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A Night In Be’er Sheva

A Night In Be’er Sheva

One of the first things we did when we checked into the U-Tel Guest Apartments at Ben Gurion University’s Be'er Sheva campus was follow the yellow sign to the closest bomb shelter.

In the basement of the building next door were two massive airlock-type doors, with a shower area in between for dealing with chemical or biological weapon exposure.

Inside, it looked more like an abandoned Internet café than a place where you might have to seek shelter from falling rockets. The tables were set up for absent computer terminals, and one student sat studying, enjoying the quiet. The only other room was a bathroom, and a metal cabinet contained unidentified, buzzing mechanical equipment.

Familiarized, we left to have dinner, and on the bus I glanced at the instruction sheet handed out by the mission organizers from American Associates of Ben Gurion University.

If you are in a building, “enter the protected space on the same floor and close the steel window and door.”

If you’re out in the open, “lie on the ground and cover your head with your hands.”

We made the decision together that afternoon, a group of eight journalists, three guides and a bus driver, to continue on our planned visit to Ben Gurion University of the Negev, in spite of the fact that it was closed because of missile and rocket attacks that have continued since last week. More than 90 rockets have hit, wounding three Israelis. Now we’re among an estimated 1 million people in southern Israel within range of Gazan rockets.

The campus hasn’t been touched, but there is a history: An employee was critically injured in a previous rocket attack.

No one gets hurt, said one of our guides, Faye Bittker, if they listen to instructions from the IDF command to remain prepared and listen for warnings. It’s only those who panic or ignore the warnings, she said, who are in danger.

The university president, Rivka Carmi, who seems to be pretty well in-the-know and speaks regularly with the homefront command, assured us, with a wave of her hand, “Tomorrow this will all be over.” She said Hamas and Islamic Jihad could no more afford to keep up the conflict than could Israel.

Let’s hope so. It’s early Tuesday morning now and the night has been quiet; no sirens.The streets of the city and a local restaurant seemed unaffected, just as the streets and people of Sderot seemed so nonchalant when I visited there in 2007. Until our press group was rushed into a shelter during two Kassam attacks then. A war story for reporters who don’t usually get war stories. For Sderot residents, another Tuesday.

Today, we put our confidence in a system called Iron Dome, which we are told has a pretty good winning percentage. The chances are higher, we figure, of our bus going off the twisting desert highway than ending up on the receiving end of a rocket that first eluded the anti-missile batteries and then found its way to our precise location.

Andy Lavin, one of the U.S. organizers of the trip seemed to strike a chord in all of us when offering the choice to stick to higher ground. “You’re journalists,” he said. “And this is a different story than some of you thought you would be writing.”

Initially reluctant, my objections fell as the collective courage of the group rose.

None of us could have anticipated this flare-up in violence on the week we arrived; everyone expected to focus on Dead Sea evaporation, Bedouin life, agriculture and the university’s programs.

But no one was going to let a bunch of terrorists push us around, either.

“This is not something I ever really experienced,” said my seatmate on the bus, Rahel Musleah, a free-lance writer for Hadassah Magazine, the Jewish Standard and other publications. “It’s a bit surreal. The only thing I think about is my kids, God forbid if anything happens. But I trust the Israeli technology, hopefully, will protect us.”

To my right, Andrew Altman-Ohr, managing editor of J., the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California, told me his juices were flowing as we headed to Beer Sheva.

“It’s a story that’s waiting to be written,” he said. “I’m excited to contact my paper and tell them I’m filing a story for this week’s paper.”

If he had any problems sleeping tonight, said Altman-Ohr, it would be from jetlag, not worry.

The mission organizers have tweaked the schedule a bit to keep us out of harm’s way as much as possible while not watering down the essence of the trip or yielding to an excess of caution.

“You take things day to day,” said Lavin, who recruited the eight of us for this trip. “You get into an Israeli mentality, deal with issues and make sure everyone is safe.”

At dinner, I met Irene Koplink-Loehr, of Ithaca, N.Y., a second-year student at the Medical School for International Health here, who told me about the routine of taking shelter during an alert.

“Your heart rate definitely goes up,” she said. Rather than run to a shelter, she waited in a hallway outside her apartment during the latest alert this week.

How did she know when to go back inside?

“You hear the explosion,” she said, calmly.

But never has she considered transferring. “The statistics say I’m going to die in a car crash more easily than dying from a rocket,” she said.

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