At the outset let me say that I ache for victims on both sides of the Gaza border. I know that the residents of Gaza are the true victims here, held hostage by Hamas, which employs a cruel and cynical tactic of placing terrorist bases within residential areas – literally inside the homes of innocent civilians. I am certain that these families would never have chosen to live in buildings with rocket launchers on their rooftops or terrorist tunnels directly below them. This is the real tragedy. I believe that the IDF does its best to avoid civilian casualties, but that it is impossible to take out Hamas targets without hurting civilians caught in harm’s way. Full disclosure: I am an Israeli peacenik unashamed of my allegiance to my country. This is my story and I tell it from the only vantage point I have: an Israeli point of view.
We have had some strange times over the past year and a half, and even stranger holiday celebrations, thanks to Covid-19. But this holiday has been even stranger yet. My family and I usually celebrate Shavuot together in Ashdod. This year we gathered in Ramat Gan, within sprinting distance of a security room. After 6 days of rocket fire over southern and central Israel, Ramat Gan may not seem like the most obvious choice for a family celebration, but everything is relative, to misquote Professor Einstein. And despite the week’s events, Ramat Gan seemed like a better bet than Ashdod this year. Indeed it was.
Last year, in between Covid lockdowns #1 and #2, the rest of the family gathered in Ashdod, not allowing a little thing like a global pandemic to interfere with the holiday tradition. I stayed home last year, being cautious, keeping my distance, following the rules. I did not want to be left out again this year. So, despite the situation, despite the nightly barrage of rockets, we gathered and we celebrated together. And it was wonderful.
Of course it was not like other years – but then, nothing is these days. Two members of the family stayed away – one to tend to her nervous puppy who’s been traumatized by the sirens and explosions; another afraid to leave the house. In fact, even a 20-minute car ride can be hazardous if rocket fire starts while one is out on the open road. But Shavuot is one of our family’s favorite holidays, celebrating the harvest of first fruits and the giving of the Torah. Torah and cheesecake, what’s not to like? The main difference this year of course was the elephant in the room – or should I say, the Qassam.
The Qassam is the weapon of choice for Hamas. This artillery rocket is named for Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, an Imam and militant who was killed by the British in 1935. Qassam rockets can be fired at general areas, but they are not guided missiles. In fact, they cannot precisely pinpoint a target. So Hamas militants fire them toward Israel in hopes that they will strike a ‘worthy target’ – i.e., any human being inside Israel. According to Human Rights Watch, these rockets cannot be fired to target specific military objectives and are “indiscriminate when used against targets in population centers. “Palestinian armed groups made clear in their statements that harming civilians was their aim,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. Sadly, the findings of that report from 2014 are just as true today in 2021.
Although Hamas has other weapons in its arsenal, most of their rockets are Qassams. Qassams are surprisingly easy and inexpensive to manufacture: a metal pipe is welded with fins and filled with rocket fuel made out of fertilizer and melted sugar. The rocket’s warhead is filled with TNT or more fertilizer. The Qassam is decidedly low-tech but effective when fired off in massive barrages. The law of averages explains why some Qassams make it through even the most advanced high-tech arrays like the Israeli Iron Dome air defense system.
Thankfully, the imprecision of the Qassam results in many of them landing in open fields. But when aimed toward population centers, as they are, some of them are bound to hit people. This is what happened tragically to an Arab family in the village of Dahmash, outside of Lod on May 12. A father and his 16-year-old daughter were killed in a 3 am barrage. The mother is in critical condition. A photo of the family’s partially destroyed house shows the table set for the Ramadan pre-dawn meal which they didn’t get to have. When I saw that photo it just brought home to me how rockets don’t distinguish between people: Arabs, Jews, an Indian caregiver… the rockets don’t care. Soumya Santosh, a caregiver from India was killed in Ashkelon while caring for an 80-year-old Holocaust survivor who survived and is in critical condition.
Soumya, Nela, Leah, Halil, Nadine, Omer, Ido, Miriam, Orly, Gershon …Ten people have been killed inside Israel so far by the rocket fire, including my neighbor, Gershon Franco. Franco lived in a ground-floor apartment on my street. He was disabled and unable to run for shelter when the sirens went off. Like most of the fatalities in this war, Franco was hit by shrapnel and flying debris. The rocket landed in the middle of the street right outside his apartment.
When the sirens sound in Ramat Gan, I have about 90 seconds to get to shelter. That’s an eternity compared to the 15 seconds afforded my friends living down south, close to Gaza. Ninety seconds means there’s no point in my trying to get to the city bomb shelter across the street from my building. So, like the majority of Israelis, my neighbors and I crouch in a stairwell, listening to the sirens and the booms of Iron Dome missiles intercepting rockets overhead, shaking the building. We check our phones for updates and wait the prescribed 10 minutes before going back into our apartments. ‘Old-timers’ like me are generally calm throughout this almost daily ritual. We’ve been through it many times before. When the attack is over, I turn on the TV to see what happened. I see skies full of the saddest shooting stars: streams of light fired from opposite directions and meeting mid-air when a defensive missile intercepts a Qassam. When that happens, tiny balls of light explode in a fireworks display that somehow reminds me of an intricate water ballet.
My mom will be pleased to know that seeing this surreal light show on TV is as close as I get. I am not one of the brave reporters outside covering the action. Not anymore. Once upon a time, I did that for a living. As a reporter for a local news agency and later for the AP, I was sent out to cover the action only when one of the more senior reporters was unavailable. But in a country full of action, that seemed to happen rather often. In those days I was an adrenaline junkie. It was all a big adventure. These days I am content to stay indoors, or rather, in a stairwell, and wait out the fireworks.
And so back to Shavuot and our wonderful family dinner. Somehow the skies stayed quiet for us in the center of the country yesterday evening, though sadly, not so for those farther south. In Ramat Gan, we ate pasta and vegetarian dishes and shared stories and laughter and best of all, the precious hugs which had been denied us during the pandemic. Last night provided much-needed respite from the violence. After dinner, we sat out on the terrace and reveled in the tranquil skies. Never have I been so thankful to see no shooting stars.