Published in The Jerusalem Post Metro edition
‘I come down here for every war,” said a burly man who walked with a slight limp. He was one of two men who had ambled over to a press lookout across from Kibbutz Sa’ad on Route 232 that overlooks a wheat field abutting the border of the Gaza Strip two and a half kilometers away. A half dozen press teams were there last Saturday night, as well as many others – people who had come to watch the war.
The burly man carried a small camera with a huge white Canon L-series 21-times magnification zoom telephoto lens. The lens was his pride as he asked the journalists, “What lens do you have?” Operation Protective Edge, which was launched on July 8 to thwart Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli cities, has brought out a diverse crowd of spectators to various communities surrounding the Gaza Strip. The phenomenon was immediately apparent on the first day of the operation at a lookout with the metal figure of a black horse next to it on Route 34 across from Sderot. Access to the lookout is via a gas station and a dirt road that leads to several large wooden steps. The lookout has a tree from which hangs a swing. Around noon, two yeshiva boys took turns on the swings, watching air strikes in Beit Hanun in the northeast Gaza Strip. It was surreal because the Arab houses are only several kilometers away, and mortars had landed in the vicinity of the lookout that morning.
Along with a team from Russian-language Israeli TV, two men from Ramle joined the crowd. “We heard the booms from the Iron Dome above our town and wanted to come down to see,” said Moti, whose family owns a garage. His friend had brought binoculars. But they seemed bored once they got to their destination. No explosions in Gaza; nothing to see really. Along with the yeshiva students, they were oblivious to the actual danger; the lookout is too far from Sderot to hear the Color Red siren. And, unlike the field near Kibbutz Sa’ad, there are no slabs of concrete to protect people from sniper fire. In fact, when we were in the Sa’ad area, the army had evacuated the journalists at one point just before Hamas vowed to fire on Tel Aviv on Saturday night. Military presence was everywhere there, flying small drone planes and monitoring the civilians.
Across from the Horse Lookout, a much larger hill just northwest of Sderot is a major gathering spot for spectators. On the night of July 8 at least 50 people milled about; only a few of them were from the press. The young, mostly male, crowd smoked nargilas and drank Red Bull and vodka. When explosions rocked Gaza, some of the onlookers clapped. Others played military expert, telling their friends which type of flares were being fired, whether a certain percussion was a tank firing from nearby Kibbutz Nir Am or if it was outgoing artillery or Iron Dome. One young man wearing the trademark yeshiva garb of white shirt, black pants and black kippa had come by bus from Jerusalem.
Joel Teitel had been in Israel several months studying and had come by public transportation to witness the war. “My friends think I’m crazy, but this is amazing. Of course, I’d never get this experience back in England,” he said.
Some youngsters admitted that they had come despite protestations from their parents. Some smoked cigarettes and drank alcohol despite being in their early teens. Watching the war, it seems, was as much teenage angst rebellion as it was about the war itself.
On July 13, the crowd in the morning was more subdued. A young man with a hangover wearing a Beitar Jerusalem shirt sat in his car. “I have to go to work at nine. Thought I’d drive up here [the hill is accessible by a badly maintained dirt road ascent] before going,” he explained. Two journalists from Reuters had set up a more luxurious tent with chairs, but others made do with a half broken couch. Other couches that had been brought up over the last few days had been thrown down the hill to join a burgeoning pile of trash. A city worker had come to pick through some of it. Then some honking sounded behind me. A man in a car waved me aside and shouted, “You’re blocking my view.”
And in Beit Hanun, explosions were going off as the IDF prepared a ground incursion into the area from which long-range missiles have been fired.