US Israel Center Internship - Week 4

July 15, 2014
by Vance Lopez

Protest at Habima

A lot can happen in two weeks. After the deaths of several teenagers, relative peace gave way to protests, volleys of rockets, and targeted military strikes.

Intercepted rocket over Tel-AvivBeing on the receiving end of indiscriminate rocket fire can be gut-wrenching. In the Marine Corps, we refer to it as indirect fire, or IDF. While specifically-targeted IDF is an important part of a well-designed military campaign, its haphazard use here is nothing more than a terror tactic, designed to instill fear in the receiving populace. For sure, it hasn’t much else tactical significance – damage will likely be minimal and dispersed, and alone it isn’t likely to incapacitate a large foe. In Israel, IDF refers to the Israel Defense Forces, the military branch responsible for ground warfare and for deploying kippat barzel, or Iron Dome. Arguably the best air defense system in the world, Iron Dome intercepts short and medium range projectiles mid-flight. The numbers are constantly updated on the internet, but to sum, nearly one thousand rockets have been launched at most major Israeli civilian populations and thus far there have been zero casualties.

Waiting in the staircase.Fortunately (and unfortunately) Israel is all well too prepared for this sort of episode. As a country, it has had to prepare for the threat of missiles and rockets at least since the early 1990s. The last barrage of rocket fire was in 2012 and resulted in a cease-fire that ended about a week ago. Air raid sirens alert civilians to incoming rockets and give them time to get to a miklat, or bomb shelter. Tel-Aviv has one and half minutes of warning time whereas southern cities have as little as 15 seconds. In the case where a bomb shelter isn’t readily available, Israel’s Home Front Command outlines rules to follow to find the best cover.

But if you happen to be walking around the city and hear the jarring wail of the siren, something inspiring happens: people open their doors and pull you inside to safety. It’s a bit of camaraderie born from shared hardship and community formed from shared military experience. It’s a bit of the feeling that we’re all in this together. Those rockets aren’t targeted at one person; they are targeted at everyone, at anyone. We experienced this companionship one Friday morning when a woman opened her salon doors to bring in a handful of strangers off the street. As we waited in the back, three loud booms signaled that the Iron Dome had intercepted more rockets over Tel-Aviv. And then… everyone went on their way, business as usual.

It’s the ability to cope that is most surreal and that gives some toughness to Israelis. Rockets are exploding overhead and by and large, people are operating like normal, as if it is simply another day in Tel-Aviv. At work, “az’aka” is passed around the office as someone hears the siren and we slowly shuffle to the staircase, the innermost part of the building. A large and well-maintained bomb shelter is below if someone feels the need for more security. Others go outside for a smoke. Several booms later, it’s back to work. During dinner at Namal Tel-Aviv, multiple sirens bring people from outside into the restaurant. People wait in the back and several booms later, it’s back to dinner. Arguments in the office sound much like those in the immediate days following 9/11 – if you alter your lifestyle, you’ve let the terrorists win. One part bravado and two parts faith in the IDF and Iron Dome is the recipe for overcoming fear. Life goes on.

Jaffa at night.Undoubtedly, residents further south in cities like Ashdod and Ashkelon face a different story with higher rates of rocket attacks and less reaction time. This video shows just how scary the moment can be.

Jamie and I did our part to live on by visiting Nalaga’at Center in the ancient port city of Jaffa. The center is a community place for the deaf and blind, and is known for its theater acts and eateries with deaf and/or blind actors and staff. We tried our hands (literally) in Blackout, a restaurant that serves up an eye-opening dining experience in complete darkness. After selecting an appetizer and entre and leaving all light-bearing items (cell phone, watch) in a locker, a blind waiter leads a group of diners to their table by forming a human chain, hands on the shoulders of the person in front of you. The method signals that this will not be a normal dinner meal. The initial wave of darkness can be unbearable. It can be claustrophobic. This really is an utter void of visible light.

ShakshukaThe fumbling food and nervous chatter were expected. What wasn’t expected was the grace by which our waitress served the table. She never missed a beat, bringing food and drinks and clearing plates with a precision that could only be achieved by someone with a different sense of the world (after the entre, she cleared the plates without our even knowing it had happened). In the end, I was most taken aback by the face to face communication I had with the strangers in that dark environment. I simply did not realize how much I relied on facial expressions and body language to complete the conversation. Nalaga’at Center has created fun and powerful experiences that open the pathway to empathetic connections with people that have very different way of life.

Juice BarOutside the center, empathy melts away into conflict. Email messages from the U.S. Embassy are delivered daily reminding us to maintain situational awareness. Tel-Aviv locals appear less worried and approach it with a sense of humor. Concern from family and friends has been steady and appreciated. We have had great support both in country and from home. It is difficult to explain a lifestyle that looks like a contradiction from the outside – yes, the rocket fire is frightening, but no, not much has changed. Everyone is still going to work. Everyone is still going out to watch the World Cup (as I write this, Germany has made the last goal of the tournament). I’m still going to enjoy a cold drink on a hot day, shakshuka by the sea, and fresh juice everywhere. And when the next siren sounds, we’ll all find shelter, wait for the “all clear,” and go about our business.