For years, sirens in Tel Aviv only sounded for civil defense drills and on days of remembrance. But now, Palestinians are firing rockets at Israel's largest city and residents have to live with it.
"As the sirens wailed, I needed a few seconds to realize what was happening," recalls 35-year-old Michal Edry. It was Thursday of last week when the sirens sounded in Tel Aviv for the first time in 21 years. And it was not a drill.
The military wing of the Hamas regime in Gaza, the Kassam Brigades, had fired a missile at Israel's biggest city. Michal Edry and here husband, Ronny, were on their way to a meeting at the French consulate in southern Tel Aviv. The couple raised eyebrows at home and abroad last year with their online peace campaign 'Israel loves Iran'.
"We wanted to hide in the consulate, but the security officer was pretty nervous and closed the door in our faces," says Michal, adding that she began looking for some place that offered cover. Her husband grabbed her and they ran to another building. "We ran for a few seconds, which seemed like an eternity to me, and reached a youth center for Russian and Arab kids. They were crying and yelling all over the place in Russian, Arabic and Hebrew. It was bizarre," said Michal. There are only a few air raid shelters in the city and often several minutes away. When there is an alarm people have to find shelter in hallways or basements.
Escalation after targeted killing
Last Wednesday (14.11.), Israel targeted the car carrying the military chief of the Islamist Hamas Movement, Ahmed al-Jabari, with a missile and killed him. He is believed, among other offenses, to have been involved in the kidnapping of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. The attack on Jabari was the beginning of Israel's 'Pillars of Defense' military offensive.
A response from Gaza did not take long, and so far, Palestinian extremists have launched nearly 1,000 rockets from the Gaza Strip, killing five Israelis and wounding dozens of others.
The number of victims on the Palestinian side is much higher. Palestinian news agencies have reported more than 120 deaths and hundreds of wounded. In the densely populated coastal enclave, extremists often launch their rockets between homes or from the roofs of apartment buildings. If Israel attacks the launch site, many people can be killed.
Johanna Michel, a German, lives in central Tel Aviv with her friend. They were caught by surprise while eating when the first alarm went off. They sought refuge in their building's stairwell. In the meantime, they've gotten used to it. "We've had five alarms already and life goes on," said the 28-year-old. "People go outside, to work, to cafés or to school. But you can feel the tension; people are just waiting for the next alarm," she said.
'Iron Dome' defense
Saturday evening, at 6:40, the sirens suddenly went off again – the sixth alarm since Thursday. And, once again, the Palestinian rocket was intercepted in the air by the Israeli 'Iron Dome' defense system. The explosion could be heard all over Tel Aviv – and for a moment life stood still. People ran to the next-best building in search of cover, Motorists and bus passengers jumped out of their vehicles and stretched out on the ground with their hands over their necks as protection against shrapnel.
Then, the sirens stopped, and life got back to normal. "It would have to get really bad for me to go back to Germany," says Johanna. At the moment, things are tolerable. "But if it gets to be like Sderot that would be a big burden," she adds, referring to the city in southern Israel, near the Gaza border, that for years has been an almost daily target for Palestinian rockets.
The Israeli disc jockey, Dan Yoel, was on his way home when the first alarm went off. "I was going over my upcoming weekend gig and was listening to music on my headphones. People started running; a police car stopped next to me and the officer told me to look for cover. After about ten minutes life got back to normal," he recalled. But even so, you could not sense any difference in the club that night, the DJ said. But, on Saturday, when normally there are a lot of people out strolling down the boulevards, the streets were empty. "The atmosphere was disturbing," says Yoel.
The Israeli army has since called up 75,000 reservists. An army spokesman reported that preparations for a ground offensive into Gaza had been completed. Many Israelis between the ages of 20 and 40 are now deployed along the border to Gaza, ready to march when the order is given – including friends of Dan Yoel. "I'm a leftist," he says, "but I see no alternative to a military operation to stop the Hamas rockets. I think that all of Israel agrees on this point." At least, among the Jewish population, that is probably true.