‘Here we go again?’

While Beersheba better prepared to deal with emergencies than during period before Cast Lead, last week’s two Grads were a harsh awakening.

Rocket attack damage car windshield  521 (R) (photo credit: Reuters)
Rocket attack damage car windshield 521 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters)
The first warning came from Emma, a little mixed-breed dog who’s part of the Klein family. “Emma barked,” Sarah Kashin Klein recalled.
“She’s a smart cookie. From her experience during Cast Lead, she runs for our shelter whenever she hears loud noises, including firecrackers or sonic booms. But this time it was 5:30 a.m., and all she did was bark – just once.
“Seconds after that, sirens warning of an incoming missile started wailing. We had no idea how close this one was going to hit.”
The Kleins, Sarah, Robert and their four children aged 12, 11, eight and five, plus Robert’s new-immigrant cousin Howard Schechter, headed for what the kids called the “boomboom” room during Operation Cast Lead, two years ago.
“We were all asleep when it started,” Klein said, “but as they woke up, the children were frightened. We weren’t used to it again.
We went to the shelter, a working room in the basement with a computer, so we could access the Internet. We closed the big door and waited.
“The sirens stopped, and then Howard – who’s new to this experience – started talking.
I shushed him, reminding him we needed to hear when the missile actually hit.
Moments later, we heard it – boom!” As it turned out, the Kleins would have heard this missile hit even if they’d all been shouting.
“It hit just down the street,” Klein recalled. “Maybe a three-minute walk. It was a huge boom – we were absolutely sure it hit one of our neighbors. Robert started checking the Internet, but of course it was too soon. We waited maybe 10 minutes, just in case there was a second one.
“Finally we decided it was safe and left the shelter, but it was still dark outside. We couldn’t see anything, so we just went back to bed.”
A couple of hours later, Robert woke the kids again while Sarah, who’s recovering from serious health issues, stayed in bed.
“I didn’t wake up again until the next Grad hit at 9:30,” she said. “That one hit farther away. But the funny thing was, for that day and the next, I could hardly get out of bed.
“This was really difficult for me – it wasn’t my house [that was hit], it wasn’t my kids, but I’m still suffering PTSS, post-traumatic stress syndrome. Everything that happened back when I was first diagnosed all came roaring back.
“The Grads are different, of course, but I experienced that first shock all over again. I thought. ‘Here we go again!” FEW RESIDENTS of the South can forget the trauma that preceded Operation Cast Lead, when for over eight years, tens of thousands of rockets and missiles rained down on the Negev, with several of Israel’s larger cities in the South – Ashkelon, Ashdod and Beersheba – serving as targets. During the last weeks of the conflict, missiles struck near homes, schools, kindergartens and automobiles.
With schools, offices and many businesses closed, residents hunkered down in their homes, fearful of being caught outdoors and vulnerable if the sirens should sound a warning of another incoming missile.
This year, Beersheba is better prepared than it was back then, said Amit Reingold, head of Beersheba’s Emergency Services Network, speaking on behalf of Mayor Rubik Danilovich.
“We’re better prepared in two major ways,” Reingold noted.
“First, the city joined the National Emergency Authority and, in cooperation with the Hosen Association, we trained over 800 city employees in disaster relief and remediation.
We conducted an integrated exercise to simulate situations in which buildings collapse, or the population is under chemical warfare or missile attacks. City employees simulated opening centers to deal with physical injuries, as well as with those suffering anxiety and stress, to prevent our medical facilities from being overwhelmed during an attack.
“All in all, Beersheba is well prepared to deal with emergencies resulting from any of these events.”
Most public buildings in Beersheba have shelters, underground cellars or area-wide sheltered areas, Reingold noted. If so, why were schools closed? “The Home Front Command’s directive was to achieve the greatest security possible.
Beyond that, the mayor’s first priority was to safeguard the residents.
“In Beersheba, we have 40,000 young people in schools. Once they’re in school, the children are vulnerable during the minutes it takes to get them from the classroom into the sheltered areas. Beyond that, the danger in having them going to and from school – walking, riding in private vehicles, buses or organized transportation – was far greater than having them remain at home, in their own houses.
“Beersheba schools are largely safe, and all have security provisions. Even so, it was our decision that schoolchildren would be safer at home.”
Most parents seemed to agree, even though having children at home while the parents went to work caused some stress.
“After the first 5:30 a.m. strike, I stayed up,” Beersheba resident Reesa Stone recalled, noting that she works in an administrative position at Ben-Gurion University. “By 7 a.m., we heard that schools were closed. Our youngest, Galit, is 10 years old. What should I do with her? She’s fine being home alone – she actually likes it – so I decided I’d go to work, even though I might not stay the whole day.
“I was at work when the second Grad hit at 9:30. All I could think was, ‘Galit’s home alone!’ Everyone in our office ran for the shelter, filled with crying women – we’d all left children home alone. None of us knew where the missile had hit. It was extremely stressful.
“Two years ago when we went through this, three of our five children still lived at home, so they were fine. But now Galit’s the only one left. It’s not easy.”
Would keeping the schools open have been better? “No, not at all,” Stone said. “Closing them was the right thing to do. In elementary schools, there’s a mob mentality. If one little girl starts crying, they all panic, because that seems like the thing to do. Rather than leaving it to the teachers to control the situation, it was much better to close the schools.
“Galit was a little upset during the day. ‘There’s not going to be a war again, is there?’ she asked. She’s too young to understand some things, too old to be oblivious to everything. Of course, another thing that worries me is that if we do get into war again, our son Avi will be in [the army]. That’s a whole different worry.”
THE RECENT Grad attacks on Beersheba revealed another interesting fact: While English-speaking immigrants, are a tiny minority in Beersheba – an estimated 3,500 in a city of 230,000 – many have chosen to live in two adjacent neighborhoods. Three of the Grads that hit Beersheba landed in the midst of those two residential areas.
Reesa Stone recalled the first strike on February 23.
“It was a Wednesday night, and I was at a book club meeting. We were discussing racism in the American south as depicted in Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find, which seemed a world away from the Middle East.
Then the warning siren sounded.
“We’re all experienced at this. We knew what it meant. But still, for several long seconds, we just sat and looked at each other.
Finally the hostess jumped up and ushered everyone into their bomb shelter. We squeezed in among the washer, dryer and freezer, then stood there, silently, until we heard the boom – an exceptionally loud explosion. We knew it had to have hit very close.
“We left the shelter and everyone ran for their cell phones, but of course no one could get through. After any attack in Israel, the first thing that happens is that cell phone lines crash because everyone is trying to get through at the same time.
“Finally, using our host’s land line, I reached my older daughter, Rifka, at home. Everyone was fine, she told me, but the windows and walls had shaken. It must have been close.
“The book club broke up pretty quickly after that. I drove a couple of friends home, but when I turned into our street, there were police everywhere – lights flashing, parts of the road blocked off. The Grad had hit just a short distance away. I walked into the house and my husband Martin said, ‘Let’s go see!’ We walked down the street and dozens of people were milling around, an ambulance was trying to back out without hitting anyone, while glass shards from blasted-out windows crackled under our feet.
“Five houses were damaged. One had the living room falling in. A number of cars were wrecked and several people had been taken to the hospital suffering from shock. What was amazing, though, was that it wasn’t worse. The Grad had struck in a yard, not directly on the house.
“As it happened, the house was empty that evening, but if the residents had been there, they had a sheltered room. In our neighborhood, every house, by law, must have a shelter – which is not true of the older neighborhoods, where residents depend on communal outdoor shelters, some of which were locked.”
Lack of access to neighborhood shelters turned into something of a local controversy.
One frightening situation was described in detail by one young woman who declined to speak to the press, saying she preferred to tell her story herself in her blog, “The New Jew.”
She wrote of how her husband had been at work, and she and her young son had still been asleep when the 5:30 a.m. missile alarm sounded.
“The closest bomb shelter is more than a minute away,” she recalled, “which doesn’t leave enough time to get there from sleep to siren.” They’d concluded that the nearest stairwell – located in a building across the street – was the safest place to run.
“We made it outside the house and across the street when the siren stopped,” she continued. “I was next to a neighbor who had also come outside – we were the only ones, everyone else was apparently still in their houses, asleep.
“The woman wasn’t moving. She was frozen, staring. I tried to get her inside, away from the open space, but she wouldn’t move. And then the explosion. Boom! Only about 30 meters in front of us.
“The noise. Gray smoke everywhere. The smell. Debris flying. Your heart flips and flips and flips – and doesn’t stop flipping – like a fish on the dock desperately trying to get back to the sea.
“My neighbor started screaming and jumping up and down. Standing next to her, I could feel that her breathing was panicked, and her heart was jumping out of her chest. Fearing a second explosion, I grabbed her arm (baby in the other) and dragged her into the nearby building. She was hyperventilating. I helped her sit down and tried to help her breathe more normally while rubbing her back.”
By that time, the writer reports, other residents of the building were coming out, seeing how they could help.
“Your baby is cold,” one remarked. “Why didn’t you dress him warmer?” “I didn’t have time,” the young mother responded, only later to marvel at “this ludicrous response, a reflexive motherly reaction, well out of the context of the last two minutes.”
BUT EVEN if the woman and her baby had made it to their official neighborhood shelter, she would have found it locked. Why were the communal shelters kept locked? Why didn’t local residents – those without shelters in their own homes – have access to them? “The first thing to understand is that the decision to unlock the shelters isn’t made by the city, but by the Home Front Command,” Reingold of Emergency Services said. “The decision to lock them was made on the basis of safety. In this situation, the mayor agreed with the Home Front Command: Neither wanted to endanger the public by encouraging them to rush out into the street.
“Consider it this way,” Reingold continued. “The siren goes off at 5:30 a.m. For an average citizen to wake up, get out of bed, dress and leave the house, even a shelter just 150 meters away is too far. The city follows the Home Front Command’s decision that our population will be safest in their homes, following instructions which are repeated continually on the local radio following an alarm.”
Beersheba activist Ethelea “Leah” Katzenell, who serves on several city boards and commissions, assessed the Beersheba response by various population groups.
“There are probably four different reactions,” she noted. “The majority of the general population does what they’re supposed to do. They run for a shelter; if they’re in a car, they get out and lie on the ground. Another segment – many senior citizens – feels somewhat apathetic. They can’t run for a shelter, so they adopt a ‘What will be, will be’ attitude, knowing there isn’t much they can do about it anyway.
“A third group gets angry – they don’t have shelters in their own homes, and they feel they’re not being sufficiently protected. They make themselves heard.
“And, finally, a very tiny percentage become hysterical and fall apart. Even though they weren’t hit, they suffered no loss, they panic.
“The funny thing is, the ones closest to the problem – those who were actually hurt – are usually quite calm and quiet.”
Katzenell, who made aliya in 1972, notes that on the whole Beersheba has been extraordinarily lucky.
“The missiles hit kindergartens and schools – but never when children were present. They’ve landed in parking lots, in the street or between houses, when – if they’d hit a few meters to one side or the other – a dozen people might have been killed.
“Beersheba is like a patchwork quilt, with some patches missing. We’re a very open, low-density city, with wide streets and boulevards. We’ve been very fortunate to escape worse damage.”
As luck would have it, the day two Grads struck was also the day the AACI, Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel, had set for its annual general meeting, the most important public session of the year. A speaker from Jerusalem had been scheduled, and a new governing board would be elected.
Early on, expectations for a high turnout were good. Then, in the morning, two Grads hit.
Schools closed. Would anyone still come to the meeting? Reesa Stone, who co-chairs AACI South, says it never occurred to her to call off the meeting – not until others started asking if the session would be canceled.
“I called Home Front Command,” Stone said.
“They said we should go ahead – the meeting would be held in the new Yad Sarah building, which had plenty of sheltered areas in case it was needed.”
Stone then called the speaker, Murray Greenfield, a hero of the Aliya Bet, who’d helped transport Holocaust survivors to pre-state Palestine in 1947, defying the British Navy in seriously overloaded “rust bucket” ships. She asked if he was still coming.
“Why wouldn’t I be coming?” Greenfield asked. Stone explained that there had been two Grad strikes already that day. “Then it’s for sure I’m coming!” Greenfield replied, adding that he was coming three hours early and wanted a tour of Beersheba.
“That evening, I left for the meeting,” Stone recalled, “but I had no idea how many people would actually show up. To our surprise, at least 80 people came, more than we’d originally planned for. We had to find extra chairs. The mood of the crowd was buoyant, bordering on defiant. It was like everyone was saying, ‘Don’t try it. Just don’t mess with us. We have miracles walking around here, we know their stories. We don’t depend on miracles alone, so just don’t start with us.’ It turned out to be our best meeting ever.”
Not that some nerves weren’t a bit frayed.
Stone laughed about a more recent incident.
“My office is located on top of a restaurant. They have a smoke alarm that goes off about once a week. It went off this morning, and I jumped completely off my chair. When I realized what it was, I thought, “Ah, thank God! It’s just a fire!” Judy Spanglet, co-director of Connections and Links, a local organization that works with trauma victims, puts the jumpiness in context.
“The body has a basic fight, flight or freeze response to trauma, and many times when the event is over, some of that natural, God-given energy remains in the body and needs to be released. People might shake, cry, feel irritable, or just ‘off.’ Some might feel hyper-alert, others lethargic, unable to move. All of this is natural.
“What should you do? Think of what would make you feel good – take a shower, chat with friends, or even just imagine yourself doing something you love. This might be the time for a funny movie. Laugh, give each other a hug, dance. All of this helps release energy.”
Many do as new immigrant Howard Schechter did. He’d been in Israel fewer than three weeks when he experienced his first Grad attack. He decided to focus on how important it was for him to be here.
“They should know that this is not going to stop us from coming, or from fulfilling our dream of living on our very own land,” he declared. “We’re here to stay, regardless.”