Why again? Why now? I hate wars! Is it a part of our lives forever? Those were the questions I had in mind on my way south to Kibbutz Tequma where a rocket sent from the Gaza Strip had landed in Aryeh Lazar's living room.
© Ilan Mizrahi/WpN
An Israeli girl from the city of Sderot cries after a Qasam rocket attack on her city in southern Israel, Dec. 30, 2008.
It has been more than two years since the last time I wrote a dispatch for The Digital Journalist
about my photographs in the Israel-Hezbollah war and many things have changed around here since then. That war was the first time Israelis had the impression that they had lost a war to an Arab enemy – not a real army as much as a terror organization. In addition, Hezbollah gained power in Lebanon and kept threatening Israel, another insult to the Israeli side.
The goals presented by the Israeli government in the beginning of the second Lebanon war weren't achieved by the end of it. In 2008, Israel had to exchange hundreds of Lebanese and Palestinians prisoners to release the bodies of two Israeli soldiers who were kidnapped and killed by the Hezbollah.
The conclusions from the 2006 war were clear. The Israelis forgot to prepare themselves for the war with Hezbollah as a result of 41 years of local clashes with the Palestinians that kept the Israeli army busy. Meanwhile, Israel got ready for the next round against its Arab enemy, to save her honor and deterrence.
On the southern front of Israel, the conflict with Hamas never really stopped. More than 8,250 rockets had landed on Israeli cities surrounding the Gaza Strip since 2001. Now, with Hamas in power in the Gaza Strip and the six-month cease-fire with Israel at an end, it was obvious that any provocation by the Hamas side would drag Israel into war. It was also the run-up to elections in both Israel and Gaza, which made the time a fertile ground for war. The Hamas launched rockets on Israeli cities killing a few citizens and Israel immediately reacted in a quick blow on Hamas in the Gaza Strip, to prove that the country was ready and strong.
© Ilan Mizrahi/WpN
A shell-shocked woman at a psychological trauma room after a rocket landed next to her in the town of Sderot, in southern Israel, Dec. 30, 2008.
The IDF (Israel Defense Force) declared the Gaza Strip a closed military zone and prevented journalists from getting close to the battles. So, we had to cover the conflict from the Israeli side that was under rocket attacks. After three days of fighting, we all knew that this war would be much different than the previous one: less casualties on the Israeli side because residents were living their daily lives close to bomb shelters, and no more close-up pictures of the army or the battles. All that was left for us to photograph was the daily life of the Israeli civilians hiding from the rockets and getting to the rocket sites right after explosions.
One evening in the city of Sderot, we heard the "Red Alert" sirens and ran to the bomb shelter. When we returned back to safe mode, I heard one foreign TV journalist say that when she had lived in Iraq, she had been "less frightened because in Iraq there were no sirens before a rocket attack. If the rocket falls on you, you will know! But here in Sderot, you need to run in panic with only 15 seconds until the explosion, a few times a day – this is a nightmare." For me as an Israeli photojournalist, re-entering the rocket range is part of my work. But seeing the people living here, little kids and their parents panicking five times a day for the last eight years, is really sad and frustrating.
I called my dear friend Yehuda Peretz, who works as a cameraman for Reuters TV, and asked him if he had a spare place in his car for me. Yehuda has lived in Sderot for his entire life and all the people of Sderot know him and respect him. I joined Yehuda and we drove to photograph people sleeping in the bomb shelters in the nearby city of Netivot. When we got there we saw people standing in line for the buses that would take them to a safer place. Yehuda was interviewing a man on the street waving goodbye to his two little daughters who were throwing kisses to him through the window of the bus. Yehuda's pager and mobiles suddenly woke up and shook Yehuda all over. He started to shout, "To the car, Ilan, fast, rocket attack on Be'er Sheva."
Yehuda pushed his foot on the gas pedal and got the car to its maximum speed. While driving he made 10 phone calls with three mobiles, one in each hand and one on the car-phone – more than that, he checked his beeper each and every time that a message arrived. I offered to read him the messages so we wouldn't crash into a tree or run over someone, but he was in his full adrenalin ecstasy, like a junkie on heroin. Yehuda built his career under the Qasam rocket attacks and needs this craziness more than any war photographer I ever knew. Sitting in Yehuda's car will make any journalist feel like a king when getting to a scene. No one tries to stop Yehuda on his way and we got directly to the spot and started photographing two steps away from where we parked. On the other hand, being in his car was much more dangerous and stressful for me than any Hamas rocket flying over our heads.
© Ilan Mizrahi/WpN
Netivot residents evacuate the city that is under rocket attacks by Hamas militants from the Gaza Strip, Netivot, Israel, Dec. 30, 2008.
We got to an empty kindergarten, photographing the damage from the rocket and considered what could have been if the rockets had fallen in the morning when all the kids were in class. When we returned to the car, Yehuda called his sister in Be'er Sheva to check on how her little kids reacted during the sirens. I felt bad for my friend Yehuda and his family because the war has been part of their daily life for the last eight years, and tomorrow night I will return to my family where it's safe.
The next day in Sderot, the circus had arrived: journalists from all over the world arrived in Israel to cover the war. I finished the day and returned home knowing that there is no market for pictures from the Israeli side. The world asked to see the real war pictures from the Palestinian side. As expected, by the fourth day of the war the international community was already blaming Israel for being the bad boy. The live TV footage from the Gaza Strip showed massive destruction and the Palestinians suffering the loss of more than 200 dead Hamas fighters and innocent civilians.
The difference in the numbers of dead people and the photographs from Gaza will be the only subject people will talk about. Unfortunately, the issue of the "right of a country to defend itself from terror attacks" will be ignored and will stay the problem of Israel and for that the hatred toward Israel will increase worldwide.
In Israel we also see the footage from the Gaza Strip every day and feel terrible about innocent people being killed. The problem for Israel is that Hamas uses Palestinian civilians as human shields and shoots rockets from the populated compounds as UNRWA's buildings and thereby drag the Israeli army into the trap of shooting back at the launching areas and killing innocent people. Hamas has the power to change this catastrophe on both sides by stopping the rocket launches and giving up their crazy dream of eliminating Israel. The West Bank was relatively quiet during the war because The Palestinian Authority of the Fatah Party and the Israeli government are trying to reach a final peace agreement.
© Ilan Mizrahi/WpN
Teenage girl hanging out in the Jewish community in Nitzan, on Jan. 18, 2009. The residents of Nitzan were expelled from the Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip in August 2005. A cease-fire has been tentatively agreed to on Jan. 18 between Hamas and Israel.
On the 22nd day of war, the Israeli government announced a unilateral cease-fire after many areas in the Gaza Strip were destroyed and 1,300 Hamas fighters and civilians were killed in the fights.
The next day I returned to the South where it was supposed to be safe by now. I arrived at Nitzan and photographed the Jewish ex-residents of the Gaza Strip who were expelled from their houses by the Israeli government in 2005. Their new prefab houses are not safe from the rockets, so the government brought them big sewage pipes to hide in during rocket attacks. Suddenly a siren broke the silence and everyone came out running from their houses into the sewage pipes. "Where is the cease-fire?" they asked me in this surreal situation. Those poor people lost their houses for peace and now they find themselves under rocket attacks from their old neighbors in the Gaza Strip.
On my way back home while being stuck for hours in traffic due to the visits of the European leaders that came to Jerusalem to support the cease-fire, I had a long time to think about the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit who is still in the Hamas dungeon for three years and another war. I also wondered, "Did Israel really lose the second Lebanon war in 2006?" Well, I think, if Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah is still hiding in his bunker and chose not to participate in this war maybe Israel did succeed to a certain point but needed the war against Hamas in 2008 to prove it.
The defeated Hamas agreed to the cease-fire and today Israel and the rest of the western world are waiting for Hamas to recognize Israel as an autonomous state and as a partner for peace, as Fatah, led by Abu Mazen, chose to do.
I hope the next time I'm asked to write a dispatch for The Digital Journalist, it won't be about war, but about the benefit of living in peace in the Middle East.