November 28th, 2010

Yesterday, a Saturday, I spent the day in a park in Tel Aviv.  It was a gorgeous warm sunny day that would have fit in perfectly in May, but didn’t at the tail end of November.  At some point during the afternoon, I heard an emergency vehicle followed closely by another and another.  When I lived in New York City that was a daily occurrence, but in Israel it usually means only one thing.  The exception that proves the rule was the Versailles wedding hall disaster, which I remember very clearly.  We were living in Jerusalem at the time, and the sirens continued for what seemed like hours.  In the park, I noted to a friend that something wasn’t right.  He said he wasn’t worried because they were firetrucks, and you don’t have to worry until it’s ambulances.  It passed, and nothing of note happened, but it reminded me of how living in this country can affect a person.

This piece was written in the summer of 2006, during the Second Lebanon War.

I’m sitting on the rooftop balcony of my apartment in Migdal HaEmek in the north of Israel. There are scattered clouds in the night sky, with some stars twinkling through the clouds and light pollution. Off to the left, I can just see the hazy outline of Haifa perched on the side of the Carmel Mountain. To the right, neighbors are throwing a party, giving a mizrachi soundtrack to the evening.

It’s the sounds that are going to define this evening. On one side is the steady backdrop of the party, the other is the eerie quiet of Haifa. From about twenty miles even a loud bustling city seems frozen and silent. Overhead there is the occasional jet or helicopter.

Interrupting the relatively peaceful scene is the sudden loud wail of the siren. It sounds the same as the siren used as a mark of remembrance on Yom HaShoa (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and Yom HaZikaron. (Memorial Day) At ten at night in the middle of the summer, it is not a scheduled wailing. I head downstairs towards our shelter.

I grab my cell phone, and a bottle of water. It isn’t a sign of my being prepared, but rather the things that are there on the way out the door. Two of the neighborhood kids are running towards the shelter too. I go in and sit down.

It is a stark difference to last night. Yesterday at this time I was in a car on my way home. Just a few minutes out, we heard a loud thud. My first reaction was to make sure it wasn’t just me. That eye contact and recognition was followed immediately by the siren. We rushed home.

We got there to see the neighbors milling around complaining. It truly is a recreational sport here. The buildings shelter is in our yard, so they turned to us as being responsible. They said that the dog in the yard is scary, and the shelter is too crowded with junk.

There were four of us there; one nine months pregnant, another with a hernia. That left two to start moving an oven, a broken TV, (“It’s fixable, don’t throw it out!”) and a couple of old computer monitors. There is a tension in the air; this is the first time we’ve been somewhere that’s been shelled.

Ok, reality check. Not shelled. One inaccurate rocket landed somewhere near us. We don’t know where, but the news is saying that no one was hurt and no damage was caused.

Still, we are clearing out the shelter with the neighbors watching over us.

And the phones are ringing. A neighbors mother calls from Argentina, a friend calls from New York, a father calls from Manchester, another neighbor is talking to her family in Russia, and someone’s sister in Tel Aviv isn’t answering her phone.

By the time we felt that we had finished for the evening, we were ready to go to sleep. Slowly, one by one people made their announcement that they were going to sleep in their own beds. At least, someone said, we did something and didn’t ignore the siren totally.

But that was yesterday.

Today, I didn’t hear anything before the siren. Maybe it actually was a warning, maybe I wasn’t listening in the right direction at the right moment.

They say to stay in the shelter for fifteen minutes after the siren; there is no ‘all clear’ signal. We continue the conversation we were having. A cell phone rings, and it is a parent. There has got to be some weird sixth sense that tells a parent in England that their child in Migdal HaEmek has just gone into his bomb shelter, and needs to be called and asked if he is OK. The timing was just too perfect to be a coincidence.

Maybe it is on the news.

“Migdal HaEmek Struck By Rocket!” CNN news crews are the first on the scene, BBC is right behind. Israeli Army Radio pushes their way to the front. “We are broadcasting live from the site of the blast in Migdal HaEmek.” “The town has been thrown into utter chaos as the rocket took out the traffic light.” 1 “Residents are all looking out their windows to see if the iconic half-built tower is still standing.” “Back to you in the studio.”

More likely it is a weird parental sixth sense.

What is the normal thing to do after you spend your quarter of an hour in the shelter? Just about anything normal that you could do is an insult to the seriousness of the situation. Hezbollah is bombing the north of Israel; Israel is bombing Hezbollah all over Lebanon; Hamas is bombing the south of Israel; Israel is bombing Hamas all over Gaza. This is anything but normal. So, you turn on the news, but they are not saying anything new. So, you look up the news on the internet, and the most pressing issue seems to be that W said a dirty word in a conversation with Blair.

Two Israeli soldiers were taken by Hezbollah last week, and one by Hamas the week before. People are dying on both sides of the border every day, and someone cares enough to write an article about past presidential uses of potty language 2 and its impact on American society? Where is the proportionality?

Israeli’s response is being called disproportionate by many.

While I am sitting in my shelter hearing a single rocket hit a nearby hillside, my counterpart in Lebanon is fleeing from a salvo of ground-to-air missiles. I’ve got the shelters and fighter planes on my side. He’s got a weak government and a bombed out bridge. I’m not allowed into closed military areas. He has a Hezbollah ammo depot next door.

There is nothing proportional in this conflict.

We hear thuds from inside the shelter.

Curiosity gets the better of me and I venture out a little bit, only to realize that the thuds are the bass from the party across the street. Did they even stop? Maybe the DJ integrated the siren into his mixing; I wouldn’t put it past someone to do that.

I’m back on the rooftop balcony, and again it’s the sounds that get to me. Haifa is still frozen and silent in the distance, although I know it was a hectic day there. Somehow the party is still going on, and I still have no idea what they are celebrating. Someone surmises that it is an engagement party; plausible. I think they are sticking up a finger to Nasrallah, taunting him.

Jets continue to fly overhead. I can feel the sadness hanging from their wake. I’m having trouble thinking of anyone who is not sad right now. There is family calling from abroad and worried friends from the center of the country. The neighbors in the shelter with me haven’t smiled in a week. The Lebanese villager can’t be enjoying this.

That pilot has to know that he has just dropped a bomb on someone, and maybe he understands and accepts his role in war; but I can’t imagine the realities of war not affecting him.

And at the party next door? There isn’t a DJ in the world talented enough to mix in an air raid siren smoothly enough.

1 Migdal HaEmek is a small city/large town in the north of Israel, just to the south west of Nazareth.  Earlier in 2006, the first traffic lights were installed, and turned on a few months later.  At this time, they were still a novelty in the town. Return to the Article

2 At a G8 meeting in Russia President Bush was overheard by microphones chatting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.  There were a number of news and feature articles written about the incident. Return to the Article

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