Monday, July 21, 2014

Labour pains

In all of last week's craziness my friend went into labour. It was a long drawn out labour interrupted by several air raid sirens during which she and the rest of the maternity ward were rushed to shelters.

Our young sons are close friends, so her boy stayed with us for a few days while she was in hospital, days that coincided with our town's first experience of rockets, including an interception right overhead, shrapnel from which started a brush fire in a local park.

Poor little boy, not only without his Mummy for a few days, but sleeping over at a time it seemed prudent to put all the kids to sleep in our rather small home shelter. There he was, anxious about his mother and on top of it all trying to get to sleep with three other children in a small windowless room.

To cap it off the siren went again just as I was tucking the boys in, my oldest calmly leading the family in singing Psalms to calm the other children, my friend's son plaintively complaining "But Mummy and Daddy always say we should do quiet things to help sleep, what's all this noise at bedtime?"

It was a tense night, eventually the only thing that settled everyone down was letting them stay up for a while snuggled in amongst the blankets and cuddly toys I'd made sure to leave on the sofabed that takes up most of the space in our household shelter room. My oldest put on a children's video for them to watch, and eventually they conked out, but not before 22:00, incredibly late for a pair of kindergartners.

The next day they went of to summer camp as usual but with huge bags under their eyes.  Whether it was the tiredness kicking in or just the tension all around I don't know, but these quiet boys who usually keep themselves busy with toys cars and dinosaurs were bouncing around my flat like jumping beans that afternoon, as though they didn't know where to put themselves.

And then I caught what game they were playing.

"Wooooohoooh!" my son wailed


 "Listen, it's another siren, we better run to the Mamad (secure room/shelter)"

 "Oh, it's still going, lets stay in the Mamad and hide."

"Oh, now we can come out YAAAYYY!!"

 "Oh no, it's another siren we have to go back in again."

And so on and so forth. Not exactly the kind of new game I hoped my kindergartner and his friend would come up with. On the other hand they didn't seem scared, a bit too frenetic, a bit too animated and jumpy, yes, definitely, but it was mixed the the natural exuberance of kids their age. All said and done despite it grating on my already strained nerves it was certainly a good way for young children to process the upset going on around them, a good outlet for their concerns and stress from the situation.

Eventually they got tired enough that I was able to entice them into the kitchen to bake biscuits with me, followed by a nice quiet hour of them making sticker pictures with the toddler to take to my friend in the maternity ward, and a few extra to send with care packages to our soldiers in the south.

After dinner the boys embarked on another round of "sirens and rockets" (the game even has a name), this time with the boys taking turns at being "good rockets" and "bad rockets", with the good rockets chasing the bad rockets around the room and trying to catch them before they could "explode", accompanied by yet more pseudo-siren noises. Oh the noise, the noise, my poor poor neighbours.

They were still at it when my DH came home from work and I was trying unsuccessfully to get them to bed with a story. My friend's son finally wore himself out and crashed, spreadeagled on the bed, clutching one of my son's cuddly animals. My boy was still hyped up though, my husband beseeching him "Stop being a siren and go to sleep!" Five storybooks later he finally curled himself up at the opposite end of the bed next to the toddler and nodded off, his big sister slumbering away on the mattress on the floor. Finally, all four of them asleep in the shelter.

While her son played and eventually slept at my house, over in a Tel Aviv region hospital my friend found out what happens when the sirens go and you're in labour hooked up to a monitor in the maternity unit and need to get to a shelter.

Over the next few days she would find out over and over again what it was like to be in hospital during an air raid. Her newborn had to spend time in the NICU, which it turns out is not in a reenforced secure part of the hospital, and because of the frailty of the babies hooked up to equipment, they can't be rushed to a shelter during an alert. The nurses stay with their tiny charges through the sirens, relying on Iron Dome to keep them safe.

Days later her baby was finally released from hospital. As she signed the paperwork and happily carried her newborn out to the car she saw nurses rushing to the helipad with gurneys, medivac helicopters coming in to land. Bad news. We found out today these were some of the first casualties from the IDF ground assault in northern Gaza.

It's all part of the dizzying pace of events lately, personal joys mixed with national sorrow, children's unexpressable fears spilling out in exuberant play, the mundane and the surreal, the honey and the sting, the bitter and the sweet.

We pray for simpler, peaceful times.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Welcome to our local insanity

Hamas fires a rocket from Gaza and knocks out Israeli power line just over the border which supplies power to, wait for it, Gaza. So Hamas just knocked out their own electricity by shooting rockets at Israel because Israel supplies Gaza with free electricity. Talk about poetic justice. 

Fortunately some common sense prevailed in Israel and a decision was made that Israeli workers would not go in under fire to restore electricity to Gaza. However if the shooting dies down Israel's electric company will repair the line and resume free power supplies to the Hamas ruled Gaza even as it lobs dozens of rockets at Israel on a daily basis. Welcome to our local insanity.

This is your early morning wake-up from Hamas

At six this morning the morning silence was shattered by the wail of the air raid sirens again. I was sort of awake already but that racket is one hell of a way to snap to instant alertness.

Somehow in last night's attempts to get the toddler to sleep I'd ended up settling him in my own bed, even though he'd eventually toddled off back to DH who was sleeping in the living room with our other son, close to the shelter. They were all snuggled up in the secure room in the seconds it took me to dash across the flat.

My daughter already had the sequel to last night's nature documentary DVD, trying to keep the boys focused on the novelty of Ima and Abba allowing early morning television watching. She and my middle son seemed to be taking the whole thing in their stride, but just like last night, the 2 year-old was kvetchy and hard to comfort.

He'd had very little sleep, which I'm sure contributed to his mood, but nothing seemed to help, he just wanted to be held and nursed (even though he's pretty much weaned), kept looking around with unease. He's at a tough age, old enough and alert enough to pay attention to every detail, but way too young for us to be able to explain to him what is going on and why.

And then it was over and we all got ready for the day, older kids at their day camps, DH off to work, me home with an anxious toddler who finally managed to nurse himself back to sleep around 10am.

Tonight was the night

All Shabbat we had the radio tuned to a special silent frequency that only broadcasts when there is analert. We heard the warnings for many parts of Israel, from the Gaza border all the way up the coast to the great Tel Aviv area and all the way over towards Hebron and Jerusalem.

It was surreal sitting in the living room doing puzzles with the kids or eating our family Shabbat meals together and every so often we'd hear a muffled "whump" and know that somewhere within earshot someone in Gaza was shooting at us and Iron Dome was saving lives all over central Israel.

Shabbat was out, around the kids' usual bedtime and right after Havdalah started getting ready for bed.

DH and I were getting busy with the usual post-Shabbat clean up with the hourly  radio news on, catching up on the events of the day, followed by a programme of mellow Saturday night music, every so often interupted by the clear, polite tones of the announcer calmly relaying the latest rocket alerts.

I remember thinking how odd it all was, the song playing on the radio had lyrics which went something like "good night to everyone who is alone, good night to everyone who is holding on, good night to you and me", and in between the curt reports of where the sirens where going off.

And then the air raid siren went off in our town, blaring loud and clear, not a drill, but a real time warning that somewhere in Gaza people were trying to kill us.

It's the first siren we've had at home,though DH has had a bunch at work and driving to and from the office. I had at least done practice drills with the kids, so the bigger ones knew what to do, my oldest calmly hurrying her middle brother along and sitting him down with her in our secure room.

Our youngest though just looked bewildered, too little to understand why suddenly everyone was running into the small room he knows only as our den/tv and occasional spare room. As we all charged in there he initially followed his older siblings and sat down with them on the sofabed that takes up much of the limited space. But then my DH closed the heavy blast door, and the little guy started to get perplexed. We never close the door to that room because as a shelter it's windowless and stuffy and unairconditioned, so especially stiffling in summer if you close the door. The toddler tried repeatedly to open the door as my DH held it closed, even as the little guy asked over and over again to go out and play with the toy train he'd left in the living room, asked to open the door, puzzled as to why we were compelling everyone to stay in the tiny space with the heavy door closed, the heavy door he knows he isn't allowed to play with.

We stayed the prequisite 10 minutes in the shelter as per Home Command instructions and when we came out both boys asked for their bedtime baths. We hesitated, what if another siren sounded? Baths would help settle the boys for sleep though, and our apartment isn't that big. In this part of Israel we have a whole one and a half minutes to get to a shelter upon hearing the sirens, unlike the mere seconds they have further south, so DH went off to bath the boys and I went off to add a box with some extra favourite toys and books to our shelter room.

Our oldest went to finish getting ready for bed, and then showed up in the shelter with a huge holdall full of her most precious dolls, books, plastic animals and a lightsabre: "Just in case something hits the house, I want to make sure my special things are with me, and anyway, my animals don't understand what the siren is, I need to have them with me so they aren't scared".

She decided she wanted to bed down in the secure room that night and set up a mattress with her own special pillows and blankets. I covered the sofabed with blankets to make it extra cosy and told my DH we could put the boys to bed there tonight too, and I went to gather up some favourite cuddly animals for the boys.

The siren blared again, splitting the air with its eerie wail.

Out dashed my middle son in his birthday suit, dripping from the bath he had that second stepped out of, the alert having sounded just as he was reaching for his towel. He was quickly followed by my DH carrying a stunned looking toddler wrapped in his towel, both of them wet from having hastily snatched the little guy right out of the bath.

This time my youngest was so stunned from it all that he just lay uncomplaining on the sofa for a while, huddled up in his towel which fortunately was big enough to cover his brother with too. He adores baths and plainly could not fathom why on earth he had been grabbed right out of it, without being dried off and rushed into the shelter to watch a video with all the family at bedtime, and again with the door closed when we never close the door to that room. He begged to go back to his beloved bath over and over again but of course we all stayed put in that stiffling little room.

I kicked myself for forgetting to put nappies, wipes and changes of clothing in the secure room when our youngest kid is potty training. Fortunately he's pretty good at holding out, so there were no messes. My daughter put on a nature documentary, a good choice as the gorgeous images captivated and distracted her younger siblings.

With the alert finally over, we dressed the boys, brushed their teeth and set them up on the sofabed. Through it all my oldest was a beacon of calm matter of factness, snuggling up in her blanket and watching her film, and in doing so sending a soothing message to the boys. The middle guy was soon asleep and she followed not long after, but our youngest just couldn't settle.

We had resolved to sleep in our living room, so as to be close to the shelter in case the kids needed anything at night, and to make sure we'd hear them. We tried putting the toddler to sleep in the secure room, but he just couldn't get to sleep, so we tried tucking him in with my DH in the living room, again no joy, next we tried his bed, my bed, nothing in either place. He kept trying to curl up by himself or with one of us, but minutes later he'd pop up again and try somewhere else. He was clearly disoriented by the whole bizarre evening and as late as midnight was still restlessly trying to find a place to sleep, eventually going back to the shelter and dozing off in front of a favourite video we put on as a last resort.

All this was just one evening, our first of experiencing sirens in our home town. It is mind boggling to think of hundreds of thousand of Israelis in the south who have been living this way for years, millions more who've faced this threat sporadically for the past week, as well as during the last Gaza escalation in 2012. As I write millions of Israelis, pretty much every major town and city in the country is within range of rockets from Gaza and/or from Lebanon. All we have to rely on are Iron Dome and God's miracles to keep us safe from the men in Gaza firing rockets.

Friday, July 11, 2014


People overseas have been asking what this war situation means for us. It's complicated, fluid and varies from region to region and from hour to hour. Looking at the heavy barrages people are enduring in the south it seems almost trivial to mention the occasional sporadic rockets on other cities, but that is to belittle the terror of even "only" one or two sirens. From where we are, thank God, still in the periphery of the rocket zones, it feels almost petty to note how this war has changed our lives at all, listening to rockets in targeted areas while on the face of things it almost seems like business as usual.

For the last couple of days my DH and many of our friends and neighbours have been trying to figure out whether they are overreacting if they decide to work from home "just" because there have been a few air raids in and around the greater Tel Aviv area where many of them work. 

If the people in the south who are under far heavier bombardment are still going in to work, how can the people of central Israel allow themselves to be scared away from their offices? It's an insane dilemma. So the people of the centre have decided that they should also behave like seasoned rocket strike veterans and go in to work each day knowing that they will likely spend some of that time in shelters and secure areas while rockets are launched their way.

With most of the Tel Aviv suburban area as much at risk of rockets as the city itself it starts feeling a little ridiculous making a distinction, although somehow the idea of being caught out in a crowded office skyscraper is far more disconcerting than having the family together in a home shelter. 

So it was this morning I called my husband at work to ask about some mundane errand and his voice came back oddly muffled, many voices clearly audible in the background. My call found him taking cover in the stairwell of his building during one of today's rocket attacks on the city. 

On the other hand at least he is still pretty much going about his regular routine. Many of my friends husbands have received emergency call-up papers from the army, leaving their wives, children and civilian lives behind at all hours of the day and night and heading off for the unknown, possibly in preparation for a ground offensive in Gaza, though nobody knows for sure if that is even on the cards.

The second time I called him today I could clearly hear the crumps of rockets and Iron Dome interceptions from my living room from which I was worriedly trying to figure out why my oldest child hadn't come home from day camp yet. Our town itself has so far stayed in the clear, but the noise carries and we seem to hear much of what's going many kilometres away, even sometimes catching the sound of muted sirens from other towns.

In between my concerned phone calls my middle child arrived home from his summer programme. As I walked to the front door to greet him we could hear more muffled booms. He gave me a hug, and as he bent down to take off his shoes excitedly told me "Ima, you know what we heard today in the car on the way to our house? Big bangs in the sky!" And he slammed his hands together to emphasise the point. Just what every mother wants to hear her kindergartner talking about when he gets home from kaytana.

The radio announced alerts in the region of my oldest's summer camp starting around home time. I was waiting for the usual call letting me know that the kids were on the bus back to town so I'd know when to go down to the stop to wait. Nothing. No answer on the phone.  I headed out to the street to check, maybe another parent had helped with crossing the road, nothing

Rationally I know the odds of a connection between the news on the radio and my kid's bus being late are low, but with all the insanity this week yes, there was a moment of wondering through the what ifs. I know that the camp is in a building with a shelter, I know the people running the camp are responsible and taking every alert very seriously, so maybe they decided to delay the school buses just in case.

In the end the two events weren't connected, turned out a phone battery was loose, the bus was a little late, trivialities,  but it certainly gives a poignant insight into life in the south for years now, children growing up in the shadow of rockets, parents learning to somehow factor it into the normal routine of life. It's new to us in the centre, certainly to this extent. The mind boggles at how our friends and family in Beer Sheva and Ashkelon and even closer to Gaza have put up with this kind of terror for years on end. 

With all the kids finally home we sat down to our usual family lunch, the older children excitedly talking about their mornings. J, my oldest, told us that they'd compensated for having to stay close the main building and the shelter by having a special dance morning in which they learnt about dance styles around the world. Then they had a session about medical clowns (a clever move by the camp organisers to help the kids through any possible stress caused by "the situation") in which they not only learnt about what these clowns do, but had some basic introductory training in how to be medical clowns themselves.

I asked her whether she had any questions about what was going on, anything she wanted explained. Despite being our avid reader she seemed pretty unphased by current events. "Ima, you're not nervous or scared, so I'm not, right? You tell me what you think I need to know. I know what to do and I know about Iron Dome".

My kindergartner was a little less sanguine.  "Ima were they good guy big bangs or bad guys big bangs I heard?" I said probably good guy. "Ima, tell me again how the good guy rockets get the bad guy rockets?" I raised one hand in the air like an arrow, explaining how the bad guys shoot a rocket into the air ("with fire Ima, it has to have fire in the tail to make it fly"), and then made my other hand into another rocket, explaining how something called radar tells the good guy rockets to go get the bad guys, and they shoot up in the air and smash them, slamming my second hand dramatically into the first hand while making a boom noise to illustrate my point. 

My kindergartner smiled, reassured, his question answered. The toddler who all this time had been studying us with a serious expression burst into uprorious laughter. "Ima, od pa'am!" (Again Mum!) he crowed. I went through the hand motion explanation of Iron Dome again. Both boys laughed at the boom this time. Then my middle child turned pensive, "Ima, what happens to the rockets when they crash into each other? What if there are pieces left and they fall down into the road, or the balcony or in our house?" 

We spent quite some time talking about it all, him with all his questions, me trying to think how to explain this all simply but honestly, to reassure, but not to give blind promises of safety that I could not guarantee. In the end I seemed to hit the right balance though, he seemed satisfied that he was in good hands, that between his parents and our soldiers there were lots of people working hard to keep him safe, and he went off to draw a picture of an Iron Dome battery, trying to copy it from a photo in today's newspaper. He then proceeded to liberally decorate it with pink and gold glitter and a yellow feather, think Iron Dome as a float during Tel Aviv's Pride Week parade.

My oldest got inspired too and decided to draw a picture of a man with an iron skullcap on his head (in Hebrew the name is "Kipat Barzel", which can mean either an iron kippah or an iron dome). On top of his kippah there is a miniature Iron Dome battery. The caption reads "I'm not scared because I have Iron Dome looking after us", with an arrow pointing from the speech bubble to the miniature Iron Dome on top of the kippah.

So that was today's weirdness. Weirdness because we are a house where the kids don't have toy guns or tanks, and yet they spent the afternoon drawing rocket launchers and soldiers. Weird because in our region it feels trivial even to register all these minor inconveniences caused by a war that is wreaking real terror on so many other Israeli towns. Weird because the way the situation is in other parts of the country it seems petty to note "just" a few rockets on Tel Aviv when our friends in the south are getting pounded by monster barrages from Gaza. Weird in the way that this war situation mixes with the mundane routine to become a mundane routine of its own while we're left wondering if this is temporary or whether the centre is the new south.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Not the summer of love

J came home from today and reported that all the activities of the very outdoorsy summer camp tookplace indoors today. They were supposed to be going on a hike in a local nature reserve but that's been cancelled after consultation with Home Front Command. Tomorrow they'll be doing more indoor activities due to concerns about being caught out in the open during an air raid. Until further notice it looks like the sleepaway camping trip is cancelled too. One very disappointed little girl. 

I know it's a trifle compared with what people are going through in other parts of Israel, but for a little kid this is a very big deal. On the small personal level it's heartbreaking to have to sit down with a young child and explain to them that much looked forward to summer plans have been cancelled because there are people who are shooting at our country and trying their best to hurt us.

The military have good reason to issue such directives. Earlier this week a Scouts sleepaway camp in the region Ashdod and Bet Shemesh was evacuated after the area came under rocket fire. 

At least she still has her indoor activities, close to the shelter, to enjoy. In many parts of the country summer camps have been cancelled altogether, either because the places they are being held lack large enough shelters, or have no shelters at all, or because of concers about the safety of transportation in heavily targeted areas. The military has banned large public gatherings in regions closest to Gaza.

To be on the safe side public events have been cancelled or postponed, including Jerusalem's annual Woodstock Revival music festival and many special summer programmes aimed at keeping teens amused and busy during the long summer break. 

Elsewhere in the country the Hamas onslaught is causing much more serious problems. At Beer Sheva's Soroka hospital the NICU ward had to be moved to a reenforced secure section of the hospital for fear that it's regular location might make it vulnerable to rocket attack. Imagine having to move an entire ward of preemie babies and other newborns with serious medical conditions, some on life support.

Kaplan hospital in Rehovot has also found itself in a similar position, moving its entire ICU and cardiac wards to bomb shelters after the city was repeatedly targeted by rockets. It is sad that our hospitals have to be built with sheltered secure sections for times such as these, and no, it isn't straighforward or practical to just build the entire hospital as one big shelter, but Israeli hospitals usually have several underground or reenforced levels so that in cases of emergency such as these they can still function.

At a local farmers' market today some sellers from the south couldn't make it to the centre of the country due to the risk of being caught out by rocket strikes while driving. Another had run the gauntlet of countless air raids to harvest his fields under fire. He explained that he had no choice, all his fields are within range of regular attacks, but this is is his liveliehood, he can't afford to let his crops rot in the field. 

The Iron Dome anti-rocket system has successfully intercepted most rockets en route to heavily populated areas, but some have still managed to score direct hits on homes and workplaces, fortunately residents were protected by their shelters and so escaped injury, or at least severe physcial injury.

As yet no one is sure that Israeli forces will launch a ground assault on Gaza. The Israeli Air Force has struck at Hamas commanders, rocket launchers and similar targets. Day after day Israeli reservists have been called up for emergency duty, husbands and fathers leaving behind pregnant wives, young children and already stressed working mothers, some themselves already living on the front lines.

Meanwhile Israel continues to supply Gaza with free electricity on humanitarian grounds. The Palestinian leadership and more recently the Hamas government in Gaza have unsurpringly enough refused to pay Gaza's electric bills for years.  Electricity the Gaza munitions factories use to continue manufacturing rockets to fire at Israel, including last night at Hadera, apparently in an attempt to hit that city's power station.

And in war humour today, many Israelis have been distressed that Hamas has been targetting Beer Tuvia, home of Israel's Ben and Jerry's ice-cream factory. One friend went so far as to draft a spoof petition demanding that it get its own Iron Dome battery to protect this vital national asset, an important comfort mechanism in these stressful times. Operation Toffee Crunch anyone? 

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Rocket rain

There have been air raid sirens in towns and villages across Israel tonight with Hamas firing huge volleys at populated areas from Gaza border areas in the south all the way up to the northern port city of Haifa.

Hour after hour my friends and family check in over social media, by phone and with texts letting us know they're OK. First from around Beer Sheva and Ashkelon, then Rehovot, Gedara and surrounding villages, moving north to the big city of Tel Aviv.

My e-mail and Facebook feeds have been full of questions from worried mothers wondering whether they should keep their kids home from camp and summer school tomorrow, how to calm their children, what to tell little ones and wondering what to do if they are caught by a siren while driving with kids strapped in car seats, making it hard to get everyone out of the car in the painfully short time between the first siren warning and an incoming rocket.

In another online forum a local birth educator was agonising over whether she could teach a class tonight to a group of heavily pregnant women in surrounding villages. There had been no sirens in her town, but the next villages and towns over had several. While there was a chance she could teach the class in a shelter she was terrified that she or one of the women might get caught out in the open during a rocket alert. In the end she cancelled with a heavy heart.

Even in towns where there were no sirens the ferocity of the multiple volleys led many municipalities to cancel big outdoor events, in one case nervous crowds were escorted by police away from a scheduled outdoor film screening in a park in a town that has been quiet. No one wanted to take any chances as the pace and scope of alerts rapidly spread to encompass ever more Israeli population centres throughout the south, central and Haifa regions.

As the night wore on we got messages from more and more people spending the night in shelters, stairwells or even internal windowless bathrooms, anywhere deemed somewhat protected in the event of rocket attack, as not every building has its own shelter. Jerusalem, Bet Shemesh, Ramat Gan, Kfar Saba, Ra'anana, Pardes Hanna, Binyamina, Zikhron Ya'akov and on and on, hundreds and thousands more people spending their night in terror of rockets heading their way.

Thank God for the Iron Dome anti-rocket system that has managed to intercept so many missiles before they were able to strike these densely populated areas.

People tried to find the humour in the situation too. Some enterprising folks have started a "shelter selfie" page inviting people to snap pictures of their families in their secure rooms. Some people are hamming it up for the camera with goofy smiles and thumbs up, other photos show entire families crammed into cramped shelters or peacefully slipping children cuddled up on makeshift canp beds, matresses or sleeping bags, camping out for the night in a family or public shelter.

No sirens here thank God, we can just hear booms from other regions, sound carries far at night. The noise kept the kids awake long after their bedtimes, distant dull thuds breaking the stillness of a balmy summer night. My oldest finally dozed off towards the end of a hilariously madcap Danny Kaye musical film.

It's after eleven now and my husband is still sitting with our kindergartner trying for the millionth time to sing or read him to sleep, anything to help him settle. Been quiet for a while now, and we pray this means an end to the rain of rockets but experience has taught us not to get our hopes up.