Every year, some 40 students from North America and beyond arrive in Be’er Sheva to start the 4-year program at Ben Gurion University's Medical School for International Health. The year opens, with - of course - an orientation session.
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Michael Diamond, a transplanted Glaswegian who has lived in southern Israel for over two decades and serves as the international program’s administrative director, sits the incoming class down and takes them through the critical stuff. Orientation starts with how to find housing and navigate the health-care and insurance systems. He goes on to explain the university’s computer network and does a whole spiel about bureaucracy and world of Israeli mobile phones.
And then he explains what to do when a siren warning of incoming rockets from Gaza goes off.
“I have downloaded siren sounds to my mobile phone, and I play them for the students at full volume,” says Diamond, talking with Haaretz at an empty café in downtown Be’er Sheva, one of the few that even opened on this particular Saturday night, four days into Operation Pillar of Defense. ("The problem is with the waitresses. Their parents won't let them leave the house," explains the cafe manager.)
Upwards of 700 rockets have been fired from Gaza towards southern Israel since the start of the operation. While the majority of rockets were intercepted by Israel's sophisticated “Iron Dome” anti-ballistic system, about 300 did reportedly hit in Be'er Sheva, Ashdod, Ashkelon and other population centers, causing three deaths, damage, injuries, and great anxiety. Most locals in the south spent the weekend indoors, with many even choosing to sleep in their shelters.
Meanwhile, at least 41 Palestinians, militants and innocent civilians alike, have been killed by punishing Israeli strikes on Gaza.
“I tell them: ‘Listen well, because you will hear this siren sound sooner or later and I don’t want you to be shocked,” Diamond explains. “And I add, it will probably be sooner."
His orientation siren-demo is followed by a set of instructions: Those living in apartments on top floors should run down to the lower floors of the building and stay in the stairwell at the sound of the siren. Those who have bomb shelters in their neighborhoods should run over to them and stay there for at least ten minutes after the siren stops. Those on the road, should get out of their cars or climb off their bicycles and lie flat on the ground, ideally with “something” between them and Gaza.
What sort of something? “A wall, preferably,” he says. And how do the spatially and geographically challenged figure out at any given moment what direction Gaza is in? “Oh, there are a whole other set of instructions for that,” comes the reply, in Scottish brogue.
No sirens in Ithaca
Growing up in Ithaca, New York in a non-Jewish home, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not something that featured in any big way on Irene Koplinka-Loehr’s radar.
“I guess I knew the major headlines, but I had never researched it, and had no real sense of it,” says the 24-year old. At Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, Koplinka-Loehr was an activist – but one mainly concerned with violence against women, not Palestinian statehood, or Israel’s right to defend itself. The U.S.-accredited BGU program appealed to her, she says, like it does to many of the students who come here, some 2/3 of whom are not Jewish, because of its strong emphasis on global health.
So, the whole siren routine, not to mention the passionate and much larger debate behind the story of the rockets and sirens, was new to Koplinka-Loehr. It gave her a bit of tachycardia at first, she admits, especially as in her first year there was no Iron Dome system. But, today, as a third-year student, she has become so used to the situation that she's barely fazed by it.
“At first I was disoriented, but now, not at all,” she says, describing her personal routine, when she hears the sirens at night. She gets out of bed and quickly slips out to the hallway, where she meets up with Gabriel, her 80-year old Russian immigrant neighbor. “We each lean on our respective door frames. He stands there. I stand there. Then we hear the booms go off. He counts on his fingers how many booms there are. He then looks at me, and repeats the number with a note of surprise in his voice, no matter how many there have been. Then he says ‘maspik?’ (enough) and I say ‘maspik.’ Then we nod and go into our apartments.”
“I think I have gotten a much more nuanced view of the conflict than I ever could have in the States,” she says. “The more I live here, the more complicated I realize it is.” Doing volunteer work in the West Bank with a health and human rights delegation and helping to edit papers on the conflict by an Israeli-Arab professor at BGU, Koplinka-Loehr says she has become increasingly sympathetic towards the Palestinian side.
But then again, the periods of nonstop shelling here, as well as having witnessed dozens of helicopters bringing injured Israelis to Be'er Sheva's Soroka hospital, the largest in the region, which serves upwards of a million people, has also been sobering.
“I feel more strongly for the Palestinians in Gaza, who are trapped, are being bombarded, and don’t have enough medications. They are in my thoughts and I feel sad for them,” she says. “But I have also seen the fear and anxiety on the Israel side and I have sympathy there, too. No one is winning.”
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Tobin Greensweig, a 29 year old from Santa Rosa, California, is another third year student on the BGU program and Koplinka-Loehr’s best friend here. The two, together with the rest of the third year students, had been scheduled to take their internal medicine exams last Thursday and Friday – but those were cancelled because of the rockets. Most classes have also been also cancelled for Sunday and everyone is waiting for Diamond's text messages, which he sends out every few hours, to tell them what's next.
Many of the students, taking advantage of the unexpected break and keen to escape the rockets, headed north. But Greensweig and Koplinka-Loehr, along with a handful of others from their class, decided to stick around, and spent the afternoon Saturday planting oregano and green basil in Greensweig’s small garden.
Every time a siren went off they calmly speed-walked around the block over to a communal underground bomb shelter. There, together with the neighbors - mostly elderly immigrants from Georgia –they listened until they heard the “boom” - a sign that the incoming rocket had either landed or been thwarted by Iron Dome, and then headed back to the garden to do more planting.
“It’s unrealistic for a country to live in constant fear of being bombed indiscriminately,” says Greensweig, who grew up in a Jewish home and had visited Israel several times before arriving for medical school,but who has also spent the last few years here doing volunteer work in the West Bank. “In order to sleep at night i have to believe that when Israel goes in and strikes Gaza, it’s a precision strike. I have to believe there is an organizing body that is doing this. But when someone shoots a rockets from Gaza – it's indiscriminate. It is meant to bring terror.”
“You have a lot more faith in Israel’s government than I do,” retorts Koplinka-Loehr. “Not necessarily in the government, but in the system,” says Greensweig.
Later this week, Greensweig and Koplinka-Loehr will be heading north too, for a 4-week rotation at an Afula hospital that had been planned before the recent round of violence. It should be quieter up there – unless, they note, with some dark humor, the border with Syria heats up too, a whole other matter with a whole other story.
But in any case, they agree, they feel ambivalent about leaving Be’er Sheva right now, maybe even a little guilty.
“I feel like I am leaving home, and I don’t like leaving home,” says Greensweig simply. Koplinka-Loehr mentions Gabriel, her neighbor. “It's sort of like abandoning those who don’t have anywhere to go,” she says.