It’s impossible for someone who has never been in southern Israel during a rocket attack to fully understand the emotions and thoughts you have when the Banshee-like rocket sirens begin to wail. They are loud and mournful, almost as if an angel was foreseeing the deaths of innocent children. When they occur in the dark of night, they are especially haunting and fill every fibre of your being with fear, adrenaline, and foreboding. You know instantly that rockets are heading towards your location and that within seconds they could explode on top of you.
I lost count of the number of sirens we heard in our city of Ashdod over the 8 days of Operation Pillar of Defence (14-21 November 2012). I think I read somewhere that there were 140 individual rocket barrages on Ashdod alone. That means 140 sirens, which is on average one attack every 1 hour and 37 minutes, over 8 days. They seemed to never end. Across Israel, over 1,456 rockets were fired by Gazan terrorist groups.
Normal every day activities you hardly think about become a matter of intense discussion and frequent hesitation. Going to the toilet, taking a shower, changing clothes, boiling/frying food in pans, taking the dog a walk, taking the bins out, going for a nap … going to bed at night, all become things you think about twice and then thrice, and do with a certain urgency. For example, during one attack I was caught in the shower and had to dry my feet (to avoid breaking my neck on the tiled floor) and run outside, wrapped in my towel, to the neighbour’s shelter all in the space of 45 seconds.
We didn’t have a shelter or safety room of our own. Every time a siren sounded we had to race next door and into their safety room via their living room and kitchen. Once inside, when the sirens stopped, the rockets began to land or be taken out by the impressive Iron Dome missile defence shield. The explosions of the Iron Dome intercepting the rockets were huge and frequently occurred right over our location. The walls shook, the ground vibrated, windows sometimes smashed nearby and the audible volume of the explosions were akin to a car backfiring nearby.
Sometimes the rockets landed. It’s quite easy to differentiate between an Iron Dome interception and a rocket hitting the ground. The interceptions mid-air are like someone whacking a large drum and frequently occur in groups. A rocket hitting the ground is more of a thud, and somehow, you hear … feel … and then visualize in your mind (within a split-second) the rocket impacting concrete. Again, it’s impossible to put into words, you have to experience it. In Ashdod alone, a number of buildings suffered direct hits and fires resulted. Many people suffered from shrapnel wounds, injuries from falling over, and probably the most underappreciated injury one can suffer during an attack, that of shock.
The Assassination of Ahmed Jabari
I knew immediately upon reading reports that Ahmed Jabari (head of the Hamas military wing) had been killed that we’d have rockets fired on our city within a few hours. There was no doubt about it, southern Israel would be under intense rocket fire that would rival any previous experience I had had in the two years I’d lived in the port city of Ashdod. The assassination of Jabari was a huge hit and would unleash a tightly coiled spring of fury that had been waiting to leap forth for many months.
There had been a number of flare ups over the previous month or two, each one resulting in a brief lull. The latest exchange had started a week before the assassination (10th November 2012) when an Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) jeep on routine patrol next to the Gaza Strip border was attacked with an anti-tank missile. The two sides exchanged fire and rockets (over 100) began hitting southern Israeli communities, including a single attack here in Ashdod. All the major cities were hit, many people were wounded, and all schools were cancelled. Residents were upset that the Israeli response to the rocket fire was so weak, with barely any air strikes in retaliation.
Things then went quiet (13th November 2012) amid rumours of a ceasefire. Most people, including myself, estimated this relatively brief exchange was over until the next one in a few months. However, worst was soon to come. Israel had secretly decided upon a course of action in order to punish the terror group’s unprovoked attacks on Israeli civilians.
The Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak had given a clue to the imminent strike, saying "Israel's reaction will come at the appropriate time”. Israelis shrugged off such words as typical inaction and delay in the face of rocket fire. Another minister Benny Begin said "the current exchange of hostilities seems to be over”, which made me and most other people think that was that. It no doubt also made the terrorists think they had got away with their rocket fire.
Preparing for Rocket Attacks
BOOM! On a Wednesday afternoon (14th November 2012) I was finishing off a bit of work. As I usually do during or after a flare-up in tensions, I began my hourly check of the Israeli news sites, expecting to see very little that was new. There it was in black and white, the breaking news reports that a senior terrorist had just been killed inside his car minutes before. I sat for the next half an hour refreshing the news websites reading the new details emerging about the strike. When the target’s name was revealed, I knew the gates of hell were about to open on our heads.
I made phone calls and sent text messages to people telling them what had happened and what was about to happen. People needed to know, not for celebratory reasons (the extinguishing of a terrorist head who was instrumental in the abduction of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit for nearly 6 years was something to be pleased about) but because they would need to make arrangements for their families and perhaps drive home earlier from work. I would have put all the money I owned on the fact there would be rockets before the end of the day. I was right.
After 8 days of constant action, here’s now a ceasefire which, at the time of writing, seems to be holding. Hamas and other terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip such as Islamic Jihad have suffered immense damage to their arsenals and infrastructure. However, they were not destroyed and they will rebuild and return to firing rockets in the not too distant future.
Residents of southern Israel will once again hear the rocket sirens sound and race for the nearest shelter. The international media will of course ignore these attacks unless an Israeli is killed. When Israel finally loses patience and fires back at another terrorist leader, the events of the previous week will be repeated.
What Israel can do about this situation is for another article but suffice to say, the various options will all result in loss of life on both sides.
Let me make a couple of estimates.
My first estimate is that the first post-ceasefire rocket will land in Israel’s Eshkol or Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Councils (those that border the Gaza Strip) by the end of November. My second estimate is that a post-ceasefire rocket will be fired at one of the big cities (Ashkelon/Ashdod/Beersheva) before June 2013.
If you want to know what it’s like during a rocket attack on southern Israel, watch this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-wETUOJDmc
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