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Rockets, mortars, retaliation, repeat – welcome to the Gaza belt

  • Rockets, mortars, retaliation, repeat – welcome to the Gaza belt
Fifteen hours. That’s all it took for Hamas to shoot 460 rockets and mortars at southern Israel.
by ILANIT CHERNICK | Nov 19, 2018

I was there for eight of those hours. Running, watching, listening, holding my head, taking cover, and of course doing what I like to do best, speaking.

At 5pm on Monday evening, a friend and I decided to head out to southern Israel after what had been a long 16 hours of waiting for what Hamas threatened would be mass retaliation.

It followed a botched operation by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), which I covered from its start on Sunday night until the last rockets fell in retaliation in the early hours of Monday morning, and then again as details slowly trickled in from 8:30 that same morning. We waited and watched as Hamas buried its seven dead. Something in my gut told me that the “pathetic” volley it sent over on Sunday night would be nothing in comparison to what was coming. My intuition was right.

As we made our way down south, my phone starting pinging. Rocket alert, after rocket alert, after rocket alert. It carried on for about 20 minutes, and soon after, it was confirmed that 100 rockets had been launched into southern Israel from Gaza in that tiny space of time.

I was there when it reached 400. I had no words to describe the severity of the situation.

As we entered the danger zone, we saw in the darkened sky an Iron Dome interception just ahead of us, then a massive orange explosion to the side of us as Israeli F-16s retaliated. There had just been a rocket attack. Welcome to the Gaza belt community.

I had been there just a week before. Things were calm, residents were angry, but there hadn’t been rockets in two weeks - a real feat.

We were told certain roads along the border were closed, but found the one leading to Kfar Aza wide open, so we took the road less travelled, and made our way to an area just more than 1.6km away from the Gaza border.

We had a clear view of Gaza city to our west, and Sderot and Ashkelon to the north of us.

We waited. Within 20 minutes, the sky lit up for a moment, and the quiet was shattered by the cries “Tzeva adom!” meaning “colour red” – a sign that there was an incoming rocket attack. The sirens wailed, and we ran. Fast. There was no real bomb shelter, so we took cover behind a large concrete building and waited. The booms were loud. They sounded close.

I counted at least six rockets - looking like slow moving shooting stars - coming up from the side of us. The same thing happened again and again, about eight times. Like a washing machine. Rinse, cycle, repeat.

Minutes later, Israeli fighter jets could be heard, and even louder booms shattered the silence. Israel was retaliating. I saw the flash as the air strike hit its target, and minutes later retreated.

It went quiet for about half an hour. Peaceful. The sound of nature, jackals howling, crickets, even some birds. The dichotomy of having these two scenes side by side. Nature, beauty, and the sounds of war in the foreground baffled me.

As we relaxed, a loud boom in the field next to us made the ground shake, then the sirens sounded again. This time there wasn’t even five seconds to get to cover. One, two, three, four loud booms – all believed to be mortars. We understood. Hamas knew we were there, they could see the large lights being used by the TV crews next to us.

This was later confirmed when I spoke to an army officer at the gas station nearby who said that our position was extremely dangerous.

“What, you think they can’t see you with those big lights?” he told me, pointing to the lights in an empty patch of ground we were using as our base. Minutes later, we found ourselves in the outer bomb shelter as the Tzeva Adom sounded. Again, quiet. No retaliation this time. But the drones were closer and louder. Out of nowhere, without even a siren, the Iron Dome intercepted an incoming rocket. As we watched, it hit a rocket far in the distance. Then another airstrike by the IDF in Gaza City.

The biggest and loudest I’d seen all night. Later, we learned it was the Hamas TV building that we had seen being pummelled to the ground.

The cycle repeated, on and on. We watched as rockets flew over us, to the side of us, and into Sderot and towards Ashkelon. This time, it was sirenless as the area wasn’t in immediate danger, like a sick fireworks display. More interceptions, more loud booms.

Later, we heard that apartment buildings had been hit in Ashkelon, and there were injuries. At 12:45, we headed there.

The smell of gas and burning was strong as we arrived at the packed street. At least 100 people in nightgowns, shoeless, and in pajamas were out of their homes, and part of the road was cordoned off by police and emergency services.

They had been evacuated because one of the gas lines in the building had been hit, and there were concerns about further explosions. The top three floors of the apartment were completely destroyed in the attack. One person was dead, and three others injured.

Speaking to traumatised residents, most said they hadn’t felt this afraid since the 2014 Gaza War.

“We don’t have sirens often, and to have had to have been rescued by the IDF from my building after it was hit by this rocket was terrifying,” one woman said.

I did a livestream video for Facebook, and while filming, the siren’s piercing wail sounded. People ran, some screaming, others flailing their arms as they tried to find a safe spot. I hid next to a wall in an alleyway with no time to get to a shelter.

The rockets flew straight over us, loud and bright. Not far behind was a deafening whoosh from the Iron Dome interceptors. Loud bangs sounded close by, one after the other. Despite the siren ending, we were told not to get up for at least another five minutes. Within that time, there was another earth-shattering bang.

In that moment, for the first time all night, I was truly afraid. The trauma was real, the people visibly shaken.

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