Israel: Under sirens in Jerusalem

By Rhys Davies

Despite the danger of daily rocket fire, life carries on as normal under the Iron Dome, writes Rhys Davies.

Rhys Davies and partner Michelle at the border of Israel and Lebanon. Photo / Rhys Davies
Rhys Davies and partner Michelle at the border of Israel and Lebanon. Photo / Rhys Davies

The haunting wail of the air raid siren shattered the quiet evening as the sun set over Jerusalem. My partner Michelle and I stared at each other, truly frightened for the first time in as long as we could remember.

We had just had a barbecue with Michelle's cousins, a family of seven who live in Israel. Saying cheerful goodbyes, we were starting a walk back to our accommodation.

Later I learned this was the first time the siren had sounded in the Holy City for two years. Coming from a country as safe and peaceful as New Zealand, seeking shelter from rocket fire was a new experience.

In the coming days we would get good at sprinting to safety upon hearing the warning sirens. This first time, though, not knowing what to do, we ran back to Michelle's family and they bundled us into their car. After a minute or so the siren stopped and everything went silent.

"Sometimes you can hear them," whispered 20-year-old Avigail.

As she spoke, a huge boom echoed in the clear skies above us. This was the sound of the Iron Dome anti-missile aerial defence system, the pride of Israeli military technology, shooting down the rocket. It had been fired towards Jerusalem from the Gaza Strip by Hamas fighters.

Israelis consider Hamas to be terrorists, but some countries work with Hamas as a legitimate governing body.

Michelle and I were on a 10-day visit to Israel to visit family and friends, as well as a few tourist sites. But the tensions in the region meant normally packed attractions, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Wailing Wall, were eerily quiet.

Hotel operators spoke of mass cancellations, aware of the toll the conflict takes on the entire region's economy.

Locals told us to take extra care and avoid certain neighbourhoods, but otherwise to carry on with life as normal.

Israel is a stunning, unique country. Walking the streets of Jerusalem's Old City, you encounter an astonishing array of people. Groups of Hasidic Jews brush shoulders with Greek Orthodox priests, while American millionaires buy orange juice from Palestinian teenagers.

Apart from the religious and historical significance of Jerusalem and its surrounds, the biggest city of Tel Aviv is a modern, bohemian centre whose citizens would fit in perfectly in Sydney's Bondi or California's Newport beaches.

In Tel Aviv, a couple of days after the first Jerusalem attack, we had to take cover three times in as many hours. Coming out when the danger had passed, we would search the sky for the tell-tale puffs of smoke that marked a rocket's destruction by Iron Dome. The first rocket of the morning was shot down right above us.

People who live in Israel are often noted for their blase attitude to this kind of danger, but this time things were different.

Some locals weren't leaving their homes and told us how scared they were. Many were upset at the terrible toll the fighting was taking on human life in the Gaza Strip as well.

I was discussing the conflict with a friend of mine, an Israeli with a young family in the northern city of Haifa. He'd served as an army medic in Gaza several years earlier, but rarely spoke about it.

Rockets had been landing near his home. I asked him how he and his family were coping. Wasn't he worried?

He just shrugged and said simply: "Of course. But this is life in Israel."

- NZ Herald

The NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade is currently advising that there is some risk to travellers' security in Israel due to indiscriminate rocket fire from Gaza, an on-going threat from terrorism and regional instabilities. It advises visitors to exercise caution and to follow any advice and instructions issued by the local authorities. For the latest MFAT advisories on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, see safetravel.govt.nz.

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf04 at 29 Nov 2014 15:56:12 Processing Time: 810ms