TEL AVIV, Israel — I came to Tel Aviv a little more than a month ago. Utah seems like a distant place because so much has transpired after my arrival on the Mediterranean coast. Like many international visitors and students in the area, we thought the gap between serious wars with the Gaza strip was lapsed enough to reassure us no more issues would spring up during our visits.
We were wrong.
The phrase "game change" has been thrown around frequently in the international media when it comes to the most recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One of the biggest game changers: Hamas firing at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. An air attack hasn't threatened Tel Aviv since Saddam Hussein's reign, moren tha 20 years ago. A protective bubble of innocence and distance organically emerged and protected the area ever since.
I never thought I would be among those who say "you'll miss this place" when I was leaving Utah. I was eager to see the Mediterranean. However, Salt Lake City is its own little bubble of safety and "knowns." Now, an air raid siren initiates a survival-of-the-fittest response — and you miss home the most once you're in the bomb shelter. I think about mountains and beautiful sunsets over the Great Salt Lake and time with my family in Bountiful.
Encased in concrete shelter, you expect to hear a crash and a rumble — sure signs of rockets or missiles hitting above the shelters. But we haven't heard the crash or felt the rumble. Not yet, at least. As you emerge from the subterranean and head back to your latest task — maybe it was cooking dinner, maybe it was taking a shower — you think about your family and friends and what it was like before you were dragged into "someone else's war."
Val Jensen, my roommate and a graduate student studying at Tel Aviv University, vividly remembers his first experience with the sirens.
"The first time, I was in a 12-story building in the heart of Tel Aviv. I was rehearsing with a band and we just started playing when one of the girls said she thought she heard something," Jensen recalled. "When we all quieted down, we all heard the alarm and rushed to the staircase. But before we made it there, we heard the explosion and even felt the vibration in the building," said Jensen, who had a stairwell to run to. They offer feeble protection from a direct strike, but it's better than none.
Afterward, everyone thought it was dumb luck that got a Hamas rocket as far north as Tel Aviv. That's how naive or misinformed the city was. It wouldn't — no, couldn't — happen twice.
We were wrong again.
During a Friday bus ride to downtown Tel Aviv for food and essentials shopping at an outdoor bazaar called Shuk Carmel, we heard our second air raid siren. Out in the open is the worst place to be caught during "incoming." That second siren evacuated the bus, and we quickly ran to a nearby park and laid down, stomach-first, with hands over our heads. Moments after the air raid siren finished we heard the boom. It was close — maybe a mile or two away. Tiara Lusk, a BYU alum and student living in south Tel Aviv, recalls a similar experience when she was riding a bus the first day of air attacks. "I had no idea what it was. Since I live in a primarily Arab neighborhood I thought I wouldn't be targeted." Tiara stayed on the bus, not sure of the protocol for finding a safe place.
Since the first two days of shelling began, Israel has moved its air attack defense system, the Iron Dome to Tel Aviv. This has been another game changer. Videos online show amazing mid-air interceptions, like this one that Jensen shot the other day on the beach.
"When the Iron Dome wasn't in full effect, there was no spot that felt safe -- unless you were in a reinforced bunker," Jensen said. "But even with the Iron Dome, one may get a false sense of security."
Lusk has a grateful response to the dome considering the close and lucky calls she has had with the incoming fire. "I saw one of the missiles outside my window coming toward (my neighborhood) and there was an Iron Dome missile following behind it, trailing it, and it and blew it up before it hit. One actually landed two blocks away from my apartment. Two days in a row I saw the same thing," she said, with steady delivery. Lusk is another new veteran of Hamas aggression and recipient of Iron Dome shelter.
On the psychological warfare front, Hamas may be winning with Tel Aviv residents. How many days will Hamas wait before they send another round?, we wonder. As of this writing it has been more than 48 hours since the last air raid sirens sounded in Tel Aviv. Is it because a peace process and ceasefire will take hold and temporarily stop the conflict? Or is Hamas waiting, playing mind games until they continue opening "the gates of Hell" as they promised. Still, we are all really grateful to not be in Gaza, where people suffer even more. We vacillate between sympathy for them and anger for their militant citizens.
The last rumor we received was that the US had three ships off the coast, ready to ferry US citizens out in case of trouble. However, I would like to finish my studies here. Viewing war and conflict from the inside is part of the learning/studying process, which is my real mission here in Israel. But things are a little too real right now. Jensen is staying the course, too. "The only way I would leave is if there was a pan-Islamic war front on all sides with the help of Russia and China," he says, adding as an afterthought, "at least that is what I say, but perhaps if my embassy told me to leave I would probably listen."
And I will too. Somebody else's war just became mine, but that doesn't mean I have to die for it.
Jonathan Paxton is a Utah resident studying conflict mediation and resolution and Arabic at Tel Aviv University.
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