For Israelis under siege, a night different from all other nights
It’s the middle of the night in Israel but hardly anybody can sleep.
Rockets and missiles are crackling across the dark sky. BOOM. Sirens are sounding throughout the land. Tanks are massing near the Gaza border. BOOM. BOOM. The thud of explosives hitting the ground has the whole country frightened awake.
“There’s lots of noise outside,” Adele Raemer, an American-born Israeli living near the Gaza Strip border said when I called her around Noon from Los Angeles. “What I think I just heard now is probably tank fire. I’m running to my safe room as we speak so we may get disconnected…”
Raemer, an English teacher, has been living happily on Kibbutz Nirim, located in the Western Negev just 2 kilometers from the border with Gaza since 1975. But over the last decade, living conditions there have taken a turn for the worse. “When I [first] came to live here, everything was lovely and quiet and peaceful,” she said from the government-built safe house that was erected for her. “We used to get into the car and go to Gaza City and shop at their shuks and buy wicker furniture. It wasn’t like this; I wouldn’t have come to live in a war zone.”
Life has unalterably changed since 2001, when Gaza first began lobbing rockets into Southern Israel. The situation intensified in 2008, however, when in an effort to halt the attacks on civilian targets the Israeli military responded with Operation Cast Lead, a military ground incursion into Gaza. Since then, outbreaks of armed conflict — many of them airstrikes — have disturbed the routines of daily life and forced citizens near the border to live under constant threat.
“When there is an incoming missile, they say that we have 15 seconds [to run for cover] but it’s less,” Raemer said, “no more than 10 seconds from when an alarm starts until [a missile] falls. In all of our houses we have a beeper, and when it sounds, you get up and run to your safe room.”
In 2011, after yet another escalation of violence between Israel and Gaza, the Israeli government began building safe houses for citizens living within 4 kilometers of the Gaza border. Raemer’s shelter is the size of an average Israeli bedroom and is located adjacent to her living room. It is equipped with a double bed, a chair and a TV set.
“It’s like an attachment built onto all of our houses,” she explained. “As soon as they built it I said I am going to make this room as comfortable and welcoming as I can so it will be pleasant.”
Raemer’s safe room is wired to support her technological needs — a computer and a telephone — and has room to accommodate her dog beds. “One of my dogs is very cool so she’s got a helmet at the door and she’s protecting us, and the other is cowering and shivering under the bed and drooling and really suffering,” she said. “Hold on, we have an alarm…”
Living near a border comes with explicit risks and dangers, but urban life on the coast of Tel Aviv was long considered untouchable. Not so anymore.
“Right now, I’m in the hallway of my building and the sirens are on,” Omri Marcus, a comedy writer based in Tel Aviv emailed in the middle of the night. Still with his wits about him, he added, “The plus side: My sexy neighbor didn’t have enough time to put her pants on. I was never so thankful for the Palestinian national struggle.”
But reflecting on the events of the past few weeks – the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank and the brutal burning of a Palestinian teen in East Jerusalem – Marcus took on a more serious tone. “It is a painful reminder that this region is not separated between Jews and Arabs but between moderates and extremists,” he wrote. “The fact is, from both sides, the majority wants a peaceful life and to raise our kids in a safe environment. [And yet] we find ourselves in this endless bloody cycle over and over again.”
Several years ago, Raemer decided to document her anxious days living near the Gaza border. “I remember I was on a Skype call with my cousin in New York and I was telling him, ‘It’s nuts here. We keep running back and forth to the safe room and having red alerts.’ And he said, ‘Well we don’t hear anything about that here.’”
She decided to create the Facebook group, “Life on the border with Gaza – things people may not know (but should)” in order to disseminate on-the-ground information. She also became a citizen journalist, blogging for CNN.com’s iReport about the once peaceful kibbutz that had become a conflict zone.
“I couldn’t concentrate on my work, so writing was a way for me to let people know what was going on here,” she said. Writing gave her something meaningful and purposeful to do when she felt helpless.
This latest conflict, though, has her feeling deeply uneasy once again. “[The rockets from Gaza] are getting further and further afield,” she said fearfully. “And all these other things are happening too. Both sides have escalated, and we’re sort of stuck.”
Israel’s use of the Iron Dome – called Operation Protective Edge – has effectively deterred dozens of rockets from hitting their targets. Though it has a 10-percent margin-of-error rate, it has provided some measure of comfort. “Without the Iron Dome, there would have been tremendous casualties on the Israeli side,” Raemer said.
For now, all Raemer can do is stay focused on keeping safe. She said that she had removed her coffee table from the living room so she could run into her safe room unobstructed, and that when she showers, she leaves fresh clothes on the bed and a towel on the floor in case she has to dash in a hurry. She avoids the outdoors, except to walk the dogs, and makes sure to wear shoes she can run in.
Despite the adjustments, Raemer said she does not despair about living in the Jewish state. “There’s terror all over this world — wherever you go,” she said. “What are you going to do, crawl into bed and stay there?”
At the moment, that seems the only thing to do.