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ICEJ Staff Caught in Massive Rocket Barrage

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14 Jan 2019 (All day)
ICEJ Staff Caught in Massive Rocket Barrage

It started out as a routine visit to some of our aid projects along the Gaza border. On a bright November morning, I joined ICEJ AID director Nicole Yoder for a tour of several initiatives we sponsor in the western Negev. But by noon, nothing was routine about this day, as we got caught in the largest, most concentrated one-day rocket barrage coming from Gaza. Over the next 24 hours, nearly 500 rockets and mortars hammered Israeli communities along the border. Nothing could have mentally prepared us for this onslaught of Hamas firepower.

Timely shelters
We were accompanied that day by our partner Shmuel Bowman, director of Operation Lifeshield, who first took us to a new mobile bomb shelter we had just placed in the region. The fact that the ICEJ has been providing bomb shelters all over the Gaza envelope – more than 70 to date – means residents have places of safety to run to when rockets start falling. By evening, the beneficiaries of this shelter had called to give thanks for its timely delivery, saying it had been quickly put to good use.

Sweet produce from a hard place
By our next stop, it was still quiet. The iconic Kibbutz Yad Mordechai boasts some of Israel’s best produce, including the best honey. The kibbutz spirit is very much alive at Yad Mordechai with no problems insurmountable. This was clear from hearing about the measures used to counter the arson threat from Gaza. They showed us a specially developed app named ‘Aviva’, which alerts local security officers with real-time information about threats and the location. The threat is often in the form of incendiary balloons, and the kibbutz security team showed us one such device they were able to stop in time. Others were not intercepted, but they still were able to douse the resulting fires with a new firefighting trailer donated by the ICEJ which allows rapid, nimble response to brush fires. The kibbutz leaders could not thank us enough!

Gadi Arkoni – the right spirit
Our next stop was a meeting with Gadi Arkoni, mayor of the Eshkol Regional Council. Having lost both legs in a Hamas rocket strike, Gadi is a living embodiment of the suffering and resilience of the Jewish communities in the Gaza periphery. A kibbutznik through-and-through, he was born and raised in the area and studied agricultural management, which means he is 100% invested in this land. Yet, there is no trace of extremism or bitterness in Gadi. Just as Israelis will not budge from their land, he recognises the Gazans also are “here to stay”. For him, this means some agreement of coexistence eventually must be reached, though it remains a distant dream so long as Hamas rules Gaza. It was not always so. He remembers decades ago, when Gazans actually helped work the kibbutz’s fields. Ever hopeful, Gadi has several projects already in mind when normalcy returns.

Wounded but not crushed
Gadi’s approach to life is astonishing – not just because of the trauma his region has endured, but also because of his own personal tragedy. In the last hour of Operation Protective Edge, the 50-day rocket war with Hamas in 2014, Gadi was repairing damage to his kibbutz’s electrical grid when several mortars landed on his emergency team. One shell severed Gadi’s legs and killed two close friends. A lesser man would have given up on life. But Gadi reoriented himself and found meaning in public service. His first act was to testify to a UN commission in Geneva, where he was able to explain the very real consequences of Hamas terror tactics. Back in the Negev, his personal commitment to the Eshkol region has helped fuel a 14% growth in population since taking office.

Surviving a war of attrition
Even with such strength and determination, the people of the Eshkol region need us. Gadi laments the tense “non-war” they have faced since the destructive ‘March of Return’ was launched in March 2018. It seems no end is in sight, yet there are fewer emergency funds being released by the government. Israel faces numerous threats elsewhere and has no ready fix for the war of attrition waged from Gaza. This means Israelis here must persevere, and our support lifts their spirits immensely.

The Barrage begins
We made a third stop that day when we suddenly got stuck in the operational room of the Sedot Negev Regional Council, just three miles from where rockets were being launched at us. We had barely sat down for a briefing with local mayor Tamir Idan when the security chief relayed a report of an RPG strike on a bus with IDF soldiers at a popular vantage point close to the Gaza border fence. Thankfully the bus was mostly empty, though one soldier was severely wounded. But the news really struck home, as just a few months earlier a group of ICEJ staff had stood in that very spot peering over into Gaza.

Shortly after the RPG strike, the first ‘Red Alert’ siren sounded. We had thirty seconds to get to the basement shelter, which served as the region’s situation room. We hurried down the steps with the mayor and watched as he took control.

Under fire
Down in the basement, we saw everyone going about their emergency duties. The atmosphere was tense but these were true professionals. They knew others depended on them. As the sirens kept wailing, we could hear nearby mortar explosions as well as the launch of Iron Dome interceptors, followed by the distant booms of Kassam rockets shattering in mid-air. We counted a dozen or so alarms from our location and about 20 interceptor launches. Well over 400 rockets and mortars were fired from Gaza in about 25 hours – the most intense barrage ever.

Your help matters
Nicole and I experienced first-hand that day the urgent need to find shelter, and we were encouraged by those manning the operations room and their words of thanks for the ICEJ’s assistance. We have placed some 70 life-saving bomb shelters in this volatile region, and donated 17 fire-fighting wagons to drench the flames ignited by incendiary balloons. Yet sadly, Hamas continues to wage war from Gaza. So there is still much to do to secure this besieged border area. Thank you for helping us as we stand together with the people of Israel!


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