May 16, 2024 | The Jerusalem Post

Notes from the Gaza border – 7 months on

Reporter's notebook: People here are still on edge and they wonder whether Israel will defeat Hamas. The promises of the war have not been fulfilled.
May 16, 2024 | The Jerusalem Post

Notes from the Gaza border – 7 months on

Reporter's notebook: People here are still on edge and they wonder whether Israel will defeat Hamas. The promises of the war have not been fulfilled.

At Café Greg in Sderot, the server recommends pasta with mushroom sauce. It’s a pleasant spring day, just waiting to become summer, and then it will be too hot to sit outside. For now, it’s just warm enough under the umbrellas. The parking lot in front of the coffee shop is about half full. This is a major change from only a few months ago when the city still felt like a ghost town.

Sderot has been on the front line against Hamas rockets for twenty years. It’s the most famous city on the front. However, since October 7 it has been only one of many communities that had to go through the fire of terror to emerge on the other side. Sderot was attacked by one of the many Hamas terrorist squads on October 7. Hamas murdered people in the streets – including elderly people waiting for a tour bus – and they targeted the police station.

I remember the first days of the war here when President Isaac Herzog came to Sderot and met with the mayor and the police, who had just suffered grievous casualties fighting the enemy. At the time, the demand was clear: Hamas must be destroyed and removed forever from Gaza.

Explosions continue

Now, seven months into the war, the rockets are still targeting Sderot. Hamas is no longer active directly across the border, but it still controls most of northern Gaza. From one of the high points in the city, there is construction of a new lookout area and a memorial. From here the fighting in Jabalya can be seen. Jabalya is a neighborhood of Gaza east of Gaza City that is near the border of Israel.

As of yesterday, May 16, the IDF’s 98th division had been fighting in Jabalya for several days. Five soldiers were killed by friendly fire and their names were announced yesterday morning as I arrived at the border. This is a reminder of the difficulty of the current war.

Smoke from the fighting in Jabalya could be seen throughout the day yesterday. It billowed out of buildings in the area where the fighting was; explosions could be heard from time to time. But in general, the area was quiet and there was no rocket fire.

Sderot feels like it has returned to normal. But things are not normal. A radio report said that the days of rocket fire this week meant half the people did not send their children to school on May 16.

People here are still on edge and they wonder whether Israel will defeat Hamas. The promises of the war have not been fulfilled. The claims of “there won’t be Hamas” have not come true. Hamas is still in Gaza. Hamas continues to fire rockets at this city and border communities.

While I was on the border, the resilient terrorist group targeted Nahal Oz and Kerem Shalom. Hamas is clearly still operating throughout Gaza. The IDF may be fighting in Jabalya and eastern Rafah, but everywhere the military leaves, Hamas returns. Hamas is likely recruiting as well and is coordinating with other terror groups to target the IDF – which doesn’t want to control static strong points throughout Gaza, so it conducts sweeps like it is doing in Jabalya, and then it leaves.

Along the border, the presence of the army is clear. Troops are ferried from place to place. Some are coming out from the fighting, some are going in. Tanks, Armored personnel carriers (APCs) and other machines of war churn up dust along the border. Trucks that carry the heavy D-9 bulldozers make their way along the border like mules.

I began my trip to the border by heading down to the community of Zikim. This pretty kibbutz was attacked on October 7, but the terrorists were held off at the fence by a security team. Now there is a new Star of David-shaped commemorative sign to one of the Israelis killed near here. I was at this same location on October 8, a day after the terrorists had been neutralized. The Savannah van the terrorists stole and used was still running that day. The bodies of two terrorists lay nearby.

Now, the road here is open and I drove down toward Zikim beach. Terrorists hit the beach as well on October 7 and then holed up in the underbrush and dunes nearby for several days. I traversed this in reverse to see what was happening seven months later. It’s quiet here, and the beach is still closed.

Nearby, toward Gaza, the new Western Erez crossing has been built not far from Zikim beach.

There is a new road that runs between several IDF facilities here. These areas were also attacked on October 7; now they are a hive of activity. The number of trucks going to the new entrance is not clear; from what I could see, it was just a few trucks per hour.

Further along the border, the entrance to the community of Netiv Ha’asara is now open again and all the signs have been repaired near here and near the older Erez crossing. A stray dog, pale and injured, was walking near the road. It is one of the many dogs from Gaza that entered Israel on October 7 and which residents say are now common in the area. Once the border fence was repaired, they became marooned in Israel. They wander the streets.

Everything is new down by the border these days. Each community has new investments in fences and security. There is a lot of digging and construction going on, to secure the area and refurbish roads and signs. Many of the bunkers that line the road near bus stops have also been repainted; the scars of war are gone. Near Alumim, one of these protected rooms is now festooned with stickers of the fallen and kidnapped. The people refuse to let the state just paint over the suffering.

In other areas, there are also commemorative memorials for those killed, and local civilians put up signs to remind people of the kidnapped still being held just a few miles away in Gaza. As I drove next to Kibbutz Sa’ad, a woman in a dark purple dress was putting up a large banner between the metal pylons of a road sign, at a median, commemorating the fallen and the hostages. When she was done, and as I made my way slowly through the roundabout nearby, she ran off to her car, to put up more signs.

In the fields there is activity. Some volunteers come by busload to help pick fruit and vegetables. The sunflowers are blooming. There are old signs reminding us that Avera Mengistu, Hisham Sayed, and the bodies of Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul are still being held in Gaza. Mengistu and Sayed have been held by Hamas for a decade, and abandoned in Gaza. The old signs reminding us of their fate are now joined by signs for the October 7 hostages, who have also been left in Gaza for seven months.

While the border is being refurbished and repainted, the memories of past failures to subdue Hamas and to bring people home from Gaza haunt the border – just as the billowing smoke from Jabalya reminds us of the seven-month, ongoing war.

Seth Frantzman is the author of Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machine, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future (Bombardier 2021) and an adjunct fellow at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Issues:

Israel Israel at War Military and Political Power