strung. Next time you write a self-righteous article, subtly throwing the fact that you care about equality! (we all do!!), have the self-respecting dignity to consider whether or not it’s worth publishing.

      The smpalestine article above seems to clarify in greater detail what I’m trying to say.

      I don’t come here that often, but when I do, I’m reminded again why I don’t.


      Reply to Comment
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