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South Africans take cover in Shabbat of fear

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As about 700 rockets were launched at Israel this past Shabbat, South Africans living in the south of the country raced to find their children, hid in nearby buildings, drove under fire, and stayed in their safe rooms, praying. Four Israelis were killed in the attacks from Hamas in Gaza.
by TALI FEINBERG | May 09, 2019

“On Saturday night, we were driving home to Beersheba after a weekend in Eilat, and we could see rockets being fired over our heads. You could see explosions in the sky,” says a woman originally from Johannesburg, who asked to remain anonymous because she doesn’t want to upset her family.

“It’s a big dilemma – should we carry on driving on the open road in the desert and try to find shelter, or should we pull over and take cover? That’s also a risk, so we just turned up the volume as I didn’t want to hear the sirens, and sped home as fast as we could to get into our bomb shelter. When you hear the explosions, it feels like someone’s playing Russian roulette with your life.”

Judith Giesenow, originally from Cape Town, described the scene as the rockets started falling. “Our town, Even Shmuel (southern Israel), is Shomer Shabbat and it is usually full of kids and people on the road, but while I was standing at the window anxiously waiting for my husband and kids to come home, I noticed how deserted everything was. The only people on the road were parents running to find their children and bring them home.

“We went to friends for lunch on Shabbat, and our three girls stayed there to play. We went home and at 15:28, the nightmare began – sirens! I looked at my husband totally confused because we are used to sirens for Yom Hashoah or Yom Hazikaron and test sirens, but this sounded different. We were under attack.”

They ran into their mamad (safe room). “As it was Shabbat and we were not prepared, we had no light. As we were standing there in the darkness, all I could say to my husband was, ‘Is this real? We have to get our kids!’ You are supposed to stay in the mamad for 10 minutes after a siren, but we couldn’t. After a few minutes, we went out and my husband ran to our friend’s house to get the children.

“The next siren came at 20:28. This time, my children panicked as they realised it was real. I didn’t sleep the whole night – just tossed and turned and got on with some work.

“Who can sleep when you constantly hear ‘boom, boom’?” They were told by the regional council that schools would be closed, shops without shelters were not allowed to open, and transport would be limited. “Your life is put on hold,” Giesenow says.

But besides the fear and harsh reality they have experienced since making aliyah in July 2017, “we also got to see the unity of the Jews and people living in Israel. We had people phoning from all over the country offering accommodation and support. Museums and attractions all over Israel were offering free or reduced entry for residents of the south. Wherever we went, people were trying to make our experience joyful.”

Leanne Manshari, who is originally from Cape Town, lives in Ashkelon, where at least one Israeli was killed. “We keep Shabbos, and it really caught me by surprise. My two older kids were taking the dog for a walk. I went to the safe room and sat there with my six-year-old daughter, while my husband ran to find my other two kids. It was one of the scariest experiences, not knowing if the other half of my family was okay.

“You could hear every explosion going off, and we could also hear them bombing Gaza. One of the rockets fell really close to our apartment, about 500m away, which was a major explosion.”

The next day, Uri Gobey, also from Cape Town, was out buying shwarma in Yavne (central Israel, near Rechovot). He had left his wife and son at home when the sirens started. “I didn’t have enough time to make it all the way home, so I decided to abandon the car and run for the nearest building. Being outside is petrifying during these times,” he says.

“I ran as fast as I could into the nearest building, which was unlocked, thankfully. I got into the bottom of the stairwell and realised that there was no real safe spot for me there due to the foyer having two entrances, and the stairwell not being designed as a shelter. I had no choice but to put myself in the safest possible position I could find, which was by someone’s doorway. If I went into the stairwell, I would be in a much worse situation as the walls are like paper when a rocket hits it.”

After a while, he went back to his car: “There is always that unsure moment when you go out again as to whether it’s really safe or not.” He drove home. “Once I got upstairs, the alarms went off again and we went straight into our bomb shelter. It is my son’s first experience of this. We had to show him we were calm and not afraid.”

The Women’s International Zionist Organisation Johannesburg said that 24 of its institutions, including day care centres, were under attack, affecting 1 760 children. The South African Jewish Board of Deputies and South African Zionist Federation said in a statement that they deplored and condemned these latest acts of violence against the Israeli people, and called on the South African government to “unequivocally condemn rocket attacks on Israel”.

“In order for our country to be a true role player on the world stage, the government needs to speak out clearly in situations when such blatant acts of aggression are perpetrated, whether by the Palestinians or anyone else,” the statement read.

Israel’s President, Reuven Rivlin, visited the families of Israelis killed in the attacks, including the family of Ziad Alhamada who comes from an unrecognised Bedouin village, and was killed in Ashkelon.

“I came to express identification with all the tribes of Israel,” Rivlin told the family. “I came to you, our Bedouin brethren, to express my condolences and the condolences of all the residents of the state of Israel for the loss of a citizen and resident of the state. We came because we are all partners, we are all citizens of this country, and together we will overcome these difficult moments as well.”

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