Beach to brutality in one day
On early Friday afternoon, 6 October, I was sitting on the beach in Poleg, and took a photo of my kids swimming in the Mediterranean, paragliders surfing the sky behind them. Our weeklong holiday was drawing to a close, and it felt like we had experienced the best version of Israel. We had been to the Kotel during Sukkot, visited the Heroes exhibition at the ANU Museum of the Jewish People, and shopped Shuk HaCarmel.
During the week, I strolled the Tel Aviv promenade with the former ambassador to South Africa, Arthur Lenk. We watched Jews drumming in a lit up sukkah as the sun set and walked towards the ancient city of Jaffa, listening to the call to prayer of the Mu’adhdhin. We discussed the developments in South African and Israeli politics, and Arthur remarked to me that this version of what we were living was “his Israel”, the “ideal Israel”, an Israel of peace. “It’s an illusion, and reality isn’t just this, but let’s imagine now what might be,” he said.
After dinner overlooking the port, I asked him what the chances were of a potential terrorist attack. He shrugged. Who knows? A very Israeli response.
Israel has been fraught with division over the past few months over constitutional reform, and many I spoke to were occupied with that conversation, discussing what the internal political future would be for the country. Israel is always a state teetering on the brink of war, but it didn’t necessarily feel imminent last week.
Everyone was introspecting, and perhaps that’s why the developments of Saturday morning came as such a shock. It also may well be why there was such a lapse in intelligence and the security forces were evidently caught off guard.
What was astonishing for me was how quickly the situation developed from sitting on the beach on Friday to full-scale terror and war on Saturday morning. I suppose that’s the reality of life in Israel. But what wasn’t normal was the sheer scale of the violence and terror. What we were witnessing and experiencing was what some Israeli media are now referring to as that country’s 9/11.
In Netanya, there were no air missile sirens all day, but the atmosphere was eerie. Roads were quiet and it felt like a COVID-19 lockdown. We were on high alert and continuously following developments in the news. I was checking social media constantly.
My kids, who are aged seven and nine, were with me, so I took them down to the bomb shelter in the building to explain to them what happens if the siren goes off, but didn’t expect that reality to materialise for us.
As the news unfolded about what was going on in the south of the country and the horror of what was happening emerged, I was anxious about getting to the airport and flying out on Saturday night. I was obviously nervous about driving to Tel Aviv and being at the airport as there had been rockets into that area during the day.
The airport was packed with people trying to get on planes. The El Al counter was crowded with travellers trying to get onto flights. We were in the queue to check in, there was a general sense of anxiety, and everyone was on alert.
All of a sudden, a woman started blowing her whistle repeatedly, threw open the security barriers, and shouted for everyone to run to the bomb shelters. There were hundreds of people all heading the same way with their luggage, and I was alone with both my kids, so we left our luggage and tried to get through the crush of people into the stairwells, and there was just general chaos as we were trying to get down to the shelters.
We went down several flights of stairs. I could hear the repeated bang of the missiles as interceptors from the Iron Dome exploded overhead. Constant banging. My kids were totally overwhelmed by the situation, so I was trying to keep them calm. Fortunately, with years of experience as a breaking news reporter, I could respond but it’s different when your own children are in danger. On the tarmac, planes were landing, and there’s footage of CNN reporter Nic Robertson taking cover at the same time as the interceptors exploded missiles overhead.
It was about 10 minutes of listening to the banging and waiting, not knowing what was going to happen next, considering all the scenarios. What if the Iron Dome fails? What if a rocket hits? Many foreigners were in the stairwells sobbing, consoling one another, just trying to keep calm. It was all a bit surreal. I tried to reassure my kids, who were terrified. Israeli kids do regular drills but for these Joburgers, it was so far detached from their reality that it came as a shock.
Fortunately, the situation settled, and we were able to go back and check in, get through security, and after many hours, make it onto our plane. We met some other King David families. There’s enormous comfort in being part of a community, and the familiarity was reassuring. I could still hear the banging overhead throughout, so there was constant anxiety about what could still potentially happen.
Taking off on an airplane while there’s an aerial missile assault going on around you isn’t easy, but we were just grateful to be going home.
Our experience, while scary, is incomparable to that of so many others who lived through far worse over the first 48 hours. But it’s a demonstration of what terror feels like, and how quickly the situation escalated.
As the sheer horror of what has happened in Israel has emerged, I think of those who have lost loved ones so traumatically, and who are still waiting desperately for news of those who have been kidnapped.
I fully acknowledge and appreciate that there are two sides to this conflict and that the history of the Middle East is vexed and complicated. There has been large-scale loss of life on both sides.
But what we saw Hamas do on Saturday was outright terrorism, and for the South African government not to condemn it, but rather call it regrettable, is deplorable.
For our government not to condemn Russia and argue that it’s neutral, yet on this issue, it contravenes that stance, is hypocritical.
But it’s not surprising.
I do support our government’s call for a cessation of violence, and we can only pray that there will ultimately be peace. Sadly, for now that will remain an idyllic illusion.
- Mandy Wiener is a broadcaster and author.