Growing up in South Africa, one of the warnings I NEVER heard from my mom was: “If you hear the siren, be very careful when getting out of the pool and making your way to the bomb shelter. There is more chance of you slipping on the way than the rocket falling on you.” But those are the exact instructions I gave my kids as I anxiously left them at home and made my way to work during those tense, hot days of Operation Protective Edge in 2014.
As the summer reaches its peak here in Israel, and the heat is so intense that it’s almost impossible to breathe outside, my memories whisk me back three years ago to Israel’s last war. The heat seems to intensify those feelings we felt during that six week period. Feelings of fear, of uncertainty, of heartbreak, but also feelings of pride, of national unity and relief. There were even many moments of laughter (albeit hysterical at times).
There I was, a working mom, commuting three days a week from Netanya to Rehovot by train. Summer camps were winding down or were out for the rest of the holiday, and like most Israeli parents, we were quite happy to leave our early-teen kids at home alone to sleep away the rest of their holiday. Only this year it was different. Suddenly, after weeks of tension, the war broke out and it wasn’t just remote areas that were under attack. Rockets were directed to the central cities, as well, including Netanya, Kfar Saba, Tel Aviv, Modiin and Rehovot. Suddenly, WE were under attack.
In the beginning, the kids were shipped off to grandparents. Thinking back, I don’t know WHAT I was thinking. One set of grandparents lives in a block of flats with a bomb shelter on the ground floor, while the other set lives a gentle 10 minutes’ walk away from their neighborhood shelter — so those two options proved useless very quickly. After a week, the kids were left home to their own devices, with strict instructions what to do if they hear the siren – hence the warnings about running from the pool!
As it turns out, the first time the siren that sounded in Netanya turned out to be when the kids were alone and I was at work. My phone app, downloaded to report when and where a siren went off, screeched ‘Netanya’ while I was 50 km away at my work desk. Not wanting to divert the kids’ attention from what they were trained to do, I held back from calling them until the required ten minutes in the shelter were up. A very pragmatic 13-year-old answered my phone call with: “Hey mom, luckily we were out of the pool already and we didn’t run and we made it in time and can we have ice cream now?”
These are the memories that I associate with Operation Protective Edge:
Incredible heartbreak: In those weeks leading up to the war, the army gathered its forces together. Men and women from my office disappeared to emergency miluim (reserve duty), and we were antsy about kids who had just enlisted and were now thrown into the reality of a potential war. On the night that Israel was forced to send her troops in, I remember watching the footage of our boys entering enemy territory with absolute terror and heartbreak. I remember praying hard that every one of them would return safely but knowing that it wasn’t to be. Every morning on the train, I’d see photos of boys who fell in action the day before – not much older than my kids. Beautiful, fresh-faced boys – each death the death of an entire world.
Rumors began circulating one morning that ‘one of ours’ had fallen the night before in battle. We’re a close-knit bloc of moshavim in the Sharon area and everyone is connected in one way or another. Our kids go to the regional school together, they share Scouts trips, and they socialize and date. It was soon confirmed that S., the brother of my daughter’s classmate had been killed in the line of duty in some cursed alley in Gaza. No words can describe the shock of his death. This is a boy who we saw each day at school, who danced at end-of-year concerts, who rode his brother on the back of his bike through the streets of their moshav. We all turned up for his funeral, each mother sobbing as if it were her own child ripped dead from her womb, the horror reflected in the single sorrowful keening of his mother as they laid her son in the ground. Present at the funeral were boys who had left the field, dirty and dog-tired, given permission to pay their last respects to their friend. One mother recognized her son in the unit that turned up five minutes before the end. As long as I live, I will never forget her clinging to her son, thankful that he was alive, pained that he had to leave back to Gaza in an hour, and terrified how close they were to death.
Hilarity in the Face of Danger: As with everything in Israel, Operation Protective Edge was a complete paradox. In the shadow of danger, people still went to the beach, travelled abroad, shopped and did more mundane things like go to work. Many times over, we saw the funny side of the war. On my train rides home from Rehovot to Netanya, there were times that rockets were falling in Tel Aviv. The train came to a standstill on the tracks and passengers had to dive under seats and tables until the danger was over. On one of those instances, I remember writing as a Facebook status: “At times like this you recognize what is REALLY important in life … like how many people stick their gum under their train seats.”
Or the time that my daughter’s friend, E. came to stay the night. She had spent the month of July at her grandparents in Canada and had never experienced an air raid siren. As luck would have it, the siren sounded at 3 am and we had to shake my kids and E. awake to run into the bomb shelter (which also happens to be Sivan’s bedroom). We laughed so hard that night over so many things: E’s eyes round as saucers in the dim light as she muttered ‘shit, shit’; Sivan sleeping so soundly that the presence of 5 people sitting on her bed didn’t rouse her, and that moment we realized that my husband was wearing nothing but underpants.
National Pride: They say that nothing unifies Israelis like a war. On a day to day level, we think nothing to fight, argue and discriminate, but when there’s a war going on, suddenly we are one big and united family. We put flags outside our homes and on our cars. We send food parcels to soldiers. Restauranteurs open up BBQ facilities outside an army base and send in free, gourmet food to the soldiers. When the success of the Iron Dome (Kipat Barzel), that miraculous air defense system, became clear, we felt as if God’s hand was being spread across our skies and protecting us against rockets and missiles.
Fear: I can’t say that fear wasn’t a constant feeling in those awful weeks of the war – even though sometimes it took a backseat in our minds. There were two occasions that fear came to the fore. Once when I was walking from the train station in Rehovot to my office. It was the day after the first of many ceasefires that Hamas didn’t honor, and I was joyful that maybe this was the end of things. Suddenly, the sirens started to wail and I had 30 seconds to find shelter. I had never been caught outside during an attack before. When it happened at work or home, I knew what to do. This time, however, I was totally exposed and I froze. Thankfully, a guy running past me picked up on my temporary paralysis and yelled at me to follow him. We headed into a nearby building and stood in the stairwell with scores of other people. Those feelings of fear were raw and real.
The second time I saw fear was in the eyes of a good friend and colleague whose son was poised to enter Gaza with his unit. While trying to stay as professional as possible during working hours, the fear surrounding her was almost tangible. A good many times, I accompanied her to the roof of our building where she yelled into the wind to try and let go of some of that panic. I learned again and again to admire the way ordinary men and women continued to function in the face of adversity. The teacher who continued to hold school meetings with parents one-on-one, even as two of her boys were positioned in the very heat of things. Colleagues from the city of Ashdod – a place under constant rocket attack – whose young children were home with elderly parents, and who managed to come in each morning and put in a day’s work. On a day to day level, we Israelis love to moan and complain. When it comes to war time, we pull up our sleeves and get on with things.
On a personal level: Operation Protective Edge wasn’t the first war I experienced. I was here as far back as when Saddam Hussein sent us to our shelters wearing gas masks. But this was the first war where I felt particularly exposed. It was the first time my home was ‘on the radar’, where my children were old enough to feel the fear, and where the children of my close friends were protecting us with their very lives. I have never felt more Israeli than during those six weeks in 2014, nor more proud to be part of this nation. May that war, and all others before it, remain a chapter in our history books and may we and our children know no more.