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Many things can conspire to ruin your vacation: mosquito bites, sunburn, travel sickness, jet lag. But incendiary rockets are rarely one of them.
But if you’re planning a holiday in Israel, potential missile attacks are one of the issues you may have to factor into the equation alongside a trip to Jerusalem’s historic Western Wall or the Hanging Gardens of Haifa.
Since US government-designated terrorist organization Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2007, Israel has conducted three major military operations inside the Palestinian coastal enclave (in 2008, 2012 and 2014) which have been marked by Israeli-targeted strikes and ground incursions — and a barrage of rockets from Gaza.
In the most recent conflagration at the beginning of May, Islamic Jihad and Hamas militants fired some 700 rockets at Israel over two days before a ceasefire was reached on the cusp of Israel’s Independence Day celebrations and the country’s lavish preparations ahead of hosting the Eurovision song contest.
Four Israelis were killed and another four were wounded as rockets rained on southern Israel, while, in Gaza, 23 Palestinians were killed in Israeli strikes that numbered almost 300.
With the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict regularly threatening to come to the foreground, and extensive coverage in the US media, Israel might seem like a strange vacation choice for those who aren’t fans of war tourism. In reality, visitors to Israel can expect a mostly-safe environment unless they seek out conflict areas.
For residents of Tel Aviv, Israel’s beachside capital of cool, it’s easy to forget there’s a war going on at all. This cosmopolitan tech hub has earned its nickname “the bubble:” even amid a war in Gaza, Tel Aviv denizens can be found drinking hafuch (cappuccino) in one of the city’s innumerable cafes to an aural backdrop of the distinctive thwack of the Israeli ball game matkot playing out on every available strip of sand.
The country’s famed Iron Dome missile defense system plays a big part in reassuring Israelis and tourists alike. The missile shields, whose technology the US military purchased in February this year, work by shooting down rockets that are headed for populated areas: Out of the salvo of 690 rockets that were fired in early May, 90 never made it into Israel, according to Israeli figures. Of those that did, the Iron Dome intercepted 240, of which Israeli Defense Forces claimed an 87% success rate.
Israel’s Home Front Command offers an English guide of what to do in the event of a missile or rocket attack. The first indicator that an attack is imminent is the sound of the siren. This is the same siren that sounds on Israel’s Memorial Day and Holocaust Remembrance Day, so it’s important to make sure it’s not one of those. Once you’ve established it’s a genuine rocket siren (the clue should be in other people’s behavior!) you should head to a shelter, called a mamad in Hebrew, if you know your building has one.
If you’re on public transport or traveling by car, you are requested to stop safely and get to a building or, if you don’t have time, get out and lie down on the side of the road while covering your head and staying below window level.
The amount of time you have depends on where you are in Israel. If you’re staying in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv you have approximately 90 seconds to get to a shelter. If you’re in Be’er Sheva, you have around a minute and if you’re farther south and closer to Gaza, you’ll have somewhere between 15 and 45 seconds. If you’ve decided to head for some sun and snorkeling in the Red Sea, count yourself lucky. Visitors to Eilat have an expansive three minutes to find a safe space.
If in doubt, ask, but there are some general rules of thumb to follow: if you can’t make it to a shelter, keep away from doors and windows and make your way to a stairwell. If you’re on the top floor of a building, head down a couple of floors and head to a stairwell where, next to a falafel and hummus pita wrap, you can get the full Israeli experience – and even make some new friends in the process!
Jonny Stark, the founder and manager of community Facebook group and website Secret Tel Aviv (which counts Mark Zuckerberg among its 250,000 members) provides the perfect example, speaking to The Points Guy from a wedding of people he met during a siren in the corridor of his apartment building.
“First, I would say the most important thing is to stay calm. Obviously, the first time you hear a siren it’s very scary, but actually in Tel Aviv you’ve got more chance of being run over by a scooter than being hit by a rocket.”
Stark sees managing public service announcements an essential part of his role. “[For national security reasons] we have to monitor the group and remove all posts and comments when people say where rockets or debris land,” he said.
But he remains alert (no pun intended) to the dark humor that invariably attends such an outing.
“It actually gets pretty funny in Secret Tel Aviv, people joking about wearing pajamas in case you meet people in shelters.”
Keeping a sense of humor is a common theme. Sarah Tuttle-Singer, a writer who moved to Israel from Los Angeles a decade ago, remembers that her father, visiting from the States, was in the shower when the alarms went off in 2014.
“He just powered through.”
She advises visitors to keep a “go-bag by the door” if they’re in the country during a rocket or missile attack:
“Mine has a flask [of Laphroaig whisky] and a canister of Pringles and a charger and Advil and two bottles of water and flip flops and my kids’ stuff, too.”
She also suggests people not waste time if they need to leave their apartment or hotel room in a hurry.
“I remember my dad literally taking time to lock the door when we had 90 seconds to run to the public shelter … If there is a siren, get to the designated place, whether it’s a shelter or a stairwell.”
Hotels will generally have clearly marked signs pointing to their internal shelters or safe rooms and, under Israeli law, all homes and residential buildings are required to have bomb shelters.
For extra peace of mind, you can check with your Airbnb host or hotel manager before you arrive so the only thing you have to worry about is whether you want the Arak Limonana cocktail before or after dinner.
Know before you go.
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