by Hannah Winkelman (Rishon LeZion, Israel)
The mass exodus of people evacuating the bus should’ve clued me in. My phone had been buzzing all morning with Red Alerts; little did I know that for the next six hours, my phone would buzz at least 150 more times, signifying the deployment of rockets from Gaza to cities scattered around Israel.
I assumed this bus stop must have been a popular one. It wasn’t until the bus driver also exited the vehicle that I realized something was wrong. I took out my headphones and my stomach churned; the sirens were unmistakable.
This is my third time in Israel—a country marked by constant political turmoil and tension—yet I’ve never been confronted with any threats until now. The first time I came, in 2011, I was 15 years old. The second time was last December on Birthright. The only time I felt unsafe was when too many fighter jets were flying at once for my own comfort. Our guide told us not to worry, so I pushed it out of my mind as the jets flew further and further away.
As I exited the bus, I turned my head toward the direction of the phones people pointed at the sky. Two or three thin lines of smoke were trailing after white objects in the sky punctuated by bright red. I expected fear, panic, anything of the sort—and yet, I was met with casual silence. No tension, no dread, no awe; I sensed impatience.
The sirens stopped, halting without a warning just as they had started. After a beat, the bus driver looked to his awaiting passengers: “ok, yalla” and I followed the Israelis as they jumped back on the bus.
The rest of the bus ride felt like a blur. A woman tried to speak to me in Hebrew, but her words fell on essentially deaf ears as I tried to piece together what she was saying with my remedial understanding of the language. She was impatient as I stuttered out in Hebrew “I speak a little Hebrew, do you speak English?” She rolled her eyes. I spent the rest of the bus ride in silence until I reached my stop.
The 20-minute walk home proved daunting. I couldn’t help but think about the possibility that if a rocket attack were to strike, I’d be stranded and defenseless, unsure of where to go. My mind spiraled with these anxious thoughts as my body moved through spaces both familiar and unfamiliar until I reached my apartment.
The assumed safety was brief. Only 20 minutes later, the sirens went off once again. We found the appropriate fall-out shelter—what looked like a closet ascending from the concrete about 20 feet away from our apartment—and we descended beneath the ground into the concrete bunker, finding inside children playing cards and dogs playing with their owners. The white walls and bare floor felt stifling as my roommates and I—three Americans—stood arm to arm. Voices of Israelis echoed and enveloped us, their casual treatment of the situation once again astounding. We were only in the bunker for five minutes.
I’ve always had a basic understanding that Israelis live in a state of apathy regarding their constant state of vulnerability. I’ve wrestled with my own opinions on Israel with the knowledge that it is a state that occupies while also under threat. But to witness the nonchalance Israelis have towards an imminent threat such as rockets dotting the skies was almost more jarring than the threat of the rockets themselves. I asked my friend in Ashkelon, the biggest major city closest to Gaza, if he was okay. He responded promptly in two messages: “hey thank you I am fine. Everything as usual.”
I didn’t write this post to report anything novel; most could surmise the ever-present internalized threat. But to witness it is so much more shocking than what I could have ever imagined. I will never understand what it is like to have lived in a country under constant threat; even after these nine months on Yahel, or if I stay for a few years after, or for the rest of my life, I don’t know if I’ll ever understand it. So while I will never be able to engage in the conflict or even day-to-day life as an Israeli citizen would, I can still fulfill what I consider my responsibilities to be as a global citizen—observing and learning to the best of my ability. That will have to be enough for now.
Hannah Winkelman graduated from Tufts University in 2018 and is currently living in Rishon Lezion in Israel on the Yahel Social Change Fellowship. She volunteers teaching English at a local high school and at various non-profit organizations. She is originally from Seattle, WA.
Note: This post first appeared on the Yahel Israel Blog and is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author. For more information about Yahel Israel, visit: https://www.yahelisrael.com/about