Seeing the latest news and developments, I'm relieved that I was able to leave Gaza when I did, but I'm very concerned for the new friends I made, the children whom I met, and the thousands upon thousands of innocent civilians on both sides who are caught in the middle.
From the beginning, I was scheduled to leave Gaza on the 14th. When the violence began over the weekend, my departure date began to look more and more uncertain, but I pushed ahead with my work as best I could while waiting for the border crossing to be safe. UNRWA requested that I limit my travel as much as possible, so I mostly stayed away from the refugee camps and other high risk areas. Even still, I saw and felt plenty.
"Felt" really is the right word. Even when I was miles away, far enough not see anything, I could still feel the blast wave of explosions in my chest. Jets, helicopters, and outbound rockets could be heard from time to time, and this is when it was still calm by comparison. I can only imagine what it's like now.
With my movement limited, the relatively safe remains of a large resort complex and other buildings along the coast became very familiar to me. Thanks to a satellite messenger provided by SPOT, I can now share more exact details. If you switch over to satellite view and zoom in, the bombed out shells can clearly been seen. There were also a few opportunities to visit areas more recently affected, and I managed a quick shot at the location below.
The building itself has been out of use for a long time, destroyed in the last Intifada, but the rubble has reportedly become a prime location for militants to hide and launch rockets against Israel. After such an attack the night before, the area was hit with heavy return fire from Israeli aircraft. I arrived in the early morning with my driver/fixer Ashraf, but was denied entry along with some journalists looking to cover the events. However, while the guards were briefly distracted, I grabbed a quick, improvised shot that has become my favorite of the trip so far. I look forward to sharing it.
Hamas guards were ever-present in most of the locations I worked. For the most part, they were just young men with radios, tasked with patrolling a given area. But from time to time I would encounter armed soldiers in more sensitive locations. Thankfully, all but a few were extremely nice and understanding about the work I was doing. It was amazing seeing guys with AK-47's stoop down to look through my viewfinder and come up with broad smiles. I managed to get a little footage with an indiscreet GoPro camera placed within my set.
Yesterday morning, everything was calm in Gaza. There were no rocket attacks or counterattacks overnight, and everyone was optimistic that things would return to normal, such that it is. I checked out of my hotel, said goodbye to some new friends, and headed to the Gaza headquarters of the UNRWA. By 8am I was on my way to the Erez Crossing back to Israel in an armored Toyota Landcruiser.
As strange as it was to enter Gaza, it was even more so to leave. I waited about an hour for the Palestinian Authority guards (Israel won't speak to the Hamas ones) to receive permission for me to walk back across the border. On the other side is a bewildering system of checks and double checks.
First, you open your bag in view of a camera to show that there aren't any large weapons or bombs. Without a word, when the unseen people behind the camera are satisfied, a green light appears over a turnstile. You (awkwardly, in my case) push your bags through, then proceed up a long ramp to the next level of screening. There, you pretty much take everything out of your bags, place them into extremely large plastic trays, and hand them off to a worker that feeds everything onto a conveyor belt.
Again, you wait for a little green light to appear next to a door. Eventually, when it lights up without any word from anyone, you proceed to the next screening area. By now, you should only have your passport and the clothes on your back. No watches, wallets, belts, currency, or anything else. Another green light eventually lights up, and you step into a full body scanner that probably hasn't been serviced in a decade. I wouldn't be surprised if I now glow in the dark.
Once through the scanner, another green light and another door awaits. When the unseen guards are satisfied that nothing dangerous is taped to your body, off you go to a waiting area for your possessions. The contents of my camera bags started to trickle out with nothing to put them in. I began making a virtual fort out of plastic bins as more and more came through, eventually seeing my camera bag emerge. I hastily packed it up, stopping occasionally to grab my clothes (and a huge amount of toys bought in Gaza) that were in my other bag.
It took a few hours just to get this far, and passport control was still to come. Mercifully, there was a separate line for foreigners, but the woman behind the three inches of bullet proof glass was having trouble with her mouse, so it made no difference in the end. Finally, after a barrage of questions about where I had been and what I had been doing, my passport was stamped, and I was back in Israel.
The ride to Jerusalem was jarring even before I heard about the latest wave of attacks. The culture shock is extreme, and to be honest, I'm just beginning to process my experiences and the feelings I have around them. I had planned on throwing myself into the next chapter of the project - working with Israeli children. But everything is on hold while "Operation Pillar of Defense" plays out and residents of southern Israeli communities evacuate or bunker down.
I truly hope that cooler heads prevail and that the conflict doesn't escalate any further.
In the meantime, I'm catching my breath a little and seeing what happens in the next few days. I'll be revisiting the Spafford Children's Center, catching up with its amazing staff, and checking up on the children under their care. We're hoping to put together an impromptu program about peace and reconciliation.