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Reporter's dangerous trip to secret rocket factory

'Put these over your heads'

By Ben Wedeman

CNN's Ben Wedeman at the rocket factory in Gaza.


In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and analyze the stories behind the events.



Behind the Scenes

GAZA (CNN) -- The van was hot and stuffy, made even more uncomfortable by the fact CNN cameraman Adil Bradlow and I were wedged between masked gunmen in full battle gear, their index fingers tensely stroking the triggers of their AK-47 assault rifles.

We were on our way to see a rocket workshop run by the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the armed wing of the Fatah movement.

I got to the rocket makers through an old acquaintance in Gaza. To protect his identity, I'll call him Majid. A journalist, Majid has the numbers of all Gaza's factions, parties, politicians, warlords, thugs, crooks and freelance gunmen.

"I'll call you in a few hours," Majid told me, drawing on the Marlboro permanently wedged between his lips.

Two hours later, he called. "Be at your office at exactly 10 o'clock tomorrow morning," he said. He didn't tell me for what, and I didn't ask. I knew. (Watch the action inside a secret rocket factory -- 3:04)

I didn't mention what I was trying to arrange to anyone -- not CNN's assignment editors, not our Jerusalem bureau, not even Adil, my cameraman who was hoping for a day off after two weeks in Gaza covering clashes and chaos. Gaza is crawling with informants, collaborators and spies, so the less anyone knows about your plans, the better.

But bumping along in the cramped van, none of my precautions made me feel any better. Israeli helicopters and unmanned aircraft frequently "take out" anyone associated with the missiles.

With sweat trickling down my back and as I looked around the van crammed with gunmen, it occurred to me I might be a little too "close" to the story.

After about 15 minutes our van stopped and the door opened. Adil and I were motioned into the back of a smaller van. A tall, heavyset man with a thick black beard, black combat fatigues and an M-16 rifle with a sniper scope got in with us.

"Put these over your heads," he said, picking up three black hoods, "and keep your heads down."

I hesitated. Less than two years ago in Gaza, gunmen stopped a taxi I was riding in and abducted CNN producer Riyadh Ali, as one of the kidnappers held a gun to my face. (Riyadh was released 24 hours later.) I didn't think I was being kidnapped this time. But I didn't like the feeling.

If they stop stirring ... it will explode

With memories of Riyadh's kidnapping running through my mind, I heard the door of the van slam shut, and off we went. After 20 minutes, we stopped. Metal gates screeched open, then closed. The van door opened, and we were told to take off our masks.

We were in a cramped compound covered in green plastic sheeting, bathing everything in an eerie green glow. This must have been to protect the workshop from the prying eyes of Israeli aircraft -- and nosey neighbors.

The big man with the beard introduced us to a young man in faded jeans, a black vest and a black hood over his head by the name of "Abu Ahmed," or "Father of Ahmed." He didn't volunteer his real name.

Ahmed was all business. With cold professionalism, he explained in minute detail the entire process of how they make the rockets.

First we crowded into a small room with breeze-block walls and a corrugated tin roof. This was where aluminum was melted down then poured into molds for the nozzle of the rocket, the tip and the other parts.

We then went into a room where two men -- dressed in black overalls and, again, with black hoods over their heads -- sat hunched over a gas burner, stirring a white powder in a large stainless steel pot.

This was the rocket propellant. Ahmed would not tell me the ingredients because, in his words, "the enemy is always on the look out to stop us from getting the materials."

But he said almost all the inputs come from Israel. The only thing that's smuggled in is the TNT for the warhead, which comes through the network of tunnels dug under the border between Gaza and Egypt.

The two men took turns stirring the white powder over the fire. If they stop stirring, Ahmed said, it will explode.

No mercy for school children

This group makes three kinds of rockets: The biggest is the so-called Aqsa 103 has a maximum range of 14 kilometers, or 8.5 miles, and carries 6 kilograms of TNT.

With one of his comrades, Ahmed showed us packets of iron shards they pack into rocket warheads for extra lethal effect.

One of these missiles recently slammed into a school classroom in the nearby Israeli town of Sderot, a frequent target of the militants. The students were in another room at prayer at the time and no one was injured. Their teacher, for good reason, called it a miracle.

Ahmed was proud -- not ashamed -- that his missile had hit the school. These are not men who agonize over the morality of violence. Every mention of Israeli civilian casualties triggers a response stressing Palestinian civilian casualties.

In this region where the concept of an "eye-for-an-eye" was invented, the stark arithmetic of which side kills more is oft quoted. "Turn the other cheek" and "love thy enemy" never caught on.

Since the start of the second intifada in September 2000, Palestinian groups have fired more than 5,000 rockets into Israel, or into Gaza settlements before the Jews left. Those missiles killed 13 civilians and two soldiers.

To stop the rocket attacks, the Israeli army regularly bombards areas near the border in northern Gaza. They've dropped thousands of rounds since the beginning of the year, killing, according to Palestinian medical sources, at least six Palestinians -- most of them civilians --in the process.

Our visit to the missile workshop was cut short. An Israeli unmanned aircraft was droning overhead, and farther away we heard what sounded like a warplane -- Adil said it seemed like an F-16.

We were hurriedly ushered into the van, hoods put back on our heads. My discomfort with being "too close" to the story flared up again.

I was glad to have a good story, even gladder we were leaving it.

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