Gaza Spillover

Red Alert in Tel Aviv: Fear Inside the Israeli City’s Bubble

Air-raid sirens are sending residents scrambling for shelters. Ethan Perlson on the fears he can’t quell.

London during the Blitz. That’s what I thought about on Sunday night when the air-raid sirens went off as I sat in a café in a ritzy part of Tel Aviv and watched people on the street scrambling to find shelter.

Inside the café no one looked particularly worried. This was the fourth straight day of red-alert sirens wailing in Tel Aviv, and we were getting used to it. A group of 50-something women sitting next to me got up and carefully packed their iPhones into their purses. One even stopped to check her makeup in a small mirror before they all shuffled out the door. I got up and put my laptop in my backpack—war or no war, I wasn’t leaving my MacBook Pro behind—and followed them outside. A situation that was almost unimaginable a week ago had already become routine.

It must have been the same in London, I thought. The shock of the first air-raid sirens giving way to a kind of numbness. And the London Blitz was much worse than this.

Outside the cafe, we joined a larger crowd running to an underground parking garage, and the mood grew tense. There was some pushing and yelling, and a young female soldier looked terrified. An argument broke out. I couldn’t help smiling. This is still Israel. Forget the stiff upper lip. People are going to vent. We headed downstairs and waited. Waited for the sirens to stop and the inevitable boom of the rocket hitting the ground or being blown up in the sky by Iron Dome.

When the boom came, everybody winced. One woman cried out. Then it was all over. You’re supposed to wait 10 minutes before leaving the shelter, but no one did. We climbed up to street level, and I headed back to the café. The music was playing again. The café patrons sat down and the conversations resumed, albeit with nervous laughter. The waitress brought the 50-something women their tea and coffee. Everything was back to normal. Except it wasn’t.

I was freaking out.

I couldn’t figure out why. This had already been going on for days. And I wasn’t really scared of getting killed or injured. I knew the odds of getting killed in a car accident are much higher than from a Fajr-5. But my primate mind didn’t care. I saw people running and I heard loud noises. And that was enough.

That’s the thing about fear. It isn’t logical.

The night before, my parents called from New York, worried. My stepmother said it was time to sell the Tel Aviv apartment and move back home. I told her everything was fine and that I wasn’t selling anything. The fighting still seemed remote to me, something that couldn’t touch me. But now it had. I was part of this conflict, like it or not. All of us were. I was a target.

A little later, waiting for a friend outside a local bar, I thought about where I would run to if another red alert sounded. I thought about living in New York after 9/11, how familiar places suddenly felt threatening, how the emotional topography of the city changed overnight. Dizengoff Street was no longer safe. I decided to wait inside.

My friend Osnat finally showed up. We had a drink and calmed our nerves. She talked about having a panic attack inside a cab Thursday night during the first attack on Tel Aviv. But after that, she didn’t feel nervous at all. Just apathetic. She didn’t even bother leaving her apartment now when the sirens went off.

I thought again about London. At least Londoners knew the attacks were part of a war with definite goals. But this war between Israelis and Palestinians began long before any of us were born, and no one believes it will end in our lifetime. There is no obvious solution, no clear path to ending the rocket attacks and the terrible retaliation they bring. This conflict will grind on, and all of us will pay a price. Fortunately, inside the Tel Aviv bubble, the price hasn’t been that high so far.

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By the time I finished my beer, the sirens seemed like a distant memory. We ordered another round, and normal life resumed. For now.