Bomb Scares and Air Raid Sirens: Traveling in Israel Amidst Escalating Military Tensions
Our border crossing from Aqaba in Jordan to Eilat in Israel goes smoothly, but as Canadians, it’s still the most challenging one we’ve endured. I sail through pretty easily, but Agri is pulled aside and subjected to 20 minutes of questioning about our relationship, our travel plans, how we finance them and where his family lives. They are polite, deadly serious and very firm. Finally though, he’s let through and after our bags are thoroughly checked, we’re allowed to take our first steps onto dry, dusty Israeli soil.
Truthfully, I’ve been a bit ambivalent about coming here at all. It’s not that I’m worried about potential violence, but I am unsure of how I feel about visiting a country that carries so much negative energy. It’s one of the most heavily militarized places on earth, where people are killed or injured all the time, in the name of religion. I can feel the weight of it weeks before our arrival, but nonetheless, here we are.
We don’t spend much time in Eilat, because our final destination for the day is Jerusalem, 300 kilometres north of where we are. Three thousand years old, it’s one of the oldest cities in the world and home to some of the most significant holy sites for Muslims, Christians and Jews alike. The Temple Mount, which houses the Western Wall (Judaism) and the Dome of the Rock (Islam) is here, as is the Via Dolorosa (Way of the Cross) and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Jesus was condemned and crucified. And while we don’t personally subscribe to any of these 3 religions, the historical significance of the city cannot be denied.
We board our Egged bus and ready ourselves for the five and a half hour journey. We comment to each other over and over again about the huge military presence. They are everywhere. The bright young men and women of Israel in military greens, smoking cigarettes, chatting on phones, some casually carrying machine guns slung over their shoulders.
On the bus, we get a small window into the tensions of the country, when a young Israeli man starts fighting with the old Greek Catholic priest that is assigned to sit next to him. He does not want to share his seat with the man, and his disgust is obvious. He will not yield even one inch of space. The situation is only remedied when the bus driver separates the two men.
We drive through barren rock and dry dust, before passing the expensive Dead Sea resorts and spas. By the time we arrive in Jerusalem’s Old City, night has fallen and we have just enough time to take a short walk and check out the city lights from the terrace of our hostel.
It’s not until the next morning that we find out that the military commander of Hamas, Ahmed Jabari, has been assassinated, a rocket shot directly at his car, killing him instantly. The seriousness of this does not dawn on me immediately. While I am aware of unrest in the Middle East, I am not well versed on all of the details and the political ramifications.
The Bear however, immediately grasps the weight of this, and his eyes are wide as he tells me just how big of a deal it is. Soon I notice that all of the Palestinian staff in our Old City hostel have their eyes glued to the television screens in the room. The mood is heavy and getting heavier.
On some surface level, I understand the seriousness of what has happened, but I have no real context for the event. I have never lived in a country where car bombs explode regularly, rockets are launched and innocent children are ‘accidently’ killed. I don’t know what it feels like to leave my family for 3 years to serve in a military, knowing that one day, I might be called on to fight in a war I don’t necessarily believe in. I don’t know what it’s like to hear air raid sirens, to run for cover and to know that it’s because weapons have been launched at my city, with the intention of death for me and anyone who believes in the same things I do. I don’t understand the grief and sorrow that comes from losing my child as “collateral damage,” or an anger so deep that I want to kill in return.
All of it is thankfully beyond my reach. I can imagine what those things might feel like, but I have never actually felt them, so it’s like describing the taste of chocolate ice cream to someone without ever having eaten any myself.
It’s not until we are sitting in the Coffee Bean outside of Jaffa Gate a few hours later, that I get a taste of what living in Israel is like.
We are just starting to sip on our lattes, when the Bear notices a big commotion outside. Streets that had been busy minutes before are suddenly devoid of people or sound. Young men in military uniform are forcing everyone away from their tables outside the coffee shop and towards the interior of the cafe. I see one woman attempt to cross the road, but she is immediately pushed back by one of the soldiers. She just wants to walk to the other side, but he will not let her and there is an argument. She is visibly upset.
We’re not quite sure what’s happening. We think that maybe a dignitary is passing through, but that thought is quickly dismissed when we see the bomb squad approaching the scene. This is serious. For the first time, I feel a finger of fear run up my spine. Until now, it’s all seemed a bit surreal, a bit like a made for tv movie. I still feel a separation between the events of the last 24 hours and myself. I still don’t believe that the violence could affect me. Surely no rockets will be fired on the holiest of holy cities in Israel?
As I watch the bomb squad cautiously approach what appears to be a full plastic bag, it all starts to become a little bit too real. Now I know what it feels like to wonder if a bomb is going to explode 50 metres from me. Now I know what it feels like to see the military running around with machine guns, knowing that they will use them if they have to.
After a few minutes, an all clear is given and everyone is allowed to return to their tables. The streets are opened up again and it’s as if nothing has happened. People are drinking coffee, chatting with their friends and strolling up and down the street, shopping bags in hand.
Briefly I wonder if we should leave Israel. Is it unwise to stay in a country where tensions are escalating so quickly? By now, the finger of fear I felt has dissipated and the desire to learn more, to understand more, quickly replaces any fear I was feeling. After all, isn’t this the whole point of traveling? To make sense of what’s happening in the world by talking to people and seeing and feeling things first hand, separate from what you see on the news?
What do you think? Would escalating political tensions make you leave a country?
UPDATE: Since I wrote this, this afternoon, rockets have been fired towards Jerusalem. Nobody was injured or killed, but we did hear air raid sirens. The locals didn’t seem too bothered by them, but it was definitely overwhelming for us. We had the Muslim prayer call, the chanting and fireworks of the Jews for shabbat and the air raid sirens all going at the same time. Hard to take in and interpret.