Fifteen-year-old Ahmed al-Haytham ran a rubble-strewn gauntlet to reach the mosque in Gaza City’s Tuffah neighborhood where overnight Israeli missile fire had torn up the road from his father’s grocery store.
Two miles east across the border, Lee Ben-Yaakov, 13, stood on Nov. 15 with five friends on a fifth-floor rooftop of Israel’s Kibbutz Be’eri, counting plumes of smoke and cheering when they saw a Palestinian Qassam rocket blown to bits in mid-air by Israel’s Iron Dome anti-ballistic missiles.
“We always go to Friday prayers, but it’s pretty terrifying to walk in the streets now because we could get killed,” al-Haytham said yesterday in an interview on Nekhel Street, which was littered with chunks of cement and fallen palm trees. Ben-Yaakov said it was “pretty scary” a few hours before when one of the Palestinian rockets had landed about 10 yards from their kibbutz gas station pumps.
The teenagers have little experience of anything but simmering conflict along the border and now violence is escalating to levels last seen in the previous Israeli assault on the Hamas-controlled coastal strip in 2008.
Al-Haytham spoke during a lull in the air war as Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil came to inspect the damage and offer support in a meeting with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. In Tel Aviv, 45 miles away, air-raid sirens sounded for a second day and an explosion was heard in the city.
Israel has been pummeling the coastal territory since killing Hamas militia leader Ahmed al-Jabari on Nov. 14 in an aerial assault, which came after Palestinians fired hundreds of rockets into southern Israel.
Outside Sderot, a town of 20,000 that has long been the favorite target of Gaza rocket launchers, traffic was backed up. Massive Merkava tanks and armored personnel carriers were being brought down on trailers toward the Gaza border.
Be’eri was the staging ground almost four years ago where Israeli tanks idled for days in cold mud and diesel vapors before crossing the Kissufim gate and rolling into Gaza.
Clusters of army officers could be seen Nov. 15 walking through the kibbutz with maps, drawing up contingency plans for protecting its 1,000 residents and mounting a potential ground assault on Gaza. “All options are on the table,” army spokeswoman Avital Leibovich said that day.
The ground assault launched on Gaza in December 2008 left more than 1,100 Palestinians and 12 Israelis dead. This week, 29 Palestinians have died, while three Israelis were killed.
“My parents don’t want me in the street most of the time so I stand with my sisters and brothers on the windows,” said al-Haytham, dressed in jeans and a plain yellow T-shirt.
Few of Be’eri’s kibbutzniks are leaving in the face of renewed fire from Gaza, having weathered worse, according to its secretary-general, Amit Solvy.
“There are going to be three or 10 days of war, then some kind of agreement with Hamas and we’ll wait for the next round,” Solvy, 59, said, speaking near the children on the rooftop of a digital printing business owned by the kibbutz.
The community, whose farmland stretches to the Gaza fence, was established in 1946, two years before the founding of Israel as a Jewish state. Amid the hundreds of palm trees, ivy and bougainvillea vines crawl up the walls of Be’eri’s 400 neat family cottages, each of which is fitted with a bomb shelter.
Tatiana Kostuvkovek, a guard hired from an outside security business, had just taken her posting at 6 a.m. beside the fortified yellow kibbutz gate when the Palestinian rocket fell with a thud near the gas station.
Missed by Meters
“It would definitely have been over for me if the rocket hit just a few meters closer to the pumps,” Kostuvkovek, a mother of three and immigrant from Belarus, said in an interview. “My daughter is so scared she won’t come out of the shelter” at their house in nearby Netivot.
As recently as last month, there was relative calm in Gaza. Qatar’s Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani visited Gaza on Oct. 23, the first head of state to do so since Hamas, labeled a terrorist group by the U.S., took over in 2007.
While Israelis are on edge at Be’eri and similar communities abutting Gaza, the fear among Palestinians is more palpable in line with the wide gap in casualties.
“We watch the smoke of the airstrikes and listen to the bombs,” said al-Haytham.