Life in Israel under Constant Rocket Fire: What’s it like?
I am constantly asked by people abroad how Israelis live during the not infrequent rocket barrages from the Gaza Strip and focus on the last few days here in an attempt to convey the reality.
Just before we posted this piece it was announced on Israeli television that a ceasefire has been brokered by Egypt and will take effect in the next few hours.
On Tuesday evening, I had a lovely dinner in Tel Aviv with a friend and his son on the last night of their ten-day trip to Israel. Tensions with Gaza were high, following a precision bombing at 2 am that morning that killed three senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad commanders in their homes.
Typically, the IDF will avoid strikes where “collateral damage” – a horribly clinical phrase when speaking of human life – is likely.
But the three simultaneous strikes on Tuesday, May 9 caused significant collateral damage by IDF standards. The PIJ leaders were home with their families. In addition to their deaths, their wives and several of their children as well as a dentist and his wife and child, who lived below one of the PIJ leaders, were also killed.
There is a photo of a beautiful little girl all dressed up in fancy party clothes who was also killed in the last few days in Gaza. What is “overlooked” in the international media is that a misfired PIJ rocket ended her life. Approximately 25% of the PIJ rockets fired at Israel go wonky and land in the Gaza Strip.
Among the video clips circulating in the last few days has been one showing Israeli Air Force pilots aborting a mission because of the sudden and unexpected appearance of two children and an older man in close proximity to the target.
It is contrary to IDF policy to target civilians. That is an inconvenient truth for the anti-Israel crowd but it happens to be true. Hamas and PIJ, on the other hand, consider all Israelis to be legitimate military targets and fire indiscriminately, in keeping with their perspective.
In what has to be among the bitterest of ironies, a Gazan father of six – who was working legally in Israel near the Gaza Strip – was killed by a PIJ rocket. His brother, working with him, was badly injured and is being cared for in an Israeli hospital.
How do we “tally” or assess what is retaliatory or “proportional”, as the international community is always quick to remind Israel. Western media is quick to denounce Israel reflexively, no matter how many hundreds of rockets are aimed at the country’s civilians. Israel is “blamed” and faulted for suffering fewer civilian casualties than Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. And the media seems oblivious to the reasons for this asymmetry; that Israel invests in defense capabilities – like the Iron Dome. Civilian shelters are also a priority. PIJ and Hamas, on the other hand, embed weapons caches in civilian areas quite intentionally, counting on the Israeli avoidance of collateral damage.
But this time was different.
In this endless cycle of violence, where do we begin?
During the last few months there have been a string of brutal terror attacks targeting civilians and carried out by PIJ operatives in the West Bank. Most recent was the horrific ambush of three members of the Dee family driving to Tiberias for a short vacation. When they were in the vicinity of the city of Nablus, a PIJ terrorist shot at their car, causing it to veer off the road, and he then ensured maximum carnage by walking over and shooting all three women – the mother and her two daughters – at point blank range. He then sped off with an accomplice. Exactly thirty days after this brutal attack IDF special forces conducted a crazy, daring, meticulously planned and executed raid on their hiding spot in the dense urban warrens of Nablus, killing the terrorists responsible for the heinous murders. Very likely at point blank range.
Now, to be clear, no IDF spokesperson has come out and made this comment but it’s pretty clear that a calculation was made about the critical importance of hitting PIJ. Hard and fast. Sending a message. Hamas and PIJ routinely use women and children, schools and hospitals, as human shields and they do so cynically, counting on the morality of the IDF to restrain from many potential attacks. But, this time, it seems, they miscalculated. PIJ was going to pay a particularly heavy price – unusually so – for their murderous rampage in recent months targeting Israeli civilians.
And, so, innocents also paid the ultimate price, on both sides of this conflict that everyone says that nobody wants. Yet, no matter the circumstances, the western media unfailingly and enthusiastically defaults to their “demonize Israel” mode. Among the hateful comments in these last few days was a humdinger by CNN superstar Christiane Amanpour, who referred to the ambush and cold-blooded murder of the Dee family members as a “shootout.” As in – a gun battle between two combatants.
That is not an error. It is a deliberate, malevolent fabrication.
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After a major IDF attack like the one on Tuesday morning, counter-strikes are usually launched by Hamas and/or PIJ within hours. But this time they lay low. Not until Wednesday afternoon were the first rockets launched. (As I write this early Saturday evening, more than 1,200 rockets have been shot at Israel since that time.)
The Home Front Command had been preparing citizens for two days; informing residents living on the border with the Gaza Strip to relocate temporarily or stay close to shelters, and announcing that all schools would be closed the following day. Even in Tel Aviv and the surrounding area, the “center”, as it’s known in Israel, public bomb shelters were being opened and cleaned up. Meaning, stuff’s about to get real.
And then, the military action was christened “Operation Shield and Arrow”. Once a name is assigned to an operation, it’s another clear signal that we’re no longer in skirmish territory but, rather, bracing for something bigger.
Just before we met for dinner on Tuesday evening, my friend sent me a message asking me to refrain from mentioning anything about “the situation” around his son, who had been a touch skittish about coming to Israel. As it turned out, we had a delicious, uninterrupted dinner and they flew out a few hours before the first rockets started flying from Gaza.
For those of us living here, it’s been a strained few days.
What’s it like, I am often asked, to live in such a volatile place?
Highly variable, depending on where you are. Israel is small but the differences in terms of vulnerability to rockets is enormous.
In the town of Sderot and what is called the Gaza Envelope – the settlements dotted along the border with the Gaza Strip – the situation has been dire. Rocket fire is constant and people only have 15 seconds – at best – to run to a shelter.
In Ashkelon, a coastal city of 140,000 just north of the Strip, the bombardments are similarly fierce. The city is also home to a sizeable community of immigrants from Russia and former Soviet republics. During the last year tens of thousands of people also moved to Israel from Ukraine and Russia, with many ending up in Ashkelon.
Among them is a family I met last spring in Warsaw, just after they had escaped from Mariupol, their home-town on the Black Sea that Putin’s forces pulverized. For three weeks, this family of three – mother, father and 12-year old daughter, lived underground following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. When the father ventured out in mid-March to fill some water jugs, his right hand was hit by shrapnel and amputated in a makeshift “hospital” almost immediately. He was lucky to have found any assistance; “lucky” to lose part of a limb with no anesthetic, no sanitary capabilities, no medical supplies. But he felt so fortunate to escape alive.
This family now lives in Ashkelon, and I checked in with them by WhatsApp, because that’s what people in Israel do. They were fine, responded the wife, assuring me that even their daughter was handling it well. Who knows. So much war in such a young life. Flee one and walk straight into another.
A few kilometers north of Ashkelon are the towns of Ashdod, Holon and Rishon LeZion, all of which were hit reasonably hard in the past days. On Thursday an apartment in Rehovot – which is an unusual target – suffered a direct hit. Several were injured and the wife of a partially-paralyzed 80-year-old man was killed as she tried to move him quickly. The rocket that destroyed their apartment, and lives, had been engaged by the Iron Dome defense system but the interception failed. It happens. As the IDF reminded all Israelis in the aftermath - Iron Dome is not 100% effective. Just about 95%. So it is critical to follow Home Front Command directives.
I live in central Tel Aviv and so far we have had no rockets come our way. (Tel Aviv is 58 km from Ashkelon.) They’ve come close – a few kilometers to the south – but in Israel that’s far. I’ve heard multiple booms from the Iron Dome intercepts from a distance. To be perfectly honest, we are going about our lives as if all is normal. For us, so far, it has been.
And then there was Thursday night, a quintessentially Israeli moment.
Aviv Geffen, a music superstar, drew 40,000 fans to an open-air concert in a massive park in the north end of the city. There are so many layers of iconic-ness (not a word, I know, but it should be in this moment) to Aviv Geffen. A big name in his own right, he is the son of Yehonatan Geffen, also a huge musician and literary figure, who died from a heart attack on April 19 at age 76. Yehonatan was also the son of Moshe Dayan’s sister. THAT Moshe Dayan.
The Geffens are an exceptionally artistic family with strong left-ish leanings, historically. Over the years they have courted controversy – likely amplified due to the Dayan connection – but also because of their amazing talent and popularity. Aviv Geffen’s concert fell, intentionally, during the week he turned 50. And then, the rockets.
So, this became much more than just a concert. As Geffen said from the stage: “I’m here today with you, performing, because this is an important message…..that we have chosen life. No-one will silence Israel. Ever!”
His concert became an act of resistance and affirmation of Israeli resolve to carry on and live.
Would I have attended? Not a chance. We all make our own personal safety calls, But, 40,000 others did go. Some may see it as reckless. Most Israelis do not. If they cowered at every threat, they say, quite rightly, they would never live. And if Israelis do one thing phenomenally well – they live life. Fully.
The Home Front Command gave the Geffen concert a green-light to go ahead but it was clear there was significant concern. Texts were sent to all concert goers (digital nation) with instructions as to what to do in the event that the alarm sounded during the event. They were told to crouch in place, tuck their head and cover it with their hands and remain in that position for ten minutes. Running or fleeing, they were told, must be avoided, because that creates panic, mayhem and injury. Standard advice.
Having said that, I have never seen Israelis stay in place for ten minutes. Ever. As soon as they hear the boom of the Iron Dome intercept they pick up where they left off.
The day the rockets started coming – Wednesday – I was in Jerusalem for a string of meetings. The distance from Tel Aviv is only about 55km but traffic usually makes the trip an hour – if you time it right. As soon as things heated up, my daughter “suggested” that I get home asap, so that we would be safe and together. Sounded sensible, so I obliged, canceling my last meeting and hitting the road at 3 pm. Usually, leaving at that time would put me just ahead of the heavy rush hour traffic. Thing is, everyone’s kids and spouses had asked them to return home at once. Because, who knows what’s coming? And, so, the roads were beyond snarled throughout the center of the country. It took me more than two hours to get home. And when I finally made it to Tel Aviv, which should have been jammed with traffic at 5 pm on a weekday, the roads were clear.
What do you do if you’re on the road and there are rocket alarms? Depending on where you are you have between 15 and 60 seconds to scramble to shelter (assuming you are in the center or south of Israel). On the road cars tend to stop and people run to the nearest building or, if you’re in the middle of nowhere, get as far away as possible from the road and assume the crouch position with tucked head. You do not want to be near the gasoline-filled cars and trucks that will explode into fireballs if there is a direct hit.
Saturday has been quiet in Tel Aviv but not in the south. The barrages continue. For the first time since January there will be no Saturday night protests against the government’s judicial reform as the Home Front Command has nixed all that. Way too risky. As I write, the main protest organizers seem to be planning to relocate the Tel Aviv crowds (which are typically around 150,000) to Haifa tonight, which, for the time being, seems to be out of rocket range.
And, a Backstreet Boys – (who knew???) -concert tonight in Rishon LeZion has been cancelled. (On Thursday there were Iron Dome intercepts over Rishon.)
What will the coming hours bring? Who knows.
Friday midday-ish, PIJ begin shooting rockets at Bet Shemesh, a heavily orthodox city close to Jerusalem. Also targeted – for the first time since 2014 – were Jerusalem and the settlements ringing the city. There was a report that one rocket hit an Arab village in the West Bank. Jerusalem, of course, has a large Arab population.
We hear about Egypt attempting to broker a ceasefire between Israel and PIJ/Hamas but so far we are not seeing results. So. We do what we do. We carry on.
People abroad seem to think that we regular folks on the ground in Israel somehow know what will transpire. We don’t. We do our best. There are signs. Like naming an operation. Opening shelters. Incoming rockets.
And, there are other signs. Like my daughter telling me about a friend who was just called up for reserve duty for twenty one days with just a few hours of advance notice. She is a trained officer working with the Iron Dome system. Typically, she would do reserve duty each year, a few days here, a few days there, and with a lot more notice. So, that’s another sign.
I was asked during a radio interview on Thursday with Toronto journalist, Alex Pierson, what “all out war” will look like. I have no idea. I’m not sure anyone really knows.
War, these days, is less conventional and more unseen. We are likely in the midst of a full-on cyber war at the moment, if not constantly. But, I suppose that a dreadful scenario – more in keeping with conventional war experiences – would be a missile assault by Hizballah forces in southern Lebanon. The Iran-backed army has approximately 150,000 – likely more – popwerful and pinpoint accurate missiles stored in underground launch pads in Lebanon, ready to fire and directed at key military, infrastructure and population centers in Israel.
That, of course, would be Armageddon time, should it come to pass.
Like most Israelis, I continue to live each moment as fully as possible. The rest, as the devout say, is in God’s hands. Or as I might say, is beyond my control.
There has to be a way of ending this cycle of violence. The most obvious way would be Israel's willingness to accept a two viable state solution. Yes. I understand that would not satisfy ISJ, Hamas etc. and would not end violence in its entirety; however, it would disarm them. Doing more of the same thing that Israel has been doing for a generation is not a solution and would not bring security for Israel and it's people.
We in Canada just can’t imagine the terror. Regardless of how Israelis try to “normalize” their lives while under threat and under fire, the horror still fills their veins and souls. Sadly once again 80 years later most of the free world (we know what the unfree world wants) and some of their local heroes (ie Ye the putz) still stomach the eradication of Israel and Diaspora Jews. Jews in the Diaspora need to face reality, kick ass and believe in Never Again! Am yisroel chai!