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Israel

SA olim hunker down under a rain of rockets

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As rockets rained down on most of Israel from Monday to Wednesday this week, many South African olim hunkered down in safe rooms, bomb shelters, and stairwells. Meanwhile, one healthcare worker was on the frontlines of her hospital, treating the injured in what she called a “miniature mass-casualty event”.

Gila Nussbaum is an emergency physician in a hospital in the south of Israel. “I’m trained to remain calm and work under pressure, but yesterday, that pressure escalated when my own life and those of my colleagues and patients was in danger,” she told the SA Jewish Report on Wednesday, 12 May.

“We have had drills, but no amount of simulation can match reality. Yesterday, when the sirens sounded, we were ready to seal the emergency room, stay in the internal corridors, and continue doing what we always do under slightly different circumstances. Then we got notification that rockets had landed in a residential area, people were injured, and they were on their way.

“We activated a mini mass-casualty event. This means we clear an area of the department of usual patients and family members. It also means rushing admissions, moving people to safe areas, and pushing extra beds into corridors and passages. We bring in extra equipment, we activate staff on standby, and we stand at the ready.

“Then they started to come: an elderly man in a wheelchair, a child who was with a babysitter, a mentally disabled lady who didn’t understand what was happening – people injured, scared, and anxious. We treated each one and reunited family members who had been separated. We continued treating patients who came in with strokes, heart attacks, and pneumonia – the usual things don’t stop just because rockets are falling. And so we kept going – doctors, nurses, nursing assistants, radiographers, cleaners, security services – all the personnel required to keep an emergency department running. Through it all, Israelis, Arabs, South Africans, Americans, Brazilians, and Brits worked as a team.

“Thank G-d, most weren’t too severely injured and were able to be discharged, but then we suddenly faced a new dilemma: our usual note of “discharged home with the following instructions” was no longer applicable as the majority of these patients no longer had a home to go to. Their homes were now a pile of rubble. And so we faced the new challenge of finding placement for them.”

Eventually Nussbaum’s gruelling 14-hour shift ended. After arriving home, sirens sounded and “my long day was extended by dragging my three small children out of bed and into our mamad [safe room].” On the next evening [Wednesday], she says: “It was a scary drive. I had to stop three times because of rockets, get out the car and lie down on the side of the road.”

“When a rocket falls nearby, you really hear it and feel it. It’s so, so scary,” says grandmother Jolleen Hayon, who lives in Ashkelon and works for the Baltimore-Ashkelon partnership, connecting Jews from both cities. “I’m 14km away from Gaza. A rocket landed on a car, 30m from my house. The car was parked a few metres away from a home for children at risk. If the rocket had exploded there, it would have been a real disaster. We can hear the Israeli army planes and jets going past, and we hear the bombing in Gaza. All of these sounds are the sounds of war … it’s a horrible noise.”

Like many Israelis, Hayon wishes that things hadn’t escalated to this level, and that both sides could make peace. “I’ve been here for 10 years, but one never really gets used to it. The constant tension of needing to get to the safe room in 28 seconds is tough. And for ages after things quieten down, every time you hear a motorbike revving or a car backfiring, or someone drops something, you just about jump out of your skin. It’s really something that goes deep.”

As she and her husband sheltered in their safe room in 30-degree heat on Tuesday, a rocket hit the power lines and so they had no electricity the whole day. “It was pitch dark and boiling. We slammed the door, locked it, and listened to the booms of the rockets falling.

“The situation in mixed cities is so scary,” she says, referring to civil unrest in cities with Jewish and Arab populations, like Lod. “To think of people’s neighbours marching through streets, lynching people, setting cars and shuls alight, throwing rocks … is very worrying.”

Eighteen-year-old Lexi Price is spending her gap year at Machon Maayan, about a 10-minute drive from Ashdod. “We’ve been hearing a lot of rocket fire. This morning [Tuesday] was the first time that I’ve ever had to go into a bomb shelter. I was stressed out as I wasn’t prepared for it at all. Tonight [Tuesday night] we’re sleeping in the bomb shelter. The madrichot were trying to calm everyone down. The siren went off, and the girls started panicking. I asked the ‘house mom’ if we could tisch [sing religious songs], so we were singing while we could hear rocket fire and the Iron Dome intercepting it. It was so powerful to be singing while that was happening.”

On Tuesday night, media consultant Darryl Egnal was at a party for international students at Bar-Ilan University’s International School in Ramat Gan. “Twenty minutes after I arrived, sirens could be heard over the music, which was shut down immediately, and we were all ushered down two flights of stairs into the basement bomb shelter which doubles as one of the university’s libraries.”

Egnal made aliyah in 2009, and says that “in the past, there would be one or two sirens with simultaneous explosions being heard as the Iron Dome intercepts the rockets. You’d wait 10 minutes to make sure it was safe, and then go back to whatever you were doing. This time, however, there was siren after siren and explosion after explosion. It didn’t seem to end.

“Food and drink was brought down, and eventually, the music was too, so the students continued the party in the shelter. Being international students, this was the first time most of them had experienced a rocket attack on Israel. Some were afraid, some took it in their stride.”

Later, she was woken by a siren at 03:00. “Planning to go down to the basement shelter, I opened my front door to see many of my neighbours in the passageway and the stairwell, something I wasn’t expecting. Apparently, if you live on the upper floors of a building and can’t get to the bomb shelter, the safest place to go is the second floor, which is where I live. So I grabbed one of my chairs and joined them. Adults, teenagers, toddlers, babies … and a dog. We sat there for about 30 minutes while the sirens wailed and rockets exploded.”

Social worker Leanne Manshari has lived in Ashkelon for 12 years. Her son’s birthday fell on Yom Yerushalayim, and his friends had just arrived for a surprise birthday sleepover when the sirens started going off. “The mothers decided the kids could stay, and so they had a sleepover in the safe room. It was an experience we will never forget!”

Manshari is a social worker for a girls’ boarding school. “In the middle of the night, I had to go to the school, which is a half-hour drive from Ashkelon. The girls were traumatised because when they were driving back from Yom Yerushalayim, rocks were thrown at their buses. Driving through Ashkelon under rocket fire was extremely frightening even though I’m not an anxious person.”

She says her eight-year-old daughter is extremely anxious about the rockets. “We were bombarded every ten minutes. At one point they told us not to leave the mamad for a few hours because one of the Iron Domes wasn’t working.”

The family has since left to stay with Manshari’s sister-in-law, near Haifa. “I am happy to be here and to see my sister-in-law, but I also want to go home. It’s surreal. You really want to be in your own house but you can’t go home, it’s just not safe.”

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