The citizens' point of view

What's it like to live under terrorist rocket fire?

ashdod running 521 (photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
ashdod running 521
(photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
Last Wednesday, November 14, Israel launched Operation Pillar of Defense in response to the incessant rocket fire by Hamas from the Gaza Strip. Before the operation commenced, Hamas had fired approximately 800 rockets this year, which were predominantly limited to the south of the country. Since the operation began, 1,300 rockets were fired in seven days, sending one million residents running to bomb shelters.
At press time five people have already been killed, including one IDF soldier, with dozens seriously injured and many more requiring treatment. Were it not for bomb shelters and the Iron Dome missile defense system, that figure would be much higher. Likewise, the cancellation of lessons in schools and evacuation orders from the government and the IDF have prevented mass catastrophes.
However, the rockets are no longer limited to just Sderot, Ashkelon, Beersheba and Ashdod. Sirens in Tel Aviv have begun to wail for the first time since the 1991 Gulf War and Rishon Lezion, Israel’s fourth-largest city, has suffered direct hits. Hamas has also fired on the nation’s capital, with four rockets landing on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
With Hamas now targeting Israel’s major population centers, 45 percent of the country, or 3.5 million residents, are now directly within the line of fire.
For many people, such as new immigrants, this is a new experience. For those who lived through the Gulf War, it is one they wished they would never have to relive. But for the residents of the South, it has become a tragic part of daily life over the past 12 years, which have seen some 12,000 rockets fired.
As with any war, the raw human emotion of people trying to cope is perhaps one of the most heart-wrenching and inspiring elements.
Many parts of the country have come to a virtual standstill; some cities resemble ghost towns as residents bunker down in shelters; elsewhere, like in Tel Aviv, there is an eerie calm as people go about their daily routine in between the occasional dashes for safety.
All Israelis have been affected one way or another, whether it’s experiencing their first “Color Red” air-raid siren, saying goodbye to a husband or son called up to the army or being away from a loved one during a rocket attack.
The Jerusalem Post spoke with a few of these citizens, who were kind enough to share their very personal experiences.
Jonny Daniels is a 26-year-old former IDF paratrooper who served in the Second Lebanon War. He now works as a political consultant and lives in Givat Shmuel with his wife and three-year-old daughter.
Although the family experienced several “Color Red” alerts since the operation began, they had so far been together for all of them. However, on one occasion, Daniels was separated from his daughter, who was at preschool when the siren went off.
Being in the army at age 20, you definitely “feel nervous,” he says, “but at least you are in control of your own destiny. The fear I felt when my precious threeyear- old daughter was away from me here was just horrific; complete helplessness.”
As a father, Daniels says “you just want keep your child as safe as possible, but being apart from them when there is a rocket potentially heading their way is the worst feeling anyone could ever imagine.”
All the children in the preschool were led into a safe room, where, like in preschools all over the country, their teachers tried to divert their attention with games.
Daniels tried to contact the school but was unable to because the phone lines were jammed. It took 10 minutes until he was able to get through. “They were the longest 10 minutes of my life,” he says.
Ultimately, Daniels says, “there is nothing I want more for my daughter than to be brought up in a peaceful environment.”
Although given the current political climate, he doesn’t believe that will happen any time soon, he firmly believes that there is still “no place safer for a Jew than the State of Israel.” This is our homeland, he says, and it is where “I shall raise my daughter.”
Sarah Warshawsky made aliya this summer from Texas. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in political science at Tel Aviv University and attending Hebrew classes at Ulpan Gordon. Her experience is typical of many olim in this situation.
Warshawsky describes how she and her group of friends at ulpan, new immigrants from around the world, are now constantly glued to their cell phones for information.
“We all adapted our phones to the latest apps: ‘Tzeva Adom,’ Ynet, Channel 2; it was as if we were trading with each other the hottest new iPhone games.”
One morning, Warshawsky and some friends stepped out for a coffee break. “We were chatting noisily until we noticed the eyes of our friend. She stared at the sky and quickly hushed us silent,” she says. There was a siren ringing out in the distance.
After three days of hearing sirens, she says, it was as if “I had already become accustomed to what to do: find the nearest shelter, wait 10 minutes, then go about my day.”
This time, however, she was with all new immigrants rather than her usual group of Israeli friends. “The fear that I saw in their eyes will never leave me,” she says.
“The boom we heard as the Iron Dome exploded the rocket over southern Tel Aviv shook one of the girls so much she began to cry. Our mismatched group of friends, who all speak different languages, from different parts of the world, were now sitting huddled under an apartment building. Each one was consoling the other.”
Now, every time she hears a bus engine rev or a car backfire, “my heart leaps into my throat,” she says. As a result, she is now much more conscious of the noises around her and has stopped wearing headphones as she walks the streets.
“I try to keep as calm as I can but my sleeping is not what it used to be. Life goes on, especially here in Tel Aviv, but I know my life will never be the same. My pride for this country, my love for this country has never been stronger and I hope that one day every Israeli will live in peace and quiet.”
“BE SAFE. I love you.” A conversation with her mother never ends without that line being repeated “over and over again,” says Michelle Rojas-Tal of Jerusalem, who is the director for Diaspora Affairs at the pro-Israel nonprofit StandWithUs.
She says she always tries to reassure her mother, who lives in New York, that she is safe. But given the physical distance between them, deep down she knows “it must be easier for me to say than for her to believe.”
Last Friday afternoon, as the country was settling into Shabbat, Rojas-Tal says she finally understood her mother’s sentiment for the first time because this time she was the one on the other end of the phone.
She recounts how, during a light-hearted conversation with her husband, who was in their apartment in Jerusalem while she was visiting family in New York, the air raid siren had begun to wail. “My husband ran for our shelter room and said he would call me back. Those were the longest five minutes of my life. In an instant, I understood what it feels like being so far away from home while a conflict consumes everyone.”
When her husband finally called back, Rojas-Tal says relief ran through her and “I felt as if I was able to breathe deeper than ever before.” She keeps reassuring her family in New York that “everything will be fine and they really have nothing to be concerned with,” but now she understands that “being on the other end of the line sometimes makes that so much more difficult to say – and to believe.”
Idan Matalon is a Tel Aviv-based video producer who has become famous in Israel and around the world for some of his catchy lip-synching music videos.
When the first siren went off in Tel Aviv last Thursday, Matalon was in the process of filming a music clip about Tel Aviv in the busy Nahalat Binyamin market. He recalls how in one moment there were about 40 bystanders watching him film, and the next moment, “everything suddenly stopped” and they ran to find a safe place. In 10 seconds, “everything changed.”
Having lived in Gan Yavne during Operation Cast Lead, Matalon says he was “used to the sirens and wasn’t afraid.” However, in a split second, Tel Aviv, which for him had always been a “safe, metropolitan city,” suddenly changed.
Matalon is nevertheless impressed by the resilience of Tel Aviv residents. Immediately after the siren ended, he went back to filming his clip and people in the streets went back to the coffee shops and going about their daily routines.
Matalon was at the beach and on the bus during the second and third sirens. On both occasions, he describes how the locals stopped whatever they were doing and calmly, without panic, went to a safe location to seek shelter. Ten minutes later “they went back to their lives and seemed to remain in an upbeat spirit.”
For Matalon, it is important that people still continue with their lives so that “the sirens and the rockets do not destroy our days.”
Robert Pearl is an English teacher who lives in Beersheba. It wasn’t until last Wednesday, the first day of Operation Pillar of Defense, that he felt his life was in danger.
Pearl lives with his wife in an older apartment block, which, because of its age, does not have a bomb shelter. When they heard the siren, they quickly dropped what they were doing and ran for the stairway (their building’s designated “safe spot”). As they reached the stairs, he recalls there was a massive explosion and suddenly there was dust everywhere and people screaming.
It was only after the immediate danger subsided that he realized what a close call it had been; the rocket landed only meters outside their building, on the other side of the street.
Thankfully, there were no injuries, but their building did sustain some damage and afterwards Pearl noticed his car had punctures from the shrapnel. They have since moved to his wife’s parents’ home nearby, which has a bomb shelter, because they do not wish to risk their luck again.
Pearl stresses that many people fail to realize that “the rockets didn’t just start yesterday; this has been a daily routine for us for years now.”
“This isn’t a life – running from shelter to shelter,” he says. “Enough is enough. We just can’t let the rockets continue.”
Surrealism is not just art
It was only a few short months ago that the residents of Sderot got an early wake-up call. Now it seems like there is no need for sleep, or at least no way to sleep, as the border, only five kilometers away, is overflowing with action.
You can’t sleep, you can’t breathe as the alarm echoes across the city, followed closely by the violent shaking of the blasts as the rockets hit. To add to the absurdity of life, the night is shattered by missiles falling so closely together, the alarm doesn’t even have time to go off. Furthermore, the citizens of Sderot can hear and feel the earth move as the IDF fights back.
This has been the reality of our life here in the South for the past 12 years. Anything and everything we do is at our own risk. We cannot leave the house without thinking about it twice. It is a risk to take a shower. Taking a hot bath should be relaxing, but what should one do if the alarm goes off? Run out wet and risk a broken neck? Flash one’s three flatmates on the way to the bomb shelter? The answer is simple; no, you do not! You stay in the shower and pray to God to keep you safe.
“I was in the middle of shaving my legs when the alarm went off. I ran to the safe room, razor in hand, one leg shaved and the other covered in shaving cream. It was weird but what could I do?” says E., a student at Sapir Community College near Sderot.
It’s become so embedded in the way of life that it has come to be expected that the unexpected will occur.
“I was sitting in a coffee house in Beersheba when the alarm went off; they told us to get in to the kitchen. While we waited, they gave us free cookies,” says a student named Yael.
And what about being outside in the garden, enjoying a nice barbecue with the family? “The alarm went off but I was not about to abandon four kilos of meat, so I stayed to tend the grill,” says Dima Bushansky, a student at Sapir and a longtime resident of Sderot.
And please, let’s not abandon the animals.
“I basically pulled my cat out of the litter box as he was covering his business. We then ran to the bathroom, the only safe place in the apartment,” Adi says with half a smile as the she sees the absurdity of it.
It saddens me to say that life goes on here in the South despite the surrealism that we are wrapped in.
The best luck we can hope for is to get through the day without earth-shattering blasts and rockets.