A memorable weekend

My eldest daughter is a tough cookie

May 15, 2019 18:42
THE IRON DOME air defense system fires interceptor missiles over Ashkelon on Sunday.

THE IRON DOME air defense system fires interceptor missiles over Ashkelon on Sunday.. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

SARAH WAS a member, and then a madricha (counsellor), in the French Jewish Scouts for ten years before making aliyah in 2011.

Today she teaches high school English in Netivot, a Negev town so close to the Gaza Strip border that residents have barely 15 seconds to reach shelter before a rocket can evade the Iron Dome anti-missile system and explode in their midst.

Sarah has had to handle situations where pupils in her classes suffered anxiety attacks when wailing sirens warned of incoming rockets.

On May 4 and 5, I got a close look at what her life (and that of nearly a million people in southern Israel) was like, when Islamic militants fired nearly 700 rockets throughout the border area, killing four people and wounding more than 100.

It all began at 10 a.m. on Saturday with a surprise rocket barrage aimed at multiple southern Israeli towns and villages. Sarah had fed her baby and gone back to bed, having spent Friday hosting two successive parties for her son’s first birthday, one at his gan (nursery) and the other at home in her garden. Her husband, Elad, was attending Shabbat services at the synagogue.

I was in the hallway when I heard the bone-chilling howl of the rocket alert, Ouuuuuuuuuuuuuu, ouuuuuuuuuuuuuu. The first time I had heard it was in Paris, on a radio broadcast from Israel 10 or 15 years ago. It had instantly brought tears to my eyes because I was born in German-occupied France during World War II and I instinctively knew that it meant Jews had to once again hide to save their lives.

Then I saw Sarah barrel out of her bedroom in her pajamas and leap into her son’s room to grab him out of his cot.

As the siren continued to blare, Sarah turned in the hall to rush to the family home’s “mamad,” a room with extra thick walls and a reinforced iron door. But she slipped on the smooth stone floor and flew forward with the baby in her arms.

It was like watching a rugby player as she desperately turned slightly in the air to avoid the baby hitting the floor.

It was her face and knees which hit the ground and she desperately crawled the last few inches into the security room. I had miserably tried to check her fall but only managed to wrench my back.

We were joined inside the safe room by my wife Suzanne who had been in the shower, and by Kiwi, Sarah and Elad’s extraordinarily large and energetic young Golden Retriever dog, who was the first to enter the room, clearly having had prior experience of such situations.
He was excited and trembling.

Just seconds had passed since the siren sounded and I had hardly closed the door when we heard overhead muffled “Ka-boom! Kaboom”
sounds. It meant incoming rockets had been destroyed in midair by Iron Dome. Later that day and the next, during five more alerts and races to the shelter, we also several times heard a loud “Bam!” and felt the ground shake. I was told that was the sound of rockets hitting the ground. Israeli authorities explained that about 70 percent of the incoming rockets were not challenged by the expensive Iron Dome defenses because it was calculated that they would fall in open terrain outside towns.

Back from Sabbath prayer at the large synagogue down the street, Elad recounted that several women in the balcony there had screamed when the sirens first sounded but that calm had prevailed among the several hundred men present on the ground floor. “We would never have had the time to all make it to the shelter,” he said.

During the next two days, the streets of Netivot and other nearby cities and towns were nearly entirely deserted as hundreds of thousands of people hunkered down at home until a cease-fire was reached early on Monday morning. Schools were closed, keeping 220,000 children indoors. Men went to work on Sunday. Elad had to join others in his office in Beersheba in seeking shelter during three rocket attacks there.

In Sderot, a town about 10 km (six miles) away from Netivot and practically on the border with Gaza they have a mere five seconds to take shelter and both rockets and mortar shells damaged several homes. Ashkelon, the coastal resort town of 140,000 less than half an hour’s drive away, was blasted by salvos of missiles, which killed several people.

On Sunday, Elad’s father Nissim came from his home across town to see how his daughter-in-law was doing. Seeing her black eye, he jokingly told her to be careful. In fact Israeli television said dozens, if not hundreds of people, had been injured, some seriously, when rushing to shelters in the areas under attack.

I asked Nissim, who arrived in Israel with his parents from the Tunisian island of Djerba soon after the creation of Israel, what he thought of the troubled situation. “What trouble? We’re used to this.” Most of Netivot’s 37,000 inhabitants are descended from families who fled Arab hostility after Israel was created in 1948. Jews originating from Islamic countries today make up about 52 percent of Israel’s total population.

After suffering discrimination for centuries as second-class residents in their former homelands, they are nearly to a man intensely proud of Israel and are most often staunch backers of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israel is a land of many would-be prophets and everyone has his say, including Moshe, the proverbial opinionated taxi driver, who also hails from Djerba and lives in Netivot.

“I hope the ceasefire will last. But afterwards, if the Palestinians make another mistake by attacking us again, I think Bibi will send the army into Gaza to teach them a lesson that will allow us quiet for another ten years. To have quiet forever would mean having to go in and killing them all but we’re Jews and we don’t do things like that,” he said.

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