The recent conflict in Gaza and Israel, now halted by a cease-fire agreement, was strikingly similar to the past war, begun in December 2008, between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. There were subtle differences this time, however. The Arab Spring has led to changes in leadership in countries including Tunisia, Libya and, most crucially, Egypt, which borders Gaza and is invariably a key mediator in cease-fire agreements between Israel and Hamas. Egypt’s new President, Mohamed Morsy, was a leading figure in the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas is an offshoot of the Brotherhood and so Morsy has a natural kinship with Hamas. But Morsy, for all his condemnation of Israel, played a crucial role as peacemaker, as his predecessor Hosni Mubarak did. He had little choice: Egypt is a close ally of the U.S., which views Hamas as a terrorist organization and has a longstanding peace deal with Israel. Morsy and President Obama spoke on the phone several times in the run-up to the cease-fire announcement on Wednesday.
TIME’s Israel correspondent Karl Vick, who is based in the Jaffa section of Tel Aviv, wrote this week’s magazine story on the Gaza conflict. TIME spoke with Vick shortly before the cease-fire and just after a bus was bombed in Tel Aviv, to get the story behind the story.
How did you feel when you heard the first rocket land?
It was a little alarming, just because I was out in the open at the time. I didn’t go into it in the story, but it turns out we were in the middle of what is one new component in this cycle of bombings: the rockets hitting Tel Aviv and the attempts to rocket Jerusalem. I was right underneath the first one to come to Tel Aviv. I had been in the house all day so my wife and I — we don’t live far from the old port of Jaffa, it’s kind of a boutique, yuppie area — decided to go down there to get something to eat. We went down on our bicycles, along this promenade along the water. We had our 2-year-old with us on the bike. It was a lovely evening. Right as we got to the port and I parked the bike, I heard this loud boom back from the direction we had just come. Some people came out to look into the sky; most hurried indoors. I immediately went into the building next to us — which was mostly glass — with the boy, and sort of just waited for my wife to finish locking her bike and come in. My wife had covered the siege in Sarajevo, and I ran the Washington Post Baghdad bureau for a while. It’s no fun being under fire, but it’s just much different when you’re with a kid. We talked about how if we didn’t have the boy, we’d be sitting on the deck watching the missiles. But what happened is we stayed indoors, as other people did. There was no panic, just anxiety. We got our meal at this sausage stand and made our way back, interviewing people as we went along. Finally we were almost right below our house, and there was this guy who had been there. He said he had lost his fishing pole; he was really upset, he said it was expensive. He said the rocket landed 20 m in front of him, which I can’t imagine it did. But it did land in the sea. For that one we didn’t hear a siren, we didn’t hear anything, maybe because we were too close to the water.
Are there any public bomb shelters in Jaffa?
There are but they were locked! There’s a building in front of our house that is a shelter, but it was locked. The city made the decision to unlock the shelters, and that was considered to be a very significant decision, something they did reluctantly because they put a premium on stiff upper lip and ordinary life not being upset too much.
How often have the rockets been landing?
In Tel Aviv, it’s hard to tell. You just hear detonations. Four or five, I reckon. But many of the explosions are Israel’s Iron Dome antimissile interceptors detonating as they reach the incoming missile. The Defense Ministry rushed an Iron Dome battery to Tel Aviv after that first one. Even so, I make sure when I hear the siren I stay in indoors, in an interior hallway. But you’re not always home. It turns out we live basically where the interceptors meet the rocket, so there’s danger of falling shrapnel.
Israelis often refer to Tel Aviv as the bubble — isolated from not only Hamas but also from what’s going on in much of Israel. Has there been a shift in the life of the city now?
I’m a family man so I don’t really go out. But all the markers — traffic, what you see in restaurants and so on — has been down a bit. I guess since the shield went up, it’s been a bit more relaxed. You know what it’s kind of like? When I lived in L.A., and there was a Jewish holiday. There was 10% to 20% less traffic, at least in Westwood, and it made a big difference on the road. People in Tel Aviv are a bit brittle; maybe they’re not as scared because of the Iron Dome. But Tel Aviv lived through the second intifadeh, where nightclubs were being blown up. I don’t think missile fire is going to alter the fabric of life in a big way. The communities in the south of Israel are really affected, though. It’s been quite intense down there.
Are you getting a sense of what Palestinians in Israel are feeling? What has been the response to the attempted targeting by Hamas of Jerusalem, which is home to many Palestinians and some of the holiest sights in Islam?
I’m just assuming people are a little bit alarmed by that. But they haven’t hit anything yet. I’m more interested to see if there is, among the Palestinian population there, a sense of rally around the flag with Hamas, the excitement or satisfaction that comes with punching back. There were reports that in the West Bank, where this missile landed on its way to Jerusalem, there were skirmishes between Israeli soldiers who had gone to recover it and local Palestinian politicians. That’s not something you usually get on the West Bank. I think the blood is up a little bit.
What images are the Israeli press showing of Gaza?
The focus is very much on the situation in the south, with the country under missile siege. I suspect that is very satisfying for the militants to see. This is what they look for, fear in the faces of Israelis. It’s a lot of what creates solidarity among Palestinians, who in polls report living with a fair amount of fear in their daily lives, by dint of the Israeli military occupation. You have to ask, why do these wars between Hamas in Gaza and Israel keep happening? I think that’s why the story in this week’s magazine was so worth doing just now. I think that what we’ve shown is that it’s a matter of both history and geography. This place is caught between three nations, but not really in the control of any. It’s sort of an abandoned orphan at this point.