It isn’t safe to move around Gaza at night. And so every evening we retire to our 16th floor office and run from window to window to window, north to east to south, to watch the strikes. In the morning, we’ll go see where the strikes landed. Then we’ll go to Shifa hospital to see the dead and dying.
If we absolutely have to travel at night, we try to limit our movement to the times immediately before or after Suhoor and Iftar, the early morning and evening meals during Ramadan. That's the calmest time, and the time when the most people are out in the street. If we find ourselves out after night falls, we stay put until morning. Undertaking a one-block drive after dark requires a 15-minute debate. If we decide to do it, we turn the hazards on and drive slow.
I ask our fixer on one of our first nights there, Is it safe here? We ask him the same question repeatedly as the days go on. He always gives the same answer. “Nowhere is safe in Gaza.” Then he laughs.
* * *
There are lulls for hours, though the noise of drones is ever present. The quiet is more unsettling than the bombs. We learn to tell the naval strikes from those of the drones and the F-16s and the tanks. Still, sometimes we can't tell if it's a strike, or just a sonic boom, or even a dud. We can’t always see the strike. But we can always hear it.
The first night of our first trip to Gaza, two weeks ago, we get to bed at about 4:30am. At 6, two loud explosions shake me awake. There isn't much to do but roll over and hide behind the bed. After a few minutes I go to the window to check it out. I have a problem with going to windows during strikes. Our fixer has to keep telling me to back away.
He then catches me smoking a cigarette very late one night on a fire escape, 16 stories above the street. "In the dark, the red light of the cigarette looks like a sniper scope, especially up here," he says.
I stop smoking nighttime cigarettes on fire escapes and in front of windows.
'When I am sad, I want to go to the bar. But there are no bars, so everyone goes to the mosque.'
In the morning and early afternoons, we drive around and stop at some of the destroyed buildings and homes. There are probably rockets stored at or fired from some of them. There are probably not rockets stored at or fired from some of them. We ask people nearby why certain buildings were hit, but rarely does anyone provide an answer.
Sometimes when we hear a strike hit, we make it to the building in time to see bodies being pulled out. Then we go to Shifa hospital to watch the dead and maimed being brought in.
Even before the ground offensive starts, Gazans tell us this is worse than in 2012. They say it is because the border with Egypt is now closed, so there is nothing coming in — no supplies, no food, no medicine. They curse Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Aside from a spokesman I interview at Shifa hospital, Hamas is an invisible presence. They are all in hiding or underground, or fighting in neighborhoods like Shejaiya. Local journalists say we will never get an honest answer about Hamas from residents; Hamas is feared. We’re told that before the current conflict began, people were fed up with Hamas. That no longer appears to be the case.
* * *
After a while, we get somewhat used to the constant explosions. But sometimes a door slams and I jump.
The humor gets dark. Two weeks ago a strike kills a man in a park called Barcelona. Some local journalists tell us they think the pilot was a Real Madrid fan.
The second time we enter Gaza, I run into a Gazan man I’ve come to know well. He tells me that four days before, his young daughter was watching a news report from Tel Aviv. She saw people on the beach and told him, “I want to go there.” He told her she couldn’t and she demanded to know why.
“What am I supposed to say to her?” he asks me. “You don’t give a chance for peace, man! I am a man for peace, I want to talk about peace, but the Israelis are not giving us even a 1 percent chance to talk about peace. I am pushing myself not to hate the Israelis.”
A few days later he tells me, "[Gazans] lost hope. Give them some hope, everything will change. They don’t have theaters, they don’t have gardens, they don’t have clubs for kids, they don't have bars — they have nothing. All they have is Gaza."
I ask him, isn’t this also the fault of Hamas?
“Hamas are using this, you understand?” he responds. “They use this to have the people supporting [them]. When I am sad, I want to go to the bar. But there are no bars, so everyone goes to the mosque!”
* * *
We go to Salam Tower the morning after the residential complex is struck. At least 11 people have been killed; the building has partially collapsed. When we arrive, rescuers are still trying to pull a body out of the rubble.
At the site of another strike, a man puts something into a plastic bag. At first I have trouble seeing what it is; it looks like a wig. When I get a better look, I realize it's not a wig.
We are at an apartment complex with shops on the ground floor, and the rubble is still smoking. There are no casualties, just a few wounded. Twenty-four apartments have been destroyed. I meet a middle-aged man named Muhammad who speaks fluent English. He tells me he is from Shejaiya, the leveled neighborhood that has become Gaza's fiercest battleground.
He took his family from Shejaiya to this complex, near the seaport and hotels housing foreign journalists, because he thought it would be safe. When I ask him where he will go now, he tells me he and his family have nowhere to go but the streets. Then he starts to cry.
The rockets are in retaliation for the strike — or will the next strike be retaliation for these rockets? It’s hard to tell.
While we are here, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) releases a statement saying that Hamas rockets were being stored in an abandoned school. This is their second such statement in a week.
When there is nothing else to cover and it isn’t safe to venture far, we go to Shifa hospital. It is crowded always, with people there to watch ambulances arrive or to simply seek safety. Displaced people set up shop in the courtyard. Dozens of journalists jockey for position to get shots of casualties being brought in.
“Oh, they’re from that building? The strike we saw an hour ago?”
At the morgue in Shifa, bodies are stacked on top of each other in the freezers. There are unbearable scenes of people trying to identify loved ones, opening up the freezers and pulling back the white plastic sheets. When they recognize someone, the wailing starts. Old men make sounds I’ve never heard before and never want to hear again.
* * *
The power goes out every night in our office building. We have a generator that powers the floor we're on, but when the elevator stops working we take the stairs down 16 flights. Near the 8th or 9th floor there are a few families who live in the hallway next to the elevators, and we try not to make too much noise because the children are fast asleep on mats placed on the ground. We are told one of their relatives has an office here.
Sometimes when we are outside a building that has recently been struck by an Israeli bomb or shell, we see half a dozen rockets streaking across the sky toward Israel. It is retaliation for the strike — or will the next strike be retaliation for these rockets? It’s hard to tell.
Back on the 16th floor, we smoke cigarettes — away from any darkened windows — and watch the night light up with flares. Sometimes we watch television during the lulls. On Palestinian channels, Hamas leaders claim important strategic victories on the ground and say they will never back down. On Israeli channels, Israeli leaders claim important strategic victories and say they will never back down.
In the morning, we will go look at more destroyed buildings. Then we will head to the hospital, and hear the stories of the new corpses.
Follow Danny Gold on Twitter: @DGisSERIOUS