Wednesday, January 14, 2009

DAY THREE: In and out of a War Zone

I am writing at the end of a long day spent close to Gaza. In fact, at one point less than a km. away. No previous experience I have had in years of travel to Israel prepared me for today and I know that writing about the experience will tax my ability to navigate how my heart and mind responded to what I saw and heard. Please bear with me.
We began our day in the “homeland security” situation room in Ashkelon. Ashkelon received 3 ketusha rockets in 2003, 10 in 2006, 7 in 2007, 20 before the war in 2008 and 90 (including larger, more powerful Grad missiles produced in Iran) since the war began. In 2006, the citizens had 12 seconds to find cover after a siren, today they have 30 seconds. The missiles are powered by fertilizer and detergent, they are armed with ball bearings and poison, they are aimed at the hospital and at civilians (and not at strategic targets like the power station or port).
26,000 children are at home, only High School seniors have returned to classes so they can complete studying for matriculation exams in the shelters (which have limited space). The Mayor showed us maps of the city indicating where children live, where the old people are, which houses do and do not have shelters. 60% of the citizens do not live within 30 seconds of a shelter. Many of the elderly (some Holocaust survivors and others who have been through Israel’s wars) do not leave their homes no matter what happens.
The Mayor also spoke of the collaborative projects between himself and two mayors of Gaza City before the Hamas takeover.
We visited the Masorti kehillah and a member of the community pointed out that, unlike Israelis, no one in Gaza can avoid the bombings by going to a shelter. This was one of many moments during the day when sympathy was expressed by Israelis for the civilians in Gaza.
In Barzalai Hospital in Ashkelon we learned that 80% of the patients were sent home to keep the hospital free and available to receive mass casualties. Patients come from the battlefield, from missile hits and patients at the hospital include Palestinians wounded in the fighting. The head of the ER referred to the hospital as an “island of sanity” in the region. When a Palestinian child was recently born in the hospital someone asked her, “how do you feel about giving life to the next shahid (suicide martyr)?” to which the doctor replied, “I am helping give birth to the next President of Palestine who will bring peace.” A JTS rabbinical student and I go to the bedside of a soldier nursing a leg wound and we talk and offer a prayer for healing.
We then moved from the 30 second zone to the 15 second zone. In front of us on the road we see smoke rising from Gaza, tanks in formation, and dirigibles taking pictures from the sky. We are a few kms from Gaza. A political poster near the road reads: “without fear at all” and above it is a sign from followers of Rabbi Nahman.
We learn that minutes after we left Ashkelon two missiles hit.
We are at a forward staging area for soldiers about to return to Gaza after 24 hours away from the battle. Together with members of the Masorti/Conservative youth movement NOAM we talk to the soldiers and distribute hats, prayers and candy. We hug and say the prayer for their safety aloud. In America we have debated the language of the prayer, here all of its words seem just right. This was the context for which it was written. The soldiers cover one another’s heads with their hands as a sign of respect. I walk away and call home (it is 5:30 in the morning EST). I can not bear what I am seeing as the kids start rolling in their half-tracks back into Gaza. It is so painful to know what they are about to face and the damage that is being done.
We have lunch with the IDF spokesperson at Kibbutz Alumim right along the border with Gaza. As at every stop today, we begin with instructions on the location of the shelters. A kibbutz member asks us where we think the story of this war begins: 1967? The election of Hamas (2006)? The killing of the PLO leaders in Gaza (2007)? The evacuation by Israel (2005)? The Balfour declaration? One of our group suggests that it started when Abraham failed to make peace between his sons, Isaac and Ishmael.
Another trivia question: What famous medieval Jews lived in Gaza? Two answers: Nathan of Gaza (who proclaimed Shabbtai Zvi the messiah). The author of the Shabbat piyyut, Yah Ribon Olam.
We then visit a (near) ghost town, Sderot, under missile attack since 2001. The mayor tells us that he felt abandoned until the war. 70% of those still in the city are under psychological care of some sort. We are joined by the assistant Foreign Minister, who is Druze (an Israeli Arab). The Mayor tells us that the secret to ending the conflict is both sides realizing that all people are made in the image of God. He also says that he feels pain for the Palestinian children being hurt in Gaza as much as the pain he feels for his own children in Sderot. His city has been under attack for 8 years.
On our way home we hear a short talk from a Professor in Sderot about the need for a new Marshal Plan for Gaza to break the cycle of connecting food to terror.
As we drive home I get a call: there was a bombing in Sderot as we left the area. We return safely to Jerusalem not having heard even a siren all day.


  1. "This was one of many moments during the day when sympathy was expressed by Israelis for the civilians in Gaza."
    This same point is made in the BBC web coverage of the war, in which they present interviews with 4 Israelis, none of whom live within range of the rocket fire, and all of whom support the war. All of them express sympathy for the suffering of civilians in Gaza, some going so far as to say they feel sickened by it and that they cry as they watch the news coverage of the situation there. In their compassion for the human suffering of a people not their own, they remind me of the midwives Shifra and Puah who, according to Abravanel, were Egyptians who were rewarded by God for the compassion they showed toward the Israelites. Our political commitments should never prevent us from acknowledging the suffering of others.

  2. “I am helping give birth to the next President of Palestine who will bring peace.”
    This brought tears to my eyes. We can only pray that this is true - or even better, that this unknown future President is already alive and learning what will be needed to bring peace to the people of Palestine.

  3. Excellent war reportage. I wish Jimmy Carter was on your trip. About a week ago he wrote a column in the Washington Post minimizing the rocket attacks on Israel.

    It takes courage to voluntarily enter a danger zone. Thank you for your efforts. I wish you a safe return.