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Behind the Scenes: Blindfolded for trip to Gaza rocket factory

  • Story Highlights
  • Popular Resistance Committees gives CNN reporters glimpse into their training
  • Militants say they are training for what they think is an imminent Israeli incursion
  • Reporters blindfolded, have cell phones taken away, touring rocket factory
  • Israel spokesman: Israel will respond if truce is front for militants to rearm
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By Paula Hancocks
CNN
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In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and analyze the stories behind the events. CNN's Paula Hancocks visits the training facilities and rocket factories of The Popular Resistance Committees.

(CNN) -- It starts with a phone call at 8:30 p.m. as we are sitting down to dinner in Gaza City.

The PRC tells us to be at a certain place in half an hour; they are training. No further details. After a phone call to our Jerusalem bureau chief to weigh up the risks, we all decide it is rare enough an opportunity not to be missed.We grab our equipment and jump into the armored car.

Revered as freedom fighters by many here, reviled as terrorists in the West, the PRC, just one of the many Gaza based militant groups, has been involved in countless rocket attacks on Israel and the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit two years ago.

Now, in a rare public relations display intended to be viewed by Israel and the rest of the world, the PRC will show off its training techniques and a rocket factory to journalists.

The "training ground" is basic: a dead-end road for marching drills, a wall with tires stacked up against it for target practice. Burning tires surround the area, giving off putrid thick black smoke so nightly training is invisible to Israeli eyes in the sky.

The gunmen say they are training for what they see as an imminent Israeli incursion into Gaza.

As a Western female journalist working in Gaza, I rarely have to wear a head scarf, but here I am told to cover my head. The militants cover their faces.

One masked man brings me a chair and a heavily sugared tea so I can watch target and hostage-taking practice in comfort. It is horribly surreal.

One fighter tells me he will never let his son fire a gun. He says he fights only to make a better future for his family. But he's wearing a balaclava, with a rocket-propelled grenade over his shoulder and vowing to destroy any Israeli who enters Gaza. I struggle to marry the two.

The next morning, another phone call.

The same group wants to show us and other news organizations a rocket factory. Precautions this time are more stringent. We drive just outside Gaza City and are transferred into the back of an unmarked van; we are blindfolded, and our phones are taken away.

You know this is standard procedure to protect the location of the factory, but allowing yourself to be blindfolded by a masked gunman in Gaza feels incredibly unnatural. It's hard to stop the worst-case scenario playing out in your head.

My arrival at the location caused some surprise, a woman in a rocket factory is hardly the norm. I am closely watched and discussed. I have covered my head and dressed conservatively, but it's not enough. I am given a jilbab, a long loose-fitting coat, to cover my whole body before I am allowed to enter the "factory." Once the novelty wears off, I am completely ignored.

The "factory" is anything but; it's a tiny room with rockets lining the walls and masked men trying to light a fire from a gas canister to heat the explosives.

First, the lighter doesn't work, then there's a gas leak and the room becomes filled with suffocating gas.

You hear of unexplained explosions in Gaza from time to time, euphemistically called "workplace accidents." That thought is enough to make us squeeze out of the room and wonder whether we've gotten just a little too close to the story.

In a more ventilated area, the preparations begin. I'm struck by the relaxed manner with which these men handle deadly ingredients and warheads. One slip, and the story would be very different, and we probably wouldn't be around to tell it.

As I watch the rockets being made by men who have clearly done this many times before, I glance at the row of rockets made earlier lining the walls. I wonder which will be fired first and whether there will be civilian casualties.

Hamas, which controls Gaza and the militant factions there, including the PRC, are two months into a truce with Israel -- not that you'd know it here. They even unveil a longer-range rocket, which could reach some of Israel's larger cities. We're told it is a drop in the ocean of Palestinian surprises should Israel return to Gaza.

There's no doubt the PRC wants Israel to see these pictures. Rocket makers are positioned to give the camera the best angle; the production of deadly weapons is highly choreographed. It's a militant's PR event, an event the Israeli prime minister's spokesman tells us could force an Israeli response if the truce is just a front for militants to rearm and regroup.

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