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Identifying with the invisible residents of southern Israel

The government in Jerusalem constantly calls for unity. What might help in this virtually impossible endeavor would be a heavy dose of empathy for those bearing the brunt of the enemy’s will—and repeated attempts—to annihilate the entire Jewish state.

Residents of the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon run for shelter during a Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket attack on Aug. 6, 2022. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Residents of the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon run for shelter during a Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket attack on Aug. 6, 2022. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Ruthie Blum. Photo by Ariel Jerozolomski.
Ruthie Blum
Ruthie Blum, former adviser at the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is an award-winning columnist and senior contributing editor at JNS, as well as co-host, with Amb. Mark Regev, of "Israel Undiplomatic" on JNS-TV. She writes and lectures on Israeli politics and culture, and on U.S.-Israel relations. Originally from New York City, she moved to Israel in 1977 and is based in Tel Aviv.

Four hours before the “Operation Breaking Dawn” ceasefire officially went into effect on Sunday night, a barrage of Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) projectiles was launched at Tel Aviv and other central Israeli areas. When the dust had settled, literally and figuratively, the Israel Defense Forces reported that eight rockets had been fired at the White City. Six of these were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile-defense system, and the other two landed in the Mediterranean Sea.

Lacking a bomb shelter, my neighbors and I gathered in the rickety stairwell of our apartment building and huddled in a spot that wasn’t facing one of the large windows to the courtyard. Like the rest of the country’s citizens, we were already well-versed in the drill: to wait 10 minutes after the end of the inevitable loud “booms” before considering the coast clear.

It was only the second time that Tel Aviv had been put on alert during Israel’s three-day military operation against PIJ terrorists and infrastructure in the Gaza Strip—and, thankfully, nobody got hurt—but it was touted as significant. For one thing, it was an indication of the range of some PIJ rockets. For another, Tel Aviv is a bastion of secularism, not what the Israeli left views as a Jewish “settlement,” though the Palestinians make no such distinctions.

So, when pub-frequenters and bikini-clad beach-goers rush to take cover at the sound of air-raid sirens, the press takes particular notice. Scenes of this sort are very telegenic, after all.

This is not to say that the hardest-hit Israelis—those in the Gaza-border communities, Sderot and Ashkelon—don’t get media attention whenever there’s a so-called “flare-up” from the Hamas-run hornets’ nest. On the contrary, reporters are stationed in those places as soon as the drums of war start beating, at the ready to run to safe rooms, microphones in hand, to probe parents and children about how frightened they must be.

It’s just that these interviewees are the people who live under fire on a regular basis, including during breaks between formal battles. And most Israelis don’t give them a second thought during “peace” time.

What’s worse is that missile landings in the south, even while fighting is going on against Gaza, don’t elicit among the general populace the appropriate degree of horror. It’s hard to wrap one’s head around the fact that despite—or, perhaps, due to—Israel’s tiny size, a few miles of separation can feel like the distance between Earth and Mars.

This struck me more with each phone call I received on Saturday evening from friends in Jerusalem and elsewhere inquiring whether I thought there would be additional Red Alerts later that night. Each expressed surprise when I responded that the rockets were still flying, every few minutes, without let-up, as they had been for the past 24 hours. The thing is that the bulk was felt in the south.

Contrary to what these friends had assumed, my knowledge about this untenable situation had nothing to do with my having to write about it. Nor was my cognizance the result of a permanent perch in front of the TV and Internet.

No, the reason for my keen awareness of what the residents of the south were having to endure was the Red Alert app that I had downloaded on my phone. I didn’t need to have it; I could hear the sirens in my own neighborhood, and lists of rocket launches and their locations were visible on every television channel.

But it was a way to get a sense of how often the people who live close to Gaza were under immediate attack. The frequency of the app’s notifications was chilling. Indeed, the chime barely ceased, around the clock, for two-and-a-half days.

Every eerie “cling” sound represented innocent Israelis—from communities whose names are unfamiliar to most of their counterparts to the north—hurrying to hole up in safe rooms, bomb shelters or stairwells. It’s no wonder that many took their kids and fled, until the ceasefire, to homes farther away from the missile-equipped murderers next door.

The Israeli government, especially the current interim one, constantly calls for unity. What might help in this virtually impossible endeavor would be a heavy dose of empathy for those bearing the brunt of the enemy’s will—and repeated attempts—to annihilate the entire Jewish state.

When the next round of rocket barrages begins—and there will be a next round—I urge everyone, Israelis and sympathizers abroad, to arm him/herself with a Red Alert app. It’s an eye-opener, including for those of us who think that we can identify with the plight of our civilian brethren on the front lines.

Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ”

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