Gideon Levy

The Grieving Israelis, the Sick Palestinians: A Tour of Destruction Along the Gaza Border

Independence Day flags and mourning in Ashkelon and Ashdod, sick Gazans who can’t get home: A tour of the sites of destruction along the Gaza border

A shooting position and the security barrier in Netiv Ha’asara, on the Gaza border. The mosaic has inscriptions about love and peace.
Alex Levac

“At 6 P.M. after the war,” the land fell silent. At 6 P.M. after the war on Monday of this week, hours after the cease-fire took effect, it was as if it had never happened. As though just a few hours earlier hundreds of rockets hadn’t been fired, as though the Gaza Strip hadn’t gone up in smoke, as though four Israelis and 21 Palestinians hadn’t been killed. The same way that in Hayarkon Park in Tel Aviv on the day after Independence Day not a trace remains of the barbecues of the previous day – so too in the south: Routine returns in a jiff.

It’s unbelievable how fast everything here returns to normal, at least outwardly. The trains, the traffic on the roads, the preparations for Independence Day, the work in the fields and the factories, and the dread, too – gone. Within hours, what were just ghost towns are bustling once more. Suddenly it becomes clear how much is under the control of the two sides in these confrontations: that the “rounds” between them, too, have become routine, with a beginning, a middle and an end. From the observation point on an earth rampart for tanks, next to the fence around Kibbutz Nahal Oz, the Strip also looks tranquil. Only the hot wind blowing from the west and the chirping of the birds disturb the quiet.

On Yehuda Hamaccabi Street in Ashdod, work was underway to repair the damage, hours after a 21-year-old yeshiva student was killed there; on Johannesburg Street in Ashkelon, people were observing shiva, the seven-day mourning period, for a 59-year-old resident; at the Erez checkpoint, sick Palestinians were waiting to be allowed to return home after receiving medical care in East Jerusalem and the West Bank; and the troops in the tank parking lots were getting ready to pull out. Work on the subterranean monster wall that’s supposed to block tunnels under the border also resumed at full steam.

A stranger happening on the scene would never imagine that just a few hours ago smoke billowed up on both sides of the fence, fires raged and blood was spilled. There’s quiet in the south – until the next time.

“Every flag needs a balcony.” Ashkelon is getting ready for Independence Day celebrations featuring singer Shlomi Shabat. In the city’s industrial zone, David’s Malabi Place has reopened, serving the traditional rosewater-flavored pudding. Amid the factories, one stands out in being adorned with more Israeli flags than any other – in addition, it has a menorah and two stone lions at the entrance. Does Sela Concrete Products cloak itself in independence like this every year? Or is it hoisting the flags with greater pride than ever this year, just a day after a rocket slammed into the factory and killed an employee, Ziad Alhamada, 47, from the Bedouin town of Segev Shalom?

“Noise area, earplugs mandatory,” reads a sign at the plant’s entrance. The rocket sliced a hole in the tin roof and killed Alhamada. The guard at the entrance, wearing a faded “Follow me to the Paratroops” cap, displays unusually warm hospitality and says to me: “Better you shouldn’t be here. Kick him out, Ran. Tell him it’s private property. Get him out of here. This is a Hamas supporter. Likes the Arabs more than the Jews. This guy, even his son told him in a car ride on television that he loves Arabs. We’re all Likudniks here. No entry to the press, especially not to Haaretz.” From the dimness behind the iron bars on the office window someone whispers, “Tell Bibi he’s a coward.”

“Turn right, to Levia [lioness], left to Namer [tiger], go on straight to Hasida [stork].” At the end of Hasida Street, in the heart of a neighborhood of one-story houses, pleasant and placid, mourning notices announce the death of Moshe Agadi, “who was murdered by terrorists.” Here, too, private security guards block the entrance to the house that took a direct hit, killing its occupant, a well-known figure in Ashkelon. The shiva is being held not far away, in the Afridar neighborhood, on Johannesburg Street, next to the old commercial center with its two colorful stone towers. The center used to be the symbol of this iconic neighborhood, established by Jewish immigrants from South Africa at the height of the apartheid years. Masses of people are now streaming into the house of mourning, in the heart of this serene, well-kept neighborhood, which boasts more flags than other areas in the city.

People check out at the damage caused by a rocket in Ashdod, May 6, 2019. The attack killed a yeshiva student on his way back from synagogue.
Alex Levac

“Talk with God and all will be fulfilled,” declares a sticker on the van in front of us. At the entrance to the tank compound next to the apiary of Kibbutz Karmia, south of Ashkelon, an Israel Defense Forces soldier wearing a skullcap and toting a rifle sprints toward us, shouting, “Closed military area. Turn around here, not there” – he positions himself in front of our vehicle, stopping the enemy bodily. He neither slumbers nor sleeps, the guardian.

The yellow iron gate at the entrance to Moshav Netiv Ha’asara, even further south, opens automatically. More than 800 people live in this cooperative village, situated closest to the Erez checkpoint. Its name is that of the settlement that was evacuated from the Yamit District, in northern Sinai, which in turn was named in memory of 10 soldiers who were killed in 1971 in a helicopter accident near Rafah in the Gaza Strip. Ahh, the days that will never return. Now they’re here, at the gates of Gaza and Rafah.

In front of one “villa in the jungle” fly the banners different IDF corps. A gray pigeon is perched on the roof of the house, which seems to be unoccupied. An ambulance from the Lachish district is parked in the backyard. Rows of fancy houses, well-cultivated gardens, armored bus shelters, chic and colorful. “Guard for me, my good Lord, over all of these,” reads the graffiti scrawled on one of the shelters, from the song by Naomi Shemer. Painted on another one – built by Home Front Command and the Defense Ministry for the protection and wellbeing of residents and passersby: “I have no other country.”

A poetic aura hovers over this moshav, which has known no little terror and other attacks. The Netiv Leshalom (Path to Peace) visitors center offers, for 25 shekels ($6.90), the chance to see the film “Life in the Shadow of the Wall” and an exhibition of Qassam rockets and the Iron Dome antimissile system; there’s also a coffee corner and other facilities. Entrance by prior appointment only.

No appointment is needed, however, to proceed to the last villa, that of Karin and Yossi Cohen, and to see the concrete “protective wall,” aka security barrier, looming above the border fence with Gaza. The wall is covered with a huge colorful mosaic that spells out the words Netiv Leshalom in Hebrew; the words are also painted above, in Arabic and English.

Netiv Ha’asara is avowedly peace-loving. Thousands of small ceramic stones are glued to create the mosaic on the wall, which also features New Age-type inscriptions about love and peace, being a free people, the Land of Zion and Jerusalem, hope and even courtesy. “Choice of your personal stone, gluing the personal stone to the wall and writing your wishes – for a fee.” Someone has wished for a miracle, which is perhaps the most realistic inscription on the wall, behind which is concealed the cage of Gaza.

A few minutes’ drive from there, away from the hope and the love, about 40 people, looking weary and grim, are sitting on a stone bench beneath a broiling-hot tin roof, piles of belongings strewn on the floor, the hot wind blowing in their faces. This is the entrance to the Erez checkpoint, aka the cage, which has been closed for a few days now. The faces of these people say it all. A fusion of exhaustion, despair, illness and the ordeals of the debilitating journey. Today is the start of the holy month of Ramadan, and all they want is to get home. Most have just had surgery or other serious medical treatment. They’ve been here since the morning, patients and their escorts, whom Israel allowed magnanimously to travel from here to East Jerusalem or the West Bank to receive medical care. But the door back to their homes is shut in their face, for now.

The damage caused by a rocket in Ashdod, May 6, 2019. The attack killed a yeshiva student on his way back from synagogue.
Alex Levac

Salah Hilwa, from a neighborhood in the center of the Gaza Strip, arrived here at 7 A.M., escorting his wife, Siham, who is recovering from the stomach surgery she underwent 10 days ago at Al-Makassed Hospital in East Jerusalem. Both are 63 years old, parents to 10 children. Siham, her face sallow and drooping, is sitting with her husband, who’s wearing a white sweater. Most of the people here are wearing winter clothing, on the hottest day of the week. The couple left their home 12 days ago and this morning were told by the hospital that the Erez checkpoint was open. But Erez is closed right now, and the Ethiopian-Israeli armed guard – who also rushes over to us and demands that we delete the pictures we’ve taken – tells the unfortunates that the crossing will open “maybe in another month.” If cruelty is an option, go for it.

“Maybe you can help us,” one of the Gazans asks us in Hebrew. “Help us. All these people are sick. My permit expires today and I am not allowed to stay here.”

A group of high-ranking IDF officers is standing along the side of the road to Kibbutz Erez, at the spot where Moshe Feder, 67, was killed a day earlier, when an antitank missile hit his car. From an abandoned tank battery, east of Kibbutz Nahal Oz, next to the fence, Gaza looks steamy, vapors of heat rising from it at midday. Stretch out your hand and you can touch the Shujaiyeh neighborhood opposite. A truck barrels by, a bird flies overhead, someone shouts in the distance, tall buildings, two mosque minarets – and quiet on the face of the abyss. How I would like to be there, across the way, now. To report from there. What’s going on now between those buildings and inside them. How much the walls shook from the surgical bombings. How terrified the children are. The picture is very blurred amid the haze of the heat.

“Yonatan Express Glazier, repairs in the customer’s home,” and also “Weizmann Shutters: Aluminum Work” have been parked on Yehuda Hamaccabi Street in Ashdod since the morning, along with vehicles belonging to representatives of the Property Tax department. This is where the last lethal rocket in this round struck, on Sunday at 7 P.M., killing yeshiva student Pinchas Menachem Prezuazman. Dozens of residents of the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood are gathered in front of No. 15 on the street, where only a year ago every apartment got a fortified security room. That didn’t help Prezuazman, who was on the way back from synagogue, heard the siren, entered a stairwell that was packed with people, gave cover to a woman and was hit by shrapnel and killed.

The rocket fell in the courtyard and the shock waves damaged all the shutters and windows of the balconies in the row of houses on the other side of the street. Even though this is a Haredi neighborhood inhabited by the Gur and Belz Hasidic sects, an Israeli flag flies from a balcony of the building next to which the rocket fell. Every flag needs a balcony. The glaziers are glazing, the aluminum workers are paneling.

The families here have many children and a balcony can’t be left without shutters. Prezuazman was a Ger Hasid, and left behind a baby girl of 15 months, and a pregnant wife. They moved here from Beit Shemesh. He was buried in Jerusalem. He was a volunteer with the Refua Veyeshua (Healing and Salvation) organization, which helps disabled children; his friends say he had a “gentle soul.” They relate that a rocket also hit the roof of a residential building on Ba’al Haness Street, but didn’t explode there.

Habayit Hayehudi, a store that sells Judaica and religious articles, located in the building across from where the rocket struck, didn’t open today. A sign on the bus stop offers transportation to the hilula (religious festivity) in memory of Joshua Bin-Nun, at the biblical figure’s traditional tomb, located in the village of Kifl Haris in Samaria, the northern West Bank.

Six or seven alarms were heard here on Sunday. The Hasids thought at first that something was wrong with the sirens, until they heard the booms. A few of them recited the afternoon prayers in the bomb shelter. Yisrael, a Belz Hasid and teacher in his 20s, says he was “in all the wars, and what happened yesterday never happened before. Thirty rockets at once. I am not a member of the security cabinet, we don’t know anything about Eurovision and Independence Day, but we feel that people are making a mockery of us every day. The cease-fire won’t last two days. What should be done? In my opinion, the public should be satisfied. The public was convinced that a ground operation was needed. It doesn’t look like something that has a solution, but the last time there was a ground operation, we had three-and-a-half years of quiet.”

“Nem” (“take,” in Yiddish) he says to Yehuda Arieh, his blond son, whose white stockings are decorated with plastic pearls. Yehuda Arieh is a year and a half old, and on Sunday he told his mother that he was afraid, his father says now. “Just yesterday I said to my wife that we can’t relate to what’s going on in Sderot and the Gaza envelope. And suddenly we’re in the cholent.”