BEERSHEBA, Israel — War in Israel just happens. You go to bed worried about the Bernard Madoff scandal and wake up the next day in a different reality.
It is a reality where you find friends crying in their office because their son/husband/daughter — does it really matter which? — just received an emergency call-up notice to the army; where the sign at the entrance to your neighborhood asks residents to “adopt” families from front-line communities; where you realize the closest bomb shelter to your house is being used as a synagogue and wonder if you have to pay dues to get in.
Like most people in the world, you watch the Gaza war on television, read about it in the newspaper and otherwise compartmentalize as your coping mechanism takes over.
Then, in the split second it takes to identify the sound of the warning siren as it spreads through the quiet of your sleepy bedroom community, you realize the war is in your own backyard.
I am no newcomer to Israel. I was a journalist during the first intifada and Gulf War, with a special pass to get through roadblocks. I have marched against war and covered the events that marked its bloody end. But nothing I have ever experienced prepared me for the punch to my gut when the first siren went off and I wasn’t at home, or the feeling of helplessness when I tried calling but all the lines were busy.
For the first time I am experiencing war as a mother, through the eyes of my 9- and 11-year-old children. I was only five minutes away from home when the first sirens rang out, but no one would let me leave the neighborhood sports center while danger was still apparent. Although the missiles fell some 12 miles away, nothing could comfort my daughter, who was overwhelmed with fear for the rest of the night.
Over the past few days, Hamas has fired more than 100 missiles into southern Israel. At least 10 have fallen in and around Beersheba, not far from the university where I work. One landed just outside a nursery school, covering the dolls and blocks inside with shards of plaster and glass. Another landed directly on a nearby high school, crushing through the ceiling, into one of the classrooms. Luckily the municipality had decided to close all schools in the region that morning, so no one was hurt.
Of course, this is nothing, barely a drop in the bucket, compared to the ongoing missile barrage that has been raining down on towns like Sderot for the past eight years.
Yes, we have spent a week going in and out of the bomb shelter, but in the communities that border Gaza, tens of Israelis have lost their lives or been injured with 20 to 25 rockets, sometimes 50, falling every day. Thousands of children have grown up not knowing what it’s like to go outside and play without the fear of a missile falling from the sky.
There is no logical reason why it has to be this way. Israel left the Gaza Strip more than three years ago, offering the Palestinians an opportunity to determine their own future. Unfortunately they chose Hamas, a party that advocates Islamic fundamentalism and a commitment to fight for the destruction of Israel. They opted for leadership that promotes a culture which celebrates martyrdom and death, violence and destruction.
All that is left to do today as we watch the news of Israel’s ongoing ground action in Gaza is pray — for the safety of our soldiers, the residents of the region and the innocent Palestinians caught in the crossfire.
This is the siren song of war that brings destruction and ruin down upon all those who follow it. For their sake, and for our own, we Israelis hope that in 2009 the Palestinians will somehow, miraculously, change their tune.
(Faye Bittker is the director of the Department of Publications and Media Relations at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.)