KFAR AZA -- At one of the final junctions before Israeli territory gives way to the now embattled Gaza Strip, a nondescript gas station has become the final pitstop for hundreds, if not thousands, of soldiers. Most have been called up in recent days to participate in Israel's growing military ground offensive inside the Hamas-controlled coastal enclave.
The gas station, which includes the obligatory confectionery store and a well-air conditioned coffee shop, sits just over a mile from the border. From here the Gaza towns of Beit Hanoun, Beit Lihaya and the Gaza City neighborhood of Shijaiyah, which has experienced the fiercest fighting of this war so far, are clearly visible on the horizon.
This area, which Israelis call the Gaza periphery, is now a closed military zone and it is possibly the closest Israelis can get to view the conflict inside Gaza. There is certainly the feeling of war.
Over the last five days, there have been numerous infiltration attempts near here by militants from Gaza using carefully constructed tunnels to reach inside Israel. Residents living in the nearby communities report hearing intense gun battles between the militants and the Israeli army patrols that spot them.
While many of the local residents, especially those with children, have fled the area, some have stayed behind and are trying to carry on as normally as they can. There is even a group of residents that has taken to Facebook to share their experiences.
“We are definitely in a war zone,” said Adele Raemer, 59, who lives in the community of Nirim, less than a mile from the border. “Its scary and I have to sleep in my safe room. But there are so many soldiers here right now, I do feel as protected as much as possible.”
In a nearby field, which is normally used for agricultural purposes but which two days ago was brimming with hundreds of combatants preparing to enter the northeastern side of the strip, the Israeli media has set up satellite dishes and broadcast stands.
Journalists with Israeli citizenship are not allowed to enter Gaza under a military order that theorizes they too could become a target for Hamas militants. Their reports from here are mostly based on the frequency of the booms and gunfire filtering in from the distance, as well as phone interviews with Gaza residents inside the strip.
At the gas stations, military jeeps, armored personnel carriers and other array of army vehicles fill the parking lot. Inside the small store, a sign below the counter offers a 20 percent discount for military personnel, and soldiers stock up on junk food while they wait to join their combat units.
The soldiers are not allowed to give interviews but the atmosphere is clearly tense as they sit in small groups around ice cream freezers watching the war broadcasts on Israeli television and giving their cellphones a final charge before being called into the battlefield.