Friday, November 16, 2012

Life in Tel Aviv by Sarah Friedman

Sarah E. Friedman
November 15, 2012

Last night marked the first time since the Gulf War that air raid sirens have sounded in Tel Aviv signaling imminent danger. (It also marked the only time in my life I will regret living in an apartment with a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows.)

When I heard the siren, around 7 pm on Thursday, its meaning didn’t register at first. I poked my head out my window to survey the situation, and when I heard the penetrating thud of an explosion I decided to change clothes, pack a bag, and head downstairs to find a shelter. (Needless to say, this is not the correct order in which to proceed). I didn’t see one in my building, so I stood in the elevator bank beneath the staircase until a neighbor came along. The neighbor said that there is no shelter in our old building (though building codes now require new residential construction to include shelters) but that inside a staircase away from windows was the recommended alternative, and where I was standing was perfect. Soon after I returned to my apartment – sheltering is recommended for only 10 minutes after the siren stops – I started receiving worried messages from family and friends, and cautionary missives from various authorities, including the U.S. Embassy, urging residents to find shelter in case of another siren.

So I ventured into my immediate neighborhood to find a shelter, figuring the businesses surrounding me would know if the neighbors didn’t. I was wrong: the calm that I observed when I stupidly peeked out the window was truly felt and internalized by the Israelis I spoke with. In the grocery store downstairs, in the restaurant connected to my building, no one knew where a shelter was. They seemed unconcerned, not brazenly so, just calm. In the coffee shop across the street, the barista laughed kindly at my question, as if it was cute and very dutiful of me to want to know, but really not necessary.

My Israeli aunt and several friends called me that night. They all wanted to see if I felt okay, if I was scared, if there was anything they could do. They themselves weren’t disturbed. Even though the sirens haven’t sounded in Tel Aviv in more than 20 years, the Israeli mentality is prepared to face random violence. I don’t mean to romanticize Israelis or downplay the seriousness of the situation – but living in a danger zone is part of the deal here and they don’t let fear rule. And the issue today isn’t Iran, which could become a more serious immediate threat. The present physical danger is being hit by a not-precisely-aimed rocket, of which Gaza has many less since the Israeli Air Force hit targets including rocket storage and launching pads. There won’t be blocks leveled in Tel Aviv, fortunately, and safety procedures including sirens with a 2-minute warning time seem to me the mark of an incredibly prepared and well-equipped government.

On that semi-positive note and in that context, I have mixed feelings about the reactions I’ve heard from outside of Israel. Many individuals and organizations are declaring solidarity with Israel no matter what, promoting any military action, no questions asked. Of course I stand with the country and idea of Israel no matter what - I stand in Israel, I live here, I study here, I run on the boulevard outside my house and sit on the beach and ride the bus daily and don’t want my daily life disrupted by rockets and explosions and war. I love Israel, which is why I am here. And it would be gratifying to see more informed discourse on the situation coming from the States, passionate and controversial discourse of the kind that is going on here in Israel, where the violence is a reality.
Throughout the night, I was in constant communication with friends, confined to my apartment but too distracted and adrenaline-rushed to do school work. I read and thought a lot about what is happening and why. I don’t know enough to judge what is absolutely right and wrong, and I don’t think not being sure is a moral or intellectual abdication. The most important debate to have in the Jewish community, internally or publicly, is about Israel’s long-term interests. Israel has a right to defend itself against violent attacks, as any sovereign nation does. Last night I felt very grateful for the IAF’s targeted attacks on Gazan weaponry. And so far, the civilian casualties on both sides can be counted on fingers and toes. Yet especially with the IDF calling up reservists last night to prepare for a potential ground invasion, many are frightened that this will become another Operation Cast Lead. Whatever your political opinion, the killing of 1,400 Palestinians was gravely damaging to Israel’s international relations and public image. What is the right balance between the short-term and long-term interests when reacting to violence today?

In the case of the assassination of Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari, there are a lot of questions that are worth parsing but may never be answered fully. No one argues that he was a friend of Israel: he was a terrorist behind plots against Israel and behind the abduction of Gilad Shalit. But then he was also behind the negotiated release of Shalit, and according to Gershon Baskin (whose politics you can agree with or not, but there’s no pretending he’s a lightweight since the Shalit deal) he had a practical approach to his interests that apparently included a long-term cease-fire. How are we going to interact with Hamas leaders in the future, if at all, knowing that assassinating those who sit at our table doesn’t encourage others to cooperate?

The timing of this escalation, especially if it becomes a ground war, is expected to take social justice issues off the electorate’s mind and make security – perceived as the strength of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak – the decisive issue in the January elections. And it can’t be good for Israel that Egypt, with whom we share a cold but strategically crucial peace, withdrew its ambassador. From here in Tel Aviv, things already seem to be changing, and I can’t see how an escalation involving ground troops will help Israel’s security in the short term or the long term. I hope not to find out. I do hope for more informed and nuanced discourse in addition to support for the people of Israel and, as always, for peace for Israel and the region.

As I finished this blog on Friday early afternoon, the siren sounded again. I ran downstairs and crowded into a windowless corridor with the patrons of the nearby restaurant and coffee shop. And now that my adrenaline is up again, I’m going for a run, trying to absorb the Israeli mentality that life must go on despite these jarring interruptions.