The Hamas rocket screams towards us: we’re caught in the open

In the cotton fields north of Gaza the obscene shriek of a rocket is followed by a boom. A burst of smoke directly overhead and a showering of shrapnel on the road signal that Israel’s Iron Dome defences have scored another hit.

The air raid siren sounds five seconds later, but by then it is too late. The Israeli soldiers are face down in the dusty kerb already, breathing heavily as the sky above is filled with the terrible sound of incoming fire. Like us, the Israeli soldiers are caught in the open.

The scream of another rocket comes overhead, this time seeming to arc towards us. The air defences intercept again. Iron Dome, the Israeli short-range air defence system, uses radar to measure whether to shoot down incoming rockets, allowing those on a harmless trajectory to land in unpopulated areas, saving $50,000 per missile.

A second interception meant the fire was accurate and the soldiers press their bodies closer to the dirt while we shelter behind the car in the false hope that a Toyota can provide any sort of protection. Eventually the all-clear is sounded and the Israeli soldiers continue their patrol.

Palestinian militants in Gaza had 11,750 rockets in their arsenal at the end of 2021, according to research by the Jewish Institute for National Security of America. About 60-70 per cent of those rockets were manufactured in Gaza, it said.

Those who have made their homes on the Israeli side of the Palestinian territory have long lived with the threat of rockets launched indiscriminately towards them. Yet on Monday there were signs that Hamas was increasing its fire on an area only two miles from the Erez crossing, the gateway to northern Gaza that was once used by 18,000 ordinary Palestinians every day on their way to work in Israel.

It was overrun by Hamas militants on October 7 and there seems little prospect this vital economic lifeline to Gaza will ever be reopened. Along the main road leading south into Gaza, the military has built a series of encampments — the most likely target of the rocket barrage. Tanks, armoured vehicles and support lorries line both sides of Israel’s Highway 4, waiting for the order to advance.

For now, Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has decided not to launch a ground invasion, seemingly under American pressure to delay the offensive until all efforts have been made to liberate 222 people held captive in Gaza.

The release of two American hostages last week suggests diplomacy may be starting to work, and so the waiting game goes on. Instead there have been limited Israel defence forces (IDF) raids into Gaza, the latest of which took place on Sunday night, resulting in the death of one Israeli soldier from an anti-tank missile.

That means the war is being waged from the skies above, leaving Israelis and Palestinians cowering in the dirt below. The terrifying response to the salvo of Palestinian rockets on Monday was visible from a high point in Sderot, an Israeli city one mile from the border with Gaza.

During the last major war in 2014, the residents of Sderot would bring out chairs to watch the bombing of Gaza from the town’s hills in a grisly phenomenon nicknamed the “Sderot Cinema”.

A reconnaissance drone could be heard guiding an Israeli airstrike before a plume of smoke was seen rising from a powerful explosion in Beit Hanoun, a town in Gaza that satellite imagery suggests has been destroyed.

The carcasses of shelled-out buildings could be seen in the hazy distance and the initial explosion was followed by the rolling echo of artillery fire.

According to the Palestinian health authorities, more than 5,000 people have died during the 16-day Israeli bombardment of Gaza, a place where there are no air defences and no Iron Dome interceptions. The UN has described the bombed-out city as a “hellhole”.

Across the border, there are plentiful bomb shelters in Sderot, painted with desert scenes or images of friendly dogs for the younger generations. But even its hardy residents have fled because the fighting has been so intense, leaving a city of roundabouts and speed bumps devoid of cars.

On Monday the military wing of Hamas, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, revealed its latest weapon, when the IDF shot down two kamikaze drones at Nir Oz and Ein HaBesor, a kibbutz and a moshav close to the Gaza border. Given the Sunni militia’s ties to Iran — a country with a history of manufacturing suicide drones, including the Shahed-136 and the Mohajer — there will be fears that this small attack could presage a new phase of the aerial war.

Already, the battle in the skies has led to vast movements on the ground. More than 200,000 Israelis have fled their homes, according to the Netanyahu government, and 1.4 million Palestinians have been displaced by the bombing in Gaza, according to the UN.

Eilat, an Israeli town on the Dead Sea, has doubled in population since October 7 and the authorities are considering building a tent city to house 60,000 Israelis who have arrived there from the areas around Gaza. In Ramat Gan, outside Tel Aviv, construction has already begun on another tent city to provide temporary homes for 1,000 people.

The residents of these tent cities will probably be able to hear the air raid sirens before the rockets arrive given that their new homes are situated much further from the border with Gaza. They might even have time to run to the shelter.

Originally Published in Times of London.