In the kibbutzes, ammunition boxes and shells are stacked among rosemary and olive trees. Barbed wire and groups of soldiers guard the entrances. “Press? Park on the side and wait.” It is a day of preparations near the Gaza Strip; the Israeli troops are ready. Alarms sound several times during the day, a sign that Hamas still has rockets to fire. The soldiers can’t take the delay anymore – they’ve been waiting for days for the moment when they’ll be ordered into action. For now, in the military encampments, the only thing they’re killing is time.
Packs of soldiers are walking among the armored vehicles a few kilometers from Gaza, near the kibbutz of Zikim, the closest to the border. We try to make our way to the marina and are stopped by some Special Forces soldiers: they don’t have the usual slovenly bearing of regular troops, they’re equipped to the teeth and defending a strategic position. On Saturday, near Zikim, Hamas militiamen reportedly tried an attack from the sea that ended in bloodshed. Now, the coast from Ashkelon to the Gaza border is patrolled by a flotilla with the blue and white flag and the Star of David. “What are you looking for?” they ask us menacingly. “Nothing. Press.” “You’re not allowed to be here, go away!”
Five minutes away, from the height of the highway, we see an encampment of an infantry division. Armored vehicles, mostly self-propelled – the same ones that Ukraine had asked for so insistently from its Western allies – are neatly arrayed in rows of six, framed by infantry tents. “This is your last warning!” shouts a policeman we’ve never seen before from the other side of the roadway. “Don’t take photos and leave, now!”
In spite of that one cowboy and his threatening tone, the Israeli military doesn’t look uneasy at the presence of reporters. In no war would an army deploy a whole division of troops and vehicles in such plain sight. This means that they’re not afraid of the enemy’s possible attacks. They trust that their weapons can’t harm them, or that there’s a ubiquitous shield that can protect them: the famous Iron Dome, which was supposed to protect Israeli civilians from air raids and instead proved so flawed last Saturday. Now it’s working: nothing is reaching the ground in Ashkelon, or in Sderot. But Sderot is a ghost town. Hamas had told Israeli civilians to evacuate by Sunday, and the civilians have gone. There are only military on the streets and a few holes created by Quassam rockets. Small holes, smaller than those left behind by the old Russian Grads in the Donbass, but no less deadly. “There were two wounded and one dead here on Saturday,” explains Dan, a Phalasha (Ethiopian-born) soldier stationed with the 969th brigade now manning Sderot.
A little distance away, the soldiers are restless. They can’t wait any longer. “Are you about to attack?” we ask. They laugh, as if to say that they’re not going to reveal their plans in response to such a deceptively innocent question. But they’re starting to get nervous. Every now and then, someone puts on some music and groups of military men form, dancing in circles with their arms intertwined at their shoulders and shouting choruses. What are they saying? “Nothing…” says the interpreter. We insist. “That Gaza will be destroyed.” Later, a video starts circulating online in which Israeli settlers are dancing and chanting “Gaza will be a cemetery.” The chorus sounds similar, but the interpreter won’t confirm and we don’t speak Hebrew. In any event, we don’t know what they’re waiting for. We can’t know whether pressure from the UN, which said evacuating 1.5 million people from the Gaza Strip was “practically impossible,” or from the U.S. – which, through President Biden, has said that it wants to safeguard the lives of innocent Palestinian civilians – have had any effect. But it appears unlikely.
In the early afternoon, Prime Minister Netanyahu, the hated figure who “allowed this to happen,” as many here in Israel say, visited troops near Be’eri and Kfar Azza, where the bodies of a number of massacred civilians were found a few days ago. As seen in a video on Twitter, he had this to say to the military: “The next phase is coming. We are all ready.”
Some military personnel we meet tell us it’s essential to knock down the buildings in northern Gaza first before entering by land. “We cannot allow our infantry to be targeted by Hamas snipers,” they explain. That’s supposedly why they’ve been bombing for days; with no regard to the fact that lives upon lives are being destroyed with those buildings. “The terrorists must be stopped” is the slogan being repeated everywhere.
Religion is also playing a role in this conflict, which is, as Seth explains to me, first and foremost “a clash of civilizations.” In the camps, at checkpoints and even at gas stations, we see soldiers getting help putting on tefillin around their arms or small groups praying from a booklet with Torah verses distributed before the big mobilization.
Someone tells us, confidentially, that it could be a combined-arms attack: special divisions from the sea and from the air (some of the troops Netanyahu met with were in fact paratroopers), with the goal of distracting the defenders and allowing the tanks to enter quickly from the north of the Gaza Strip.
Wherever we go, no one seems to be contemplating any alternative to “exemplary collective punishment.” So it must be, so it will be.
It’s the last hurrah for Netanyahu, the premier whom everyone here is accusing of not doing enough or doing everything wrong, depending on who we’re talking to. A politician who “lost his way after 15 years in power, who recently has spent more time trying to avoid his trial than running the country,” says David, a lieutenant colonel.
But “it’s not the time.” Another slogan. It’s not the time to protest, despite family members of the abductees calling for “bringing them home,” braving Tel Aviv’s evening rain. It’s not the time, despite a year of protests against a reform that has turned the state of Israel into an “empty democracy” in which the executive aims to control the judiciary. It’s not the time, despite nine hostages that died in a raid by Israeli special forces on Friday night. Now is the time for blood.
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