Just when Israel was emerging triumphant ahead of the rest of the world from the coronavirus pandemic, we found ourselves at war with Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip.
In an apparent effort to position itself in the eyes of the Palestinian people as the defender of Muslim Jerusalem, Hamas fired rockets at Jerusalem. When I heard the news, it was clear to me Israel could not sit idly by while its capital was attacked. The Israeli air force responded with air strikes on Gaza.
I was working the following evening from my office in Tel Aviv and had a sense this was not the end of the story. Although I normally park my car on the street, I decided to park in the underground parking garage at the office, on the off chance Tel Aviv would be next, and it was.
Shortly before 9 p.m., Hamas launched a barrage of rockets on the entire Tel Aviv area. I and the rest of the office staff went to the underground garage, which also serves as a shelter. That night alone, hundreds of rockets were fired at Israel.
As we consulted our cellphones to get a sense of what was going on above ground, over and over we heard booms, presumably interceptions of rockets by Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system, which worked well even under furious waves of rocket fire. The Israeli army’s civil defense website showed the breadth of the attack, with city neighborhoods and suburbs throughout the region, including my own suburb of Ra’anana, under fire.
From the office garage, I texted my wife – who had taken shelter in a secure stairwell in our apartment building – and my older daughter, who was in a safe room in her Tel Aviv apartment. I headed for home at midnight. Shortly after falling asleep, there were more sirens and this time my wife and I were together in the stairwell, along with our bleary-eyed neighbors. Unsurprisingly, our neighbors were calm and courteous then and the following night, as we found ourselves sharing a staircase in the middle of the night.
I felt particularly bad for a family of new immigrants from Argentina, who had just moved into our building. As they sat on the floor of the hallway with their children and their dog, I quipped that their immigrant experience would only get better. They didn’t seem intimidated.
Later in the week, I heard the siren and yelled to my wife we needed to go into the stairwell. She didn’t answer me, and I realized she was in the shower. We had something over a minute from the time a siren sounded to take shelter. She quickly wrapped herself in a towel and sat in the stairway among our neighbors.
I have sympathy for the residents of Gaza, whose Hamas government invested millions in building an elaborate tunnel network for its military force but nothing for civil defense structures for the population. Israeli officials insist Israel took major precautions to avoid civilian casualties, but when Hamas fighters are embedded in a densely populated area such as Gaza City, it is difficult to avoid them altogether and still subdue Hamas to the extent that it will be deterred for many years from threatening Israel’s population centers again.
The round of fighting is thankfully over, but it was a reminder that efforts by the Israeli government in recent years to sideline the Palestinian issue and the Palestinian Authority were misguided and only strengthened Hamas. The fighting also laid bare tensions in Jewish-Arab relations in Israel itself – subjects for future columns.
Cliff Savren is a former Clevelander who covers the Middle East for the Cleveland Jewish News from Ra’anana, Israel.