Sirens just sounded in Jerusalem. People looked around with utter confusion. Someone told me it was the wind. I saw two people standing in an open field in the distance. What would YOU do if at this very moment, an air raid siren sounded where you are?
You don’t expect to be hit with a rocket, right? I mean, you live where? In a huge city, a small town? The siren lasted for a few minutes and then stopped. No one went running for shelter, no one would believe the Arabs would really send rockets at Jerusalem, right? Within moments, news stations confirmed that the air raid siren had sounded here and in other locations nearby. It was unplanned and accidental.
Two days ago, I drove south to take a donation of warm thermal pants and socks to Elie’s unit. It’s funny how the things that touch you the most, are often the hardest to write and so I’ll apologize for not telling you all that I was able to see Elie, give him a hug, and just look at him. I gave him the supplies for his unit, got my hug, gave him brownies that I’d brought for him, and watched him climb into an army truck and drive away, back to the war.
I have a picture of him accepting the generous donation of an amazing organization, Yashar LaChayal, which means “Direct to the Soldier.” I want to write about this group of caring people and those who support them. I have to write about them, and I will…but now I want to write about the siren, two sirens. Today, a siren sounded in Jerusalem. There was no panic – bewilderment at most. How could a siren sound in the middle of the day, in the middle of a major city? No one ran to a bomb shelter.
Should we have assumed we are under attack? Would you? Two days ago, I stopped in the city of Ashkelon on the way down south. I needed to buy a charger for Elie’s telephone. Confident that I’d find it, I parked in the lot near the cellular phone store. As I approached, I saw a note explaining that because of the security situation, entrance to the store was from the other side. I circled the mall, noticing prominent signs to the bomb shelter and as I approached the rear door to the shop, I noticed there were two portable bomb shelters placed across the alley from the store, and there was a family sitting next to the entrance of one of the bomb shelters. They had bags by their feet, and children playing nearby.
Only later did I realize they probably felt safer near the bomb shelter and so spent their day sitting there, waiting for a siren.The security guard explained to each person that they were open for emergency orders only. I started to explain that my son was a soldier and needed a charger, when the alarm went off. Code Red. Incoming missile.
I can’t say that things stopped or the world froze. There’s simply no time. Everyone moved at once, quickly. No panic – just fast. Across the alley and into the two bomb shelters. The security guard was the last to step in and immediately started closing the door. I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me that he would do this, but I remember being surprised.
Of course, it makes sense – when a missile hits, it is packed with shrapnel and little metal pieces meant to act as bullets to cause maximum injury. As he pulled the door closed, a woman’s voice was heard from outside. The guard quickly opened the door and said, “hurry, hurry.” The urgency was in his voice, surprising me and making me more nervous. The woman entered. The guard quickly closed the door.
Only a small amount of light was there, coming from a small air hole in the side wall, above our heads to allow air, but still protect the occupants. I wish I could tell you that I thought of something profound; in truth, my mind was blank. I think I was listening for a boom. Mere seconds after he closed the door, faster than it is taking you to read this single sentence, it was over.
The guard looked at his phone, relaxed, and said, “zehu” (that’s it). Someone said something about waiting 5 minutes. This is in case a missile landed, but didn’t explode. The guard had already checked his phone and opened the door. That’s it. My first rocket attack – may it be my last. Unfazed by what is clearly a daily occurrence, the guard went back to answering my question. Wrong mall. He suggested I go deeper into Ashkelon.
I found the second mall, parked the car again, and as I entered, my phone beeped. “Direct hit on house in Ashkelon. No casualties. Damage to two houses.” I entered the mall, a little shaken, a little less certain of life in general. I asked the security guard where the cellular phone company was located. About half the stores in the mall were closed.
I walked downstairs and found the company operating in the stairwell and basement area near the bomb shelter. They had abandoned their computerized system upstairs because the store was too far from the bomb shelter. More than a dozen people waited to have their phones fixed. Each was handed a piece of paper with a number on it.
Upstairs, each customer would have pressed a touch screen attached to a computer and received a number. An electronic board would display each number as it was called and direct each person to a specific agent. But upstairs, the entire front of the store is one huge glass wall. The center of the mall was open.
People stood around waiting for someone to call out a number. They stood and talked. “If this was Tel Aviv…” I heard one man say. “When a missile hits Tel Aviv, then the government will care,” said another. They were afraid that Israel would give in to international pressure and stop the war before eliminating Hamas’ ability to fire weapons at their city. It was depressing to think they were right. I returned to my car and drove past army trucks, under helicopters circling. So close to Gaza, I could see it.
My eyes strayed to the skies many times; I think I was looking for a missile to come flying through. Ashkelon is a big city, sparkling in the sunshine. When the siren sounds, you have to run; you only have a few seconds. I learned two days ago how few seconds you have.
From the time we heard the siren, to the point the guard announced it was over, less than 30 seconds had passed. Some people say time freezes when you are under stress. In Ashkelon, I think time moves even faster. I finally arrived at the meeting point where Elie told me to wait. A while later, as I was watching military vehicles coming and going, a small truck pulled up. As with the others, there were two soldiers in the front.
One of the soldiers smiled and I looked into his blue eyes. “That one is mine,” I called out to my friend and jumped from the car to hug Elie. He looks amazing. He looks…amazing. He is safe. He is tall and amazing.
I gave him the supplies for his unit; I gave him the brownies, “do you want one box or two?” I asked him. He took two. I showed him what I brought, “do you need a clean towel?” I asked. He said no. He took the candies and clean underwear and socks and deodorant. He took the brownies. He said he had to go and I said, “Not without another hug.”
I got my hug and watched him drive away. The helicopters circled above. Soldiers came and went. I drove back past Ashkelon and Sderot and Ashdod. I wanted to write about seeing Elie but perhaps there are no real words to describe the simple joy of looking into your son’s face and seeing, really seeing, that he’s OK. Instead, I’ll end where I began, which is why my son is down there.
Today, rockets hit Ashkelon, Beersheva, Sdot Negev, the western Negev, Eshkol region, and Ashdod. Each time the alarm was sounded, people ran. You cannot imagine how short the time was between our entering the bomb shelter and the guard announcing, “that’s it.” I can’t get these two alerts out of my mind – the one where people already believe a rocket is on its way, and the one where people knew with as much certainty as you yourself have, that no one would dare shoot a rocket at your city.
It can’t happen – it won’t happen. But of course, it did happen two days ago, and yesterday and today. What Elie does there, what the soldiers in Gaza are doing at this very moment, is to try to help the people in each of the cities in the south, to return to a time when they, like you, cannot imagine someone doing something so wrong.