What It’s Really Like To Experience Air Raid Sirens In Israel (An Alternate Perspective)

I didn’t even hear the sirens.

3 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, and I look up from my lab work to my computer to read a Facebook message. Turns out that many participants of the science program that I’m attending in Rehovot, Israel, have posted shelter selfies, or #shelfies. Instinctively, I give into my teenager instincts, and proceed to procrastinate for 30 minutes, playing 2048 and reading the news.

Turns out that three sirens went off that day. All of which I failed to hear through the meter-thick walls of my workplace — a physics building. Walls designed to keep in high-energy radiation and sleep-deprived scientists, let alone keeping out a piece of shrapnel.

Turns out that only ten people in the entire building heard the siren and went to the shelter. I only went to the shelter for thirty seconds, when a colleague told us in passing that the siren was sounding. Even then, it was a light frustration, and no more.

Let me put this into perspective to you. I am an 18-year old Australian, participating in a summer school held at the Weizmann Institute of Science and Technology in Rehovot, Israel (about half an hour drive from Tel-Aviv, and an hour from Jerusalem). The International Summer Science Institute (ISSI) brings together 80 students in original scientific research — ranging from stabbing mice and fruit flies with needles, to sitting in front of a computer for a week, trying to glean some knowledge from the $10 million piece of kit in the next room over.

This is written as an attempt to provide somewhat of an alternative view to a piece produced by another participant in the program, Kristy Liao. While reading it, I didn’t feel it represented the realities of the situation in Israel. I know many others at the ISSI feel the same way.

The first time the sirens went off, I will acknowledge that it was a surprise. I was playing basketball, and neither I, nor 15 other Israelis shooting hoops, really paid any attention. I assumed it wasn’t that big a deal. Upon returning to our accommodation, it was more surprising that people had effectively lost their minds with panic on the way to a shelter. Similar panic was wreaked the second and third times the sirens went off. I think someone scraped their knee. I suppose they’ve technically been lightly injured in a terrorist attack. Good line for a drinking game.

But now it’s a routine. Every time the siren goes off, I finish off what I’m doing, and calmly, but firmly, move to the shelter. When I’ve not been in the Institute, the locals, and I don’t even do that. We glance up, move a little closer to a shopfront, keep our eyes to the sky, but ultimately, continue on our way. Not the screaming, anarchy and chaos that you see on the news.

One day, a piece of shrapnel from an intercepted rocket landed on the roof of our building. The rush to see this small, cylindrical piece of metal was greater than the rush to the shelter. Most of the Israeli scientists were telling me that they’d never seen a piece of a Hamas rocket land since the Iron Dome program (a missile defense system) was introduced. This is the reality. People who live in Israel are not living in daily fear for their lives. When in Rome, act like the Romans.

True, a 6 a.m. wake up to a siren is surprising, but only in the same rude way as being hastily woken by an excited brother with a vuvuzela. In the same way, I’m startled but not surprised, but at 6 a.m., anyone would be. I was one of a few that managed to drag myself out of bed in the first place, but one of many who went straight back to sleep afterwards, less that ten minutes after waking up.

I consider myself to be a self-analyzer. My parents think the same way. They have only felt the need to phone me once in the last two weeks, and even then, the rockets were mentioned as a passing remark in relation to traveling elsewhere. I can assume that either they’re enjoying living without a sweaty teenager at home, and have forgotten about me (which I don’t totally discount!), or are not worried. They’re seasoned travelers, and can see the realities of the situation — that the news articles depicting explosions, running and panic are not the norm in Israel.

I shudder to think what the situation may be like for those civilians in the Gaza Strip, where they have no defense system. I want to see a ceasefire. I want to see a long-term solution where all parties do not need to glance at the skies to see the streak of a missile tail. I want to see an end to conflict, which is continually escalated by extremists, both in Gaza (Hamas) and in Israel (fundamentalist ultra-Zionists).

Let me make my viewpoint on the entire conflict clear. I see Hamas as a terrorist organization, and I respect Israel’s right to defend itself in the face of rocket fire. I abhor the deaths of Palestinian citizens, especially those who lose their lives whilst living their lives, on beaches, in schools, whilst praying. I condemn the use of human shields, and placing equipment in civilian areas, and applaud any means to mitigate the loss of life. I know that the situation is delicate, complex, on a knife-edge.

But most of what I hate about the current conflict is the alarmist reporting, over-exaggerations and startling omissions of fact, both from Israeli supporters in the media, and those who aggressively attack a ‘genocidal’ Israel, who want nothing more than to ‘slaughter’ all Palestinians in a ‘holocaust.’ These are all words I’ve seen on slogans, in protests in Sydney, Melbourne, my home city of Perth, and elsewhere around the world.

Israel is not a utopian bastion of peace, democracy and freedom in the Middle East. Hamas is an organization that explicitly supports the Israeli state’s destruction. The current conflict is not comparable to the Holocaust. The loss of life is appalling. The lack of a lasting peace agreement is saddening.

Kristy’s piece does not however, change the status quo. For those who mindlessly support Israel, this acts as a dramatic re-enforcement of the Twitter hashtag #israelunderattack. Protests around the world in support of #gazaunderattack fail to recognise that their representative governing body is equally to blame, if not more so.

In 2012, Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian stated ‘those who support Israel or Palestine as if they were rival football teams do those two peoples a terrible disservice.’ The same is true now.

If we all indeed want lasting peace, then there is no point over-dramatizing the truth. Both sides of the argument must recognize their own faults and accept a portion of the blame. No Israeli teenagers should be killed on their way home from school again, and no Palestinians should be harmed in retaliation.

The dialogue must be level and not excessively emotional. The media reporting should do likewise. They can report on deaths, but not selectively report on use of human shields. They can tweet pictures, but not those rehashed from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. They can show images of Jews looking over impacting rockets in Gaza, cheering, but must recognize that most Israelis find that similarly repulsive.

For Israelis, there is not a constant threat of missile attacks. It is only a mere nuisance. Life, and this program’s fantastic experiences should not be viewed through the sort of lens presented by either FOX or Kristy. Rehovot is in no way a war zone, and should not be treated as such. The conflict won’t end until an agenda is no longer pushed, a middle ground sought, constructive dialogue initiated.

Many at the ISSI are edgy. I can say that to an extent, I am (although I do blame minimal sleep, and excessive coffee). But this won’t stop us going to Jerusalem, out into Rehovot, going for a swim, buying falafel or fisherman’s pants and enjoying ourselves. I take #selfies (be them #shelfies or not) because I love the people and culture here, rather than because I feel I’ve dodged death and must document the experience.

In the most clichéd way possible, an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. We should apply this logic to the conflict, and when discussing it. Instead, I have a presentation to deliver, with multiple cat photos included. I don’t want to see punches thrown, when one will come back. Hopefully we do find the middle ground.

There would be no need to listen out for the sirens. TC mark

featured image – Shutterstock

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