It’s hard not to despair in Israel, with our sirens, safe rooms and never-ending hatreds

Ruth Sinai at a protest for Arab-Jewish solidarity on May 13, 2021, in suburban Tel Aviv. (Photo: Family photo)

At 6 p.m. on Monday, May 10, sirens blared across Jerusalem warning of an incoming missile attack. My daughter, who goes to university there, was grocery shopping. She described scenes of panic as Jerusalemites fled in search of shelter. Residents of the city are used to many forms of violence – suicide bombers and vehicular terrorism, to name a couple. Rocket attacks are rarely on that list. 

The unexpected rocket barrage from Gaza, some 60 miles away, damaged a few houses on the city outskirts, but did not cause casualties. However, it set off an emotionally wrenching, physically frightening, deeply depressing crisis that has further compounded the hopeless political stalemate paralyzing Israel for more than two years and tearing at the fabric of our society.  

Events of recent days have made it impossible to resist the pull of television, radio, news sites, social media with their descriptions of the unremitting rocket fire targeting Israel and destroying homes, heavy bombing pummeling neighboring Gaza, footage of Arabs and Jews clashing with each other and with police on Israel’s streets and of refugees sifting through the rubble in Gaza looking for survivors.  

I keep TV on to get missile warnings 

The right side of television screens list the names of Israeli towns and villages, in bright orange, where missiles are projected to fall. Many people, myself included, keep it on as an extra precaution in addition to the sirens to see whether their area is on the list. In communities on the Gaza border, residents have only 10 seconds to reach safety. In Tel Aviv, they have the luxury of 90 seconds. In Gaza, they do not have any shelters, nor sirens. 

We have a reinforced basement shelter in our home just north of Tel Aviv. Some years ago I decided peace was at hand and had the eyesore heavy steel door removed, in violation of Israel’s building codes. This week, when stern looking officers were issuing instructions on television on how to close the doors of safe rooms and shelters to avoid rocket fragments, I felt they were wagging their fingers at me. 

Safe room in author's home north of Tel Aviv. (Photo: Family photo)

At 3 a.m. early Tuesday, we were roused from our beds by sirens and sounds of explosions. The blasts were caused by the Iron Dome rocket defense system deployed about a mile from our house. We ran down to the basement – myself, my husband and our visiting daughter who lives in Scotland. She was supposed to fly back this week, but all foreign carriers have canceled their flights to Israel. Who can blame them? Footage taken from the cockpit of a passenger plane on its approach to Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport a few days ago showed the interception of incoming rockets from Gaza. 

We sat around the shelter watching television reports, cracking nervous jokes. An hour later we went back to bed, only to be rousted once again shortly afterward. Shelters are supposed to be equipped with mattresses and drinking water. Ours is not. We sat on the floor. 

A man inspects the rubble of destroyed commercial building and health care clinic after an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City on May 17, 2021. (Photo: Adel Hana, AP)

With every passing hour this week, the news has gotten worse and worse. In between sirens and explosions came reports of a Jew who shot dead an Arab resident of the town of Lod, a lynching of a Jewish teacher by Arabs in the northern town of Akko, an Arab lynched in a Tel Aviv suburb. A 12-year-old boy was almost burned to death by a firebomb hurled into his living room in another Tel Aviv suburb. Police were spread thin at numerous flashpoints. Border police troops were sent in as reinforcements.  

Who will fix this? I saw firsthand how West Bank Palestinians are treated like prisoners 

Then came the news that the head of the right-wing Yamina party, Naftali Bennett, had decided that with nationalist sentiment at a fever pitch, he could not join the coalition of parties that was on the verge of forming a new government. His decision dashed the hopes of millions of Israelis that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might finally be replaced and the hopeless political crisis eased. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his political rivals, Gideon Saar, Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid pictured in Jerusalem on March 4, 2021. (Photo: AHMAD GHARABLI, AFP via Getty Images)

When news broke on Friday that the bleachers at a synagogue near Jerusalem had collapsed, wounding over 150 ultra-Orthodox Jews holding a prayer service and killing one, I burst into hysterical laughter. It wasn’t funny, of course. It was all just too much.  

A cycle of rockets, bombs and hatred 

Our daughter has been too scared to come home from Jerusalem, fearing a siren would force her to stop the car on the highway, roll away and lie on the ground in hopes that a rocket or its debris would not find her.  

A journalist I know has written an op-ed, apologizing for Israelis who said they were sorry the Israeli bombs on Gaza had spared the life of a 5-year-old Palestinian boy wandering in the rubble after losing his family. In between sirens, we participated in a small demonstration calling for Jewish-Arab solidarity. Organizers pointed to where we could run should a siren go off. A policeman warned us to move away from the curb lest some ultra-nationalist hothead run us over. 

Mitch Albom: We shouldn’t blame Israel for surviving attacks – or defending against them

Similar pro-peace protests have elicited violent reactions. Palestinians have been so dehumanized by the Israeli propaganda machine over the years that anyone expressing sympathy for their plight is considered naïve, at best, and usually a traitor.  And that is what I fear most. The rockets and bombings will stop, but the hatred on both sides and within ourselves will persist.  

Ruth Sinai, an Israeli American journalist and commentator, reported for The Associated Press from the Middle East and Washington and covered social affairs for Haaretz and other publications and websites in Israel. She is a recipient of Israel’s top journalism award, the Sokolov Prize. 

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