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Israel: What was Tel Aviv like during the Hamas attacks?

Jochen Rosenkranz in Tel Aviv
October 9, 2023

DW's Jochen Rosenkranz was in Tel Aviv when Israel was attacked by Hamas terrorists. As the rockets rained down, he witnessed a city paralyzed and met people shaken to their very core.

Israelis inspect the rubble of a building a day after it was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, in Tel Aviv
During this weekend's terror attack by Hamas, Israel's missile defense was overwhelmedImage: Oded Balilty/AP/picture alliance

In Tel Aviv, it feels as if someone has pulled the plug. On Friday, the coastal city was still full of life. Everything was idyllic for many of the around 500,000 locals and thousands of tourists from all over the world.

The mood was exuberant: It was warm, and people were out on the beach, on the promenade or chilling in one of the casual bars along the water. I, too, was letting myself get carried away by the good vibes; I had just arrived a day earlier with my husband. Wherever we went, people were in good spirits.

No one had any clue that Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip were about to attack.

Tel Aviv beach in summer 2023
Warm weather and sunshine, a regular day in Tel Aviv before the attacksImage: picture alliance

In the evening, many of the busy streets turned into promenades until late into the night. It was exactly this "vibe" that everyone loved about Tel Aviv, those who live here as well as those who come as tourists to recharge their batteries and enjoy life.

First missile alerts

That all suddenly came to an end. On Saturday morning at 6:30 a.m. local time, people across the city were woken up by air raid sirens.

For most though, there was no need to worry. Missile alerts are normal, and the Iron Dome missile defense shield is considered almost impenetrable. So, I thought, what could happen to me in my warm hotel bed?

But soon, things began to feel different. The thundering sound was extremely loud, and the walls were shaking. That was the moment I went to find shelter in a bunker for the first time in my life. And yet, everyone was still pretty relaxed.

Reality sinks in

The mood quickly changed when the first reports came in at around 8:00 a.m. that the missile defense system had not repelled all attacks, not in Tel Aviv and especially not in the south of the country. We heard about injuries and even deaths. Worse still: Hamas terrorists from the Gaza Strip were said to have taken hostages on Israeli territory.

Rockets are fired from Gaza City towards Israel, flying upwards high above residential buildings
On Saturday, Hamas sent a barrage of rockets toward Israeli citiesImage: Mahmud Hams/AFP via Getty Images

From then on, Tel Aviv seemed paralyzed. Only a few restaurants — the ones that had opened early, before the news broke — had any customers.

The two waiters who brought my breakfast were worried. One could not reach her father-in-law, who was traveling near the Gaza Strip. The other told diners that a shelter was available in a building next door, but she added that it was "unlikely" that we would need it. Like almost everyone in the city, she underestimated how much this day would shake Israel to its very core.

Fear begins to spread

Only gradually did people become aware of the full extent of the terrorist attacks. While massage appointments were still being booked at the reception of my boutique hotel in the morning, a massacre was unfolding, just 60 kilometers further south. 

And the worst thing was, the news didn't stop. The reports were overwhelming: a rising death toll, more and more hostages and an increasing number of places that were said to be occupied by the Hamas terrorists. 

Military helicopters were flying constantly over the city, a stark contrast to the yawning emptiness in the streets below. Hardly anyone dared to leave home for fear the terrorists might have reached Tel Aviv and were also taking hostages here.

Bars and restaurants remained closed, and the beach was empty. Police had cordoned off the entire coastline, and no one was allowed into the sea. Hundreds of heavily armed police officers were on the beach promenade watching the waters for possible attackers.

A last day at the hotel

In our boutique hotel the masseuse didn't come to work because the taxis weren't running. The bartender couldn't show up either.

The receptionists, worried but cool-headed, opened a few bottles of wine, put them on ice and invited the guests to help themselves at the pool bar. For free. Tel Aviv rocks, even when rockets are landing in the middle of the city.

But even here, on the roof terrace of the luxury hotel, we couldn't remain sheltered from reality forever. By nightfall, the ice cubes had melted, the wine was warm.

From 8:00 p.m. onward there was an air raid siren every 10 minutes. The receptionist was constantly trying to get tourists down into the bunker located on the third floor of the basement. But how many tourists were actually still at the hotel? And was there anyone who couldn't hear the alarm? Nobody knew for sure.

The receptionist, who was used to sirens sending her to the shelters, remained professional throughout. But despite the routine, the fear was palpable.

Chaos at the airport

Down in the bunker, the receptionist exchanged worried messages with her friends and relatives, asking whether everyone was alive, whether anyone had been kidnapped and wondering who would be sent to war as a reservist that night.

Israelis look for loved ones following Hamas attacks

And all the tourists were trying to book flights out of the country. Everyone wanted to get out — out of the bunker, out of Israel — as quickly as possible. But around a third of the flights had been canceled, and the airlines' booking websites were hopelessly overwhelmed by the massive rush. Those who could find a taxi went to the airport to try their luck.

It didn't matter where: people just wanted to get away from the country that, until just a day earlier, was an escapist's paradise. But almost all flights out were fully booked. At midnight, I managed to find a seat on a later flight to the Greek island of Crete with an airline I'd never heard of.

Getting out

Six hours later, the receptionist from the day before was still on duty. She hadn't slept and was exhausted. She gave out cookies for breakfast — the cafes were all closed — and even found me a taxi to share with other hotel guests. At the airport, it turned out the flight to Crete had been canceled, and other flights were also overbooked. The situation seemed hopeless, the earliest departure seemed to be at least three days away.

After an hour of searching, I finally managed to get the tickets for a flight to Budapest, the Hungarian capital. I didn't care how much it cost, as long as I could get out. But three hours later in the aircraft, I was really angry as I realized that while all tickets had been sold, around 60% of the seats were still empty.

Cabin of a nearly empty passenger plane
Completely booked out and yet almost empty — this flight could have taken many more people out of IsraelImage: Jochen Rosenkranz/DW

Apparently, many passengers hadn't made it to the airport, or they'd flown out earlier. The low-cost airline didn't offer cancellation options or standby lists for those waiting to leave the country. So we took off for Hungary on a fairly empty, yet fully booked, getaway flight.

As the passengers settled in, I thought of the people still desperately looking for a flight out of the country and unable to get one and of those people who stayed behind in Tel Aviv because they lived there. Their stoic "nothing bad will happen" mentality was hit hard by this weekend's events. 

Jochen Rosenkranz is head of the "Life and Style" editorial team. He knows Tel Aviv both as a tourist and as a business partner for Israeli media.

This article was originally written in German.