Sounds of war in Israel, overhead and on my Twitter feed

When the first air-raid siren of summer 2014 screeched through Tel Aviv, my blood turned to ash. I was sitting in a coffee shop near my apartment, typing out a news piece on the disturbing increase in anti-Arab and anti-Jewish attacks throughout Israel, when the sound came — distinctly deeper than an ambulance, and guttural, with a metallic edge. War stuff. 

Wordlessly, a mother and father next to me, Tel Aviv-chic in pastels and eyeglasses, grabbed their two young girls by the hands and followed the baristas to the back. This particular coffee shop didn’t have a shelter, so we all just sort of squished into a utility closet to wait for the boom of the rocket we knew was flying toward us — either the boom of it hitting the ground or the smaller boom of its interception in the sky by Israel’s heroic Iron Dome defense system.

The kids squirmed, watching their parents’ faces for signs they should be afraid.

My mind was back in Gaza, December 2012, having tiny cups of coffee with three generations of the Al Kurdi family. I had just moved from Los Angeles to Israel to write freelance, and they had just lived through another war together: Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense, which killed more than 150 Palestinians. For the Al Kurdis, that meant saying goodbye to a baby cousin, their son’s Arabic teacher and dozens of friends. “They didn’t do any bad things to make Israel kill them,” Muhammad Al Kurdi, a skinny 16-year-old, told me, his eyes unfocused and his knee jiggling uncontrollably.

When I got home from the coffee shop last week, I scattered old pads of paper all over my living room, trying to find my notes from Gaza and the Israeli border communities I’d visited that winter. They were gone.

Gaza is only a one-hour drive south of Tel Aviv, but feels like a trip to the moon. And for the past year, since I’ve been writing for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, I haven’t been able to get permission from Hamas, Gaza’s ruling government party, to enter the strip. 

I messaged Khader, the Al Kurdi family’s second eldest, on Facebook. He would be around 23 years old now. On a still night on his patio two winters ago, Khader had told me he wanted to be a graphic designer, but that all his dreams stopped at the Gaza border fence.

“Are you OK?” I asked him in the Facebook message, not knowing what else to say. A rocket attack on Tel Aviv, Israel’s metropolitan center, would mean unparalleled wrath on Gaza City, where the Al Kurdis live.

Two full days later, Khader responded. “How can I be?” he asked.

“People are killed everywhere, homes are destroyed in hundreds, innocent people died under these homes. I didn’t sleep for the last 30 hours,” he wrote. “My neighbors’ house is totally destroyed. I can’t have peace cause I’m afraid that my house will be next, since some houses were destroyed randomly without warning people living in it.”

My gratitude to Israel for shooting down the rockets hurtling toward my apartment cannot be overstated. But it can screw with your head, clinging to the same army for protection that another people is praying for protection against.

Gaza, a caged plot of land half the size of San Francisco, has taken around 800 tons of explosives from Israel so far, in response to more than 1,000 rockets launched at Israel by Hamas from densely populated areas. As of press time, 188 Palestinians had been killed and more than 1,100 wounded, the majority of them reportedly civilians.

Thanks to the Internet, millions around the world have been watching this new F-16 assault on Gaza — called Operation Protective Edge — in real time. Images from the ground are as horrific as any in the history of modern warfare.

One video from a hospital room shows 4-year-old Sahir Abu Namous with the back of his head blown off, being shaken by his father: “Wake up son, I got you a toy,” the boy’s father tells the toddler, sobbing. Another photo shows a young woman cradling her dead 4-day-old baby, a hellish kind of sorrow rippling across her forehead. In the opening scene of a Vice News dispatch, first responders stumble out of the rubble waving newly detached limbs. A New York Times journalist shares a photo of 15 crude graves dug into the dirt, all designated for family members of Hamas police chief Tayseer Al-Batsh. They were killed in a single strike.

“There were eight people there launching rockets,” Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesman Peter Lerner tells me of the Al-Batsh family home. “That incident is being investigated.”

I’m frozen in front of my Twitter feed. I can’t sleep. Maybe I’m afraid that if I miss a name, or another photo of a “martyr” and his or her survivors, I might forget about Gaza again.

Lerner tells me the army does everything it can to avoid civilian casualties: It calls residents to warn them five to 10 minutes before their home will be bombed, he says, then strikes the building with a non-explosive warning missile.

Many Gazans say they’ve witnessed this system go wrong, or not happen at all. “Yasser receives a call from IDF. Evacuate in ten minutes,” Tweets human-rights worker Mohammed Suliman, 24, from Gaza City. “He wasn’t home though. His family was. Hysterically, he phoned home. No one picked.”