My brother Jamie Watson and his wife Danette faced two options in Israel this week. They could head north from the relative safety of the desert in Mizpeh Ramon to chance a flight out of the country or head southbound for Jordan, depending on which way the winds of war were blowing.
A sentence I never thought I’d be writing.
Last weekend, all was good with the world – their world and our world – chatting on the phone as they bussed their way to Beersheba. Rain had delivered a timely 41 mm to some bountiful crops on the precipice of dehydration, we’d found a healthy supply of bore water and the livestock levels were balancing in favour of the pasture.
This weekend we would welcome back some Israeli backpackers – one of whom has worked here many of the past 12 months, whose moshav Jamie and Danette had just visited.
Jamie and I talked about an upcoming trek in the Negev Desert, which I had to google. There was a bit of chat about seeing that Australian Light Horse – a significant, almost mythical, certainly legendary place which, he’d been told in a bubble-bursting moment, was a bit crappy.
Now they’ve visited Beersheba twice in the past week, each time coinciding with the only rocket attacks on the city, which was not on their itinerary. Neither were the weekend attacks that have plunged the country into war.
They missed the first 65 rockets by 12 hours, which was a shot over the bow of what was to come.
On Tuesday (10 October), the rockets missed them by maybe half an hour as they switched buses to Tel Aviv only to find themselves, twice in the hour’s journey ahead, exiting the bus, splayed on the pavement as sirens wailed and more rockets flew overhead.
Upon reaching their hostel, another rocket alert forced them to take cover in the basement, no doubt a sobering reality of their choice to head north into the heart of hostility in the Middle East.
A rational one at that. With buses constantly running, the roads peppered with reassuringly gun-bearing Israeli military, a hostel booked and seats on a flight secured. But for the mercurial nature of war where the best-laid plans might go awry.
The flight was cancelled, but a new flight awaits, and during these extra 24 hours they’re (relatively) safely holed up, hopefully asleep, in the middle of a warzone attracting the attention of all the wrong people.
Unique is the only way to describe how that feels: unfamiliar but not foreign, considering the fact Jamie and Danette were in the US on their way to a wedding in New York state when 9/11 occurred.
2001 was a little bit different. Phones were different. We still used landlines. We didn’t have the news at our fingertips, live updates weren’t so live, and commentary wasn’t so confronting. One call was all it took to know they were safe, even though what challenged them was the chaos and fear that drove a nation in the aftermath of those unprecedented attacks.
What works for them now, they say, is the familiarity of warfare for people in Israel. While people go about their business as sirens blare and rockets crack above, there is a soothing seam of courage and coolness that’s holding them steady. Even though 90 seconds is all they have to reach a safe room.
We’re now on Israel time, trying not to watch the breaking news but also monitoring it closely with finely meshed propaganda filters, messages flicking to and fro with the Iron Dome, rockets, Hamas and Hezbollah now replacing weather, sheep and crops as topics of conversations. Videos and photos of soldiers and scenes replace the happy snaps of grandchildren.
We’ve discovered one of the wonderful features of WhatsApp (no, this isn’t an endorsement) is its ability to let you know when the person on the other end is online.
While that might seem a little stalkerish, if you have family in Tel Aviv right now it’s surprisingly comforting. Hopefully for them as well.
They’re still sleeping, I see, right now. I can’t sleep until they’re out of there.
But the heartbreaking irony for all of us is that as they depart they will pass, like ships in the night, the absolutely delightful young people whose beds are ready and waiting for their arrival here, who are now outbound from Australia and returning to join the fight for their country.
Update: After experiencing countless cancellations on commercial flights leaving Tel Aviv that week, Jamie and Danette Watson were finally able to leave Israel on Friday October 13. They were among 238 passengers on board the first repatriation flight out of the country, which flew direct to London.