"Tzeva adom (Red Alert)." These are the words heard all too often by Israeli civilians living in kibbutzim, moshavim and other towns and cities on the Gaza border, when a barrage of rockets is fired from Gaza directly towards them.
For many, when these chilling words ring through the air, 10 seconds, maybe 15, is all they have to find a safe place to wait until the danger passes.
The rockets are fired indiscriminately. It doesn’t matter if you’re old or young, able-bodied or disabled, Jewish or Muslim. Those that aren’t intercepted by the Iron Dome missile-defense system, could land anywhere – even on a house or a school – maiming and killing those inside who haven’t managed to get to a place of safety in time.
Although some of the rockets are directed to more central parts of Israel, including Tel Aviv, the large majority are aimed at communities in the South.
Such is the reality for Judih Weinstein Haggai who lives on Kibbutz Nir Oz, right on the border.
Last week, during Operation Breaking Dawn, both she and others on her kibbutz as well as those in neighboring communities came under constant attack by Islamic Jihad terrorists in Gaza firing rockets directly at them for days on end. It wasn’t the first time, however, that they have had to deal with this sort of thing.
Living under constant threat of Gaza rockets
Tragically, everyone in this region, commonly known as the Gaza Envelope, has been forced to live with this intolerable threat for two decades. It has become a way of life for them. Some youngsters know nothing else.
When the situation in the region flares up, they know that they will be in the firing line. Arrangements are put in place to ensure everyone’s safety as far as possible. Many of those who live in the area – especially families with young children – take up invitations to move to safer areas while the attacks continue.
Those who stay have to make significant adjustments to their lives. Phone apps and TV updates keep everyone informed about the situation in general and also provide invaluable information about the direction of rocket fire.
Mundane activities such as taking a shower require careful planning and execution, for example, Haggai told me. Timing is crucial. With only 10 seconds to reach her mamad (safe room) when the words “red alert” rings out, Haggai has to be prepared to leap out of the shower, wrap herself in a towel and make her way there immediately.
HAIR WASHING has to be undertaken in double quick time as the last thing anyone wants is to have to go to the mamad with shampoo suds running into their eyes. With that in mind, she lays towels on the floor all the way from the bathroom to the safe room to stop her from slipping and times each shower carefully, scouring her app beforehand for clues as to when her kibbutz will come under fire again.
All well and good if you’re at home, but what happens if you’re out and about, taking a walk, for example, when the red alert sounds, I asked. Small concrete shelters are dotted around, for those nearby, as well as three-sided cement structures behind which one can duck down for cover, came the answer. In open spaces, lying on the floor and waiting for the sound of nearby explosions to end is all you can do.
Stanley Kaye, who also lives on a kibbutz on the Gaza border, is no stranger to the dangers which he and his fellow kibbutzniks often face. In years gone by, most families would stay on the kibbutz in times of trouble owing to its protected children’s houses. The children would stay in these houses and participate in daily educational activities, safe from harm, instead of leaving with their families. In recent years, however, such activities have been prohibited by the Homefront Command when a state of emergency is declared, resulting in many families leaving along with others who would prefer not to stay.
Instead, the children’s houses are used for religious services. Accordingly, those who stay on the kibbutz are free to daven (pray) without interruption.
The iron dome itself is situated close to Kaye’s kibbutz, making it extremely difficult to hear anything when it is fired. As a result, many do not wait for the red alert, but instead run for cover as soon as they hear it doing its job of keeping us all safe.
Activity at night (between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m.) significantly reduces, Kaye told me. He also added that rocket fire tends to cease during World Cup football matches when ongoing attacks and the tournament coincide.
That said, the fear is ever present. Many sleep in their safe rooms. Some are even too scared to come out of there at all when a state of emergency is declared.
Israelis here grow accustomed to red alerts
CHILDREN BORN and raised on kibbutzim and in towns and cities in the Gaza envelope have, in most cases, grown used to the sound of the “red alert” and the explosions that follow. They are well versed in the art of diving into the nearest shelter or finding the safest place to lie down when the alert or siren sounds.
Even when things are “quiet” as far as the rest of the world is concerned, people in the area have to contend with the sound of booms, explosions, drones and fires caused by incendiary kites sent over from Gaza. On some days, when the situation flares up as it did last week, over thirty “red alerts” can be heard, making it impossible to do anything other than run for cover.
Sadly however, even when the rockets stop falling, the mental scars left behind can be significant. It can take days or weeks for people to resume their normal lives once a state of emergency has been lifted as the trauma of the attacks linger.
The Israeli city of Sderot, located less than a mile from Gaza, has been the target of rocket fire for over two decades. Consequently, a large proportion of residents there suffer from PTSD, including many children. Resilience centers both in Sderot and across the region provide help and support for anyone affected. Individual and group therapies, as well as various programs and 24 hour helplines are offered, free of charge.
The resilience centers are staffed by selfless, hardworking men and women, such as Esther Marcus, a social worker and therapist who lives on a kibbutz on the Gaza border. When a state of emergency was declared last week, Esther worked the helpline, thus providing essential and invaluable support to the wider community.
Many also do what they can to help in an individual capacity. Haggai, for example, teaches mindfulness to schoolchildren in the area as well as running mindfulness sessions on her kibbutz.
Others provide practical assistance, for example, delivering food to those who are too frightened to leave their homes when they come under attack.
Although living in this region is tough, the generosity and resilience of the people there who look out for each other and the abundance of community spirit is a shining example to the rest of us. It illustrates how, when everyone works together toward a common goal, even the most dire situations can be overcome and life can go on.
The writer is a former lawyer from Manchester, England. She lives in Netanya, where she spends most of her time writing and enjoying her new life in Israel.