'Iron Dome exploded over my head'

Our correspondent Seth Frantzman on life under the Gaza rockets


Israel's Iron Dome air defence system intercepts rockets launched from Gaza City, in Sderot on May 10, 2023. Israel's army and Gaza militants traded heavy cross-border fire, with 22 Palestinians killed over two days amid the worst escalation of violence to hit the coastal territory in months. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP) (Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

Even before the radio could sound the alarm, Iron Dome interceptors exploded from their battery, trailing white smoke above my head.

At the same time, salvos of rockets could be seen flying skyward, to the north, from the Strip. Each missile ended its flight path in a little burst of smoke above me. One, two, three, four, five, six, interceptions. After a few seconds, the sound travelled and the loud booms were heard.

The Israeli system to detect and intercept rockets is designed to give people a warning, wherever they are. Radio stations will break in with alarms where rockets are likely to land and sirens alert people in urban areas. The sirens stop. The radio goes back to normal programming.

I was on a rural road between Ashkelon and the communities along the Gaza border. That morning, before hostilities broke out, I had driven into the cauldron.
The landscape had become increasingly deserted as I got closer. In Ashkelon, a large coastal city north of the Strip, the malls were closed, with only pharmacies and some small shops still trading.

Children were off school due to the security threat and most people appeared to be staying at home, as if there was another pandemic.

As I drove around areas near the Gaza Strip, more than 100 rockets were fired at southern Israel.

The terrorists began by targeting Sderot, a border town that has seen thousands of missiles launched in its direction since Israel left Gaza in 2005. Then Islamic Jihad aimed for Ashkelon. Then further north, toward Tel Aviv.

Rockets were fired every few minutes from around 1:30pm, for two hours. Finally, they stopped. Israeli artillery and warplanes continued to pound the Strip in the distance, smoke rising from the airstrikes near Beit Lahia in northern Gaza.

The warm spring weather had also made the fields ripe for fires, and when shrapnel from the interceptions fell in some fields near the border, smoke rose. An empty house was hit by one rocket. In general, almost all the projectiles were intercepted.

The day had started with the collective sense that this was the quiet before a storm breaks.

Small communities along the fence, known in Israel as moshavim or kibbutzim, had sent their children away for the day because of fears that rockets were about to rain down.

Israel had just killed three commanders of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist group that is active in Gaza and the West Bank and backed by the theocracy Iran.

Over the years, the IDF has launched numerous operations against this group, sometimes inside Gaza, seeking to neutralise its commanders and target its rocket infrastructure.

Islamic Jihad is believed to possess an arsenal of thousands of rockets, some of which have ranges that can reach Tel Aviv, more than 50 miles to the north. The group also has anti-tank missiles and other weapons.

Israel had encouraged residents in the south to open their secure rooms and bomb shelters and be prepared to enter them before the rain of rockets began.

The border communities, such as Nativ HaAsara, are sandwiched between agricultural fields and the security fence that runs along the frontier. They are under threat from mortar fire and short-range rockets. Residents have only a few seconds’ warning to run to bomb shelters when an attack begins.

Many of these communities have long experience of hostility from their neighbours. Yad Mordechai was founded in the 1940s and was home to some Holocaust survivors when it was attacked in the 1948 Israeli War of Independence.

Other communities, such as Zikim, were founded after the war. It sits on the Mediterranean, lodged between smoke stacks from a power plant on one side and Gaza on the other.

The area is patrolled by Israeli army units. Security pillboxes line the roads and batteries of the Iron Dome defence system, which uses rockets to shoot down rockets, are staggered throughout southern Israel. This is a country that is ever-vigilant.

South of Ashkelon, there is a series of rolling hills and dunes. There is an industrial area, with several bottling plants and horticultural nurseries.

In Ashkelon itself, the bomb shelters that have been placed next to some bus stops have been decorated to make them seem cheerful and colourful.

Closer to the Gaza Strip, however, there are few shelters. Agricultural workers, or people working in construction, have to trust in Iron Dome because when the rockets start to fall, they can’t make it to a safe room. There simply aren’t any within reach.

I watched a bulldozer pushing an escarpment of earth up against the foundations of what was going to be a new factory as rocket sirens sounded in the distance. Unlike the residents of the nearby towns, who were running for the shelters, the driver had no choice but to simply continue his work.

Most Israelis in smaller communities had left the area around Gaza for several days, or stayed in or near their shelters, usually a reinforced room in their homes. Most residents of the cities could not leave, so they also stayed at home.

A few miles north of Gaza, at a Shawarma restaurant beside a petrol station which was still open, some people gathered for food.

An older man, clutching his sandwich, smiled and asked whether the war was over.
“Peace again?” he said, his tone both hopeful and rueful.

Nearby, two Israeli reservist soldiers, men in their forties, ate their food, M4 rifles across their laps.

Next to them, a group of Arab men shared a litre bottle of Coca-Cola and chatted.
Outside there were no more sirens, for now.

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