Saturday 24 March 2018

The Israeli F-16 jets responded quickly, resurrecting fear and demolishing hope

A mother holds her child while looking out from her Gaza City apartment, which has been badly damaged from artillery fire
A mother holds her child while looking out from her Gaza City apartment, which has been badly damaged from artillery fire
Rita El-Zobeidi, who works for Unicef in Gaza and whose home was extremely close to where a missile hit a Hamas camp in Gaza last night

Kevin Doyle and Mark Condren

At first, the F-16 fighters seemed high as they competed with the Mediterranean swash along the Gaza Strip for dominance of an otherwise still night.

Four rockets fired into southern Israel at 11pm meant that airstrikes inside the disputed territory were inevitable. Two of the missiles sent over the border fell short and while the others landed in open space, it was enough to prompt a hard sea and air response from Israel.

The local Salafists, a radical Sunni group sympathetic to Isil, had no hesitation claiming responsibility but the Israel Defence Forces hold Hamas responsible for anything that happens in Gaza.

At 1am, an improvised bomb exploded little more than 100m from our hotel in Gaza harbour. As fire crews rushed to that scene, the expectation of larger bombs coming from above grew.

The Israeli navy fired two shells over the string of fishing vessels that lit up the horizon and, as dawn neared, the planes began to approach in twos at an altitude that shook all below. Sources told the Irish Independent that in total the airforce dropped seven missiles at Hamas military around Gaza.

No injuries were reported but for people like Rita El-Zobeidi, it brought back fears that last summer's bombardment could begin again.

Her children, Ibrahim (12) and Ramah (11), were watching television when the jets started to arrive. "My kids were very afraid, they came to me running, saying 'Mom, what is going on? Is this the next war?' I knew what was coming for the evening. It would be a strike," she said.

Back at her work in the UN offices yesterday, she told how, as her children slept in her room, the planes got even closer. "I knew at that moment that something would happen. The airstrike happened. My kids were shaking. I didn't sleep all night."

The site of the bombing was a Hamas training camp with a 10-storey residential building on one side and a school on the other. Hidden in plain sight. It has tyre runs, swings and tunnels - much like what you might expect on any television bootcamp show.

A non-descript man, maybe 50, in a white T-shirt stands by the entrance looking unoccupied. Yet our arrival prompts an immediate phonecall. We're warned not to take pictures. Everyone from the outside has the potential to be a spy unless proven otherwise.

Much of the area is already so battered that it's hard to tell where the missile landed. But the aim wasn't to cause mass destruction, it was to instil fear.

Within three minutes, a van and pick-up pull slowly off the main road. The Government forces inside drive past without stopping but it's clear we're not welcome.

"Fear is always there," says Maisoon Abu Reyda (37), whose home was destroyed in the 50-day war between Hamas and Israel almost a year ago. "This morning, we received a message to say that there was a targeting of Hamas so we feel like something is coming," the mum-of-eight says from the tin hut she now calls home.

Gaza remained on a knife-edge last night with the Salafist group saying on Twitter it would be "continuing with our jihad against the Jews".

That is likely to mean more antagonising of Israel in order to hurt Hamas.

Israeli defence minister Moshe Yaalon said in a statement that Israel held Hamas responsible for the rocket attacks from Gaza "even if those doing the shooting are rogue gangs from global jihadi groups trying to challenge Hamas by shooting at us".

Pernille Ironside, Chief Field Officer with Unicef in Gaza, said for children the sound of the overhead jets and the missile strikes "immediately causes all of last summer's anxieties to resurface".

"Everyone in Gaza knows there is a very precarious, touch-and-go context. Anything can happen any day, and yet people hope there will be stability and peace. Any bit of tinder can lead to retaliation," she said.

Irish Independent

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