Chelsi Mueller
Middle East Historian | Asst. Prof. Global Conflict Studies
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Living under fire in Tel Aviv and Kyiv

How my experience of 5 air raid sirens in Ukraine compared to the barrages of 4 Israel-Gaza wars
Ukraine's Air Alert App. (courtesy)

In part because of my experiences teaching global conflict studies and living in Tel Aviv during four Israel-Gaza wars, I often wondered what life was like for civilians in Ukraine who also live under missile fire. Recently, I jumped at the chance to travel there with a friend to try to gain some insights and experience it firsthand. I did not travel to the east or southeast which has seen the heaviest fighting, bloodshed, and devastation. I traveled from Rzeszów, Poland to Kyiv, via Ternopil, in the first week of August 2023. I experienced air raid sirens once in Ternopil and four times in Kyiv. I found that being in Kyiv and Ternopil during the Russia-Ukraine war felt very similar to being in Tel Aviv when Hamas and Islamic Jihad launched rockets out of the Gaza Strip — but there were also some significant differences.

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Ukrainian air defense system intercepts a rocket launched by Russian forces in Kyiv, Ukraine on December 29, 2022.

Life goes on in most of Ukraine, just as it does in Tel Aviv during a war. The weather was beautiful and the parks, town squares, restaurant patios, beaches and entertainment venues were teaming with people. But at least once a day and sometimes twice a day, there was an air raid alert. The alert bellowed out as a traditional community air raid siren, and it also activated the voice of Luke Skywalker on my phone, where I had downloaded Air Alert, Ukraine’s version of “Tzeva Adom.” The audible message began with, “Attention. Air raid alert, proceed to the nearest shelter.” I had set the app to notify me of threats to Kyiv and to ignore air raid alerts in other cities. In that sense, my experience with sirens in Ukraine was similar to that with sirens in Israel.

Conversely, Israelis know approximately how much time they have to reach a shelter and are aided by their app which displays how many seconds have passed since the siren sounded. Ukrainians have a big disadvantage in that respect, because Russian missiles, unlike Hamas rockets, are precision-guided and therefore, can change direction in the air. They also have variable speeds, some capable of accelerating to four times the speed of sound.

On one occasion, Ukrainian friends told me that we had about 10 minutes to get to a shelter (as opposed to 90 seconds in Tel Aviv). Their calculations were based on what they were seeing on social media, namely, Telegram. Volunteer-based Telegram channels disseminate information in real time about the nature of the threat, whether that be a missile launch, kamikaze drones, the activation of air defense systems, unexplained explosions, or the takeoff of a MiG-31. Having that information, Ukrainians take calculated risks about whether to take shelter and how fast to move toward a shelter. The order of events in Israel is the opposite. When a siren goes off, people first take shelter, then check their phones. Israelis stand in the shelter and listen for the booms that ring out when the Iron Dome defense system launches the interceptor rockets. While sheltering, there is a tendency to check a news “ticker” or a social media site such as Twitter to find out what type and how many missiles were fired, whether the Iron Dome intercepted it and whether anyone was killed or injured. Some people use their phones to check in with their loved ones before carrying on with their days.

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People hide in the subway as an air-raid siren warns of air raids from Russia on July 26, 2023, in Kyiv, Ukraine.

In Ukraine, Telegram has been a game changer. The volunteers who disseminate information via Telegram help Ukrainians save valuable time and more importantly, they play a role in saving lives. But it’s not without drawbacks. The volunteers who run threat information channels are not at army headquarters, though they monitor transmissions and keep ties with key informants. And there are some threats that materialize faster than the ability to type, such as Russia’s hypersonic missiles.

Further to that, war weariness has created a situation where Ukrainians are ignoring sirens and taking risks in order to have some semblance of normalcy. For example, many Ukrainians told me that they do not bother to shelter when a MiG takes flight because it usually amounts to nothing more than a training mission. The reason MiGs trigger a country-wide air raid alert is because they carry hypersonic missiles. The growing complacency, I was told, is the reason I heard the voice of Luke Skywalker warning me through the Air Alert app, “Don’t be careless. Your overconfidence is your weakness.” Indeed, since the start of the full-scale invasion, there have been at least 1,500 civilians living in the territory controlled by the Ukrainian government who have been killed by aerial assaults alone, and at least 3,600 injured, according to the UN, and the actual number is higher.

As a former resident of Tel Aviv, widespread disregard for the air raid sirens in Kyiv felt a bit strange to me. I noticed that when a siren started up, its shrill pitch piercing the calm, there was no significant effect on the people in the streets, parks and public spaces, aside from a few checking their smartphones. There was one time I was joined in a shelter by Ukrainians, and it was memorable. When the siren sounded, my friend and I took shelter in the basement of T. C. Pizza on Olesia Honchara Street. We soon found ourselves seated among the audience at a stand-up comedy event. Later, we learned that proceeds from the sale of the tickets (which we hadn’t purchased) supported humanitarian projects being carried out by a charitable foundation called Kyiv Volunteer.

As the comedian entertained the audience in Ukrainian, I searched Twitter to try to find out the cause of the air alert. Just about as soon as I managed to learn that two groups of Russian missiles were hurtling toward Kyiv, five people came down the stairs and seated themselves. It came out that they had also stumbled upon the basement comedy act while seeking shelter, albeit half an hour after the initial siren. After about an hour and reports of explosions somewhere in Kyiv, the “all clear” siren blared outside and the Star Wars-themed app announced, “The alert is over. May the Force be with you.”

When I was in Ukraine, I experienced five air raid alerts and they lasted from 30 minutes to more than an hour. In Tel Aviv, they lasted between five and 10 minutes. It should also be noted that during serious escalations, the southern communities in Israel, which are closer to the Gaza Strip, can experience back-to-back air raid sirens that keep them in their shelters all day and all night.

Sleeping arrangements in Ukrainian households have changed since the advent of aerial attacks. Ukrainians described to me how they have identified the safest places to sleep in their houses and apartments, away from the windows. Often this means hallways, closets or bathrooms. Some sleep through the night in the safer place, some get up and move when a siren sounds, and some stay put in their beds. One woman told me that her grown son regularly sleeps in his parents’ room because his own room is less safe. Generally, people said that they were more inclined to play it safe at night, because opening apps to investigate the causes of air raid sirens in the middle of the night was less appealing.

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Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system intercepts rockets above the coastal city of Tel Aviv on May 15, 2021.

In contrast, Israelis are less likely to deliberately ignore air raid sirens at night. In Tel Aviv, air raid sirens are, for the most part, experienced during full fledged wars between Israel and Hamas and those wars have historically been short wars, lasting weeks, not months. At the time of this writing, a year and a half has passed since Russia’s February 24, 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine. There has been no ceasefire and no respite from the airborne threats that civilians live under, which helps explain the manifestations of war weariness that I was witnessing.

When comparing how war is experienced differently in Tel Aviv and in Kyiv, my final and important contrast pertains to the nature of the threat and the nature of the enemy. Ukraine faces the threat of a conventional army and a conventional war waged by a much larger neighboring state, whereas Israel faces an asymmetric threat from a quasi-state actor. Neither Hamas nor its smaller cousin, Islamic Jihad, have conventional military capabilities. Over the years, they have built up their rocket arsenals by repurposing dual use materials, smuggling parts via underground tunnels and sea routes, and by sending weapons production engineers abroad to study in Iranian-sponsored training facilities.

Moreover, Russia’s objectives differ from Hamas’s. Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to want to shape the configuration of the international system and vie for multi-polarity even as bi-polarity appears to be on the horizon. At the outset of the full-scale invasion, Russia appeared intent upon reversing Ukraine’s independence, cutting it off from NATO, and revising the territorial framework. Today, it appears as though Russia may only see success in the latter.

The primary objectives of Russian missile and drone strikes on cities beyond the frontlines are to hit “strategic targets” such as the electrical grid, to put a strain on Ukraine’s air defenses, or to punish Ukraine by destroying civilian infrastructure such as a bridge. The fighting in Donbas, Kherson ,and the Crimea have been marked by serious war crimes, including bombing civilians, execution, rape, and torture. Russia has also been accused of carrying out retaliation strikes on targets surrounded by civilians far from the frontlines. Ukrainians who do not live on the frontlines do not trust Russia, but at the same time, they tend to view the threat to their person as being mostly from falling debris, “collateral damage,” and being in the wrong place at the wrong time when Russia strikes.

The nature of the threat to Israel is starkly different. Barrages of rockets are launched indiscriminately out of the Gaza Strip toward Israeli cities in order to terrorize and kill civilians. Escalations are also designed to draw fire from Israel or even to draw Israel into a bloody confrontation. In those confrontations, the death toll, devastation and suffering is always felt much more in the Gaza Strip. A war with Israel can be exploited by Hamas to achieve a broader goal, such as breaking through a stalemate, obtaining finances, or exploiting the region’s rivalries for selfish gain. In addition, the use of human shields helps the jihadists win “the battle for hearts and minds,” by stirring up moral indignation against Israel.

Hamas’s ultimate objective is to gain an upper hand over Fatah, its political rival based in Ramallah. Hamas views the Mahmoud Abbas-led government in Ramallah as illegitimate and would like to supplant it as the main leader of the Palestinian people.

By visiting Ukraine, I was able to learn that Ukrainian and Israeli civilians have had divergent experiences with war, and with the nature of the threats they face. They also share much, including the use of apps to get information about malicious projectiles. And it remains to be seen how living under missile threats in large urban areas will change over time, as the Russia-Ukraine war settles into a war of attrition, and as Israel readies itself for a potential two-front war, against both Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. If Israel were to go to war with the Iran-backed Hezbollah, Israel’s towns and cities would be under the threat of a larger, more sophisticated and more lethal missile arsenal than they have previously faced.

About the Author
Chelsi Mueller is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Security Studies and International Affairs at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. She earned her Ph.D. in History from Tel Aviv University and she is a non-resident research fellow in the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University. She authored the book "Origins of the Arab-Iranian Conflict: Nationalism and Sovereignty in the Gulf" (Cambridge University Press, 2020) and numerous articles about conflict and conflict resolution in the Middle East.
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