Like most Israelis, we generally use our bomb shelter as a storage pantry. Costco doesn’t operate in Israel, but we place our Costco-sized items in the shelter, along with cleaning supplies, camping equipment, oversized beach mats, and other bric-a-brac. We keep the Ben & Jerry’s in the freezer there to require just a bit of additional effort before indulging. Every so often, as geopolitical realities dictate, we have to clean out the shelter and use it for its true purpose.
Tuesday night was one of those times.
Hamas, the Islamist terrorists ruling Gaza, greeted my parents’ arrival in Israel from California rather rudely, launching a salvo of hundreds of rockets at the heavily populated areas in the country’s center, where we live. My mom and dad exchanged the discomfort of a 14-hour-long airplane confinement for the discomfort of our shelter, a four-foot-by-eight-foot cell of reinforced concrete where we’ve spent parts of the last few nights. Fortunately, my resourceful 12-year-old daughter used the time between air raid sirens to empty the shelter of unnecessary junk and to ensure it contained the essentials, like extra water bottles and cell phone chargers.
The truth is, we count ourselves among the lucky ones. Israel requires all newly built and renovated houses and apartments of a certain size to include bomb shelters, which also double as sealed rooms, protected from chemical or biological attacks. Our shelter serves this purpose, and a good chunk of space is taken up by a massive air purifier, along with backup filter cartridges. Our biggest challenge thus far has been rousing the children from their deep sleep—once at 1 a.m., once at 3—and corralling our dog to get them all downstairs to safety.
But older housing units, as well as smaller new ones, contain no individual shelters, and some older apartment blocks (the vast majority of Israelis live in apartments) have no communal shelters either. In those cases, when the alarm goes off, residents huddle in internal staircases, away from windows. It’s an opportunity, however unwelcome, to get to know your neighbors, maybe a bit more intimately than they may like. Stories abound of the partially dressed scrambling into the group shelter, of romances kindling as the sirens blare, of singing, weeping, and laughing.
In public spaces like coffee shops, where I was sitting near my office in Tel Aviv when an attack struck on Thursday, diners head into the nearest building’s underground bunker. Etiquette generally permits you to bring your beverage with you, assuming it’s covered, but food is disfavored. Bills are settled after the all clear is given.
My office building itself, a 40-story high rise in the center of the city, contains several secure rooms on each floor, nestled within the tower’s reinforced core, which supposedly is capable of withstanding a direct hit even if the rest of the building is sheared off. (Thankfully the core’s structural integrity hasn’t yet been tested in real life.) Each story’s rooms are connected to those above and below by a series of ladders, enabling egress if necessary.
When it comes to sheltering, the Israeli army’s civil defense handbook (now mainly a website, along with periodic text message alerts) contains multitudes. On a city street? Find any of a number of public shelters, usually located next to playgrounds. Can’t find one? Get inside somewhere, anywhere, away from the windows. In a car or on a bus? Disembark immediately, and lie on the road, hands over head, up against the side of your vehicle. Pets? Take them in with you, no matter how much they protest.
When the siren sounds, depending where you live, you have anywhere from 60 to 90 seconds to get to safety. Those Israelis who live close to Gaza have an even tighter window, occasionally facing mortar fire on a much shorter fuse—and much more regularly than the rest of us. Even after the alarms stop, it’s critical to remain inside for 10 minutes, as shrapnel can take its sweet time raining down from the sky.
And yet, while no one should have to live like this anywhere, we Israelis are immensely fortunate to be protected from above, not only by divine providence but by the Iron Dome, a near-miraculous missile-defense system created by Israeli ingenuity and funded in part by the United States.
Despite facing a barrage of more than 1,000 rockets and mortars in less than two days, we have suffered relatively few direct hits, with Iron Dome batteries intercepting some 90 percent of all threatening projectiles. This time around, Hamas has attempted to outmaneuver the Iron Dome by firing in massive clusters. But for the most part, thankfully, we’ve escaped disaster. (A much bigger challenge looms to our north, where Hezbollah, the terror group holding sway in Lebanon, has pointed over 100,000 rockets at Israeli cities and towns.) Shortly after the sirens sound, we hear the booms, blessedly emanating far above us and not from the ground. Some Israeli wits have recorded the exchanges from afar, setting them to the soundtracks of Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica; gallows humor is one of our chief natural resources.
“Under His wings shall I find shelter,” the Psalmist wrote thousands of years ago. Here, where that psalm was composed, and where we huddle tightly in the embrace of friends, family, steel, and concrete, underneath protective skies, those words ring truer than ever before.