with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Living Under Siege

The wall of contention, the famous Western Wall of the last Jewish Temple, the holiest site in the world for Jews. Photo by Lorelle VanFossenThe Western (Wailing) Wall
Located just below the courtyard of the Al-Aska Mosque and Dome of the Rock, the Western Wall is held as sacred by three major religions and honored by many more. It has also been a scene of protest and violence.

The summer of 2000 was filled with news about the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. With the help of the United States, Egypt, and even the United Nations, it looked like peace would finally come to these two peoples. Unfortunately, the two sides were unable to reach an agreement, and the Palestinians grew frustrated and restless. When an Israeli government official, Ariel Sharon, took a huge group of military officers and Israeli officials to “march” on the site of the Temple Mount and El-Aqsa Mosque, holy to the three largest religions in the world, angry Muslim worshipers began throwing rocks at Sharon and his entourage. Within days Palestinians were rioting, throwing rocks, and inciting violence around the country, though mostly focused within their territories and along border areas.

The feeling of living under siege actually started for me a few months before the violence erupted in the Middle East. I got up early, as usual, to workout and I turned on the news to see an interesting perspective of my home town. There was an overhead view of Fourth Avenue in downtown Seattle with a military tank rolling down the center. I called my mother immediately.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. What’s wrong?”

“There are tanks driving down Fourth Avenue. What’s going on?”

“I don’t know. Probably something to do with the WTO.”

Downtown Seattle spent several days under siege from rioters and violence during the World Trade Organization conference. The pictures of rioters rolling cars, setting things on fire, and breaking windows was front page news internationally. For me, living thousands of miles away in Israel, it was terrifying. For my mother, living 40 miles away, it was a nothing event. Generally inconvenient, and a bit worrisome. Now, as I live “under siege” in Israel, my mother calls me from Seattle begging me to come home after every report of a riot or bombing. After the bombing of a public bus I get a call. “Don’t ride any buses now!” “Yes, Mother.” After the riots at the Temple Mount in the old city of Jerusalem, the call is: “Don’t go to Jerusalem!” “Yes, Mother.” After the bombing of a night club on the waterfront, I hear the telephone instructions: “Don’t you dare go out at night!” “Yes, Mother.” Just as the tanks rolling down a main street in Seattle are “far” from my mother in Seattle, these events seem far from me and our life here in Israel.

How does one cope with living “under siege”? For many, living under siege is a real and threatening position with bullets flying and bombs dropping. For the two of us in Israel, it is more psychological than physical. There are no bullets flying in downtown Tel Aviv, yet they are flying in a few areas along borders within the Palestinian Authority. Terrorist acts are a part of everyday life here in Israel and the people have spent decades living with the fear, programming their life around the possibilities of such attacks. The unknown “when” causes preventative actions and precautions to be put into every day practice. So you learn to live “under siege”.

The ruins of Caesarea, where once the rulers of Roman laid siege to the Holy Land, who were driven out by the Arabs, who were driven out by....
Photo by Brent VanFossenThe ruins of Caesarea offer a history lesson as an example of sieges in Israel. Built initally as a fortress by the Crusaders, it was developed into a major city by the Romans, only to be destroyed again and again by others who wanted to rule the area.

I have long lived with the concept that rehearsal in life is a good thing. When preparing for a meeting, a confrontation, or some action in your life, it helps to go through the process in your mind and prepare yourself to handle the different challenges and outcomes that can arise from that action. As a child I was trained what to do in case of a fire or earthquake. As I grew older, I was trained in first aid and emergency response and actions, as well as CPR procedures. Once I understood how I would respond in an emergency, and had practiced a few times, I knew I could handle the reality. The fear around the “possibility” of an emergency happening was reduced, relieving my anxiety and stress. I applied the same techniques to living under siege.

As soon as it was obvious from watching the news and talking to friends here in Israel that the riots and violence were not going to abate soon, Brent and I sat down and made plans. We talked them all through, problem solving as we went, examining all the “what ifs”.

What if there is a bomb, violence, or closure of the highway preventing Brent from coming home or endangering him? What should he do? What if something happens close to home where I have my home office? What should I do? How should I respond? What if I’m out on the street somewhere? How will we let each other know we are okay? What if we must leave an area for our own safety? Where would we go so we can find each other later? What if we have to leave the country in a hurry? What if we have to leave the country separately? How would we get out? How would we find each other later? What about money? What about food? What about bomb shelters? The mind jumps and leaps to find all the “what ifs” and fears. Bringing them into the light seemed to frightened us more. The list kept growing and growing until we felt totally out of control and consumed by our fears.

We started examining them one by one. The best way to create a safety plan is to make it simple, easy to remember, and applicable to a variety of situations. We broke it down into simple steps and looked for similarity in the events. We needed to plan for help, escape, communication, and survival in each case.

Preventive Medicine
Israel takes great pride and effort to keep its citizens safe. Everyone takes the following into stride as part of living in Israel day by day.

  • Police cars flashing red and white lights as they drive around. Emergencies, they add a siren.
  • Police tow any car stopped or parked illegally immediately.
  • Inspection, often with handheld scanner, of all bags and purses entering malls and large stores or public areas.
  • Random spot inspections and checks on buses and at bus stops.
  • Road blocks and inspections for vehicles coming in and out of the city or near security areas, like the airport, as well as random road blocks for spot checks.
  • Any abandoned package is reported immediately and treated as a bomb until they know otherwise. Suspicious vehicles are inspected thoroughly inside and out and treated cautiously.
  • Every citizen is a witness to a potential threat and they report anything and everything suspicous. Each report is treated seriously.

First, we called the most “resourceful” people we knew in Israel and asked them if they were willing to help us if we needed it. We put their phone numbers on a laminated card to carry in our wallets. We also asked friends who live just out of the city if we could come stay with them in case an emergency drove us out of the city. They agreed. Their address went onto a card with other critical contact information that we could carry in our pockets. This card would allow us to have the contact information handy in case we were too stressed to recall names and phone numbers. Second, we agreed that Brent’s parents and their family business would be our main contact number in the United States. Third, we got a free Hotmail email account which is accessible from any computer hooked to the Internet from anywhere in the world. We could leave messages there for each other in case of separation or emergency.

Fourth, we decided that if we were separated and forced out of the city or from the country, as soon as we were in a location to stay for at least three days, we would go to a major hotel and make a purchase, if not rent a room, with our credit card. Credit card purchases through a major hotel usually are posted within a few hours with the credit card company, unlike smaller hotels which might take a day or two to post the purchase. We would call the credit card company to check for any charge to a hotel and then call that hotel. A message would be waiting at the front desk regarding where we were staying and the condition we were in. Our credit card company gave us some other tips on tracking each other down through our purchases and how they could help us in an emergency with translators, travel arrangements, and emergency funds, which also gave us another resource for help.

Now that we had the communication and help resources figured out, we looked at the specifics. Brent spends most of his time at work or in the car. There are all kinds of emergency procedures at work, so Brent was reliant upon those for his protection there. But in his car, we had to plan for his survival, escape, and communication in case something happened while driving to or from work. Communication was easy as the car rental company provided us with a cell phone for use with the car.

We put canned and dried food in the trunk with water and a blanket for survival in case Brent was trapped with the car for any length of time. We also considered how he could “hide” in the car if necessary. In this specific car, a four door sedan, one of the back seats dropped down to “expand” the trunk, giving Brent access to actually crawl into the trunk and pull the seat closed behind him, hiding him in the trunk. With his height, it would be a tight squeeze, but for survival, you do what you have to.

Luzit Caves, Bet Buvrin-Maresha National Park, Israel, photo by Lorelle VanFossenCarved from the soft chalk over 2,000 years ago, caves in Israel offered hiding places during many sieges. In one Roman siege, they smoked out the hiding Jews and cut off their heads as the refugees exited a small cave opening. Where were human rights and the UN back then?

We talked about routes to and from home and alternative paths, working them out on the maps and actually traveling them to make sure we were familiar with them. We covered the route to get to our friend’s home, too, checking alternative routes. We looked at the map and discussed various public places like malls and schools where he could go for safety and help in case he was stopped or unable to get through.

We also talked about responding to different stimuli and how we would make decisions based on the stimulus. For instance, what to do if we hear gunfire, see a group of emergency vehicles, or hear an explosion. Do we duck and stay put, or run for cover? Or do we get a closer look to get more information? We both decided that avoidance is the best choice, so duck and run for cover and get out of the way was the best answer in most of the situations.

From home, we checked out the bomb shelter locations around us. It is a requirement that all buildings, and new apartments, must have a bomb shelter. New apartments have a room dedicated as the bomb shelter with heavy sealable doors and windows with heavy metal shutters as well as strong cabinets for food and water storage. Older buildings, like ours, are built with bomb shelters in the basements, and there are several in the neighborhood at the nearby art museum, city library and concert hall. So if we are out in the neighborhood, we knew where the shelters were.

We put together a suitcase with some food provisions, money, and clothing for at least three days and set it by the door to quickly grab if we needed to leave the country. We made a point of carrying all of our personal legal documents with us no matter where we went, including our passports. We also carried two different credit cards each, putting each one in a different spot on our body. For instance, I carried one in my wallet with some money, and then the other with more money in a pocket, keeping it separate from my wallet and purse. We also put together a medium-sized, soft-sided ice chest stocked with water and canned and dried food and a few plates, cups and silverware, and a small blanket, and set that by the door to grab in case we had to evacuate to the bomb shelter. The cat’s carrier bag with food provisions for him also went near the door.

Israel International Book Fair, Kikkar Rabin, Tel Aviv, photo by Lorelle VanFossen
With a long history of suffering from Palestinian suicide bombers, Israelis stay away from public events and popular locales as they are targets for terrorists. The International Book Fair in Tel Aviv was delayed by two days as the country recovered from the bombing of a discoteque, The Dolphinarium, killing 20 young people. Attendance at the book fair was sparse as people stayed away in fear.

We talked about all the what ifs, and the plans and procedures we would use, for hours, then days. After a while, we were sick of talking about it, but we both knew what the other would do. We tested each other to build a trust in our actions, abilities, and each other. We grew comfortable with the tension of the “what ifs”. We had our plans. Now it was time for the waiting.

The first three months have been filled with sounds of the television and/or radio on at least 18 hours a day. Limited to only 30 minutes once a day of English news on the local television channel, we were reliant upon international news from CNN, BBC, and Sky News, as well as that from friends who translated the events from Hebrew for us. I can’t sit still for very long, so I worked on a quilt I had designed almost a year before, just after arriving in Israel. This passed the time for me while staring at the television watching the live reports from the Palestinian “Front Lines”, just waiting for it to come closer to us in Tel Aviv. The quilt was based on a traditional quilt block called “Storm at Sea” and a year ago I named the quilt, “Israel Storm”. It wasn’t until the third week of my sewing and watching the “war” on television that I realized the significance of the name. Thus the quilt, “Israel Storm”, grew to have a greater significance. It now hangs on the wall of the apartment over the dining table, a symbol of beauty created during a true storm of rocks, sniper fire, and bombs through my CNN window to the world.

Those first three months of the Palestinian Intifada (uprising), Brent and I felt like we were walking around with our shoulders up around our ears with tension. I kept exercising early in the morning, walking to the beach and swimming in the sea, until the waters finally got too cold and the waves too high from winter storms. So I walked the streets of Tel Aviv early in the morning, exploring the less ” Counting the dead at Kikar Rabin in Tel Aviv, photo by Lorelle VanFossencommercial” areas of the city away from likely targets like shopping malls or government offices, trying to read the minds of the terrorists. Where would they strike next?

I tried keeping up with friends and family about our situation, reassuring them that we were “far” from the danger and just fine. But a new word entered the lexicon: cyber terrorists. It began with Israel defacing a few Arab web sites, then the Arabs responded with venom and struck back with tricks to lock up Israeli web sites and Internet servers, defacing web pages and issuing viruses. Within two months I had three viruses. I don’t know how I got them even to this date, and two remained undetected by my virus program for a few weeks playing havoc with my machine, and causing me no end of frustration as I tried to figure out if it was a virus or my machine that was the problem. After almost 20 years of serious computer usage, these were my first viruses. Welcome to modern terrorism.

Foreign Workers from the West Bank

Palestinians supplied many blue collar workers in Israel, especially for construction and agricultural work. Construction near the waterfront of Tel Aviv, photo by Lorelle VanFossenThe closure of the Palestinain Authority cut off workers from their jobs and jobs from their workers. Many sites are now empty and awaiting workers from within Israel and other countries like Romania and Yugoslavia.

Cyber terrorists locked up the web sites and networks of several of the largest Internet services in Israel, as well as most of the government networks and sites. Once I was on the Internet, I couldn’t seem to get access to the Ministry’s web site handling the press releases or any of the Israeli online English newspapers. I finally found information from the Israel Embassy in England, and their web site offered up-to-the-minute news from various news wires around the world and in Israel on what was happening here. But access to the Internet was hit and miss as the servers kept crashing or locking up from the work of the cyber terrorists as well as the thousands of people flooding the Internet to find out what was going on.

So we weren’t really unaffected by the violence. Not only was our Internet and email access severely restricted, we had several friends and family members cancel their trips to visit us. It is really hard to argue with graphic images of a father trying to protect his son from a barrage of gun fire which eventually kills his son, or images of soldiers firing machine guns at what looks like children throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at them. The international news rarely showed Palestinian snipers shooting at Israeli soldiers from nearby buildings. The children, dirty and ragged in worn out clothing, heaving their whole bodies into the rock throwing, makes for better television viewing. And it is hard to overlook images of school buses blown up along the highway and Jewish children losing arms and legs as surgeons battle to save their lives. The pictures of war and violence turn the stomach and create a fear that goes to the bone. The ugly head of “what if it happens to us” raises up and people think “if we stay away, we’ll be safe.”

In general, it is safer to live in Israel than just about any major city or large community in the United States. In Israel you can go out and walk the streets in relative safety, with no fear of being attacked, mugged, or raped, 24 hours a day. Since just about everyone who lives in Israel over the age of 18 is serving or has served two or more years in the military, they represent a walking military force, ready to take arms and protect their country in an instant. They also take it upon themselves to report anything the least bit suspicious or mysterious. Since the Intifada began in September of 2000, there has been at least one bomb found every other day in Israel. But you don’t hear about it on the news as it is found and dismantled or exploded in a safe way by experts. Most of these are reported by civilians trained to pay attention to details. The major form of injury in Israel comes from car accidents, not bombs or violent crime. In the United States, random violence and violent crime among teenagers is on the rise and nowhere is safe from violence, not even the small communities. Most of the violence you see on television from Israel happens within the Palestinian areas, closed off to Israelis. I will never forget one of the first days when the Palestine/Israel border was closed, Palestinian young men took to the streets breaking into businesses, flipping cars, setting things on fire, and destroying everything in sight right in their own neighborhoods. They were destroying the property of their friends and families – certainly not doing anything to Israel. But it was good for the cameras who recorded every second of the event. What was the point of that? Meanwhile, Israeli citizens, who live away from the border areas, live in relative peace and only stress out when they turn on the television.

Protecting Yourself
If you are in a danger zone yourself, here are some basic tips that may help you.

  • Treat personal safety like a fire drill: know what you will do, how to do it, and where to go. Then practice and rehearse it.
  • Practice your safety plan in the different locations where you spend a lot of time like school, home and work.
  • Establish one or more meeting spots in case of separation.
  • Find a place to meet outside of the city, with friends or a landmark, in case you get separated and are unable to meet within the city.
  • Locate shelters, bomb shelters, and hospitals near you and figure out how to get to them quickly.
  • Put together a light-weight pack of food and water that will last two to three days and keep it handy. Put a towel and/or blanket with the pack. Put one in the home by the door, in the car, and at work.
  • Establish one phone number inside the country and one outside the country as your main contact number.
  • Carry identification, preferably imprinted in fire-proof metal like on a dog tag, to identify your body.
  • Carry US Dollars with you in a secret place on your body, in a bra or pocket sew into socks, underwear, or any clothing item, along with any papers you need to get you in or out of the country.
  • If you are forced to leave the county separately, make a plan to use your credit card at a major hotel in the place where you arrive and leave a message at the desk on how to contact you. Call the credit card company to get this information to track down each other.
  • Locate your country’s embassy and register with them.
  • Carry a fully charged cell-phone.
  • If you have a partner, spouse or children, discuss these plans thoroughly with them. Have them make their own plans and review them together. This is about working as a team, so make sure all the parties involve understand their roles and they know what to do.

I finally learned that lesson. After three months of staring at the television and reliving the blood and gore 10, 20, 30 times a day with repeated newscasts told from every angle and perspective, I turned off the television. The stress started to go away. After a while, I resumed all of my normal activities and even started visiting Jerusalem to explore its old city and historical monuments, taking advantage of the cool weather. We started driving around the country again, enjoying the temperate winter and seeing the sites. Sure, we charted our course to avoid any “hot spots”, but it didn’t keep us from the areas we wanted to visit.

We didn’t totally avoid the news. We watched the evening news, and kept an ear tuned to big events, but we gave up the endless hours glued to the television. I stopped sewing and got busy fixing my computer from the viruses and other problems, and did other things away from the television. Brent’s parents started talking about rescheduling their canceled visit from the previous October to the upcoming October. My mother decided she wanted to visit in March. Then we heard from our best buddy, Bruce, about coming from Kansas with a friend to spend a couple of weeks in April for Easter. We were thrilled, but also surprised. As international television viewers grew weary of the violence from the Middle East, the stations quit offering daily reports. Journalists who flocked here in September and October by the plane load, started going home or moved on to other more sensational stories. For them, it was an old story, and to the rest of the world, the level of violence and the killing had dropped off. Nothing going on, so it must be safer.

In reality, the number of dead is climbing steadily, passing over 600. The terrorist bomb attacks are growing in frequency and intensity. Bombs are going off or are found near major population centers where before they were only found near the border areas or Arab communities. Not only are they found on buses, but a Palestinian bus driver, long trusted by the Israeli bus company, decided to go whacko and rammed his bus into a crowd of young people and soldiers waiting at a bus stop. Nowhere seems really safe. In the large cities, people were staying off public transportation and staying away from malls and large shopping areas. Movie theaters are starting to fill-up, but ever so slowly, as people still avoid crowded areas. The old city of Jerusalem was almost a ghost town, even though few acts of violence actually occurred there. It was a symbol of the growing violence, a place where trouble could start with Jews, Muslims, Christians, and where the Palestinian and Israeli populations live in close proximity. So people avoid it and the merchants close their doors to cut costs. To the outside world it seems more peaceful in Israel because we aren’t front page headlines. So our friends and family come visiting, in spite of the reality.

Life goes on, and so do we. The suitcase is now unpacked and put away. The ice chest is empty, but the former contents are in a box stuffed under the kitchen table – just in case. We still carry our passports, but the separation of the money and carrying the extra credit cards have stopped. We still have the Hotmail email accounts, which are handy as my regular account and computer are still having troubles. We still keep an eye out for nearby bomb shelters, but it is more out of curiosity and habit than concern. But we do keep our time in shopping malls and popular places to a minimum, just in case.

Plaque at the Lebanese/Israel border, photo by Lorelle VanFossenThere are reminders of attacks and sieges all over Israel. One stands at the Lebanon/Israel border as a reminder of those who gave their lives to protect the border.

Like our friends and families viewing Israel through CNN-colored glasses, we, too, are starting to take the violence and threat of war in stride, accepting rather than stressing over every bomb or act of violence. Our shoulders have dropped back to their normal comfortable positions, and the headaches and upset stomachs are gone. The danger is there and increasing from time to time, but our stress level is decreasing as we get used to “living under siege”. It only proves that human beings can get used to anything.

Tel Aviv, Israel

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