Shelters, safe rooms and Iron Dome: Weary Israelis endure another rocket barrage

·6 min read

ASHKELON, Israel — The hollow woo of the air raid siren began to wail as Moran Segal was at home late at night with her three daughters.

“The girls did not understand what to do, because it sounds like the siren during Memorial Day and Holocaust Remembrance Day,” she told NBC News, speaking by phone from the central Israel city of Petah Tikva. “They thought they were supposed to stand up, like we do to show respect for the dead on those days.”

It was 1 a.m. and she took them quickly to their building’s bomb shelter, which is normally used for storage and was replete with spider webs, cockroaches and dust. They stayed for 20 minutes before going back to their apartment, only to return again at 3 a.m. in the face of another attack.

“My kids were scared at the start, but I tried to be calm to show the situation is under control and that the noise is the protection system we have on top of us,” said Segal, 39, who works at a nonprofit group that delivers food to the needy.

For the youngest Israelis in the central and southern parts of the country, this is their first experience with indiscriminate missile barrages from the Gaza Strip, a blockaded Palestinian enclave that hugs the coast to the south. But for others, it is merely the latest in a series of similar attacks since the Israeli disengagement from Gaza in 2005. Northern Israelis have faced similar shellings and missiles from Lebanon and Syria dating back decades.

Since Monday, more than 2,000 rockets have been fired by Hamas and Islamic Jihad — both groups designated as terror organizations by the United States — from Gaza in addition to unmanned attack drones and anti-tank missiles. Three missiles were also fired from Lebanon on Thursday.

Nine people in Israel have been killed, according to the Magen David Adom emergency service, including a 5-year-old, Ido Avigal, who was killed Wednesday in Sderot, a small town on the Gaza border that has been regularly attacked by rockets for years.

Israel’s aerial campaign and a barrage from ground troops adjacent to Gaza that began Thursday evening has killed at least 129 Palestinians — including 39 children — according to Palestinian officials. The bombings have targeted officials with Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, as well as infrastructure used by those groups, Israeli officials said.

Image: Residents gather around a car that was hit in an Israeli airstrike that killed three people in the car, on the main road in Gaza City (Adel Hana / AP)
Image: Residents gather around a car that was hit in an Israeli airstrike that killed three people in the car, on the main road in Gaza City (Adel Hana / AP)

While the rocket attacks are terrifying, Israel has a comprehensive system in place to protect its citizens. All public buildings, such as malls, hospitals, houses of worship and theaters, are required to have bomb shelters, and some children’s playgrounds in the south of the country do, too. Modern homes and private buildings are also required to have safe rooms, and cities run public shelters that are opened during times of conflict by the Israel Defense Forces’ Homefront Command.

While many rockets are brought down by Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system, Israelis are also alerted to incoming munitions by sirens and app notifications. Schools send videos on how to talk to kids and explain what is happening to try to relax them.

All the preparations do not remove the fear, however.

“Since we got out of Gaza, I’ve been suffering from this,” said Regev Biton, 38, an accountant from Sderot, referring to the Israeli withdrawal of troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005. Hamas went on to win local elections and oust the more moderate Fatah movement led by President Mahmoud Abbas.

Image: People take cover under a bridge at the entrance of Israel's central city of Tel Aviv, (Gil Cohen-Magen / AFP - Getty Images)
Image: People take cover under a bridge at the entrance of Israel's central city of Tel Aviv, (Gil Cohen-Magen / AFP - Getty Images)

“In Sderot, you have 12 seconds. You can’t really take a baby from the shower to the shelter in that time. It’s not possible when you have two kids,” said Biton, the father of two young girls.

“All day you think, ‘How far are we from the shelter?’ It’s not an easy life,” Biton said.

Biton said he canceled his 2-year-old daughter’s birthday party on Thursday, which was set to feature a bounce house, due to the rocket fire, after having to cancel her party last year on account of the pandemic. The war has also affected other rites of passage.

“Her potty training was going well and then we had to take her in the middle to go to the shelter and she got confused,” he said. “It’s a nightmare. You try to shield them, literally and figuratively, so they won’t be scared.”

While the latest round of violence has also seen the most widespread communal violence in Israel between its Arab and Jewish citizens in at least two decades, all Israelis are potentially at the sharp end of Hamas’ rockets.

Sama Safouri, 33, was having Iftar, the meal that breaks the daily fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, with her parents, brother and three children in Jaffa near Tel Aviv when the rockets began to fall Tuesday.

Though she was concerned about Hamas’ threat to attack that night, she and her family were focused on another announcement — whether Eid al-Fitr and the end of Ramadan would be the following day or on Thursday.

Image: People take shelter in the basement of a building in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv in the early hours of May 13, 2021, after rockets were launched towards Israel from the Gaza Strip. (Gideon Markowicz / AFP - Getty Images)
Image: People take shelter in the basement of a building in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv in the early hours of May 13, 2021, after rockets were launched towards Israel from the Gaza Strip. (Gideon Markowicz / AFP - Getty Images)

At about 8:45 p.m., as they were checking for the announcement online, in between bites of date-filled Ma’amoul cookies, the air raid siren sounded.

“My parents, my brother, my kids and everybody was running to the safe room … In the previous round I was panicked. This time, I feel more safe because we have the shelter. I feel in control,” Safouri, who works for Hebrew University's aChord Center, which focuses on the inclusion of minorities in the labor market, said. "Every time we have this situation, everyone is really worried. And everything is more complicated when you’re an Arab in Israel.”

Recounting previous periods of terrorism — “I remember as a kid buses exploding” — and civil unrest, and in light of the current outbreaks of ethnic-based mob violence, Safouri said she has had to hide or amplify her Arab identity.

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During days of stabbings in Jerusalem in 2017, she would talk on the phone with her mother in Arabic when she would leave her office to grab coffee, so locals in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood would not suspect her of being Jewish.

Discussing her fellow Israeli citizens, Safouri said, “really we are here together, attacked together.” She paused. “But I have to complete the sentence and say my cousins in Gaza are suffering, too. We are all suffering.”

Before wrapping up the interview on Thursday, Safouri told her daughter softly that they would be sleeping in the shelter.

Image: TOPSHOT-PALESTINIAN-ISRAEL-CONFLICT-GAZA (Anas Baba / AFP - Getty Images)
Image: TOPSHOT-PALESTINIAN-ISRAEL-CONFLICT-GAZA (Anas Baba / AFP - Getty Images)

In Petah Tikva, Segal said that while the rockets are “terrifying,” she feels that the inter-Israeli conflict is a bigger problem.

She said and her family frequently go to the nearby Arab village to eat out, buy sweets and fix their car.

“These are people we know and are neighbors with. We drive through there, and now suddenly everything is on fire and people are against each other,” she said.

“What despairs us is that, if there will be a ceasefire, and then this is just going to happen again, in a year, then why did we have to go through all of this?” she added. “Why did all these people have to die? Why did all these children go through these traumas?”

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