July 24, 2006

War In Israel

July 20

It’s been one year since we moved to Israel. I really regret not writing about our transition sooner but I was so caught up in the move that I barely had time to sleep, let alone reflect. The newness and wonder of it all has seemed to wane a bit much to my disappointment. I often want someone to pinch me to remind that yes, I am here living in Israel; be it walking down the cobbled streets in the Old City of Jerusalem, discovering a lichee tree for the first time with plump red fruit hanging, ready for the pick; or simply doing the dishes and staring out at a deep blue sky on yet another clear, warm day here in Israel.

Last week the country erupted in war. Before I knew it, Katyusha rockets were smashing communities in the north of Israel, killing, wounding, shattering the peace. On Sunday morning we sat glued to the internet, waiting for updates. And then the phone rang.

An Israeli friend told us that Tel Aviv was in range of the rockets and that we were to stay close to our bomb shelter. Our feeling of normalcy floated out the window…slowly. I insisted on keeping it together by doing the dishes and the laundry. But when I went outside to hang the clean clothes, I looked up at that deep blue summer sky for a hint of the unthinkable. I kept a window open to make sure I could hear the wailing siren. I wanted my kids by my side and counted the hours for them to come home. Yet Aviva was in sleepover camp to the northeast of here. Shaya had gone jeeping with his camp and Talya was at her kindergarten. I continued sweeping, folding, tidying, one eye on my watch and one to the sky, still that magenta blue, cloudless, silent. The birds were singing. The garbage truck came. The grass was cut. The mail was delivered.

And my kids came home. Our bomb shelter was ready - just in case. And life went on.

Just yesterday morning, I was relaxing in an outdoor café with a friend. I got home and as I sat down to lunch, the phone rang again. This time it was a Canadian friend who had made aliyah four years ago. “I just want to tell you that there’s a suicide bomber walking around town. I’m picking up my daughter from camp. You decide what you want to do.” Click. Normalcy was pulled out from under our feet within a second. Yet again.

I sat there stunned. I had lost my appetite. We called Talya’s camp and they said not to worry. ‘The gate is locked, the kids are inside and there’s a guard with a gun standing outside.’ We called Shaya’s camp. They had gone to a crocodile farm and were now stuck on the highway. The police had shut down the main roads and were checking each and every car. They emptied the malls. The city sat and waited.

After being stuck on a school bus in the heat of the day for two hours, Shaya came home. Then Talya came home. They caught the suicide bomber in nearby Hod Hasharon a few hours later. And so life goes on.

And life must go on for the thousands of people who had to flee their homes in the north. Families who in a minute’s notice ran from the rockets; who locked the doors to their homes, piled into their cars and drove south. They are now in Raanana and many other towns in the south. And hundreds of families are opening their doors to take them in. People are giving them food, shelter, toothpaste, toys, diapers. They are living in hotels, movie theatres – even families who lost their homes in Gush Katif have opened their tiny caravans to help out these people. There are now makeshift camps for the children. Our town has invited them to swim at the country club. People are sending care packages to the soldiers and baking for those who are still living in bomb shelters. And I just read that a popular Israeli rock band is touring the public bomb shelters. And so are the clowns, ever hopeful to make those terrified children laugh again.

As for me, the newcomer, I can now see that I live in a land where there is a profound sense of care for one another. No one is a stranger here. We too want to help and have put our names down to host a family from the north. I now understand that I am living in a country that is united and strong. I just have to get used to the mat being pulled from under my feet and the threat of impending danger. It causes stress, irritability, fatigue. But I know how important it is for us to be here in Israel. Just today, over 200 Americans landed at Ben Gurion to start their lives here as new immigrants - and they could not have dreamed of a better time to be here in Israel.

July 21

Another cloudless blue day. This morning, there was a photo of a couple on the front page of the paper who were married just last night in Kiryat Shmona. Months ago, they had picked July 20 to be their wedding day and had invited 800 guests. Now that war broke out, they were determined to keep their date. The bride wore her beautiful white gown and the couple marched down the steps of the bomb shelter while 30 guests were there to celebrate.

It is so serene here in Raanana, it is almost hard to imagine that there is a vicious war going not too far from here. And horrific it is. My husband ran into a friend on the street this morning. When Amir casually asked how he was, he said “Not good. I heard last night that a good friend of mine was killed in Lebanon.” We had seen in the paper that morning that there were casualties but there were no names and no faces. Now there was a name. Benjy Hillman was a 27-year-old accomplished commander who lived here in Raanana, who had just three weeks ago walked under the chuppa with his new bride. He spent five days as a married man and then left for Lebanon because he felt it was his duty to be with his unit. Now the same guests who danced at the wedding were together again – this time at his funeral. He had plans to honeymoon in Thailand but his deep responsibility to his soldiers came first. Now there will never be a honeymoon. Just deep scorching sorrow.

Although we did not know Benjy Hillman personally, Amir felt he should go to this funeral. A huge group gathered on Schwartz Street at noon and then walked alongside an army jeep that escorted the casket to the cemetery. Hundreds of people slowly walked in the midday sun until they reached the military cemetery. His father spoke. His commander spoke. His brother, a friend, the mayor and the chief Rabbi all eulogized this young man. The crowd was silent, the heat was unbearable, the pain too heavy to bear. A woman collapsed, the crowd stirred to catch her in her grief and the sad words continued to pour out, witness to a life beautifully lived, a life that was extinguished all too soon. Amir said this was the saddest day he has experienced here in Israel.

The war is touching everyone here. We have refugees from the north living next door and our neighbour up the road told us his house is full of relatives who have fled from the rockets. We have put our names down to open our home to a family. Apparently so many people have offered here in Raanana, there is a waiting list for available homes and not for refugee families!

I know I am supposed to beautify my home in honor of Shabbat, to lay down a white table cloth and the best china. But I feel so heavy, so lethargic from the sadness. I just want some good news. I check the internet every hour and hear about more rockets, more injuries. I hear helicopters passing overhead, army personnel carriers, jets. The sky is busy with war. I will light my candles and pray for peace, for protection of our soldiers and for those who are living in bomb shelters.

Saturday July 22, 2006

We did have a relaxing Shabbat as always. And as I cannot listen to the radio, turn on the TV or read the internet, we were forced into seclusion. It was blissful, a total sanctuary. The skies were blue again but are now a virtual highway for transporting soldiers and supplies to the north. When I finally re-entered the world of information, I learned that Saturday had been one of the heaviest days of rockets thus far; over 150 katyusha rockets fell in northern Israel, wounding dozens.

Sunday July 23, 2006

No camp today. This is the first official Sunday we have had in many months. So what does one do on yet another beautiful sunny day here in July? The beach! We packed the car up with boogy boards, sand toys, bottles of water, snacks and, of course, our excited kids and headed out to Herzliya, just 15 minutes away. En route we stopped at a mall to run an errand. My daughter pranced across the parking lot in her electric pink bathing suit and purple crocs. We passed by a family with four small children and I noticed something amiss. One little boy had no shoes. The mother was wearing clothes that looked as if they had been worn for a week. They looked sunken, tired. I have heard that here are families who have run away from the war and simply roam the malls all day long.

The beach is always a special treat and can take the stress level down several notches. I just felt so strange to be floating in the waves as those helicopters passed over us, constantly ferrying back and forth to the war front.

I read today that Europeans are now marching against Israel: 7,000 in central London; 1,000 in Paris; 2,000 in Amsterdam. Is it because all of these people are being fed the wrong information? Are their news broadcasts only focusing on the Lebanese refugees and deaths? Do these people know how many Israeli lives have been destroyed by this war? Sons and fathers killed; people displaced, incomes and crops destroyed.

Do these Europeans realize that Israeli citizens are the targets of the Hizbullah rockets while the Israeli Defense Force distributes leaflets to the local Lebanese residents asking them to evacuate an area before it tries to ferret out the terrorists? Do these protesters know that the Israelis are so careful not to hurt the local population, they also risk sending in their ground troops to root out the terrorists? Or, it is that these demonstrators do not want to know. Maybe they are full of hatred and they just want to see Israel erased off the map. I think the answer is the latter.

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