I’m just back from three weeks in Israel – the first week was on a work trip, and then two weeks of vacation (first time out of Canada since the pandemic started!) I covered a lot of ground – Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Nazareth and Caesarea, down to the Dead Sea and Masada, up to the Golan Heights, plus trips into the East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Jordan.
I met lots of interesting people – both Jewish and Arab Israelis, Palestinians, Canadian diplomats, UN peacekeepers, and more. I got a glimpse at the diversity and complexity of Israel itself, including the massive range of politics and viewpoints. There’s the secular vs the religious, the political left vs the right, the Jewish communities who came at different times and for different reasons – not just Ashkenazi vs Sephardic Jews, but Yemeni, Algerian, Russian, Iraqi, French, Ethiopian, Bukharan, Canadian, Ukrainian, Argentinian, American, and more, plus all those born and raised in Israel.
There’s a huge non-Jewish population too – 20% of Israeli citizens are Arab, both Muslim and Christian, plus there are religious minorities like the Druze and Baha’i. There’s deep debate in Israeli society not just on the ever-changing conflict with the Palestinian territories, but also domestic matters like the place of religion in society, the size of government, cost of living, the economy, relations with other countries, and much more. Bonus for a political nerd like me, they’re in an election – their fifth in three years.
But last week, an Israeli friend warned me that I was about to get “the real Israel experience” – rocket attacks. Things had started to spin up in Gaza – warnings grew about a threatened terrorist attack in Israel, highways in the south were closed, then news broke that the IDF had taken out a leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza.
The PIJ is different from Hamas, which de-facto governs Gaza. Both are widely considered terrorist groups worldwide (they’re both on Canada’s terrorist group list), and are deep enemies of the Palestinian Authority, who govern the West Bank. With control of the Palestinian territories split, the PA unable to do anything in Gaza, and with both Israel and Egypt tightly controlling their border access to Gaza (as opposed to the more open West Bank), it’s a pressure cooker.
As the news broke, my friends advised me to download a Red Alert app – it gives you alerts for incoming missiles for any part of Israel, including how long you have to get to shelter. In Tel Aviv, it’s about a minute and a half, but in places further south, it’s only a few seconds. My hotel also gave us the rundown and showed where the bomb shelter was, and what to do if you’re caught outside when the sirens go off, and that even if the Iron Dome successfully stops an incoming missile, you should wait at least ten minutes to leave shelter in case of falling debris.
Over last weekend, there were two big rocket alerts for Tel Aviv. I was staying there at the time, but thankfully, I missed both – I had gone on a day trip to Petra over in Jordan one day, and the next day I had just left on the train to Haifa. It was surreal to look at video of people running for shelter on the same beach I had hung out on a few days before.
It was even more surreal, as my tour bus back from Petra dropped people off in Jerusalem, to see what looked like an orange firework far to the south – the telltale spark of the Iron Dome shooting down a missile.
Over the weekend, over 800 rockets were fired from Gaza by the PIJ – it felt truly indiscriminate, especially as the most targeted part of Tel Aviv was Jaffa, a majority Arab Muslim neighbourhood on the south side of the city.
Many PIJ missiles also fell short into Gaza, killing Palestinian civilians, on top of Israel targeting PIJ missile launch sites. The situation seemed even more confusing and messy (though less likely to lead to a full war) since Hamas, despite having it’s own history of similar rocket attacks, didn’t join in. A weird ceasefire was eventually agreed to, moderated by Egypt. The rockets stopped, and people picked up their beach volleyball games and went back to election speculation.
The Israelis have a kind of sangfroid about all this – they speak about the threat of rockets the way we Canadians speak about bad winter storms: be prepared, be careful on the roads, but it’s not the end of the world. But under that bravado, you could feel a taut coil of anxiety. It was truly surreal.