ISRAEL-GAZA BORDER — Driving on Road 232 next to the border with Gaza, every few minutes the road goes over a small rise and you can catch glimpses of the buildings in Gaza a few kilometers away. This area in the Eshkol and Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Councils was the hardest hit during the past six weeks, with more than half of the 4,000 rockets shot toward Israel landing here.
It’s also where the majority of the soldiers were stationed during the 29-day Operation Protective Edge. On Tuesday, as the ceasefire continued to hold hour after hour, it also became the site of the beginning of a massive military deescalation, as hundreds of military vehicles stationed next to the Gaza border began to return to their bases around the country.
And when hundreds of tanks and APCs are driving near the sands of Gaza, they kick up dust. A lot of dust. For a reporting trip to see what residents in the south thought of the new ceasefire, Sharon Fidusi, a 46-year-old taxi driver from Ashkelon, agreed to drive me around the Gaza border communities for the afternoon. But neither of us realized what it would be like to drive next to hundreds of evacuating tanks.
At some points, we drove no more than two km/hour, waiting for the shape of the gas truck in front of us to appear out of the clouds of dust before advancing. Other times we stopped for five minutes or more, waiting for a thick cloud to pass before we could continue. When Fidusi flicked on his windshield wipers, they picked up handfuls of dust.
Sometimes we stopped completely, waiting for lines of tanks to cross the road. Fidusi, who served for 17 years in the Oketz unit in Gaza in the settlement of Nitzanim, was like a boy in a candy store. “See that tank? That costs over a billion shekel,” he told me, pointing out a military vehicle. “It’s much more expensive than the others, but nothing can stop it.”
Out of habit developed over the past month, I kept opening up my Red Alert app on my cellphone on Tuesday, refreshing it, making sure I hadn’t missed anything, but it seemed frozen at 7:59 a.m., a minute before the ceasefire went into effect.
On the radio the talking heads spoke of the ceasefire as if they didn’t want to wake a sleeping baby. No one was sure whether it would hold, or whether it would crumble.
And yet, the massive movements along the road told a story that no one could deny: something different was happening.
Many of the tanks were waiting, still poised next to the Gaza border in case anything changed. But others were preparing to go back to base, with exhausted and dirty soldiers looking forward to returning to their lives. When I got out to take a picture, one soldier waved to get my attention, and then he flashed two thumbs up.