Disturbing images of young Israelis in a border town eating popcorn and cheering as bombs fall on neighbouring Gaza have evoked widespread condemnation as they were shared on social media.
The pictures were taken in the southern Israeli town of Sderot, frequently the target of Hamas rocket attacks, by Danish journalist Allan Sørensen who works for Kristeligt Dagblad.
Describing the scene as similar to an outdoor cinema, Sørensen said he came across the gathering while trying to find a place to watch the raids on the Palestinian territory, which has been bombarded by Israeli forces for the past week.
It has since been retweeted more than 1,500 times.
Sderot cinema. Israelis bringing chairs 2 hilltop in sderot 2 watch latest from Gaza. Clapping when blasts are heard. pic.twitter.com/WYZquV62O7— Allan Sørensen (@allansorensen72) July 9, 2014
"We are here to see Israel destroy Hamas," Eli Chone, a 22-year-old American living in Israel told the reporter. "Honestly. Look at the people around you. They live in this town and must daily deal with being shot at. We sit and look at Israel creating peace."
"It's great to be here. You can feel the thunder and see the rockets. It is a quest for excitement. Yesterday a rocket landed just below the hill," his friend Aaron Dew said.
"As a journalist, I was looking for an area from which I could get an overview of the Israeli air strikes on Gaza, in order to better understand what was going on," Sørensen told France 24 after he posted the picture on Friday.
"This evening, it was really intense and as I’d heard people speak about this hill, I went there. As I came closer, I was surprised to see that lots of cars were parked halfway up the hill. Once at the top, I noticed that there were already some 60 people sitting and standing. It was surprising to see them relaxed on their folding chairs. Some were smoking water pipes, others were snacking on popcorn as if it was an open-air cinema.
"There were people aged between 60 and 70 but also young people. On the other hand, I didn’t see any children. I think that’s got something to do with the fact that the area isn’t secure. A few days before a rocket hit the lower part of the hill which is in range."
Twitter users reacted with anger to the picture and the piece:
@MathiFryy I'm sorry but people, any people, celebrating death anywhere is abominable. Nothing to do with this community or that. Period.— Aliya Nazki (@AliyaNazki) July 10, 2014
@allansorensen72 If this is true then God help us all. What's become of the human race?— baydu.co.za (@Baydu) July 10, 2014
Sørensen said that the gathering "wasn’t to provoke anyone" and that no one there though they were doing anything untoward.
"That’s exactly why I took this photo," he said. "It backs up exactly what I have been noticing for the last three weeks, since the kidnapping of the three Israelis and the death of the young Palestinian that followed."
Tensions have been high for the past few months in Israel and the Palestinian Territories because of a breakdown in peace talks, followed by an escalation in rocket attacks from Gaza. But the most emotional incident was the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers as they hitchhiked home. Their deaths were followed by a revenge attack by a gang of Israeli youths, who are suspected to have kidnapped a Palestinian teen and burnt him alive.
"On both sides, there’s a total lack of empathy that I’ve never seen before," Sørensen said. "How can one react in this way [cheering the explosions] when children in Gaza are being killed by bombs? And to those who criticise me for only showing one side of the story in this photo, I would answer that similar reactions have been observed on the Palestinian side. Like, for example, those who celebrated the kidnapping of the three Israelis by holding up three fingers."
Sørensen has retweeted some of the images that celebrated the death of the teens.
Ignoring international appeals for a cease-fire, Israel widened its range of Gaza bombing targets to civilian institutions with suspected Hamas ties and deployed ground troops inside Gaza for the first time early Sunday to raid a rocket launching site in the Palestinian territory. More than 156 Palestinians have been killed. The United Nations estimates that 77 percent of those killed in Gaza were civilians.
Four Israeli soldiers were hurt in clashes during the brief incursion to destroy a rocket launching site in northern Gaza, the military said. It said the troops later returned to Israeli territory.
It was the first time that Israeli ground troops are known to have entered Gaza in the current offensive. But the operation was carried out by special forces and did not appear to be the beginning of a broad ground offensive.