Sitting in our apartment in Jerusalem watching TV one evening, we see a report that shows beautiful multi-colored balloons floating in the skies over the Israeli towns in the Gaza region. A birthday party? A celebration of a national holiday? Suddenly, the balloons drop from the sky, causing flash fires in many of these towns. This new tactic, combined with the frequent barrage of rocket attacks from Gaza, has become the new reality in this region.
Hamas paints Israel as a terrorist society that controls the lives of the Palestinians of Gaza. Hamas characterizes the Gazans as poor, innocent people who live in squalor with limited water, electricity, food, and access to medicine and freedom. Their movements are restricted, and the importation of goods is strictly controlled by Israel. The BDS movement in part is in retaliation for the inhumane treatment of the Gaza Palestinians by Israel.
What is the true story? Is Israel an aggressive, fascist country, or are the Palestinians of Gaza terrorists? As an American Jew, I tend to side with the Israelis. As a liberal, I believe that all people should have control over the quality of their lives.
In late November 2019, soon before the Covid 19 lockdown, I was in Israel with my wife on a vacation combined with some Jewish National Fund meetings. I had to go to Gaza and see for myself, but how? The Gaza border clearly is not open to tourists or even to Israeli citizens as the potential danger is not predictable. My good friend Tiran Attia is a former lieutenant colonel in the tank command. Maybe he can make arrangements and take me there. Tiran makes a few calls and tells me to meet him near the border on Friday at 1:30.
My drive from our apartment in Jerusalem to Gaza is tense. As a former photojournalist, I see visions of a Pulitzer Prize floating in the windshield. Most importantly, I need to see and hopefully get a better picture of what is going on in Gaza. Pulling up on the side of the highway, I follow Tiran past IDF guard posts occupied by heavily armed soldiers. We park in an open area no more than a few hundred yards from the border with Gaza. On the horizon, there are many low-rise and high-rise apartment buildings.
Tiran points out the high-rise on the far right. It houses the leadership of Hamas and other powerful Palestinians, he says. Those leaders have water and electricity 24/7, but everyone else in those buildings gets those basics only a few hours a day. The Hamas propaganda machine blames the Israelis for limiting access to water and electricity, but clearly, if that were the case, it would be true for everyone in all the buildings. This is an obvious attempt to intensify the hatred that average Palestinians feel toward Israelis.
It seems clear to me that the Palestinians are suffering, but it is at the hands of their own leadership.
Israeli soldiers who look like high school students are lounging around smoking cigarettes, cleaning their weapons, and having a pre-Shabbat lunch. Amazingly, they tell me they are not afraid and believe it is their duty to be there. They let me photograph them with no reservations. The only rule is no photos of the IDF snipers. They look far too young and innocent to be snipers.
I wander over to the tanks and get into a conversation with the crews. Tiran tells me that Friday after 3 o’clock is when the Palestinians, fresh out of afternoon prayer, start burning tires and attacking the border fence. As I am photographing the tanks with their crews, the soldiers suddenly jump inside the tanks and take off with the speed of race cars heading to the border fence. The smell of burning rubber permeates the air. We can hear yelling and see people attacking outposts on the border fence.
I shout out, “Tiran, I need to get closer to the fence. Let’s get in the car quickly.” The friendly soldiers stop us on a dime, yelling “Turn around and get the f—- out of here now!” As we drive away, I look back and pray that sense would come to the leadership of both sides.
Fast forward a few months. I’m back at home in New Jersey when my phone rings. It is Tiran, asking me if I saw the news report about a military bus that was blown up by rockets near the Gaza border. Of course I saw it, I say. Tiran goes on to tell me that the bus was at the spot where we had stood next to our parked car.
Bruce Pomerantz of Alpine is the immediate past president and board chairman of JNF of Northern New Jersey and Rockland County.