TEL AVIV BLOG: Experiences on the ground in Israel as Iran strikes

TEL AVIV BLOG: Experiences on the ground in Israel as Iran strikes
Streets are quiet in Tel Aviv the day after Iran's heavy attack across Israel. / CC: Mathew Cohen
By Mathew Cohen in Tel Aviv April 14, 2024

Since October 7, tension has gripped the air in Israel with a tighter grasp than I’ve ever experienced in previous conflicts. Whether it’s harrowing memories of the gruesome attacks on the day of the invasion, the barrage of rockets showering over Israeli cities, or the fact that there are still over 100 hostages trapped in Gaza whose fates are unknown, what may seem like business as usual in Israel is anything but.

As I sat in my coworking space and went about my day, my attention was continuously disrupted by the glimmer of the dog tags being worn by coworkers passing by brandishing the words “Bring Them Home.” Despite the stress of war, most of the people I know miraculously hold onto their faith, hoping for at least a sign of life that would indicate the potential for the hostages’ return from the Gaza Strip.

Of course, there was a larger issue at play, with reports streaming in about a potential Iranian strike on Israel within the next 24 to 48 hours. With the sound of planes circling the skies over the past few days, it was clear that such reports were not unfounded. As I drove to pick up my girlfriend that evening, the first thing she asked me was how I was coping with the situation, particularly as we all began to experience that sinking feeling of an incoming war yet again lurking around the corner.

Personally, I felt a little calmer than most, knowing that I had scheduled a flight to South Africa for the next day. Still, I worried about the people I was leaving behind to survive the potential onslaught while I took to the skies. Little did I realise that my fears would be realised sooner rather than later.

'WhatsApp messages bombarded'

Last night, my bags were packed and waiting by the door as I lounged around in my Tel Aviv apartment while watching some TV. Suddenly, a barrage of phone calls and WhatsApp messages bombarded my phone, with family members and friends asking how I was coping. Clearly, something was happening that I was not aware of.

The moment I switched to my local news channel, I felt a chill as photographs of Iranian drones filled the screen. It was reported that about a dozen drones had been fired toward Israel, with the likes of Jordan closing their airspaces as the drones approached. Immediately, I phoned my parents abroad to explain the situation, with international news broadcasting the developments soon after. Suddenly, it seemed my flight would not proceed as planned.

At 00:30, Israel announced that the airspace would be closed as the IDF prepared to defend the nation. Despite the hour, it felt as if the entire world was wide awake, as I consoled family members both within and outside the country while checking on my girlfriend who was still on her way home after working a late shift. Suddenly, my heart sank, as the idea of sprinting to a bomb shelter as sirens blared felt like a reality that would soon return.

Still, an even more grim thought entered my mind. Suppose two buildings in my area had previously been hit by Hamas rockets in the months that have passed. What carnage awaited as we suddenly found ourselves facing an unfamiliar foe?

Hundreds, not dozens

Unable to sleep, I found myself doom scrolling on my laptop while keeping an eye on the news on the TV, hoping for any updates. Reports then streamed in suggesting that what were once a handful of drones headed for us were suddenly dozens, if not hundreds.

Of course, by this stage, my flight had been postponed and the reality on the ground sank in. The WhatsApp group for our apartment block lit up with messages from various tenants coming up with survival methods should the situation escalate. Suddenly, neighbours were gathering bottles of water and even furniture, placing them in the bomb shelter downstairs in case we would need to spend a prolonged period underground.

While I slowly drifted off to sleep in the early hours of the morning, I suddenly heard a few loud bangs that sounded as if someone was slamming their door out of frustration. Little did I realise that this was the sound of Israeli defence systems intercepting the incoming drones. Clearly, I was one of the fortunate few who endured a less traumatic experience. Those in areas such as Jerusalem witnessed the explosions up close, fearing the possibility of a drone hitting their homes should one slip through the IDF’s defences.

For the next three or so hours, I somehow managed to get in some more sleep, although once I was out and about in the morning, I couldn’t help but notice the almost surreal atmosphere that greeted me. People appeared floating around like ghosts, going about their daily lives yet not quite exhibiting their usual lively personalities.

Sure, the drones had mainly been successfully intercepted, but the news of yet another failed hostage negotiation and the fresh Iranian threat had injected further stress into the civilian population.

It was a peculiar feeling as families anxiously discussed amongst themselves the potential escalations that could occur from either side. Still, I admired the confidence and resilience that people exhibited, speaking of the nation’s ability to persist in times of danger while also placing faith in the military and Israeli society as a whole. Even as people shopped for supplies such as frozen foods and bottles of water, there was politeness, with Israelis clearly showing concern for one another and helping each other when needed.

With my flight rescheduled for tonight and my bags still packed, I anxiously wait to hear further developments. Will my flight go ahead as planned? What will happen to my loved ones who remain put as I take to the skies? These are pressing questions that remain to be answered.