SOUTHERN ISRAEL, NEAR GAZA – On June 25, 2006, eight armed Palestinian men emerged from an underground tunnel through a hard-to-see hole in the ground, fired an RPG at an Israeli tank, killed two soldiers, snatched another young soldier, Gilad Shalit, and stole him away into Gaza. The attack lasted seven minutes. The Israeli Defense Forces then launched Operation Summer Rain against the kidnappers, against those who fire Qassam rockets at Israeli civilians, and against those who dig tunnels under the earth so they can smuggle weapons out of Egypt and carry out terrorist attacks inside Israel.
Soldiers keep watch on the border at a small military outpost just south of Kibbutz Nir Am.
There I met Major Tal Lev-Ram, Spokesman for the IDF Southern Command. He unfurled an enormous map of Gaza and asked me please not to take any pictures of it. Code names for villages and neighborhoods were hand-written with red ink in Hebrew.
“When we left the Gaza Strip we didn’t think the terrorism would stop,” he said. “We understood that there would no longer be any legitimacy for them to act. A year after they continue to re-arm. The terrorist groups — Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad — they did not turn the areas we left into schools, factories, and so on. They became training camps for the terrorist groups.”
The major knows passable English, but he chose to speak to me in Hebrew through a translator. I had hoped for an interview with an English-speaking officer. But none of the spokesman for the Southern Command are fluent in English. All the English speakers were sent to the Northern Command so they could talk to foreign media during the Lebanon war. Only Israeli journalists who write and broadcast in Hebrew showed much interest in the military confrontation in Gaza.
“We also left the Egypt-Gaza border,” he said. “The Egyptians are responsible for it now. They are doing an okay job, but there is still a lot of smuggling and so on.”
“They’re using tunnels?” I said.
“We found two tunnels just two weeks ago,” he said. “They are very organized, with electricity and everything. One city straddles the border. It’s basically one city on each side. They are digging tunnels to connect them.”
“Do the Egyptians shut down the tunnels?” I said.
“We spend great effort finding and exposing the tunnels,” he said. “The Egyptians make an effort, but it is not the highest priority for them.”
I taped our conversation with a digital voice recorder, as is routine for me lately. A young Israeli soldier took notes by hand at the same time. Perhaps it was her job to make sure I did not misquote the spokesman. Or maybe she was checking on him. It’s hard to say. I didn’t ask her why she recorded everything, and no one in the military ever told me I need to clear my work with any censors.
“We have good defenses on the border fence,” the major said. “Last year more than 70 terrorists were killed trying to breach it. Because the area is very confined, terrorism is brewing. They keep trying to find ways to go outside. It is like a volcano of terror. It needs to go somewhere. They try to go around, out into Egypt, and then over to the Israeli side. Sometimes they try to cross back in right next to Gaza. Other times they go down near Eilat [at the bottom of Israel.]”
Gaza is tiny. It’s 30 or so miles long and only a few miles wide.
“[They try] to go around the border,” he said, “in order to move information, training, and terrorists, and ammunition to their side from the West Bank. They are always trying to find ways to go around the Israeli border. They also fired something like 1,000 Qassam rockets since the disengagement until now. For no reason.”
“How many people have been killed by the Qassams?” I said.
“This year?” he said. “Zero.”
Zero! No wonder the Israelis who live near Gaza haven’t evacuated. Southern Israel at war is not like Northern Israel during Hezbollah’s Katyusha war.
“But terror is terror,” he said. “If you are afraid to send your child to a kindergarten, for me it’s the same. For now it’s the Qassam. In the future they will have more than today. 20 people in the past were killed by the Qassams. And like I said, terror is terror. You feel terror.”
I asked him if he thought the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza was a good idea. He wouldn’t answer and said that his opinion as a military man didn’t matter. The Israeli military takes orders from the democratically elected government, and that’s that.
“One of the major events after the disengagement,” he did say, “was the election of Hamas. They became the government in the Gaza Strip. Their principal goal is to destroy Israel. And they actually commit terror. Israel can’t accept that we left the Gaza Strip and still face daily terror attacks on and over the fence. Around 60 times charges of 50 kilograms were exploded on the fence. Also RPG and M-16 attacks on the fence against our forces. On Passover an attempt was prevented to go into a Kibbutz near the Karni Terminal…The second event that had a significant role in changing the rules of the game was the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit. We came to the decision that we need to take some sort of aggressive action in the Gaza Strip. The decision was to act against specific cells in different places. So we’re not talking about conquering land. We’re talking about operations of a few days each. We’re going in to destroy the infrastructure of terrorists. We can’t finish all the terror. But we can punch against it. During these operations more than 200 terrorists were killed. Weapons storages, training camps, all the infrastructure, factories where they make Qassam rockets.”
“How do you know where the factories are?” I said. “Do you have Palestinians informers?”
“We have good intelligence,” he said and laughed. “We have good military intelligence.”
It’s no secret that many Palestinians cooperate (or “collaborate”) with Israel against terrorists. But I decided to be a good sport and let him deflect the question. He wouldn’t be able to say anything on the record that isn’t already widely known anyway.
“Another pattern that’s unusual,” he said. “They use the civilian population as human shields.” It’s not really unusual. Hezbollah did the same thing in Lebanon. Fighters in Iraq do it there, too, although some in Iraq also deliberately murder Iraqis.
“Does the local population let them do this?” I said.
“It’s a problem,” he said. “Sometimes we see resistance. But it’s difficult to judge from our perspective. We see a lot of cases where Katyusha or Qassam rockets are fired from within populated areas. More than that, they came up with a system that was based on the fear that we would find the exact location of the rocket launchers. So they place the launchers with a timer. And ten, eleven, and twelve year old children come and take the launcher away afterwards. Often we’re faced with fourteen or fifteen year old youth who come, armed, and place charges along the fence. When we see them, even when we see that they are armed, if they are only fourteen or fifteen we only shoot to scare them. We don’t actually fire at them. Of course, only if there is no immediate danger to our forces.
“Our general instructions,” he continued, “not just in the these cases, is if we see a militant who is armed, a terrorist, and there is no immediate danger to our forces, we don’t fire if there is a danger that we would hurt the innocents, people who are not involved. But with that, it’s important to say that when we have such aggressive fighting in populated areas, when there’s an exchange of fire between terrorists and the IDF, there are cases where innocent people get hurt. But we warn as much as we can to step back, step away, to clear the area. So we see the terror organizations as responsible when civilians get hurt. And when there is a case and we know that a civilian was killed by mistake or unnecessarily, we check ourselves. When a rocket is fired and we respond with artillery fire, there could be civilians hurt. We don’t fire into populated areas. Only to the exact spots where they fired Qassams. If it’s in the middle of the city, we will not shoot.”
Sadly it’s impossible to fight terrorists, guerillas, or whatever you want to call them, in populated areas without hurting civilians. No one has yet invented the Bad Guy Bullet that flies safely past innocents and hits only the armed. The fact that Palestinian terrorists, like those everywhere else in the Middle East, make blending in with the civilian population part of their modus operandi means civilian casualties are unavoidable in a fight. It doesn’t help that Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on earth.
“About a month and a half ago,” he said, “another event that shows you the dilemma here: Two terrorists with an RPG tried to shoot a tank. We shot back. In the same house the mother of them, and a cousin, were in the same house. They fired five meters away from where the mother and cousin were standing. The Palestinian headline said that a mother and child were killed. The child was twenty two years old. And he was a member of Hamas. So, I am not happy about the mother. But, this is my right. You know? In the houses of Hamas militants, and all the other terrorist organizations, there are storages of weaponry. That’s because in the past we would avoid attacking houses with families. Which raises the question: Sometimes we as the IDF care more about the families and the children than he who would put them in danger. In a house, let’s say of three floors, a whole floor may be used as a storage.”
A tunnel had recently been found near the Karni terminal where goods and materials cross from Israel into Gaza. I asked if I could see it.
“I will take you to Karni,” he said. “But you cannot see the tunnel. It is inside the Palestinian territory. One kilometer inside. You understand? It is one kilometer inside the Palestinian territory.” In other words, the tunnel diggers are determined. They will spend Lord only knows how many hours digging and digging and digging, knowing most tunnels are discovered before they’re completed, just on the off chance that they’ll make it all the way into Israel and get to maybe kill one or two people.
“One more thing I want to say,” he said. “We will not stop the military action until Gilad Shalit comes back to us. But — and I say this to the press all the time — if there will be silence on our side for our villages it will be quiet on the Palestinian side.”
“How many soldiers have been killed since Gilad Shalit was kidnapped?” I said.
“All the year, before Gilad Shalit, no one. In the Shalit event, two soldiers died. And after that one more soldier died from friendly shooting. That’s all. So this is the big question for them. The spokesman of the government for Palestinians three days ago said the same thing I say all the time. For what? For what? For three soldiers who were killed in Gaza. In all the year something like 500 terrorists died in Gaza. So for what? The organizations of terror need to understand that it’s not worth it for them. And they can choose. We left the territory in the Gaza Strip, so it’s up to them. We will not stop the Qassam only with military pressure. They need to decide that they want to stop it. And if they will stop the Qassams, if they will stop the terror, free Gilad Shalit, we won’t have anything to fight about. And Karni will be open more. And everything will be better for them, not for us. This is the question. This is the biggest question, I think. And if you have time to read what the spokesman for Hamas government said, I think he can replace me.” He laughed. “Yeah? This is the truth. He is a good man.”
And he laughed again. Not because he was joking, but because it truly is an alternate Middle Eastern universe when the spokesman for Hamas echoes precisely the views of the spokesman for the IDF Southern Command.
Skeptical? Read for yourself. Hamas Spokesman Ghazi Hamad comes across like a world-weary man ground down and plainly despondent from a largely self-imposed Palestinian catastrophe.
I had a faint hope after Hamas was elected that the reality check from hell might finally kick in. And at least in one case, and for one day, it did.
The major drove to an area near the Karni Terminal in his jeep.
I followed behind him in my rental car. He took us straight into a dirt field. I nearly took the muffler off my poor little Hundai when I drove over a basketball-sized dirt clod as hard as a rock. We stepped out into the open where there was no shade from the fierce Levantine sun at the end of the summer. Distant machine gun fire was almost, but not quite, drowned out in the wind.
“Kalashnikov,” said my translator who, like many Israelis, can identify weapons by sound.
A large truck-mounted surveillance camera monitored Gaza just to our left.
“Two days ago was Gilad Shalit’s birthday,” said the major. “One soldier from his unit said he was glad to be in Gaza fighting the people who took him. His family and friends released hundreds of balloons into the air from the place where he was kidnapped.”
I wanted to know about that tunnel the IDF found.
“The plan was to use it for suicide bombings at Karni,” he said. “I can’t understand it. Karni is their lifeline, their life. This is the biggest reason we closed it. It’s hard to understand why they keep doing these things at the crossing points unless they are trying to make life harder in Gaza.”
Two months ago Palestinian police stopped a car bomber heading toward Karni. Six months ago the IDF stopped three terrorists with M-16s, grenades, and suicide bomb belts at the Erez crossing point where people, rather than goods, transit into and out of Gaza.
“We think there are many many more tunnels,” the major said. “The Kelem Shalom action [where Gilad Shalit was kidnapped] was through a 700 meter-long tunnel. We can’t just stay here and wait for the tunnels to come to us. In a few hours we will bomb that one we just found.”
And bomb it they did, from below. Click here to watch the video.
“How many Qassam rockets are they firing now?” I said. I saw more than a dozen Katyushas fired from Hezbollah in the north, but I did not see a single Qassam fired from Gaza.
“Sixty per week at the start of Operation Summer Rain,” he said. “Ever since the number has been going down. Now there are only five per week. Hamas has partly put a stop to this because they know terror does not work for them.”
“How good are the fighters in Gaza compared with the Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon?” I said.
“I don’t mean to dismiss anyone,” he said. “Some fights are serious here. But you can’t compare them with Hezbollah. Hezbollah has more weapons and uses more guerilla activity. Hamas doesn’t have big rockets yet. Yet. The word yet is very important. Hezbollah also is more organized. You shouldn’t underestimate anyone. We had some people wounded in the fight here. Some in Gaza fight very good. But we killed hundreds of terrorists since Summer Rain. We had only one soldier killed in friendly fire, and ten to twelve wounded.”
“How long until this fight is over?” I said. I meant the current fighting in Gaza, but he seemed to have thought I meant the Arab-Israeli conflict in general.
“I don’t see the end now,” he said. “Maybe this part will be soon be finished. Shalit will be back. For a while it will be quiet. The question, you know, is for the other side. Because we went out of Gaza and then it started. If they get more democratic and reduce the chaos…that’s my hope. We need to be strong and give a chance for something else. It’s in the interest of the Palestinian side now to have another life.”
We left the field and drove straight to the fence. I wanted to get as close to Gaza as possible. We parked next to large concrete wall placed there for protection.
“So this wall,” I said. “Is it to protect us from snipers or from rockets?
“From everything,” the major said. Barriers of all kinds are erected near the Palestinian territories. One road I took next to the West Bank was shielded on one side by bullet-proof glass because some Palestinians like to randomly shoot rifles at cars.
The fenced border between Israel and Gaza was right in front of us. The fence is electric. It won’t shock you if you touch it. But it will send a signal to the Israeli military telling them where contact was made so they can dispatch soldiers to that location.
“What would you do,” I said, “if you saw somebody from the other side walk up and stand right there?”
“Eh, it depends,” he said.
“It depends on what he’s doing?” I said.
“If he’s just standing there it’s not a problem?” I said.
“No, it’s a problem,” he said. “Because sometimes they come like a citizen and they put charges there. If it’s in the day and we see a man, the soldiers come. If someone goes to the fence he has some reason. If we see some people come in the night we have a procedure. We start by shouting to them to go. But if they continue…okay? If it’s in the night, well you know, night is night. The thing is to make them understand not to come. Sometimes Palestinians come and want to go into Israel to work. They want to come into Israel not for military action but to come inside for working. But it is very complicated, especially in the night, to know who is the person.”
“How many people who come to the fence aren’t here to fight?” I said.
“Here is a sad story,” he said. “One Palestinian went to the fence with a grenade. Not a militant. He came to the fence and we did not understand it. Because we told him to stop and he dropped it and everything was okay. Sometimes they want to be in the Israeli jail.”
“To get out of Gaza?” I said.
“Because maybe the food in the jail is better,” he said. “I don’t know. It’s a few, it’s not, you know, all the time.”
Gaza itself is often described as a prison. The reason I didn’t go in there myself is because I was briefly affiliated with Time magazine and they ordered me to stay out. They had neither the time nor the inclination to take out a war insurance policy on me. But a Danish journalist I know, Louis Stigsgaard Nissen, did get a brief tour of Gaza and she described it as an absolute horror, a far worse place than the West Bank which both of us had visited in the past.
Trash has not been collected for months, so much of Gaza City looks like a garbage dump that happens to have buildings inside it. The garbage is seeping now into the water. Israeli doctors are returning because the Palestinians desperately need medical help. She interviewed a man who lives in a sports stadium with his children. She was nearly run over in the street by a truck driven by gunmen and bristling with weapons.
“Is anyone really in charge inside Gaza?” I asked the major.
“That is the question,” he said. “They have a government, but there is a power struggle among the armed groups.”
Once again we heard rapid machine gun fire in the middle distance. He and I stood right next to the concrete wall and could have taken cover. But the shooting had nothing to do with us and sounded just barely far enough away. So we didn’t move. It’s funny what you get used to. I’ve never been in the army, and I’m unaccustomed to being in war zones. But it doesn’t take long to get used to it.
“We have a connection with the Palestinian police and with the army,” he said. “For example if we found some charges that they put on their side of the second fence the Palestinian police come to take it or to boom it. In the operations today because of the army, and the pressure, and the militants, there was a fire between us and the Palestinians next to a place where gasoline was stored and also some baby chickens, you know, the little ones. And we talked with the Palestinian police and they brought some trucks in to take them out. We saved them from the RPGs.”
He spoke in English now instead of through a translator, and I wasn’t sure I understood.
“So the Israeli side and the Palestinian side cooperated in the middle of a war to save baby chickens?” I said. “And then started fighting again?”
“Not exactly,” he said. “If you see the story as a simple one, yes. But the ones we talked with were not the ones shooting the RPGs. So it’s a very complicated story. But we talked with the police and the citizens talk with the army to help them. We told the citizens: Not now. It’s dangerous. The militants are firing RPGs.
“It is very strange,” he continued. “But it is our world. It is us against them, but they are divided inside. This is the story of Gaza.”
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All photos copyright Michael J. Totten