Planes, Flames and Bangs from the Sky

"On the ground" in Gaza is a difficult place to be when death keeps falling from the sky.

Gazan residents survey the wreckage of what used to be Hamas official Jamal Al-Dalou's family home. Their building was damaged in the same missile attack.

Just north of Erez, on the Israeli side of the checkpoint into Gaza, I'm welcomed by some Israeli soldiers. They are yelling at me because they want me to stand in a ditch. My friendly cab driver has dropped me off there with a pack of other journalists and we're all waiting to be escorted to the checkpoint, amid the sound of the rocket sirens that warn of incoming fire. The soldiers tell us that the ditch is the safest place to be, but given that I'm standing in a spot I can't move from as missiles fly over my head, it doesn’t feel that way.

A disturbingly cheerful general turns up to give us instructions, throwing in a rumour that's been circulating about Hamas preventing journalists and NGO workers from leaving. “So you know, we can get you in, but it’s not up to us when you get out.” We pile into cars, tripods and flak jackets on our laps, and are driven to the checkpoint.

Israel has a complex system of missile defence, including bomb shelters and the star of the show, the Iron Dome; a system designed to pinpoint incoming rockets and blow them out of the sky. You wouldn’t know this, though, from the way the border staff and soldiers react to the rocket siren suddenly going off when we arrive at Erez. Cue much panicking and flapping of hands, as they shout frantically at us to run inside the building. Once inside, we have to sign waiver forms – essentially the IDF's get-out clause from taking responsibility for any journalist in Gaza who might stray too close to one of their bombs. Which, in the most densely populated place on Earth, is quite a waiver.

But sign we do, before lining up to squeeze ourselves through a kind of giant, metal and Perspex passport control booth. The woman at the checkpoint tells me, “I just think you’re so brave”, which makes me want to politely ask her if she can have a word with one of her compatriots about stopping the bombs that have been raining down on Gaza since Wednesday.

An ambulance driver waits for the last two bodies to be pulled from the wreckage of Al-Dalou's home.

Once I'm through the checkpoint, I arrive in front of a stern looking man seated on a plastic chair who may or may not be in the mood to give me a passport stamp. Hamas make things notoriously difficult for visiting journalists, as each person has to have a Gazan resident on the other side to pull the strings and "prove" that you’re not a spy. After a few panicky phone calls, a pair of cheerful Palestinian men, Mohamd and Fady, arrive to collect me, and they deal with the plastic chair man with a lot of shouting and waving of hands. My Arabic is OK, but if I’d known that kind of thing was so effective, I definitely would've added it to my vocabulary earlier.

Stood at the checkpoint, the noise of drones buzzes endlessly overhead. I watch lines of UN-marked cars and Medecins Sans Frontieres vehicles leave, seemingly disproving the rumours about Hamas not letting people out. Suddenly there's a loud thunderclap noise: the Israelis are bombing the road that leads from the checkpoint into Gaza City. I somehow end up grabbing Mohamd’s hand as I jump, giving me just the air of professional calm that I aspire to.

We get in the car. “You know what to do, Mohamd: fast, fast, fast,” says Fady. Mohamd hits the gas and we drive full-pelt to the end of the street, at which point the car stops and everyone lights a cigarette to celebrate our departure from a zone frequently targeted in Israeli airstrikes, as Gazan militants often use it as a base for firing rockets. We drive through the mostly deserted streets, the only people out those who're leaving their homes for essentials.

Mohamd and Fady drop me off with some friends, who take me to Al-Quds hospital in Gaza City. Dr Khalil Abu Foul, the Director of the Palestine Red Crescent Service, tells us that they’re running short on supplies. “An average case requires six different kinds of treatment, which means you can use up a month’s supplies in a week,” he tells us.

The effort to pull bodies from the rubble of Jamal Al Dalou's family home. The Hamas official was out at the time, but 11 members of his family were killed in the targeted attack.

When we return home, we learn that the house of a Hamas official, Jamal Al Dalou has been targeted in the single largest strike since the Gaza crisis began – 11 members of the same family have been killed, though not the Hamas official himself, who was out at the time. We go to survey the damage, watching local residents and emergency services comb the rubble with two enormous diggers to try to find the last two bodies trapped inside. Suddenly there is a shout and everyone piles forward to try to direct the digger.

We climb through the piles of rubble, bits of wire and concrete interspersed with bits of what had previously been a three-storey family home, to watch the ambulances lining up to take the bodies to the hospital. There is no expectation that anyone will be pulled out even close to alive. As we turn down to face the street, we see that people are looking upwards to the sky and have started to run – not a good sign. The residents of another house just a few hundred metres away from the Al Dalou’s have just received a text from the IDF telling them that their home is about to be targeted. The area is crowded with people and emergency services, so it’s hard for everyone to run – and many can’t, as they are still working on the first house. We tear through the streets looking for a cab, trying to avoid any roads that might get the blowback of the explosion. I later find out that the attack never came, but the text itself was enough to terrify people into a state of trauma.

As night falls, the thuds begin. We listen to the noise of Israeli warships firing inland from the Gaza coast, apparently the standard Gaza lullaby. There is nowhere to hide, so the best people can do is take shelter in their homes and hope they’re not seen as a target. Israel claims it’s targeting Hamas officials or militants, but in the most densely populated area on Earth, the casualties have been mostly civilian.

Follow Ruth on Twitter: @_Ms_R

Images courtesy of Ruth Michaelson/Transterra Media

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