First-hand views from the Gaza border

First-hand views from the Gaza border
The Gaza-Israel border: soldiers stand between the violent

Dark black smoke billowed over the border on Monday, May 14. Some 40,000 residents of Gaza participated in demonstrations on the fence that began in the morning and continued until evening. The main centres were in Rafah, Khirbet Khuza’a, Abasan neighbourhood in the north of Khan Younis, Dir al-Balah, al-Bureij, Karni, Jabalya and Beit Hanoun.

The Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza reported that 62 people were killed during the fighting, and 2,770 were injured, of whom 1,350 were hurt by live ammunition. More than 50 were critically injured. According to the Palestinians, five people were killed and dozens injured in the clashes in Khirbet Khuza’a.

Fifty of those killed were Hamas operatives, a senior Hamas official in Gaza, Salah al-Bardawil, admitted in a television interview on May 16.

The killing fields on the fence are adjacent to kibbutz fields and nearby moshavim (agricultural communities). The tractors were working there even at the height of the events on Monday.

Three consecutive days in the Gaza seam zone creates a complex picture of reality. The tragedy is ingrained. Poverty and frustration beyond the fence are unmistakeable. The prosperity and growth on our side are obvious.

This is how the firing zone looks: on the Gaza side of the fence, at a distance of 20-30 metres is a roll of barbed wire. The area is strewn with charred tyres dotted with bags and torn pieces of cloth, and everywhere you see large stones, marbles used in slingshots, and tear gas canisters.

On the afternoon of May 15, several hundred people were cursing and throwing stones. The soldiers of a company commander from the Golani Brigade, Captain Lahav, tried to repel those who had advanced to the rolled barbed wire (outer) fence with tear gas. Some of them did retreat, but most of them remained where they were, their faces covered with cloth. They made a sign with their fingers in triumph and continued throwing stones ineffectively. Anyone who tried to get even closer got another gas barrage.

For almost an hour we stood there, watching the confrontation, both sides already familiar with its rules and its results.

The Israeli soldiers who lay on the front line in front of the tens of thousands of demonstrators were criticised in Israel and around the world because of the harsh and bloody consequences of this week – we will try to explain how it looked through their rifle sights in this impossible situation.

Speakers, tyres and slingshots

Forty metres in front of the border fence, the IDF created dirt ramparts in which it placed firing positions and shelters. The front of the positions are lined with sandbags. The soldiers look at the demonstrators, hear the curses and see the stones flying, smelling the smoke of the burning tyres. The smoke is thick, black, making it difficult to breathe. “Imagine thousands of people, the entire area opposite full of people, crowded”, says company commander Lahav.

“Try to see this. We’ve spent three months here on the [front] line, we have already gotten through demonstrations and incidents along the fence. But an event like that of Monday [May 14] we have not yet seen. The day before, they had already organised themselves here. They brought junked cars to be used for cover, brought down hundreds of tyres, set up loudspeakers. At six in the morning on Monday people began to arrive. Buses and pickups unloaded children and women. Trucks brought more tyres. More people and more people – masses. At its peak there was something like 15,000 here in front of us. They hurled rocks at us, Molotov cocktails, marbles, rocks propelled by various kinds of slingshots, and over loudspeakers they were calling “Itbach al ‘Yahud’ al-yisraeli (slaughter the Israeli Jew)” and they were calling on the masses to breach the fence and run to the Israeli villages and return the conquered lands.

“People in the rear line were frenzied and pushed the crowds in front of them forward to the fence, pulling the people with their hands to move forward, cut the barbed wire outer fence and get past it. And the rolled barbed wire fence is even in Israeli territory. The fence with electronic monitors is a hundred metres into our area on purpose to allow the IDF room to respond. The other side knows that it is forbidden to enter these hundred metres. If they stand there on Hamas’ patrol road and do their protest, we wouldn’t fire anything, not even a cap gun. But the masses descend on the breaks in the rolled barbed wire fence that have already been cut [in previous attempts], and it’s nothing to make it from there to the last fence that can also be cut.

“Look behind you, there are the homes of Kibbutz Nir Oz. A ten-minute run from here. If you cut the barbed wire, you can also cut the border fence. Of course, the whole area was covered with black tyre smoke. And the surge was spearheaded by women and children [as young as] 7-8. These children are small. They use them to light the tyres because they know we won’t shoot children and women. And under the cover of smoke the crowd tries to approach the border fence. The order is unequivocal, not to allow the crossing of the fence. No crossing whatsoever. But dozens of people storm the fence. In waves. Storming, retreating, and storming again. We are screaming in Arabic, “stop or I’ll shoot”, and if they don’t stop we fire tear gas. If it does not stop them, then we switch to sniper fire with the approval of a senior commander.”

Did you not use other non-lethal means?

“Using such measures requires closer range. Rubber bullets aren’t effective at this range. Tear gas also doesn’t work, it doesn’t stop them. They come prepared for gas. They cover the face with a cloth with onion inside it or wear masks with filters. We acted here in an arena of absolute chaos. In their rear line they have hundreds of armed people. We flew a camera drone up and they shot at it with an AK-47. Everything can change in an instant. Sirens and roars, smoke, Molotov cocktails, pipe bombs and hand grenades. And in the end you are standing against masses storming the fence. A crowd that’s washing over you like a football field after the final whistle of a championship game. They’re mad [crazed]. And if they get past you – you don’t want to imagine the result. Listen, I did not read about what was posted on social networks. I saw with my eyes. It happened here in front of me. We were the divider between a crowd of rioters and kibbutzim here.”

In front of you were unarmed children and women, about 2,000 people were wounded, 62 killed. The numbers are huge.

“We’re talking and right across from us [now], there’s a seven-year-old boy throwing stones at my soldiers. Look at him, a small boy. We won’t shoot at him. Our sniper received permission to shoot at a person who approached the fence, but when he looked through his sights and understood that he was dealing with a child, he did not fire. But when an incident spirals out of control, when a crowd runs to the fence and there are children [among them], they can get hurt. Hamas is the one who brought the children and put them on the front line. I have responsibility for a little over a kilometre of fence. At the height of the riots on Monday there were dozens of events at the same time and I had to give attention to each of them. It requires you to make decisions quickly. There is no sterility here. It’s not a pharmacy, it’s a combat zone.”

“In the end we are neighbours”

When we arrived on May 15 at the gas station at the entrance to Kibbutz Kfar Aza, we found a group of residents from the area were demonstrating against the killing of the Gazan demonstrators. Yaela Ra’anan, a resident of Kibbutz Kissufim, said that the fear that the Gazans would cross the fence was real.

“We are easy running distance from the fence. We have the fear of the Qassam [rockets], the fear of the tunnels and now the fear of those who cross the fence. But I think there are other ways to prevent people from crossing the fence other than to kill them. There is skunk water, there are rubber bullets, there are plastic bullets. The killing yesterday was terrible. The distress in Gaza is real. What bothers me most is that the state is not working to improve the situation between the wars. They just do nothing. Yesterday I sat at home and felt great sadness and despair. In the end, those who remain here are us and them. In the end we are neighbours.”

Earlier in Kibbutz Nahal Oz, the deputy security coordinator, Nisan De Kello, told us that he understood completely that so long as things on the other side were not good, it would not be good here either. We sat in his yard while the wheat fields in the kibbutz were set ablaze by fire kites and De Kello spoke about the 780 metres separating his kibbutz from the border.

“I do not envy anyone who lives there on the other side and I’m aware of their distress, but the moment they cross the fence, for me they are inside my house. And this thought that they will cross the fence, I will not tolerate. We are here in a no-choice situation. This is not a choice between good and evil, but between evil and evil. Those who do not live in Nahal Oz cannot understand what this is about. I also do not feel comfortable with what happened on Monday, but what other option do we have – let them cross the fence? Then what, let them run to the villages?”

The next day, at the Golani post, a senior commander of the Southern Command told us that, just like the farming in the fields of the kibbutzim, construction of the new barrier against the tunnels did not stop during the riots. In front of Rafah, about a kilometre from the Egyptian border and 400 metres from Kibbutz Kerem Shalom, Major K, commander of the Givati battalion, told us that his soldiers had fought with nearly 10,000 demonstrators on Monday.

We spoke about 20 metres from the fence while a few hundred metres away, a few young men stood, burning tyres and talking among themselves.

“There are things that need to be seen with your eyes in order to understand the situation. And the situation here was mad and violent. We were confronted by rows of women who had joined hands, and children among them, and they had marched in front. We have a community here behind us and I cannot contain any infiltration. If in other places there are some lines of defence where the distances are greater, here it is me and the soldiers in the first and last lines. Our defence must be strong. If I had more distance I could have mobilised and run after them in the field, but I do not have it. This is not an option. And they know that we will not let them pass, and they march toward us anyway.

“They brought in loads of tyres and created a smokescreen covering the area. Imagine everything is clouds of soot and you cannot see anything. Women and children take sacks of [fence cutting and other military-grade] equipment and move them forward in stages, every few metres, followed by activists who take shelter behind the sacks. They roll burning tyres toward the fence. Palestinian ambulances unloaded tyres while activists incited the people. That’s how they advance, step by step, a meter and another ten and get close to the fence and throw bombs.

“There were two bombs thrown at us and the explosions were so powerful that my commander in another sector heard them and came up to me to ask what had happened. We are behind dirt ramparts, 50 metres from the explosions. We flew a camera drone and identified 14 people on the fence. Right on the fence, not near it. My force comes over and were targeted by explosive charges – I ordered them to move away immediately. You should understand, this is another completely different situation – in front of us there is a terrorist squad. And I remind you, it’s midday, there are women and children, curses, thick smoke, sirens, loudspeakers, abnormal chaos. Those who lie there on the fence and throw these charges are not children who came to play.

“I received permission to train the snipers accurately on the squad. They identify them, count 7, 4, 3, 2, 1, fire. (Israeli snipers don’t count down 6 and 5, because those words are too similar-sounding to the [Hebrew] word for “fire” – let no one get confused, God forbid.) Three bullets, three terrorists killed. The rest fled under cover. And who comes to evacuate them? Women. We stopped firing in order to let them evacuate them. The mob that wanted to burn the Palestinian side of the Kerem Shalom crossing is the same mob that tried to break through the fence and failed. There was not a single moment of time out on that day. A day of madness.

“And listen, we were also here at the Land Day demonstration. There were 8,000 demonstrators, a respectable mass. There were approaches to the fence, curses, but it was more [of a] ‘happening’. They played soccer, listened to music, had performances of singers, brought darbukas (drums), heard sermons. There was far less violence. This week was a completely different story. It’s hard to explain how it is to face such a human mass moving toward you. An excited mob has the dynamics of a wounded animal, the loss of control in such a situation is absolute.”

© Yediot Ahronot (www.yediot.co.il), reprinted by permission, all rights reserved. Translated from the Hebrew by Ahron Shapiro.