JERUSALEM — “Please don’t go down south. It is not safe there,” my friend in Gaza urged me when I called him to say I would be joining an organized press tour of the Israeli border with Gaza.
The irony of his words was not lost on me.
For 11 days he and his family have sat in their home in the midst of an all-out war trying to keep safe from Israeli shelling. My mild-mannered friend has gone from Internet surfing and listening to music to learning how to huddle away from the shooting and bombs outside his windows.
Once again it seems that the whole world of international journalism has descended upon Israel. Right now, though, the only images coming out of Gaza are from local Palestinian journalists and the Israeli Defense Force photographers.
Even the big names can’t get inside Gaza. Israel has kept foreign press out of the Gaza Strip since even before its military incursion despite a Supreme Court order that it allow small groups of journalists in whenever the crossing is open for humanitarian aid. So the closest the media can get to Gaza right now is on Israel’s southern border.
Private Israeli groups have taken the situation in hand, providing briefings, press tours of southern communities and meetings with local residents who have been affected for eight years by the shelling from the militant group Hamas from Gaza. I decided to experience one of these tours for myself.
At Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon, Dr. Ron Lobel told us how in normal times the hospital receives some 10 Gazan patients a day for treatment. Some Gaza patients still remain at the hospital, unable to return to their homes, not knowing if they have home to return to.
Manal Shaheen, who had come with her infant son to the hospital weeks ago, was in the labor ward waiting to give birth to her fifth child as the bus load of journalists crowded around her. Along with another female journalist, I decided to remain behind in the waiting room for this particular interview, but a French-Moroccan journalist reported back that Shaheen broke into tears when asked in Arabic about the situation in Gaza. Her husband could not find food for the children, she said, and many of her neighbors had been killed in the fighting.
In the southernmost Israeli town of Sderot we had to duck into the safety of the police station corridor when the Red Alert early warning signal sounded in the middle of a briefing by Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld, alerting the town to incoming missiles. Three missiles rained down on the town.
A day earlier a similar rocket had landed on the home of 76-year-old Masudi Dayan. She was slightly injured but her home was destroyed.
Around town, journalists were camped out with folding picnic chairs, cups of coffee and satellite setups at almost every corner. Some journalists were reverting to trading off interviews with each other for lack of anything better to do.
I was only able to reach my friend again this morning. He told me things had been a bit calmer for them overnight — he had ventured out safely to buy some food and water for the family.