*Note from the author – In this article I only tell my personal experiences living and traveling in the Middle East. I do not discuss Gaza because I have no firsthand experience traveling in Gaza. Also, the portrayal of life in Israel is unique to my situation and does not represent the experiences of other individuals living and traveling within Israel.
I arrived in Israel on June 5th during a period of relative quiet. Only four rockets were fired into Israel during the month of May and Israel’s tourist industry was gearing up to experience a record high summer. Rocket fire from Gaza began increasing in the beginning of June but it did not affect most of the country. The tourist areas were crowded with summer travel camps from Europe and the U.S. No one seemed concerned and the West Bank was safe for travel.
The recent spike in violence between Gaza and Israel began at different times for different people. For Israelis it began when rocket fire from Gaza increased in the beginning of June. For citizens of Gaza it began on July 8th when Israel began firing back under operation Protective Edge. For me it began when the three Israeli boys were kidnapped on July 2nd and the Israeli President, Benjamin Netanyahu, launched operation Brother’s Keeper to find the missing boys. This incident made the violence in Israel real for me, because my teenage brother hitchhiked from the same junction as those boys on the same night they were kidnapped.
The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) searched thousands of homes and arrested hundreds of people, only to find the boys dead 18 days after the initial search. Then on July 2nd a 16-year-old Palestinian named Mohammed Abu Khdair was abducted from his hometown of Shafat in East Jerusalem and murdered by three Israelis. This act was a racially motivated revenge killing for the murder the three Israeli teens. While the families of these four boys joined in peace to comfort one another in their time of loss, violent riots broke out in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
I experienced my first siren, an alert to an incoming bomb, on July 8th. Once or twice a day I heard the siren and had 90 seconds to get to a bomb shelter. Despite the constant bombing, life in Herzliya was bizarrely relaxed. Walking to the bomb shelter became routine, like eating lunch or taking a shower. The frequency of sirens and the low casualty rate in Israel due to the Iron Dome’s success made the Israelis seem nonchalant towards the incoming missiles. Bars were still packed with sports enthusiasts out to watch the world cup and on Friday nights it was impossible to get a taxi because of the multitudes of partygoers out to experience Tel Aviv nightlife.
A staggering disconnect existed between my experiences and the newspapers. One time I was in a coffee shop reading horrific stories about riots in Jerusalem and deaths in Gaza, when the siren sounded. The patrons slowly and casually put down their drinks and walked into the bomb shelter. Five minutes later they exited, their only complaint being the cold coffee. Another time I was swimming in the ocean when the sirens sounded. There were no bomb shelters by the beach so nobody moved. People kept tanning, building sandcastles with their children, and playing volleyball, seemingly unconcerned by the siren. The shore was a 10-minute swim away, so there was nowhere to run and nothing to do but look up. I saw a long smoky trail appear in the sky that halted in a puff of smoke. That was the first time I saw the Iron Dome intercept a missile. I tried to adopt the Israeli attitude and continue daily life while under fire, but I still felt anxiety. I worried about falling shrapnel from intercepted missiles, the Iron Dome failing, and riots breaking out in Herzliya.
When return rocket fire failed to halt the missiles entering Israel, the IDF began a ground operation against Gaza on July 17th. It was about this time I stopped reading the news. My usual online news sources stopped being informational and became obituaries recounting the death toll of hundreds. Under pressure from my worried family back home and feeling anxiety from the rocket fire, I began contemplating leaving early. My main concern was not the current violence but the rapidity of escalation – in a matter of weeks Israel and Gaza exploded into a war zone and many began talking of a third intifada. This sense of uncertainty scared me because no one knew how far the violence would escalate, where it would spread, or what tactics would be used, making safety precautions almost impossible. Studying Counterterrorism while under attack by a terrorist organization definitely made me more skittish and wary of suicide bombers.
I changed my flight home just in time. A few days later on July 22, a missile landed one mile away from Israel’s only international airport and the FAA put a 24-hour ban on international flights. I was temporarily detained in Israel but had secured a cheap flight out as tickets to the U.S. skyrocketed to $6,000. My last days in Israel were spent road-tripping around the north before I finally had to say goodbye to a uniquely unforgettable summer.