The beautiful south: An afternoon in the Gazan firing range

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.

The beautiful south: An afternoon in the Gazan firing range

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.”