BEERSHEVA, Israel (j weekly) — A bus carrying eight American journalists drove smack dab into the throes of rocket attacks from Gaza. And it wasn’t because of a wrong turn. The journalists, including this reporter, agreed to go willingly.
The group was on a science- and agriculture-focused media tour of southern Israel, and the itinerary included a March 12 stop at the Beersheva campus of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, which was in the midst of a three-day shutdown due to security concerns.
Beersheva, Israel’s seventh-largest city with a population of 194,000, is 25 miles from Gaza. It was one of the main targets of some 300 missiles fired into the Negev region between March 9 and 12.
By the time the journalists arrived in the late afternoon of March 12, Islamic Jihad reportedly had already fired some 40 missiles toward the Negev that day, and air-raid sirens had sent residents scrambling into safe rooms four times.
One of those sirens sounded at 3 a.m., waking 26-year-old Ben-Gurion student Ayala Boehm with a jolt and sending her into the safe room inside her apartment. Twenty minutes later, another siren sent her right back in again.
“There are sirens all over the city, so you’ll definitely hear it,” she told a reporter. “There’s no way you will miss it.”
Though Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted about 70 percent of the incoming projectiles, and others exploded in remote areas, some 1 million Israelis were under threat of rocket fire, according to reports.
“It’s frightening and shocking, especially if you didn’t grow up with it,” said Liora Malinek, 25, a student affairs director at the BGU Medical School for International Health. A Los Angeles native, Malinek lived in Berkeley and Oakland, Calif., from 2005 to 2009 while earning a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of California, Berkeley.
“But it becomes standard and you get used to it awfully quick, which is sad, but it’s reality,” she added.
“During this whole period, your daily life is on hold,” said Barbara Shuker, who made aliyah in 1983 after graduating from Stanford University. She works in Beersheva and lives 20 miles away in Meitar. A supervisor of occupational therapists with the Ministry of Education, her nerves were tested on March 11, the third day of the incoming missiles, when she was leaving her office.
“I was on my way to my car when the siren sounded. I was caught between not being in a building and not close enough to get back into one,” she said. “The next step is you’re taught to crouch down next to a building. So I stood next to one of the buildings with some other people. You don’t know what to do. It’s not the best feeling or experience.”
Shuker, a New Orleans native, said she was more than happy to stay home from work the next two days.
Other people felt the same stress. With all but one school and many businesses closed in the city, some residents evacuated to safer areas, and Boehm said probably half of BGU’s 19,000 students on the Beersheva campus returned to their family homes in Tel Aviv and central Israel.
Several bombs did hit, including one at an elementary school that was closed and one in a suburb. Some Thai workers who opted to keep playing basketball rather than seek shelter were injured, according to reports. After an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire March 13, the rocket attacks resumed.
En route to Beersheva, the visiting journalists were given instructions from the BGU security department about what to do when a siren sounds.
“I will tell you that the safest place to be in Beersheva is on the Ben-Gurion University campus; there is always a safe room right around the corner, or even closer,” said Faye Bittker, BGU’s director of communications. The group stayed in a four-story guest house on campus, with a bomb shelter on ground level next door.
Earlier that day, Bittker was caught in what missile-savvy Israelis know is one of the worst places to be during an air-raid siren: in your car driving. It sounded when she was two miles from campus and about 150 yards from the spot where a Gaza-launched missile during Operation Cast Lead severely injured three people, including a 7-year-old boy.
“I had a mini nervous breakdown,” said Bittker, who got out of her car but didn’t follow procedure by lying down on the road (“I was wearing dry-clean-only pants,” she said).
Malinek was on the road a lot during the scare, as she worked during the three days classes were canceled and has a 30-mile commute each way. When she drives home from BGU, she actually heads toward Gaza.
“I was very nervous,” she said. “I drove with the window down a bit so I could hear the siren.”
Rivka Carmi, the president of Ben-Gurion University, met with the touring journalists on March 12, ostensibly to talk about the university’s growth and achievements in science and technology. But during the interview she constantly checked her phone for updates from the Home Front Command, as the decision to cancel classes for a third straight day was looming.
“I really hope you feel safe here,” she told the group. “Up until now the statistics work very beautifully for us: There has never been a hit on campus.”
Carmi said the missile scares “portray real life in Israel in general, and here in the Negev in particular.”
The university was scheduled March 11 to start a new semester, which in Israel also entails a round of “second-chance” exams from the previous semester. Seventy exams had to be canceled that day, as did a big Purim party. Only a few students could be seen on what should have been a bustling campus.
Carmi, a celebrated geneticist who did groundbreaking research on the Negev’s Arab-Bedouin population, said “one-third of the population is in some kind of post-traumatic situation. You can hear it over the TV that people are scared, young people. It affects the whole psyche. It’s not just about going to a class; the effect is not being able to study in a comfortable environment and not sleeping well.”
Boehm wasn’t one of the scared ones. She opted to stay in Beersheva rather than return to her parents’ home in Omer, which is a safer distance from Gaza.
“Most parents would prefer that their kids come home,” she said. “But I won’t leave. People really come together in such a crisis. They volunteer, they are nicer to each other. There’s a real spirit.”
“Israelis are very trained how to cope, and that’s my biggest message to you today,” said Bittker. “My message to you is not to panic. Nobody who has followed commands to go into a safe center has been hurt. Always know where your closest shelter is.”
(Andy Altman-Ohr, managing editor at j., was on the Murray Fromson Media Mission of the American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, from March 10 to 15.)