Ashkelon, Israel – A middle-aged Israeli soldier with a thick, immaculately groomed moustache sits outside a bustling pizzeria on the periphery of Ashkelon.
The southern Israeli city is best characterised by its trademark monolithic beige residential towers, which overlook a scenic waterfront with a marina frequented by sun-seeking tourists during peacetime.
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The soldier’s steely gaze oscillates between an elderly couple sitting with him at a small outdoor table and each new customer who walks by. An archetype of the seasoned soldier with a thousand-yard stare. He speaks with a thick American accent in gentle, measured tones.
In front of him, in the city’s main square, locals enthusiastically unpack meat, gently placing it on rows of industrial-size barbeques.
Israeli reservists laugh and joke as they mingle with families. They have just been in the Gaza Strip for five days and have been allowed back to southern Israel for a break. The locals have put on a feast to welcome them.
The silhouettes of young children dancing to a Hebrew version of, C’est la Vie, by Algerian singer Khaled appear amongst the thick clouds of smoke wafting through the still evening air.
Several orange flashes fill the night sky in the distance, and a few seconds later, thunderous bangs ring out, echoing across the city’s labyrinth of residential towers.
A stocky waiter runs out of the pizzeria. “Gaza?” he asks the small crowd as he looks up at the sky.
The besieged enclave is about a dozen kilometres (seven miles) away. No one bothers to respond.
I had been in Sderot a few hours earlier, a city located about a kilometre (0.6 miles) from Gaza, and had witnessed the bombardment of the area by Israeli forces.
Smoke billowed continuously on the horizon from the city of Beit Hanoon in Gaza. The relentless sound of drones, warplanes and thuds echoed across the afternoon sky.
Sderot had been attacked on October 7, and Hamas fighters and Israeli police and civilians had battled on its streets.
Since then, the city has come under frequent rocket attacks, and the vast majority of residents have been evacuated.
In Ashkelon and Ashdod, cities further to the north, the Iron Dome system, which is about 90 percent effective, can knock most of the missiles out of the sky, creating a sense of relative security.
Today’s heavy explosions have not caused any alarm, and locals marvel at the spectacle unfolding in the distance. The soldier doesn’t flinch; his eyes are fixed on my camera.
While others smile, happy for me to record, he appears suspicious. He knows what the sounds entail, the destruction they bring.
It’s a pattern I have seen repeated over weeks of covering this war, in the days before the truce that came into effect on November 24.
In the first few days following October 7, young reservists, whipped up by jingoistic rhetoric, were channelled to the border with the Gaza Strip along motorways lined with thousands of Israeli flags.
Disembarking from coaches, the atmosphere is raucous; friends from military service reunited and hugged each other.
Thrust out of their day jobs, they are now backslapping soldiers. Revered as heroes and convinced that they were on the right side of history, they welcome media attention. They drape flags outside of their vehicles and flash peace signs at the camera.
Their seniors, in contrast, stone-faced, remain focused on maps and battle plans. They are curt, formal, and sometimes jaded when talking to the media. Perhaps aware that much of the global reaction to the Israeli military campaign in Gaza would not fall in line with their narrative.
The reservists in the square are not allowed to talk about what they did or saw in Gaza. They have to hand in their phones before they enter.
Some wear military uniforms, others civilian clothes. Just over a month ago, many of them had been working office jobs, some in Tel Aviv’s trendy tech industry. One reservist was supposed to be backpacking in Australia before he was called up.
They let slip an occasional story from their time across the border, from dramatic scenes of bullets flying over their heads to banal details about their tasteless rations, which include plenty of canned tuna.
A local man handing out meat skewers who had helped organise the event jokes with a soldier who is wearing flip flops and shorts, his long brown hair tied into a ponytail.
The local man also runs a group on the messaging service Telegram, which updates his friends with information he collects from social media about what is happening in Gaza.
He excitedly shows me a video which appears to be from within Gaza which he says shows what the explosions we had just heard had been; I look at his phone and see terrified people running for cover as the same orange-tinted flashes and deafening explosions appear behind a series of buildings in northern Gaza.
The Israeli soldiers, he says, only have 24 hours outside Gaza before they have to return, and he wants to give them a “hero’s welcome”.
It is getting late and I start to head back to my car. The man grilling the barbeque leaves me with a reminder; “Please write good things about Israel.”