Every DXer dreams of the call with the question: “Would you consider being part of our dxpedition to a rare one?” Indeed, this was the case back in August 2008 for a few lucky hams. And, the rare one was E4, Palestine. In no way could this group ever imagine that in a few short months they would be operating from Palestine in the middle of a major war.
The story for these ops began with a phone call from Giorgio, IZ4AKS. From that point on it was a nonstop journey of planning, preparation, problem solving and more problem solving. This is part of the untold story of any major dxpedition.
A few days before the scheduled departure, the conflict in the Gaza region intensified and thus jeopardized the entire operation. With the hope that the situation would improve, the E44M schedule remained intact. Now, however, the major problem facing the group was how to cross the border between Israel and Palestine. It is one thing to be a tourist but quite another thing to travel with a group transporting radio equipment into an area engaged in a military conflict. How do you explain this to border guards? The Gaza and conflict zone was only a one hour drive away so delicate diplomacy was the only solution.
For this paper, we will begin the story on January 1, 2009. At 7:30 am on this day, Giorgio Minguzzio, IZ4AKS, Simone Bizzarri, IZ8BTV, Aurelio Bello, IZ0EGM and Pasquale LaGamba, IZ8IYX met at Fiumicino Airport in Rome to obtain boarding passes for a very high security El Al flight to Tel Aviv. After successfully completing a extremely intense two hour interview, the group received permission to board the El Al flight only to get word that the conflict had intensified.
At 17:30 we landed at Ben Gurion airport. To our surprise, we were greeted by Roby who was holding a sign which read: “Italian Radio Amateurs”. Shortly after, Vinicio, IK2CIO arrived on a flight from Milan and Salvador Carol Tafall, C31CT, along with Les Fabianski, SP3DOI, arrived from Barcelona. With our group now complete, we proceeded with our escort David, to the famous “Wall” 8 meters high dividing Palestine from Israel.
After successfully navigating the boarder we arrived at our hotel in the very heart of Bethlehem. We soon realized that this enormous hotel was almost empty. Obviously, because of the Gaza situation, most pilgrims decided to stay away from this holy city. That was to our advantage in allowing us to maneuver on the eleventh floor hotel roof without too much scrutiny from within the hotel. We then began unloading the materials we had transported with us from Rome and inventoried the equipment previously shipped and stored at the hotel. Thanks to the expertise of Vinicio we were able to get internet access to communicate to our pilot station, Arturo, IK7JWY , who updated our Ham Radio web site. Next it was time to relax. We took some pictures and tasted some typical Arab-Palestinian food which is rich in vegetables and flavored with numerous spices. We made phone calls to our families and finally reached our rooms for some much needed rest.
On January 2nd the group began the day at 6:30 AM planning the location of the various antennas. Despite cold temperatures, the team worked continually the entire day erecting the numerous antennas which included: Spiderbeam for 10 through 20
Vertical for 40 & 80
Vertical for 30
HF 2V Butternut for 40 & 80
UJX vertical for 10 through 40
Sloper for 160
Dipole for 6
EWE receiving antenna
That evening the operators faced extremely noisy conditions on all bands.
On January 3rd part of the team spent the entire day on the roof attempting to eliminate the atmospheric noise plaguing our Icom Pro III, Icom 7000, Icom 7400 and Elecraft K2.
The result of our effort was very discouraging with constant high noise levels.
On January 4th the entire team operated in shifts despite the noise. No one had yet to leave the hotel. Meals were served at the same table with an unvaried menu. The only relaxing time was spent chatting with the Palestinian people inside our hotel. However, at last, we managed to discover the source of the high noise level threatening our operation. The major source of interference was from one of the three hotel elevators. Also, in the late afternoon when the hotel heat pumps were operating the noise level increased. We soon reached the conclusion that the electrical grounding system in this hotel was totally inadequate and thus causing the major source of our noise problem.
On January 5th once we received the reassurance of our guide, Sobhy, that we could travel the streets some of our team [IK2CIO, IZ4AKS and IZ8IYX] decided to shop for some noise filters. Once we reached the main road the high security and police presence was very obvious. We asked many hesitant local people where we might find a shop to purchase filters. This questioning was met with skeptical observation. We did not give up and finally found a telephone shop with electric internet filters. We were not very sure that this would help our noise problem, but we hoped for a miracle.
Our first walk along the streets of Bethlehem was marked by our fast pace and curious looks from the local residents. By chance, we arrived at the Nativity site, the birth place of Jesus Christ. We forgot everything for a moment and decided to enter. After entering through a small door, a meter and a half high and a meter wide we proceeded toward the altar. At first glance the church appeared sober and bleak but this was totally overwhelmed by our personal emotions to be in such a holy place. None of us dared say a word. We reached the altar and discovered that the cave and the exact place of Jesus’ birth is under the altar which can be easily reached via steep stairs. It was so impressive that even a non-church going person would be impressed by the atmosphere of this holy place. Each simple object in the church, each stone and column deeply witnessed the cultural and historical heritage of the site. After the visit to the cave, the personal emotion taken from the site was so intense that in the following days some of the team members returned to the church for prayer.
After returning to our operating site we connected a filter to each radio. However, as we suspected the filters provided little help in eliminating the noise. We did not get the miracle we had hoped.
The period from January 6th to the 9th flew by as we attempted to meet the needs of the North and South American Community [east and west coast]. Despite the line noise, strong signals from Europe and increased tiredness, we did our very best to increase the QSO rates to America. Also during this period there were numerous demonstrations organized against Israel and tension grew in Bethlehem. We avoided going out during these demonstrations because of the increased fighting between police and demonstrators.
We did our very best under the noisy conditions to meet everyone’s needs and expectations even though it was almost impossible to follow propagation to all parts of the world on all bands each day of the operation. For the most part, I believe we did an excellent job under the adverse conditions. As an aside we found some spare moments to taste some excellent Palestinian kebab.
Early in the afternoon of January 10th our guide accompanied us to meet our Israeli friends Ros, 4Z5LA, Dov, 4Z4DX and David Sobhy’s landlord. The meeting was in the Arab quarters of Jerusalem. Because of David Sobhy’s sense of hospitality and organization, the restaurant was exceptional. At that very moment while hostilities were high in the Gaza region we enjoyed a time of peace and friendship involving our Israeli and Palestinian friends. This is the real spirit of Amateur Radio.
A few hours later, after taking pictures with our IARC members friends, we returned to the Palestinian territory and spent the night working the low bands in an attempt to meet the needs of the amateur radio community.
Early in the morning on January 11th we began the chore of disassembling all the antennas. Despite total fatigue, we continued to operate until it was time to take down the last antenna.
Part of the equipment and numerous ARRL publications were given to our friend David. Our hope is that someday with the help of our Israeli friends and their commitment to amateur radio along with our Palestinian friends our E4 activity will continue. Additional equipment was given to our Israeli friends as a token of our gratitude for their support.
At the Tel Aviv airport we again faced intense security. After 4 hours of interrogation we said good bye to our friends departing to Barcelona and boarded our flight to Rome.
We express our sincere gratitude to the amateur radio community throughout the world for helping us accomplish our goals. In addition, we thank our sponsors, the IARC community and our families who bore the burden of worry during the time of our operating near the Gaza conflict. Also, we thank the ARI association who supported our activity with our IARC friends along with all our other friends world wide who made this dxpedition possible
Pasquale La Gamba