WORLD -- November 19, 2012 at 3:50 PM EDT
In Gaza and Israel, Life Under Airstrikes and Rocket Attacks
Israeli civilians run for cover during a rocket attack launched from Gaza on Nov. 17 in Tel Aviv, Israel. Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images.
"The worst part is that we can't protect our children. We are helpless. We can't keep them safe." -- Belal Jedallah, Gaza resident
"Dear Parents: During today's recess some of the kids were restless and told us they didn't feel comfortable playing out in the open courtyard -- they preferred to go into the bomb shelter. We told them it was OK." -- Email from a school principal to parents, Tel Aviv
I, too, am a parent. And my 10-year-old, by virtue of the fact that he lives with me, is experiencing his first "war" during the current Gaza-Israel violence.
My son is cavalier. In our household news viewing is a morning and evening ritual and he knows Mom goes off to cover conflicts in neighboring countries. But he isn't used to grabbing his iPhone, sprinting out the door and crouching in the stairwell with the neighbors to the sounds of blaring air raid sirens and thuds of intercepted missiles. He shrugs it off as "no big deal" but underlying signs of trauma are there.
"I packed a rocket attack backpack, Mom. It's got underwear, the money Grandma gave me, a tee shirt and my keys. Where's my passport? I need my passport." I peeked inside a duffle bag lying on the floor beside the backpack to find my son's favorite toddler-year stuffed animals inside. I hope he doesn't start wetting the bed.
The supposedly rocket-hardened residents I encountered in Ashdod, Israel, were also outwardly cavalier. Years of rocket attacks and sirens have become seemingly routine. They shrugged it off: "We're used to it. What are you going to do? Life goes on," said one resident. But when air-raid sirens mere moments after a rocket had smashed through the five-story apartment building next door, panic surfaced. Shrieking and sobbing, residents fled for shelter.
"I don't know where we'll go. Maybe to family, I don't know," a catatonic Diana Elikashvelee mumbled, standing on pieces of shattered glass amidst the ruins of her living room. The 22 year old had been sitting down to lunch with her mother and boyfriend when a Katyusha -- a Russian-made rocket launcher that sends out a short-range missile -- hit.
Palestinian girls run away after an Israeli air strike on a house in the northern Gaza Strip on Nov. 18. Photo by Mohammed Salem/Reuters.
In Gaza, there are no sirens, no warnings and no bomb shelters. "We put plastic on the glass so that if it's shattered during an air strike we won't get hurt," 35-year-old Marwa Bahar relays by telephone. "We run out to get supplies -- bread, gasoline for generators and water -- whenever we can. During bombing it's safer in the apartment stairwell but nowhere is really safe."
A colleague told me about the Almadhun family -- four of the five family members are deaf. There's no electricity in Gaza so they have no way of receiving television cues or audio warnings of any sort when air and naval strikes are ongoing.
"We also stay together. My sister lives on the 10th floor and now she has move into our place on the second floor," added Bahar. "If people live in different parts of the city, they stay together in one place. It helps with support. If anything, this situation makes people more committed to Hamas."
His face smeared with soot and white dust coating his black T-shirt , 30-year-old Ahmed Saleh stands atop the rubble that had been his home a day before.
"It was morning and we were sleeping. The walls collapsed. We didn't understand what was happening and we couldn't find the children. We had to dig them out. They were buried underneath the rubble."
The irony is that as European, U.N., U.S., Egyptian and Arab League leaders work overtime to hammer out a ceasefire deal, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Israel continue pounding each other. And the death toll is mounting in Gaza.
"The revenge for killing innocent civilians will be very painful," Islamic Jihad Al Quds Brigades spokesperson Abu Suhaib says. "The price will be very heavy for Israelis. There will be revenge."
Rhetoric? How much long-range capability remains after nearly a week of more than a thousand Israeli air and defense forces strikes?
Chuck Freilich, senior fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and former deputy national security adviser in Israel, says the current campaign is a "time buyer" for Israel. It's a temporary means of crippling Hamas capability for a few years at best until the next major round of fighting.
The children seem cavalier. But cowering in fear beside parents unable to guarantee protection as airstrikes rage throughout the night and pre-teens clinging to long-forgotten stuffed animals for comfort is not routine.
Stephanie Freid is a freelance journalist based in Tel Aviv and currently reports from the Middle East for Chinese Broadcaster CCTV. She has previously worked for Reuters, BBC, NBC News and Sky News.