Operation Hot Winter
April 2008

by Rafael Ben-Ari

After the Gaza-Egypt border breach by Hamas during an Israeli blockade of Gaza that began on January 23, 2008, after gunmen in the Gaza Strip set off an explosion near the Rafah Border Crossing, officials of the Israeli internal security forces, the Shin Bet, concluded that Palestinian militant groups had smuggled a large number of longer range missiles such as Katyushas and Grads into the Strip. These missiles are capable of reaching Ashkelon, a city of 120,000, six times as large as the rocket-battered town of Sderot and located 25 km (about 16 miles) NW on the Mediterranean.

© Rafael Ben-Ari/Chameleons Eye
A family in Ashkelon, Israel, protects themselves under their stairs as the "red" warning siren sounds, warning citizens about the attacks of Grad-type missiles on Sunday, March 2, 2008.
A month later, on February 27, 2008, Hamas, the Popular Resistance Committees and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad carried out a rocket barrage in which they fired six Grad missiles (their range is about 10 km farther than Katyushas) for the first time at the industrial city of Ashkelon. While only a few people were lightly injured, the attack had a profound psychological impact that caused the Israeli government to stop sitting on the sidelines and instead call for action.

As an Israeli photojournalist who's based in a settlement in an area surrounding Gaza Strip and not far from the coastal city of Ashkelon, it was an unusual weekend. Saturday is Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, and is a day traditionally devoted to peace and rest but it had turned out to be a small hell for Ashkelon and created a new reality in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

© Rafael Ben-Ari/Chameleons Eye
Damage to an apartment in Ashkelon, South Israel, directly hit by a Grad-type missile fired by militants from Gaza Strip on Monday, March 3, 2008.
I woke up on Saturday morning, having my early morning coffee at the new house my fiancée Claire and I had just moved into the day before. I was trying to make my way through piles of unpacked boxes out to the garden without spilling my cup of coffee when a powerful crashing sound broke the peaceful quiet of our new place. Several moments later my pager alarm went off and I heard that one Grad/Katyusha rocket had slammed into an apartment in Ashkelon city.

I got rid of my coffee and ran into the bedroom quickly, put on my rugged outdoor clothing and my sturdy working shoes. Then I went to the studio and picked up my standby photojournalism equipment that includes: two DSLR Pro camera bodies--Nikon D1x and Nikon D-200 and two lenses. One with AF wide-angle 17-50mm f-2.8 and the other with a telephoto 80-200mm, 2.8 zoom lens, along with Nikon's portable flash unit speedlight, four memory cards and spare batteries all placed and secured in the pouches of a street and field waistbelt. On my way out I picked up my combat helmet and my Press vest for protection from gunfire, small artillery and shrapnel. I did not forget my wallet that always contains some cash, credit cards, driver's license and my press card. I kissed my sleeping fiancée goodbye and ran out the main door as quickly as I could.

© Rafael Ben-Ari/Chameleons Eye
A Sderot resident is evacuated to Barzilai Hospital after being seriously hurt by a Kassam rocket in Sderot on Saturday, Feb. 9, 2008. Two other Sderot residents, brothers aged 8 and 19, were seriously wounded Saturday evening when a Qassam rocket struck the backyard of a home in the city. The two were rushed to Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon with the 8-year-old suffering serious wounds to the lower extremities. The boys' mother and another brother were brought to the hospital suffering from shock. The rocket that wounded the brothers was one of three that hit the rocket-weary city Saturday evening. Three additional rockets were fired into southern Israel earlier Saturday, causing no casualties or damage. The armed wing of the Islamic Jihad, Al-Quds Brigade, claimed responsibility for the Qassam attack. Also Saturday, the Israel Air Force targeted four Qassam rocket-launching squads in Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip, following a barrage of 30 rockets on Friday that pounded southern Israeli communities.
On the way to the city in my car I listened to the news over the radio and prepared myself for the worst scenario. When I got closer to the scene lots of shocked citizens where out in the street looking up at the building where the top-floor apartment was obliterated because of rocket damage. Rescue forces that had already arrived were very busy controlling the event and asking people to return to their homes and let the firefighters and paramedics climb up to the destroyed apartment in their search of casualties and unhurt tenants. I grabbed my cameras and gear belt from the car's front seat and rushed closer to the emergency site without interrupting the rescue forces' important work. The policemen who guarded the entrance to the building recognized me from other news events I covered recently in the area so I did not have to show my press card as I crossed the police line into the devastated building.

Luckily the resident of the apartment had left a day before so no one was injured but the damage was extensive. I took as many photos as I could for my national newspaper before the police forces asked the media to leave the scene because they needed to collect the remains of the rocket and send the pieces to the IDF Bomb Squad lab for further investigation to identify the exact rocket and its country of origin.

© Rafael Ben-Ari/Chameleons Eye
Angry Sderot residents light fires and block the main streets in protest against the govenment of Israel after two residents were seriously hurt by a Kassam rocket on Saturday, Feb. 9, 2008. Also Saturday, the Israel Air Force targeted four Qassam rocket-launching squads in Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip, following a barrage of 30 rockets on Friday that pounded southern Israeli communities. After the ensuing six-day IDF "Hot Winter" operation in the Gaza Strip, the forces withdrew from Gaza on Monday, ending a three-day offensive that left 112 Palestinians and 3 Israelis dead and 6 seriously wounded. During the fighting, the Israeli force collected weapons, Qassam launchers and arrested 70-80 Palestinians.
I had been busy since early morning photographing other rockets attacks all over Ashkelon City. That day at least 20 missiles were fired from Gaza at Ashkelon. By the evening, six civilians were wounded and a number of others suffered emotional shock in the attacks. Later in the day, one civilian was moderately wounded and two others were lightly injured in a rocket attack in the Ashkelon Marina Coastal Center. Several other people were treated for shock. All of the injured were taken to the City's hospital with shrapnel wounds. The Health Department ordered the hospital to transfer its maternity and neo-natal units to protected shelters. The Home Front Command instructed the Ashkelon municipality to open its public bomb shelters in order to allow residents to take cover once a "Red" alert sounded. In the news Ashkelon's Mayor Mahatzri said his city would be willing to pay for increased military pressure on the terrorists. After very strong protests, including the closing of the main roads by angry citizens, the Israeli prime minister and several other ministers vowed a tough response.

The next day the IDF started an operation to halt or at least decrease the rocket fire. "Operation Hot Winter," also called "Operation Warm Winter," was the name of an Israel Defense Forces' military campaign in the Gaza Strip launched on February 29, 2008 in response to Qassam and Katyusha rockets fired from the Strip by Hamas. At least 112 Palestinians and three Israelis have been killed as of this writing and more than 150 Palestinians and seven Israelis have injured. Since the operation the region is quiet until the next conflict between Israel and Hamas starts again and I will be called on duty to capture and document the unfinished Israeli-Arab conflict.

© Rafael Ben-Ari

Israeli photographer Rafael Ben-Ari became an on-location photographer in 1994 after receiving a Professional Photography Diploma from NYI and studying at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design Jerusalem. He then traveled the world to immerse himself in other cultures and various approaches to photojournalism. He has lived in England, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and in the U.S.A. Ben-Ari has covered news around the world and today he is based in Israel, covering news for Israeli magazines and newspapers, and working as a stringer for Xinhua photo wire news agency of China. His images and reportages are distributed and represented directly from his own Israel News Photo Agency – Chameleons Eye – and other foreign agencies such as Newscom, Zuma Press and zReportage.

See more of his images at: http://israelnews.chameleonseye.com. He can be contacted at: Rafael Ben-Ari: Photography Director, Photojournalist & On Location Photographer; Chameleons Eye – Assignment Photography & Israel Images: mailto:info@chameleonseye.com.

Visit his Web site www.chameleonseye.com.

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