independent

Thursday 24 April 2014

Gulf War fears haunt Tel Aviv as missiles fall

WHEN the air raid siren begins to bawl, you have one minute. You can hide in a safe room or crouch in the stairwell of an apartment block to take shelter as the first missiles since the Gulf War in 1991 target Tel Aviv.

If you are caught outside on open ground, you will just have to lie down, cover your head and hope you don't win the lottery of death in this escalating conflict.

But while the locals are well drilled, having been in the army and lived with conflict for decades, the Irish here are not as war hardened.

Ed McCarthy, from Cork, was reclining on his sofa in his apartment in central Tel Aviv when he heard the first sirens on Thursday evening.

Curious to know exactly what all the commotion was about, he strolled over to his window and looked out to see people abandoning their vehicles and running from the street below to take cover. He quickly realised what the blaring sound signified and while running to take shelter he heard two loud booms as the rockets exploded.

No casualties. No damage. But fear is spreading in Tel Aviv like nerve gas.

It is a surreal experience to hear a missile explode while you crouch for cover. One friend joked that after your first rocket attack, you are much more blase about the second one. I am not sure many would agree.

Shortly after a quick stint in the shelter, my partner, Liat, rang from work, crying hysterically. She was a child during the Gulf War and remembers being terrified as her father took the family into a bedroom, sealed the door with tape and placed a wet towel at the base to protect against a chemical attack. This became somewhat of a ritual while Saddam was running amuck with missiles. Liat also served her stint in the army but the sound of that siren still sends shivers down her spine and quickly has her in tears.

Even now she is scared to step into the shower. "What happens if the siren goes," she asks. "Don't worry, you have one minute," I answer. We all have one minute.

Tel Aviv is an 'anything goes', 24-hour party city, known as 'the bubble' due to its stark difference from other parts of Israel. But now that rockets from Gaza can reach the cultural and financial heart of Israel, that bubble has not only burst, but exploded.

People are nervous. They laugh, they joke, they drink; but there is a realisation now that despite the classy coffee shops, restaurants and bars, people here have much more in common with their southern Israeli neighbours than ever before.

Citizens in the south have suffered 11,000 rockets over the last decade. Over this period, more than 500 Israeli civilians have been killed as part of the conflict. Thousands of Palestinians have also died. Yet, like clockwork, the conflict flares up every few years.

This is a war. It has its lulls and its ceasefires, but it is a war nonetheless.

It is over half a decade since Tel Aviv suffered the terror of suicide bombers. The last one was in 2006, when nine people were killed and 40 wounded. There is little to match the terror of a mobile killer wearing a vest strapped with explosives, seeking a crowded area. People are worried this horrible reality is set to return.

The accolade given to Tel Aviv by the ' Lonely Planet' travel guide as one of the top three cities to visit in 2011 has suddenly lost its sheen. But while London may have the Blitz Spirit, Tel Aviv has its own way of dealing with the reality of living in a conflict zone.

A friend from Kerry, Jamie Curran, who has been working here for two years, had his Israeli neighbour arrive after the first rockets landed.

He held two glasses in one hand and a bottle of Bushmills in the other. He was intent on marking Jamie's first "rocket siren adventure". The two proceeded to do the bottle "justice" while sitting together on the rooftop.

People in Tel Aviv know they are lucky. They could be stuck in Ashkelon, Be'er Sheva or, worst still, Gaza while the Israeli government and several terrorist factions play hardball. Because no matter what happens, the sane among us know it is the civilians on both sides of the border that ultimately pay the price.

Irish Independent

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