Friends, Family, and assorted blog followers who may find your way here, in case you haven’t heard we are now in what my friend termed a “mini-mini war.” For now, thank God, we are in relative safety here in Jerusalem. That being said, let me tell you a little about what has happened over the last few weeks based on my own experiences and impressions. I’m not going to go through every single detail, but basically, things developed as follows. There has slowly been an increase in rocket attacks and various excursions by various terrorists from the Sinai desert into Southwestern Israel. In response, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) tried to strike those directly responsible for each attack. There were several rumored attempts at a ceasefire as things increased in intensity (I’m not sure how far things ever got), but the bottom line is that if anything was agreed upon, the rocket fire never stopped. So last week, on Wednesday, Israel decided to preempt any further escalation by knocking out many of the longer ranged rockets stored in Gaza and by assassinating the head of Hamas’ military wing, hitting his car with an air to ground rocket. This was the start of Operation Pillar of Defense. Since then, Hamas and other terror groups (which to save myself from naming them all, I will just group with Hamas for the rest of this article) have stepped up their rocket attacks while Israel has been carrying out targeted airstrikes at rocket launching sites, weapons caches and rocket launching squads. So that is the general overview. You might ask, this seemed to happen so suddenly, why didn’t we hear about this build up? And why didn’t we say anything sooner? I think at least part of the answer for the first question is that unfortunately the rocket attacks on Israel that were part of the escalation that lead to Israel’s decision to begin Operation Pillar of Defense happen too frequently for each individual incident to make international headlines. However, if you are looking (like we were since we wanted to know what was going on in our own backyard), then you can find reports of these things. In other words, the reports are there, they’re just usually buried within the paper. As to the second question, we just didn’t want to needlessly alarm our friends and family.
Now for more details and our experience with being under fire. First, in case you don’t know that much about the area’s geography, take a look at the map found here. This is an interactive map showing the range of the different rockets of Hamas. Gaza can be found in the Western corner, surrounded by red (for the Qassam rockets). The vast majority of the rockets fired are of the upgraded Grad variety or lower, so everything within the tan colored area has been under regular fire. How do these rockets work? Well, as far as I understand it, they’re not very sophisticated. They are essentially a bunch of explosives (and sharp objects?) packed in a round cylinder with some fuel but no guidance system. After they put them together, they place them in (hidden?) locations pointed in the direction that they want with a certain angle so that they have a shot at hitting the desired targets. What are the desired targets? The civilian population centers of Be’ersheva, Ashdod, and Ashkelon to name some of the largest and most popular targets.
How does Israel protect its citizens? In several ways, first, as I mentioned, there are the targeted airstrikes against either the Hamas leadership and militants or the rocket launchers and rocket caches themselves. (Believe me when I say that Israel really does try to limit civilian casualties; they release pamphlets and send out text messages warning people to leave an area before it is hit or to stay away from Hamas members before they are hit.) As for direct protection, Israel just finished installing the fifth of its Iron Dome missile defense batteries. This uses computer technology to analyze incoming rockets, assess their threat to civilian populations and to shoot them down if they are projected to land in a city or town. So far, this technology has been very good (90% success rate) though not perfect. The other thing is the undulating air raid siren. Depending on how far you are from Gaza, you have between 30 seconds to 2 minutes to seek shelter.
So what does it feel like to be here right now and how are we handling it? I would say that mostly it feels like a dull tension/anxiety in the back of your mind all the time as you constantly try to stay aware of the latest developments and make sure that you’re prepared to act if needed. In addition to checking the news, we’ve been receiving emailed updates from the US embassy on a daily basis (and sometimes it’s more frequent that that). The Fulbright program has also checked in on us several times and given us advice as to which areas to avoid if we’re traveling. Other than that, we try to keep operating as normally as possible since it wouldn’t help anyone to become paralyzed by this. What I mean by this is that, unless there is something we can do to directly help either ourselves or others, the best thing is for us to help keep the country running by going through our daily routines as best we can. (Though how my mathematics research helps to keep the country running is an entirely different question.) Finally, I said we’re in relative safety, mainly because of our distance from Gaza and the fact that Jerusalem is a holy city for so many people. However, for the first time since 1945, the air raid siren was heard in Jerusalem Friday night as 2 rockets landed outside the city; no one was harmed. We happened to be in Ra’anana at the time, so we weren’t directly affected. In contrast, on Thursday, we were in Tel Aviv because I was participating in a panel discussion for Israeli students interested in graduate school in the US. In the middle of our presentation, the air raid siren went off and everyone headed for the protection of the stairwell. After about a minute, we heard two booms and then quiet. After some of the students wrote a few quick text messages later to family members, we were all back discussing graduate school as if nothing had happened. Such is life in the Holy Land.