It’s Day 50 of Operation Protective Edge and while the blaring Western media headlines may have subsided, the fighting continues, with a heavy barrage of rockets and mortars from Gaza hitting Israel in the past week, and over 4,450 fired in total since the operation began.
In the first month of fighting, Israel’s Government Press Office estimated that 580 foreign journalists arrived in Israel, double the number that came to cover the previous two conflicts with Hamas, with two-thirds going straight to Gaza via the Erez crossing and not reporting from Israel. The global media was filled with images of damage and civilian casualties in Gaza, as Israel responded to rocket fire and tunnel threats from Hamas and Islamic Jihad fighters deeply embedded inside dense population centers. A friend in London said that the British media covered the conflict mainly as a humanitarian crisis on the Gazan side, rather than as asymmetrical warfare fought by a British ally and Middle Eastern democracy against Hamas, a group classified as a terrorist organization by the US, EU, Britain, Canada, Australia and Japan.
While the Palestinian residents of Gaza have certainly borne the brunt of suffering in the conflict, this does not mean that Israeli citizens, particularly in the south near the Gaza border, are not badly affected as well. I got a chance to experience this up close when I joined a solidarity mission with Britain’s UJIA last week.
We drove first to Ashkelon, an Israeli coastal city of over 110,000 people on the Mediterranean just 5 miles (8km) from Gaza, and the target of regular rocket attacks. The streets were very quiet as we entered, not busy as you’d expect on a summer morning. There are 143 public bomb shelters in Ashkelon, while many residential and office buildings also have shelters. In addition, new apartments built since Scud missiles were fired at Israel during the Iraq War in 1991 are required by Israeli law to have a mamad, a concrete-reinforced protected room that serves as a private bomb shelter. We visited one of the community bomb shelters that is now functioning as a day care center, where we met with a leader of the Ashkelon Foundation and local youth movement workers.
On full-alert days, Pikud Ha’Oref, the Israeli Home Front Command, issues instructions for Ashkelon that permit summer camps and educational institutions to meet only if the participants are within 15 seconds of a bomb shelter. This effectively rules out any outdoor activities, and so many summer camps have either been cancelled entirely or moved to the north, if possible. For children unable to go to camp, teen youth workers look after them from 8:00am-5:00pm inside the bomb shelters and try to devise indoor activities for them. Some children are too afraid to be separated from their parents, and so mothers or fathers are forced to take off from work and stay at home with their kids. During this baking hot Israeli summer, charities have donated money so that kids can occasionally be taken on fun day outings to water parks in the north.
As our group finished the meeting in the bomb shelter, a Red Alert alarm sounded and we were forced to wait until the Iron Dome system intercepted and shot down the incoming rockets. When we climbed the stairs and emerged outside, we could clearly hear the thud of Israeli retaliation as the IDF hit back at targets in Gaza. Having personally heard many Iron Dome interceptions in Tel Aviv, it was easy to distinguish between the sounds of incoming Hamas rockets being destroyed and the Israeli ordinance heading in the opposite direction.
Our next stop further south was Kibbutz Alumim, a mainly agricultural Modern Orthodox community established in 1966 and located just 2 miles (3km) from the eastern border of Gaza. Due to the rocket fire that day, our bus driver didn’t go directly to Alumim but took a roundabout detour to avoid driving along a road parallel to the border. Our guide at Alumim was Esther Marcus, a kibbutz resident originally from London, who told us that they have experienced rocket attacks from Gaza for 14 years, not only through Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9 and Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, but back even before Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005, meaning that the younger children only knew a life with air raid sirens.
To help Israeli children cope, Esther wrote a book in Hebrew called “Tzeva Adom” (Color Red), which is the alert that is sounded whenever a rocket is launched from Gaza. In the tale, the colors of the rainbow meet and they’re all happy, except for Red, who is sad because children associate the color with the Red Alert alarms and the fear that comes with rocket attacks. The other colors try to cheer Red up by turning the viewpoint around and telling Red that he is actually a hero, because his warnings keep the children of Israel safe. The story ends with Red happy again, while the other colors sing him a song:
“Color Red, Color Red you are great
You warn the children so it won’t be too late!
Color Red, Color Red you are the best
Letting the children of the South be at rest!”
Esther organized a theater performance for our group, with kibbutz children dressed in the various colors and Esther reading the story aloud in English. The play was performed in a kibbutz hall that was covered by an outer concrete shell to protect against rocket attacks, and just as it ended and the group made their way outside to another building for cake and coffee, a Red Alert siren sounded and we all scurried back inside, though we didn’t hear where the rocket landed.
As if the threat of rocket attacks wasn’t enough, Esther reminded us of a new and potentially scarier threat for the kibbutz: Hamas’ cross-border infiltration tunnels. In July, Hamas terrorists emerged from a tunnel that was only 200 meters from the entrance to Kibbutz Nir Am, another community near the Gaza border, before being shot dead by Israeli forces. The distances are so close that from several vantage points in Alumim, one can clearly see the skyline of Gaza City beyond the agricultural fields of the kibbutz.
Tragically, two days after our trip, we heard news of the youngest Israeli victim of the conflict, as four-year-old Daniel Tragerman was killed by shrapnel when a mortar from Gaza struck near his home at Kibbutz Nahal Oz, not too far from Alumim. There were only 3 seconds between the siren sounding and the mortar exploding, leaving the little boy no time to reach the family’s protected room.
Due to an earlier rocket attack on the kibbutz, the Tragerman family had all their suitcases packed and were preparing to leave to stay at a relative’s home near Tel Aviv just before Daniel was killed, but they didn’t make it. When Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon planned to visit Kibbutz Nahal Oz to pay a condolence call to the Tragermans, a Times of Israel article entitled “Families abandon homes near Gaza border, head north” reported that he was prevented from doing so because of heavy rocket fire throughout the day, to the anger of residents.
From the beginning of the conflict, many Israelis in the south did leave their homes, moving further north to stay with family, friends, partner kibbutzim or even Israeli strangers who volunteered to house fellow citizens fleeing the conflict. Some estimates say that 70% of the 40,000 residents in the Gaza border communities have left. During the period of multi-day ceasefires though, the Israeli authorities encouraged families to return to their homes, anticipating that hostilities would end, but with the recent resumption of fire they are being forced to leave again.
In the longer term, there is a fear that, unwilling to live life under the constant threat of rocket attacks, many inhabitants who leave “temporarily” will decide to resettle elsewhere in Israel and never return, which will have dire consequences for the health and future of those southern communities, turning some of them into ghost towns. Less well-off residents of the south, who must sell their homes to finance a move elsewhere in Israel, may find it impossible to do so and in effect will be trapped.
“Here’s a nightmare for all Zionists, on the left and on the right. After having uprooted the settlers of Gush Katif and cleared all of the Gaza Strip of a Jewish presence, next in line will be those Jews living in the vicinity of the Gaza Strip, the towns and villages, who will be forced to leave their homes because of the constant rocket and mortar barrages that are being rained down on them by the Hamas terrorists…”
Due to the ongoing conflict, now over seven weeks old, the overall Israeli economy has taken a hit as well. Much of the southern area near Gaza is taken up by farmland, but crops have rotted as workers are unable to harvest under fire. Southern factories have found it difficult to work steadily because of air raid sirens. Consumer spending among Israelis is down. Tourism accounts for 7% of Israeli GDP and has been hit particularly hard, with the number of tourists in July falling 26% from the same period last year. A report on Bloomberg quotes a Dun & Bradstreet analysis stating that almost 20% of Israeli businesses in the south are in danger of closure. Yesterday, the Bank of Israel cut its key interest rate to 0.25%, its lowest level ever, in a bid to boost the economy.
Another critical issue facing Israel is that the school year is due to begin on Monday September 1st, but there’s a big question mark as to whether it will be able to do so in the south, or even in central Israel. Even if the school buildings are reinforced and protected from rocket attacks, students and teachers still have to travel to get there. Reports say that Ashkelon Mayor Itamar Shimoni walked out of a recent meeting with Education Minister Shai Piron in disgust when Piron announced that the school year would begin as planned.
A reporter from The Times of Israel spoke to Adele Raemer, a teacher in the southern Eshkol Region schools, who explained: “The dangers come not just from the bus in transit, but also making sure that the safe areas next to the bus stops can fit an entire busload of kids, or that the buses are protected, or that the kids are able to move quickly from the buses into the classrooms – all aspects that make it impossible to have students in the area while there are constant rockets.” She also noted that the local communities are now empty of children anyway.
And as I now write, reports are coming in of a rocket that hit the playground of a kindergarten in Ashdod, although there were no injuries.
These are difficult times in Israel as the government decides upon a course of action. Some cabinet ministers have been urging a massive ground invasion to destroy Hamas and stop the rocket and tunnel attacks, but the government is wary about taking this route. Opposition ministers say that Netanyahu should focus on working with PA president Mahmoud Abbas and strengthening the moderate Palestinian camp. There are rumors about a one-month ceasefire put together by Egypt and a resumption of talks in Cairo for a longer-term agreement. As of now however, rockets and mortars are still being fired by Hamas at Israel. The global media and people around the world should realize that two sets are citizens are suffering.