Spending Christmas and New Year in the Holy Land was to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But in December of 2008, there was little to celebrate in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. As I landed on Christmas Day, tension between Israel and Hamas had escalated to the point where an official declaration of war was imminent. Many had expected Israel to respond to Hamas rocket fire with military force sooner than it did.
Two days after Christmas, Israel began its Operation Cast Lead.
My main purpose for traveling to the region was to research the proposed Red-Dead canal project - a joint effort by Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority to construct (after considering a feasibility study) a 112-mile canal and tunnel system from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. The project aimed to alleviate the region's water crisis and revive the Dead Sea. My schedule included stops in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Ramallah and the Dead Sea shore in Ein Gedi. But the outbreak of war in Gaza necessitated a visit to the Israeli-Gaza border first.
The Israeli-Gaza Border and Hamas Rockets
Hamas rocket fire steadily increased during 2008. According to GlobalSecurity.org, Hamas fired a total of 1,750 rockets into Israel that year. Another 771 rockets and mortars were reportedly fired at southern Israeli cities such as Sderot and Ashkelon during the three-week operation.
In the months leading up to the military offensive, Israel kept journalists out of the Gaza Strip. In November of 2008, major media organizations including CNN, BBC, the Associated Press and Reuters, among others, sent a letter to then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, demanding that Israel allow reporters to cover the conflict from within Gaza. Israel blamed it on security concerns.
|Timeline of events between November 2008 and January 2009, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.|
Nov. 5, 2008
Without any prior notification to media organizations,
|Nov. 19||Heads of major media organizations including CNN, BBC, the Associated Press and Reuters, among others, sent a letter to then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, demanding that Israel allow reporters to cover the conflict from within Gaza.|
|Nov. 24||The Foreign Press Association in Israel (FPA) petitioned Israel's Supreme Court asking it to rule on the legality of the ban.|
|Nov. 25||The Supreme Court ordered the government to respond to the FPA's inquiry within 15 days. The government failed to meet that deadline.|
|Dec. 27||Israeli defense officials imposed extensive "closed military zones" inside Gaza and throughout a two-mile strip around its perimeter.|
|Dec. 31||The Supreme Court ruled that the government must grant 12 journalists entry into Gaza each time the Erez Crossing on the northern end of the strip was opened. The government failed to respond to the Court's decision.|
|Jan. 2||The Court recommended on Jan. 2 that eight foreign journalists – two chosen by the defense ministry and six picked through a lottery – be granted access each time the Erez Crossing was opened.|
|Jan. 22||Israeli authorities granted access to a total of eight journalists – far fewer than the number ordered by the Supreme Court.|
|Jan 23||Israel removed all the restrictions that it had put in place in early November.|
|Jan. 25||The Supreme Court issued a final ruling on the issue, overturning the blanket ban on the entry of foreign journalists and stating that reporters are to be granted access to Gaza "unless the security situation changes drastically in such a way that the Erez Crossing has to be closed completely for security reasons.|
On Dec. 28, I purchased a round-trip ticket to Ashkelon at the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station with the intent of reaching the Erez crossing. Seeing the equipment draped on my body, the man at the ticket counter smiled and asked "journalist?" I smiled and nodded, took my ticket and proceeded to the boarding platform.
There weren't too many passengers to Ashkelon but many of the ones on the bus were young men and women of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), probably in their early 20s (if not still teenagers). One by one, as they walked down the aisle to find a seat, their M16 rifles brushed against my shoulder. On this second visit to Israel and having become quite comfortable with public transport, the presence of so many guns on the bus had stopped attracting my attention.
The central bus stations in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are typically crowded with young Israeli soldiers, in their olive-green uniforms, either on their way to the frontlines or going home on leave.
In Ashkelon, residents were, for the most part, going about their day-to-day lives, though fearing the next Hamas rocket attack. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that Israel declared a two-mile area around the Gaza Strip "closed military zones" on Dec. 27. However, there was no visible barrier restricting access a day later. No checkpoints along the main roads and no major military presence on the streets. At that time, the mass influx of journalists had not taken place.
The Erez border crossing is roughly 10 miles from Ashkelon. The taxi driver agreed to drive me to the crossing and back. I decided I would cross over to Gaza if I was permitted but was fairly certain I would not be allowed.
As I approached the security terminal at Erez, a Palestinian woman and two children were seated on the bench waiting to cross over to Gaza. The guards, as expected, turned me away, and I returned to Ashkelon. As we were heading back - another rocket attack - this time in a residential neighborhood.
The rocket had landed in the middle of the street. No one was hurt this time. As a small group of local journalists gathered, an Israeli soldier spoke to me anonymously. He had just been called from the reserve - one of approximately 7,000 soldiers Israel called up when the Gaza war broke out. This soldier was forced to interrupt his master's degree program to serve in the army. He said he personally wished that Israel would not move into Gaza.
Welcoming New Year 2009 in the West Bank
After Ashkelon, the next stop was the West Bank city of Ramallah in the Palestinian Territory. Surprisingly, there was no checking at the border crossing, and I arrived by nightfall.
As I checked into my usual hotel near Al-Manara Square, I requested a room with a street view to keep an eye on the situation below. The atmosphere in the city was noticeably different from when I visited in 2006. There was little to celebrate as the New Year began.
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