When the first air raid siren since 1991 sounded in Tel Aviv last Thursday, no one at The Jerusalem Post’s Internet desk got up from their desks. They heard the sound, it seems, but assumed it was one of the Code Red sirens we’d become accustomed to hearing from the constant newsroom blare of television and radio reports broadcast live from rocket-battered Sderot and Beersheba. I banged on the window separating my office from the newsroom, and in an awkward combination of promenading, hurrying and stumbling we all made it to the stairwell of the building next door, just as the siren stopped and two faint explosions were heard. The truth is, I’d been trying to get an emergency plan into action for months. Back in July, the Post’s military correspondent at the time wrote an assessment that the next war would include rockets on Tel Aviv, though at the time he was looking into the threat from the North - from Hezbollah, rather than Hamas in the South. Given that JPost.com is run from a building only a few hundred meters from the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv - which could potentially be an enemy target - he recommended organizing a Plan B for running the Internet desk in the event of an attack on our coastal metropolis. I imagined a mirror of our newsroom, set up in a bomb shelter, equipped with computers, radios, televisions, a phone and of course Internet and network connections. No such bomb shelter materialized. After the IDF hit Ahmed Jabari, I consulted with the powers that be and the Home Front Command told me the threat on Tel Aviv was low. And even after the first Fajr-5 was fired at Tel Aviv, people were skeptical about the likelihood of another attack. Surely it was just a once-off attack. In any case, I was assured our exposed building was just as safe or unsafe as any other in Tel Aviv. Of course, it turns out they were right - no Hamas rockets landed in Tel Aviv, though not for want of trying. And indeed, as Tel Aviv saw four days straight of Code Reds, the JPost Internet desk staff got used to running to the building next door, posting tweets and updates from our smartphones in the stairwell, then running back to the desk a few minutes later to get the story up, hearts pounding just as much from personal adrenalin as professional pressure.To be sure, what we experienced here in Tel Aviv was nothing compared to what both residents of the South and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have suffered. Over the past week a range of voices, from Defense Minister Ehud Barak, to various other politicians, to my followers on Twitter, have all pointed out that residents of the South have for years been dealing with this sense of threat, fear, and disruption to their lives. And that’s not to mention Gazans living under IAF bombardment. Thinking that every motorbike gunning its engine is an air raid siren and fighting severe sleep deprivation for eight days is but a small taste of the trauma of war and covering it. There is no comparison of suffering. Having said that, all sides of this story are valid and important. The Post’s environmental correspondent, who often writes about animal affairs, took a social media beating last week when she tried to crowd-source a story on air raid siren-induced pet anxiety. Israeli media has been criticized for failing to cover the human side of the offensive on Gaza, and yet the Post received floods of criticism for trying to do just that last week; a human interest piece on war-time life in Gaza resulted in readers threatening to cancel their subscriptions. I too was slammed on Twitter for relating how I’d failed to take cover during an air raid siren due to music blasting too loudly in my headphones. I understand that a few days without listening to music isn’t going to kill me, but that doesn’t mean it had no effect at all. In fact, of the 72 people who retweeted the post and the 32 that replied, only five found it necessary to compare my plight to the Gazans who “I” had killed earlier that day.
No more walking around with headphones on in Tel Aviv for now - felt the boom but didn't hear the sirenNo more walking around with headphones on in Tel Aviv for now - felt the boom but didn't hear the siren #jpost— Elana Kirsh (@elanakirsh) November 18, 2012
Regardless, covering Operation Pillar of Defense was a unique experience for online editors. Journalists in the field, to be sure, are far more accustomed to this sense of being part of the story they’re writing; breaking news editors can seldom use their own first-hand experience to write up a story. It’s not often that there’s no need to call a reporter in the field for verification or find a second source. “There was definitely an air raid siren. We definitely heard two booms. Write the story, get it up, and get it up quick.“To make matters worse (and again, I mean worse than they were for us than the previous week, not worse than for anyone, anywhere, ever), the desk was already short-staffed and one of our editors was called up by the IDF for reserve duty. Everyone on staff worked insane hours both from the office and remotely from home. Traffic on the site reached never-before seen levels, news from Israel, Gaza and around the world was coming in faster than we could catch, translate if necessary, organize and publish - and everyone was on edge as it was. This is not a tragic tale, but the story of an online news desk and its staff operating under abnormal conditions. Here’s to hoping that Wednesday’s Egyptian-brokered cease-fire holds, so both Israelis and Gazans can start getting back to some semblance of normal life.
The writer is the managing editor of JPost.com