Missiles Fall Like Rain - March 8-12, 2002

I neglected to add one anecdote from my tour of the ruins of Police City on Tuesday night. One of the officers who walked with me most of the time, and proceeded to go on in Arabic as I just nodded and smiled, came across some papers lying in the rubble. He picked them out, slapped them with the back of his hand and went off ranting about something that I couldn’t understand. Eventually, judging by his tone and hand gestures, I presumed that he was asking why the Israelis would bother to bomb a facility that did nothing but house papers.

Over the next few days, as the Israelis wrought carnage in Rafah, Khan Younis and Beit Hanoun in Gaza, as well as in Bethlehem, Ramallah, Deishia Refugee Camp and Tul Karim in the West Bank; Gaza City was rather quiet. Times were tense as helicopters and fighter/bombers often buzzed the city. What was probably most obnoxious was the incessant pass overs of tiny spy planes. They are recognizable by their buzzing prop engines, sounding like a neighbors hedgeclippers more than a military vehicle. Yet they must be effective, for at night they are invisible and I imagine are able to fly slow enough with night-vision to pick out potential targets. Since most of Gaza’s targets are well known, I figure that the spy planes serve only to seek out targets for assassination. Or they’re just doing their job of pissing me off as I try to sleep.

Sounds began to get to me. A passing truck, rumbling down the road? A barrage from warships. A door slamming upstairs? The thud of a shell. A car peelling out of a driveway? An incoming rocket. I found that I was sensing everything as a threat to my safety. This was no different though than I was used to in the past. Even the week before in Rafah, I had mistaken a basketball’s bounce for gunfire. And after living through a gunbattle last summer in Hebron, any sudden sound made me jump in my chair - even weeks into returning to Madison.

But often now, they have been real. On the night after my missile attack, I heard a few explosions while climbing into bed. I threw my clothes back on and rushed outside with my camera. I walked a block down to Nasser street, where I have a view of both Ansar and the distant wall of Police City. But I saw nothing other than some soldiers on the corners cracking jokes. But, when I returned to bed I discerned heavy machinegun fire coming from a helicoptor by the coast. I began to record the sounds in my notebook for some reason.

9am Missile hit, shook - @ police city
1:16am - expl. after hearing helicoptor overhead for 10min; again @ 1:20, 1:24am, 1:26am, 1:27+1;
1:44am - heavy cal fire, 4 bursts

On Thursday, the 7th I had a meeting with an elderly Dutch couple working as Christian peace observers. They had shown up a few days before at my job and I was urged to entertain them as they waited to talk to our director. They have spent the later half of their lives living in third world nations, but this was their first time in a region of conflict. We hit it off well politicially, as I delved into my ranting against the US policy here and how piss poor the American media was on the subject when compared with Europe. On Thursday they had returned wanting to interview me for their newsletter. I ate lunch with them at their apartment (again, 5 times larger than mine for only $100 more a month) and they proceeded with a brief interview about my background. For the most part though, as was the case with the American interns I had met, we primarily exchanged stories relating to problems with Israeli soldiers.

Afterwards, we decided to investigate the damage done from the missile attack that morning on Police City. According to people at my work, the neighboring Red Crescent building had been damaged, along with an elementary school. Before that we walked through Ansar, which despite being right near me, I had never investigated. An initial police post denied us entry, insisting that it was too dangerous, so we simply entered from the back.

Ansar is (or was) a collection of small single-story buildings which housed a variety of security services and stored equipment. It was an incredibly unimposing site, at least compared to the multi-story complexes at Police City. Nevertheless, repeated Israeli bombing and shelling had left it little more than a rubble playground. What stood out though were the massive craters created by the shells from Israeli warships. The Dutch couple claimed to have found at least 7 spread around the compoud. I found a couple which denoted shells that landed infront or behind their targets. The craters were a good 8-ft across and at least 4-ft deep. Almost no structure in the area retained a roof, and many had simply colapsed completely.

We moved on Eastward down Nasser St. towards the Police City. On the Southeast corner, just outside the compound’s walls lay an elegant 3-story complex owned by the Red Crescent society where most of their lab work is done. Initially, we observed that most all of the windows had been blown out. I had passed by the same building on a walk two days before and noticed nothing out of the ordinary. This time the most clear evidence were missing and caved in tiles along the roof. What looked like superficial damage on the outside proved devastating once some guards let us in. In giant patches, the red-masonite roof had collapsed, taking along with it the entire framework of the second story ceiling. Piles of dusty asbestus foam lay on the floor along with wires for lighting and plumbing pipes. All of the furniture seemed to have been earlier cleared out. Well, the Israelis were at least kind enough to let the medical facility continue to function as a garage as the basement was the only thing untouched.

We moved on to the neighboring UN-run elementary school. There, local residents unchained the gate and gave us a tour. Along with came a group of four tiny children - two of which, the Dutch woman pointed out - had no shoes. They lived in a shack that oddly resided on a far corner of the school grounds. The damage here seemed minimal though - that is to say that the school had already had all of its windows blown out by previous airstrikes, and this time there seemed to be nothing new.

The rest of the week was nominally uneventful, but the potential for danger was always present. Still, I took note that the situation was far more dangerous in any other given Palestinian city. On Friday I awoke to a few gunshots and found that the nearby mosque was hosting a funeral for a slain policeman. I threw on my camera gear and headed over there. Amassed was an enormous collection of policement, militiamen and children. I found very few women if any. Easily, there were over 500 people, each carrying automatic weapons among various vehicles which brandished different factional flags: Hamas, Islamic Jihad, PFLP, DFLP, Fatah, and so on.

Invariably children discovered me and didnt let me be until the procession began. I cannot imagine that seasoned and aged journalists experience this same problem. It must be that I just look too damn young still. Needless to say, a group of 6-9 year old kids surrounded me, sparked by one who noticed my camera. “Soura! Soura!” came the familiar call. I only obliged when one child produced a Hamas flag. Once done, that child left, but the rapacious ones only grew in number. An older child of about 11 or so tried some of his English on me. “Keif (how is) Sharon? Sharon ees donkey, yes?” I believe he asserted this view about 40-50 times with me, and no matter how much I assured him that I understood and agreed, he kept stopping me and repeating it.

I made my escape once the prayer service ended and people began to load into vehicles. Unlike the funeral I witnessed in Ramallah last year, this one was a long ways from the cemetary, so a motorcade was in order. Or disorder, I should emphasize. Adults with guns rode in the back of pickup trucks. Adults without went in taxis. Adults and teenagers with guns left over climbed on the backs, on the roofs, or hung on the windows of any car. For the young children, someone had brought a fleet of cranky old busses. As I walked past one, a child with a PFLP flag leaning out the window asked me to take his picture. As I did, the chapperone on the bus urged me to come on board. I was thowing myself to the lions this time, I reasoned. But the children proved to be fairly well behaved. As I pulled out my videocamera, they broke into a series of political chants - many were familiar in sound, but I still dont know the translations. Once I put the camera down, the chapperone invited me to take a position, leaning against the front window of the bus to join them for the ride.

Once the procession began, at about 5mph, only because of cars swinging in and out, gunfire erupted all along the road. Almost everyone with a gun began firing - and few stopped before we reached the cemetary a half hour later. Funerals are always anti-climactic here, as one the body is moved to the grave the chants cut down, the gun shots become more sporatic and people begin splitting up. I always wonder if people will use the moment to stage a demonstration (sans guns) at the nearest checkpoint, but it never seems to happen for me. Really for Gaza, the checkpoints are just too far away. I put my cameras away, and spying the same “Sharon Donkey” kids as before, darted home as fast as I could.

I had imagined last night that this was about it for the airstrikes. Surely, every pile of rubble repeatedly hit was just churning up more dust. So I, Ben, intrepid reporter, first on the scene, literally the moment I stepped out of the internet cafe at 8:45 last night was faced by three rapid explosions about a mile ahead. Despite the distance, the sound was maddeningly loud - vastly in excess of what I remembered my last missile sounded like. I pulled out my camera and stood there trying to catch a glimpse of the helicoptor above. This internet cafe, I should note, is just on Nasser st., around the corner from my home and 2 blocks up from Ansar. I asked the cafe propietor where he thought the bombs had hit. “Fatah,” he said, gesturing to the southwest of us. It turns out that the area houses a third target that I had confused with Ansar. Arafat’s Palace and the Fatah guardposts next to it were just a little further down the coast. It was their turn tonight.

To my delight, I managed to catch on video the actual missile launches, while the helicoptor itself remained invisible in the darkness. A glowing ball of white line shone for about a half-second and faded as the a screaming engine sound revved up. Darkness and silence. Bright white light. Darkness. Then the sound hit - a thunder that rumbled and shook vastly out of proportion to the size of the warhead. I filmed two more of these and then decided that I couldn’t just stand at this distance and began walking towards the attacks.

Just in the middle of another strike, out of the dark shadows of the sand filled road I was strolling down emerged a group of soldiers. After quick and nervous greetings they asked to see my camera, and struggled to express in English the desire to see identification. I showed them all i had, including a business card from Al-Mezan. Eventually we moved on, with one of them still holding my camera. I winced as directly above us another white light denoted a missile launch - and I was denied my shot. I hurriedly asked for it back and he obliged, but i was too late. While they escorted me on, I played the comfortable tourist, keeping my head creening upwards at the attacks, while ignoring the fact that I was being detained by gunmen wary of Israeli spies.

They placed me in the company of a man who spoke a little more limited English. he had me follow him a block down away from the airstrikes, i imagine, to a more safe location. I continued my filming, and after one more explosion, things seemed to die down. I stayed there, unsure if I was free to go or not and finally the man and a friend of his asked if I wanted to see the damage. About half way there, they said that it was probably too dangerous, and this time I wisely obliged and headed home. Along the way I passed a cameraman for Palestine TV and a group of kids rushing to the scene. One boy exclaimed, “I know what you should photo!” and he stepped into the road to retrieve a small bong made out of a plastic 7UP bottle. Again on the way home while filming ambulances speeding past another group of soldiers stopped me to question what I was doing. It is all understandable - but from the stories Ive heard, when Israeli commandos sneak in to murder Palestinians, they do so disguised as Arabs, not naiive American tourists.

At home I took a long bath, reading Robert Fisk’s brutal 600 page account of the civil war in Lebanon. As I settled in for bed at about 1:30am, the hedge trimmer plane had returned to annoy me to sleep. I was uneasy, and although images of those airstikes plagued my mind, it didnt seem as traumatizing as the first attack I had witnessed three nights before. That didnt last.

I awoke to an awful sound. Before I could gain any sensibility it hit again. And again. I stumbled out of bed as the windows and walls shook. The time? 3:00am. What the fuck is happening? Another enormous explosion - louder than any I had heard before. Shit. Those fuckers. And again. I began ducking, as if I was immediately at risk. I couldnt see any explosion (nor much else as the power was out) and felt nothing, but the sound made me instinctively cower. Again and again. They came in rapid successions, the tremors and sounds amplifying off eachother. Even if thats not how physics works, thats how it felt. I couldn’t take it indoors, not knowing what was being bombed. From the sounds, I was sure that I was the target. Perhaps I just hadnt noticed it yet. I had to get outside.

I threw on clothes and picked up my cameras, all the while muttering nothing but “Jesus Fuck. Jesus FUCK.” to myself. Out the door, into total darkness - save for the flashes of lights. Explosions echoed off the walls of my apartment’s courtyard. As my eyes adjusted I walked out on to the street. Whispering black forms denoted soldiers and police nervously pacing around rapping their fingers against their machine guns. In the darkness I could walk past them and it was too late (or they had other worries) for them to stop and question me. It was silent again as I cautiously came to the corner on Nasser St., from where I should have been able to see anything, as across the street lay a sort of park full of trash that goat herdeds use for grazing. The silence scared me more. What if they’re just waiting for someone to stoll out into the street? I turned back around the corner and braced against the wall of a courtyard. Flash. Thundering explosion. The walled streets seemed to funnel the sounds to the point of adding a hint of flange to the end. They sounded cosmic. Ethereal. On top of me.

I continued with my instincts. These were not insticts to hide, but just to keep moving. They cant catch me that way. I walked back a little bit, but another paid of soldiers approaching the corner gave me the courage to follow. I opted to stand behind them. I looked up at the courtyard gate to make sure there was no glass in it. Still too exposed, I backed up. This is a good spot, for I can see the helicoptor if it comes, no? But they can see me then. The wail of a missile. Where will it land? A flash of light. Another frightening crash. I cringed. Too exposed. I noticed that once I saw the flash of light, it was clearly pointless to react to the noise - for if I were to be hit, it would be in the explosion, not in the sound waves generated. I knew this, but it didnt change my reactions.

I moved across the street again, distinctly thinking that I couldnt stand out like that against the wall. I found a garage tucked 4 feet back from another courtyard wall (they run up and down the street in this relatively nicer neighborhood) and hid there. Two massive detonations on top of each other had me ducking down, muttering my perpetual explatives. Helicopters raced above, they were firing rockets and missiles from all sides. The target was clearly on the coast, but the scream of missiles generated just above me it seemed. I still saw the flash of the hit and yet cowered only when I could hear the monsterous sound finally reaching me. My reaction didn’t make sense. But nor do the Israelis.

I again crossed the street, a little more back towards my home. But this time the pattern was interrupted by some armed police officers in urban-camo sitting on a stoop. One who spoke English fairly well invited me to sit with them. Rami was his name, and he was a student at the local university. A hiding soldier at night. “My friend and me, we have exam tomorrow at university. I dont think we will be prepared,” he laughed.

After I told him who I was (using the journalist story again) some more missiles were fired. “We just wait until we die. To be or not to be, is out motto here.” I didn’t question his misinterpretation of English literature at this time. “How are you.”

“I dont know… I dont know.”

“Just say, ‘I am in God’s hands’.”

And I said it, softly, still shaking.

I prayed. I actually just prayed, and it enabled me to lean back and relax some. I guess I discovered at least one use for faith. I found myself talking to Rami as the next explosion went off, and I only flinched a little. Instead of hiding, instead of some of my stupid mindless walking into danger as in the past, I could just sit and accept what ever happened. Sure I could go home and improve my odds, but oh well,“ ‘in sha’ allah” as the Arabs say. Rami asked me about Sharon and Bush. He asked why I didn’t already have Arabic girlfriends. When got around to telling him I was American he paused, threw his arm around me and yelled, “I caught one!” We laughed. He asked a little about September 11. He asked if I was there, and I told him I had been in Belgrade at the time. He asked about the “theory” of Jews flying the planes. I told him that I didnt think it was true, but I was sure that people like Bush were very pleased by the opportunity the situation provided. I hoped to skirt that subject. “Sharon is a Donkey,” is much easier. At times I had to adjust my legs whenever I noticed the barrel of his Kalishnakov Rifle shifting downwards when he laughed. There’s always something to be nervous about in Gaza.

It was 4am and after a good 20 minutes with no further attacks, and the sounds of aircraft fading, I opted for bed. Over 30 missiles had been fired into Arafat’s empty compound that night. I think the late-night terror was the main intention though. Rami had asked what type of rockets the Apache helicopters fire, and given the massive sound of those explosions, I really couldn’t say.

I sustained my first injury that day. On the way to work that morning, while adjusting the tuner on my radio, I walked into a tree.