BE’ER SHEVA — To uninitiated neophytes like us, it didn’t sound anything like a rocket, but perhaps this was only because we had no clue what a rocket actually sounded like.
Participants in a Ben-Gurion University (BGU) global media mission that included The CJN, the Jewish Chronicle of London and the National Post, gave each other a “What was that?” look around 2 p.m. on Nov. 11, when a loud, unmistakable thud interrupted our note-taking deep inside a building at BGU’s Marcus Family Campus in Be’er Sheva.
But the sound didn’t fool Ehud Zion-Waldoks, BGU’s liaison to the foreign press. Like so many others living in this city of 200,000 in the Negev Desert, he immediately started to make calls to family members to inquire about their safety.
The building’s concrete was thick, so thick that only one or two people in the room actually discerned the faint echo of an air raid siren that would subside within seconds. Anyway, by then it was too late, long past the 15 seconds people usually had to start heading to the bomb shelters that dot the town and campus.
Be’er Sheva and the campus had often been targeted by Hamas rockets from Gaza – although the particular one we heard missed by a long shot – and the incident we experienced foreshadowed the Israel Defence Forces’ Nov. 14 killing of Hamas leader Ahmed Jabari and its subsequent massive strikes against Hamas targets in Gaza just as our mission was drawing to a close.
Still, we got a close-up view of the sense of vulnerability and dread that Israelis feel when those sirens go off and they don’t know what’s going to fall from the sky.
As we spent time on BGU’s main campus for the first couple of days, sirens sounded several times in Be’er Sheva. A sheet of paper placed in our campus guest rooms while we were out instructed us on “correct behaviour during rocket and mortar attacks.”
For the rest of the week, the media mission took part in a biannual BGU conference on “Dryland, Deserts and Desertification” at the university’s Sde Boker campus, located 40 kilometres from the Marcus campus, and Zion-Waldoks continued to keep us updated.
He let us know that Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile program had successfully blown a couple of rockets out of the sky, but the news was not always good: three civilians were killed by Hamas rockets in the southern Israeli town of Kiryat Malachi, and Hamas continued to aim at Be’er Sheva. Four years earlier, the city faced massive bombardment.
Because of the developments, BGU shut down its classes on Nov. 15, but it was due to re-open Nov. 19 for employees.
On the bus that ferried media and conference-goers from site to site, Zion-Waldoks approached media mission participants individually Nov. 14 to inform them about the hit on Jabari and what that might mean in terms of retaliation by Hamas.
On the evening of Nov. 14 at the Mashabim Holiday Village at Kibbutz Mashabei Sadeh, where we stayed for our final three nights, we and conference-goers were told that even though the night might be punctuated by air raid sirens, we could rest assured that we were out of striking distance.
But safely ensconced in our rooms minutes later, we heard the sirens once again.