It was early morning on October 7, and sirens went off over many parts of Israel. Everyone, including immigrants like myself, knew the drill – proceed to the nearest shelter with any dependents staying with you. With minor exceptions, the sirens mean that a rocket might impact your neighbourhood soon, that is, if it happens to escape interception by the famed Iron Dome system. The prospect of an impending attack is no doubt frightening, but the comprehensive system of sirens, the Iron Dome, and the shelters (I have one in my apartment) means a rocket barrage from the Gaza Strip often causes no loss of life within Israeli borders.
Unfortunately, depending on where you live in Israel, such situations may arise several times a year. All in all, sirens usually do not cause a feeling of excessive alarm.
This attack, however, was so much more horrific than just rocket projectiles.
I work at the Weizmann Institute of Science, and live nearby, in the city of Rehovot, over 50 km from the Gaza border. This measure of distance roughly works for all major universities in Israel. With that kind of separation, the sirens give you enough time to reach a shelter. This time gap is much narrower close to the border, and Gazan rockets are more likely to cause more damage there. It is this area, close to Gaza, that was the locus of violence for the October 7 attacks, and this time, rockets were just cover fire for an extremely brutal armed terrorist assault on several border communities.
It is relevant that this onslaught took place on a Saturday, which was Shabbat in Israel, and also the day of the Simchat Torah holiday festival. The terrorists inflicted an absolute massacre on a dance music celebration; there are blood-curdling images and videos on social media from the bloodbath, as also from the larger carnage in other areas.
The day also marked the 50th anniversary of the Yom-Kippur War, and the intensity of the current offensive was unprecedented since, especially in the scope of intrusion and damage inflicted within Israeli territory.
A lot of our immediate reaction to these ghastly events was stunned horror. As I write, the death count in Israel has crossed 800. One dreads these statistics, because the number only goes up.
Right at the start of the barrage on Saturday morning, a rocket landed on a major street less than a km from where I live, severely damaging at least three parked cars. There was no loss of life.
Locally, around the institute and in the city, there is pain and fear.
Food and other necessities are available, for now. Israel has regained control over its territory and has embarked on a forceful offensive. Although the general expectation is that any further incursion is unlikely, much less in the interior of the country, people remain scared and are in a state of heightened alertness. It is certainly wait-and-watch, at least for a week, as a proximate equilibrium between the belligerents is established. In fact, at this moment there is significant anxiety, especially among the international community, about the potential of a war front opening up along the northern border. Already, there have been skirmishes with the Hezbollah there. On the other hand, people do have faith in Israel’s reputation as a security behemoth in the region, although some of that trust may have to be re-earned after the massive shock of the Hamas assault.
It is likely to be a drawn out operation by Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip. During this tough period, there has been a lot of engagement and support within the Indian community, including embassy officials reaching out to us through social media. There has been strong communication, and a sharp and adequate response from universities as well, helping us understand and cope better with the situation. At the same time, for many Indian students, this is their first time living abroad. Dozens might have arrived in Israel only very recently, as this is around the time the new academic year starts for many universities around Israel.
It is easy to imagine that the circumstances, coloured with unpredictability and danger, are causing much unease and anxiety among students. Their families back in India must be very concerned and worried.
A large number of Indian students are considering traveling back home, although I feel that a majority believes internal stability will be achieved relatively soon. In addition to Israel’s defense architecture, the geopolitical gaze has been activated, and one can hope that the situation will return to normal before long.
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