by Zak Witus
On Thursday, May 31, a day after Hamas and the State of Israel announced their ceasefire, a group of friends, acquaintances, and myself headed south to visit the region of Israel around Gaza. Even just the previous morning, we hadn’t been sure whether the trip would go on as planned. Following weeks of Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip, Islamic Jihad finally hit back: After an Israeli attack killed three of its fighters, the militant group retaliated, as the Israeli military expected it would, and fired dozens of rockets and mortars into Israel, one landing on the grounds of an Israeli kindergarten in Sderot. Israel then rained fire from the sky over Gaza for a day, while its brutal, 11-year-old siege of coastal enclave continued unabated. By the time both sides waved their white flags Wednesday morning, no one else besides the three Islamic Jihad fighters had died. Israel was thus free to focus on its higher priority, namely negotiations with Russia about removing Iranian and other Shi’ite militias from the Syrian Golan Heights, and my group could tour the area around Gaza as scheduled.
The remains of rockets fired from Gaza on display outside the Sderot police station (Zak Witus)
We met up with our tour guide Dario in Sderot. Dario immigrated to Israel about 40 years ago from Argentina during the US- and Israeli-backed dictatorship. Dario was delayed meeting us by 30 minutes, and when he finally arrived, he said that he was glad he was late. Dario explained that the road to Sderot had been packed with trucks carrying goods to Kerem Shalom, the only crossing into Gaza through which supplies can pass. Given the massive amounts of casualties from the March of Return, this influx of materials, though much belated, was much needed.
As Dario gave us his lecture on the history of Sderot, we walked by the city’s police station, which had on display the lifeless corpses of the primitive rockets that Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other militant groups in Gaza have shot into Israel. Dario said that each rocket costs about $70; the slightly more advanced Russian rockets, maybe $100. Meanwhile the United States spends over $545,000 per day (on average) to maintain Israel’s missile defense system, most notably the Iron Dome. Gaza has nowhere near as sophisticated defenses, hence the over 120 Palestinians killed and over 13,000 injured by the Israeli military in the past 10 weeks. During this latest episode of what the Israeli military calls “mowing the lawn,” not one Israeli has been killed or seriously wounded, though one soldier did receive a scratch.
Fields inside Israel, just a few hundred meters from the Gaza fence, burnt by fires started by Molotov cocktails affixed to kites flying from Gaza (Zak Witus)
After Sderot, we drove together to a hill overlooking the Gaza fence. Atop the hill stood a large wind chime made by an Israeli mother as a memorial for her son who had died in a helicopter collision. Each chime represents one year that the son lived.
A soft breeze blew from the Mediterranean across the Strip and caused the chimes before us to ding and ping as Dario talked about what had happened on the ground upon which we stood just a few days before. Behind the four-foot-high heaps of soil on the northwest side of the hill, Israeli snipers had fired live ammunition into the largely peaceful and almost entirely defenseless crowds of Palestinian demonstrators on the other side of the militarized fence. Down below the hill I could see swales of black barren field, scorched by the fire started from Molotov cocktails affixed to kites flown by some protesters. Reportedly, over 1,200 acres of Israeli wheat fields have burned, blowing back black smoke on the nearby Israeli towns, costing the farmers over $1.2 million. In the English translation of a recent article, Haaretz reported that Israeli military officials “believe they will no longer be able to show restraint in the face of the burning kites,” ominously suggesting that Israel could redeem this lost revenue in pounds of Palestinian flesh, a cost it is evidently willing to pay, albeit with a professed bleeding heart.
As I turned to leave with the group, I noticed a glint of light in the dirt. I dipped my fingers into the earth and withdrew a brass bullet casing, dented inward, perhaps by the heel of a soldier’s boot, a soldier my age (24) or even more likely younger. This bullet casing sits beside my bed now in Jerusalem, though the body of its victim may rest six feet under.