Reporter's notebook

The sole avenue of coexistence that became a Hamas killing field

Gaza workers used to pass through Erez. So did medical patients, diplomats, UN personnel. Then terrorists struck. Reservists, including a Google staffer from Denver, show ToI around

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

A view into Gaza on November 21, 2023 from the Erez Border Crossing (David Horovitz / Times of Israel)
A view into Gaza on November 21, 2023 from the Erez Border Crossing (David Horovitz / Times of Israel)

The Erez Border Crossing, at the northern end of the Gaza Strip, was the sole civilian crossing point from Hamas-run Gaza into Israel. Every day, thousands of Gazans with permits to work in Israel would proceed through the modern terminal complex; others came in for medical treatment; diplomats, UN officials and others could drive through.

It was the only avenue of Israel-Gaza coexistence.

Maj. Ido Shaya, who showed me around Erez on Tuesday, told me it was spotlessly maintained — like an airport terminal.

Now, it’s a war zone.

On the morning of October 7, Hamas terrorists blew up and burst through the barriers separating Erez from the Gaza Strip, and poured into the complex. Unwatchable footage shows them killing some of the utterly unprepared, hopelessly outnumbered complement of soldiers on duty, and abducting others into Gaza.

A crumpled blue building is all that remains of a small post in which civilian security guards were targeted.

At the Erez border crossing on November 21, 2023 (David Horovitz / Times of Israel)

Once they had gained full control, the terrorists’ white pickup trucks and other vehicles poured through. Shaya, the deputy commander of the 5th Reserve Brigade’s reconnaissance battalion, says they drove hundreds of vehicles through Erez, presumably the easiest place to cross in a car, en route to their rampage near here and further afield, in which 1,200 people were slaughtered.

Driving into the complex, we pass tanks being worked on; an ultra-Orthodox soldier, bearded and with his tzitzit flying, is cleaning the barrel of one. Then we pass a line of tanks, readying to enter Gaza to join the ground offensive.

Getting as close to Gaza as Shaya is inclined to let me, he points through the wall and up a little incline toward what he says was the site of Nisanit, a former IDF military outpost that grew into a 300-family settlement before Israel withdrew all civilians and soldiers from the Strip in 2005.

File: An ambulance bringing Palestinians wounded in border clashes to Jordan for medical treatment is seen exiting the Gaza Strip through the Erez Border Crossing on May 18, 2018. The notice at right reads, “Go in peace.” (IDF Spokesperson)

“There was no protection here” on October 7, says Shaya, a soft-spoken, charismatic man who radiates competence. And the terrorists who burst through were astoundingly well-armed. “They were equipped for a long stay [inside Israel] and they carried astonishing quantities of weapons. More weapons than I would take if I’m coming into Gaza.”

Shaya is 34, married with a child. In normal times, he works in tech in Tel Aviv. For now, he says, he thinks of that pre-October 7 life as some kind of former existence.

The ‘lone soldier’ who returned

In the course of my time with Shaya, I meet three other members of his plainly devoted team — Eldad, Avi, and Ari.

(From right) Maj. (res.) Ido Shayer, Ari Fine, and colleagues Avi and Eldad, at Moshav Netiv HaAsara on November 21, 2023. (David Horovitz / Times of Israel)

Ari is Ari Fine, originally from California, now from Denver. He turned 35 on the day I was with them.

Fine came here as a lone soldier in 2008, and did his service along with Shaya and the others.

Why did he come here at the time? “I was on the March of the Living and a survivor of Auschwitz said to me, ‘If Israel had been around, it wouldn’t have been this bad.'”

Then Fine went back to the States — to Columbia in New York to study political science. “In those days they had mock barriers on campus,” he recalls, to highlight the plight of occupied Palestinians. Nowadays, student groups there accuse Israel of genocide.

For the past eight years, he’s worked for Google.

Why did he come here now? He laughs at the question, boyish smile widening under his helmet. “Ido called me and said, ‘Can you come?'” There was no question. “I wanted to be here with my guys, with my brothers.”

“I told my boss, ‘I love working here; I hope I’ll be able to come back.’

“I bought a one-way ticket. My wife is the champion. She’s from Kansas City. She was also a lone soldier, in Oketz (the IDF’s canine unit). She said, ‘Do what you have to do, just come back to us.'”

She’s a lawyer. She’s also pregnant with their fourth child.

“It’s hard to be in America and see such misunderstanding of the situation,” says Fine, as we stand amid the debris and military activity of Erez, gazing into Gaza. “Most of the people probably don’t have any historical understanding. Couldn’t find Israel on the map. Couldn’t find Gaza on the map.”

What is victory?

I’d met up with Ido and his team earlier in the day at Netiv HaAsara, a moshav of some 900 residents just north of the Erez Crossing and the closest of all Israeli communities to Gaza. We drank coffee outside one of the homes closest to the concrete wall that runs along the border — perhaps 40 yards away. Gaza’s Beit Lahiya and Beit Hanoun are just on the other side.

About 20 people were killed here on October 7. The attack began with three terrorists clearing the border on hang gliders. One of them went to commandeer the weapons store. One went house to house randomly killing people. And one went to specific homes, Shaya reports. The civil defense squad fought back, valiantly, preventing even greater fatalities.

Shaya was called up and got here on the Sunday morning. He’s barely been home in the past month and a half. He’s in the army now, for as long as it takes.

A home hit by an anti-tank rocket at Moshav Netiv HaAsara, pictured November 21, 2023. (David Horovitz / Times of Israel)

He stops twice as we drive around the ghost-town moshav: to show me a home that is mostly burned apart from the safe room, where the family hid out and survived; and another that was hit by an anti-tank missile, fired from just across the Gaza border.

The reservist-techie-husband says it’s “a terrible feeling” to be living, as his troops do right now, in other people’s homes. “We try to leave them as we find them, and we leave notes saying that anything they need, they should just ask.”

Shaya’s as horrified as the rest of Israel at the failure to protect against Hamas.

He muses about what will be in Gaza. “It’s not going anywhere; been there since Samson,” he notes wryly, and asks rhetorically, “What do people in Gaza want?”

But what can and should Israel do in and with Gaza?

“As far as I’m concerned,” he says, “victory is the people who live here coming back.”

IDF troops at a home adjacent to the Gaza border at Moshav Netiv HaAsara on November 21, 2023. (David Horovitz / Times of Israel)

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