It’s frightening how so many things can sound like an air raid siren when you’re listening for it. A truck accelerating, beats in a song, even a crying baby. Any of these things, just for a split second, cause you to stop what you’re doing, look up and wonder, “Is that it?”. Your heart skips a beat, you hold your breath. If it’s a siren, you run for shelter. If it’s just a truck driving by, just part of a song, or just a baby, you take a deep breath and carry on.
It’s also an interesting way to spend a vacation.
Israel was in the midst of a campaign to attract more tourists to the country when a missile killed Hamas’ Ahmed Jabari in Gaza, setting the final spark needed for a week-long war between Hamas and Israel. When the missile destroyed his car on the afternoon of Wednesday, November 14, I was somewhere high above the Mediterranean Sea excitedly anticipating an eight-day trip to Israel. When I left the US on Tuesday night I was looking forward to a warm climate and seeing my friends and family in Israel. When I landed, my aunt told me in the car ride from the airport, “We just killed some Hamas commander. There will probably be a war now.” And so, my vacation in a war zone started.
I won’t paint a picture of victimhood here. I still very much had a vacation, but vacationing in a country at war is quite an experience. Some vacations are looked back upon and scenes of beautiful beaches, fine food or interesting cultural experiences. Strangely, my vacation was marked by those same things, but it was also marked by air raid sirens, the constant chatter of the news on TV, and the stress of visiting locations under attack. This was a bizarre dichotomy.
The war that raged in the southern part of Israel had a minimal impact of my plans. The first time I was personally affected was a surreal moment. It was just as Sabbath was starting in Jerusalem and as I looked outside my hotel window at the setting sun over the city air raid sirens started their ominous call. The sirens can be only be heard, and not seen, yet I was looking out into the Jerusalem dusk, in disbelief, for answers. Could this be an air raid siren so far from Gaza?
As I later found out, rockets were indeed aimed at Jerusalem. Hamas fired rockets at Jerusalem on two occasions last week. The first rockets landed outside a Jewish community in the West Bank. The second attack almost hit Bethlehem, a city inhabited by Arab Muslims and Arab Christians. These rockets seemed to define Hamas’ reckless destruction. Over 1,400 rockets were launched from Gaza during the war, almost exclusively at civilian targets in Israel. Furthermore, Hamas knows that its civilian population in Gaza will suffer greatly from Israeli retaliation, but the consideration for the wellbeing of Israelis and Gazans are disregarded alike by Hamas. Such is the misery of terrorist organizations, whether they be your neighbor or ruler.
The next evening, as the war progressed and intensified, I left Jerusalem for a party in the central part of the country, twenty minutes outside of Tel Aviv. On the way there a friend called me to say he was just called up for emergency reserve duty in the Israeli army. He won’t be available this evening.
The first thing I noticed when I entered the party was the absence of a few of my male friends. I was told by their anxious wives that they too had been called up for reserve duty. The men who were there joked about why the army did not call them. It was a coping mechanism, not for stress, but for rejection. The war was making its presence known to me more and more. And I wasn’t even near the rockets.
My vacation and the war progressed in this similar manner for the rest of the week. More Israeli cities were targeted with rockets, more air raid sirens (including in Tel Aviv, which was a tremendous shock to Israel), more news and more stress.
I didn’t want the war to effect me. I wouldn’t let it. I went to Tel Aviv despite the air raid sirens. Both times I escaped without having to find shelter. But I did have to make some accommodations for the war. Instead of walking directly along the pleasant promenade along the beaches in Tel Aviv where there is no shelter I walked across the street where I could more easily run into a building if needed. I checked the news more often than I would have liked. I was very tense at times, relaxed at others.
As rumors of an impending ceasefire circulated on Wednesday, I planned one last evening in Tel Aviv at my favorite Italian restaurant in the heart of town. Reservations were made for 7 pm, although they were not needed. The city, which is vibrant at all hours of the night and day, was eerily empty. Known for a lack of parking, I found spots easily in the busiest neighborhoods. Normally crowded cafes were vacant. It was not the same Tel Aviv I remembered.
Sometime after noon my cell phone started to ring with a flurry of calls and texts. When a bomb exploded in a bus or restaurant in Israel, everyone calls everyone. Are you OK? Where are you? Have you spoken to your brother?
A bus exploded in the heart of Tel Aviv. Hamas dispatched an Israeli Arab to place a bomb under a seat on a bus that blew up across the street from the same restaurant we were going to that night.
We finally gave in. We cancelled our trip to Tel Aviv. We weren’t going to deal with the stress, the bombs, the air raid sirens. Dining with a view of a bombed out bus isn’t so appealing anyway.
Sure enough, just hours later a ceasefire was declared at 9 pm local time. The war was over – for now – and we could finally have a normal vacation. Alas, our flight left that same evening and as the war ended, so did our vacation.