This is an article about the Arab-Israeli conflict. But I will try not to talk about terrorism, defense, occupation, religion, right, wrong, or any of those things that are always talked about. This article is not about civilian casualties or Biblical rights or holy wars or political posturing. (This will take plenty of restraint!) It is an article about how much fun bomb shelters can be.
Every building in Israel is required by law to have a heavy-steel-reinforced thick concrete bomb shelter. In Gaza, only top Hamas officials have them. (I warned you it would be difficult to stay neutral and keep politics out!) In times of peace, Israeli bomb shelters also serve as community centers, housing after-school programs and homeless shelters. Sometimes they're even taken over by teens and turned into discotheques.
We are now hearing all over the news about Kassam rockets fired by Hamas into southern Israel. In 2006 we heard about Katyusha rockets fired by Hezbollah in the North. When I grew up in central Israel, it was Skud rockets fired by Saddam Hussein. From an adult perspective, it all seems very scary. But for a child it was exciting.
More riveting than an action movie
Not that it isn't exciting now. The news networks' ratings spike up whenever there is military action. "Shock and Awe" is more riveting than any action movie. It's no coincidence that so many disaster films looked almost exactly like 9/11. The media are obsessed with this little war between Jews and Arabs while they practically ignore dozens of much deadlier conflicts all over the world, and even the U.S. war in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Oops, I digress into politics again.)
To a six-year old child who didn't understand anything, war was not only exciting news, it was great fun. When the gas masks were distributed during the Gulf War of 1991, we decorated them with stickers. My friends and I bragged about who was closest to the explosions and whose windows rattled louder. School was canceled, and my parents stayed home from work.
I remember cartoons in the morning (a rarity in Israel) on Israel's only TV channel, interrupted by dire-sounding reports from CNN and local news. I remember footage of Skud missiles falling from the sky and shaking our neighborhood. I remember the rubbery antiseptic smell of the gas mask. But most of all, I remember how happy I was whenever the alarm sounded. My brother and I would cheer when sirens blew as my parents scrambled for the gas masks.
Instead of bedtime, playing war
During the Gulf War, every family in Israel had to have a designated "sealed" room (not necessarily a bomb shelter)— a room whose doors' and windows' edges were sealed with tape in case Saddam launched missiles loaded with lethal gas. In our house, it was the kids' room. In practice, this meant that whenever the alarm sounded, my parents would come into our room and play card games with us and try to distract us from the potential horrors that could befall us. Instead of bedtime, it was time to put on gas masks and "play" war. What more could young boys ask for?
I would be hard pressed to recall another moment in my memory when both parents played with us so enthusiastically on a school night. I was aware that "danger" was involved, but to a relatively sheltered child, the concept of danger never translated to pain and suffering. It only meant feelings of importance and urgency— to play card games, sing songs, play monopoly, read stories, and have the entire family sleep in the same room, while wearing gas masks!
Perhaps it's a credit to my parents' handling of the situation, or perhaps it's a testament to the crazy way that kids see the world; but I don't remember any feelings of fear; only fun and excitement. Perhaps it's also an indication of how lucky we were that Israel experienced only minimal casualties as Saddam fired dozens of missiles at our country.
What better distraction from everyday tedium?
My story is echoed in the back pages of today's news in Israel. An article in the newspaper Yediot Ahronot featured children's activities in a community bomb shelter in the rocket-stricken town of Be'er Sheva. The newfound sense of urgency to safeguard these kids has inspired volunteers to organize educational play sessions, which not only distract the children from the horrors of war but also provide an opportunity for adults to escape from the stress of the conflict (and of daily life, for that matter). What better excuse is there to leave career "obligations" behind, and just be a kid?
Another article in the newspaper Ma'ariv focused on a set of families coming together and bonding while being forced to cram into a stuffy bomb shelter every night: People drag mattresses and sleeping bags from their homes to the basement bomb shelter for a surprise parents-and-children slumber party, courtesy of Hamas. The underlying seriousness obliges everyone to get along. The deeply felt sense of fear compels everyone to do their best and bury their fear by playing games and being social.
It's well known that war unites and foments nations. But it also unites families and communities, and in a very good way. It's an extreme example of parents being forced to set aside their adult lives and focus on their children— a wonderful by-product of the war. The most amazing thing about this phenomenon is that families have to wait until they are forced into this situation by an incoming rocket siren.
I hasten to make clear that these reflections of mine don't intend to belittle the millions of victims throughout the world (be they in Israel, the Palestinian territories, Afghanistan, Iraq, Darfur, Sri Lanka, the Congo, Somalia, or any of these wars you rarely if ever hear about) who actually suffer from war. My sadness and anger goes to all of them. If I sound insensitive, that is not my intention. I am merely pointing out the irony that a few have somehow managed to come out with a real positive experience from war. It's odd that I feel the need to apologize for saying so, but I guess that, after all, there is such a thing as good news... at least for a child.