When the first sirens of the day wailed through Tel Aviv Thursday morning a few minutes before 8 a.m., a number of Tel Avivians were still in bed. This is, after all, the city of bohemians – the laid-back enclave of waiters, actors and start-up dreamers – and for many, the days start late.
After they had scurried into their bomb shelters and counted four very loud booms from Iron Dome interceptions, however, Tel Aviv’s denizens returned to doing what they do best. Within minutes, the sidewalk cafes were full of diners ordering Israeli breakfast, the buses were chugging down the boulevards and the city’s coffee kiosks had lines of bleary-eyed patrons waiting patiently for their lattes and croissants.
Here in Tel Aviv, the city often referred to as “The Bubble” because of its insulation from so much of the ugliness of Israel, the atmosphere is deflated but not popped.
“The mood in Tel Aviv is great,” says Riki Shemesh, an Israeli expat currently living in Hong Kong who arrived in Israel for a visit on Monday. “I can’t say it couldn’t be better, because of course it could be. But we are looking for peace, we are very confident to be in our land, and we are very sorry for how Hamas is reacting.”
Shemesh was enjoying lunch with her two daughters at Café Xoho, a sweet establishment popular with expats that is tucked onto a side street between the city’s upscale shopping boulevards of Dizengoff Street and Ben Yehuda. On most days during the lunch rush, Xoho is packed to capacity, with diners spilling out of its shabby-chic storefront onto the shady covered patio. This week, however, while business has been steady, owner Xoli Ormut-Durbin says she has definitely felt a slowdown.
“We have a lot of people chilling on their computers here, but usually at this hour it’s totally packed,” Ormut-Durbin said, gesturing to several empty tables while picking up change from a customer. “I think everyone is less interested in leaving their houses right now. Generally in Tel Aviv, the alarm will go off and people will keep walking. But now it’s been going on for a few days, so it’s getting scarier.”
For some, that may be true. Other Tel Avivians, however, have done what they do best during the spike in hostilities this week: turning to social media to show just how unconcerned they are.
“Do I have to tip the sushi guy extra for delivering under rocket fire?” asked one Tel Aviv resident on the Facebook page Secret Tel Aviv, an open, mostly English-speaking community group with more than 40,000 members.
Another poster wrote: “A tip for Tel Avivians: when you hear the Tzeva Adom [code red siren]… lie down with your hands over your head. Do NOT worry about getting your dress and/or suit dirty. Seriously.”
In nearly the same breath, however, the page also hosted a lively and occasionally bruising debate about whether or not posting status updates about where rockets were falling would help Hamas better home in on its targets; if swimming in an open pool during rocket fire would offer sufficient protection; and if local television coverage of the World Cup was going to be affected by news of the fighting.
As Operation Protective Edge has worn on, and Tel Avivians – who experienced their first taste of Hamas rocket fire during Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 – became increasingly accustomed to the wail of sirens and the boom of intercepted missiles overhead, some locals admitted to being surprised by their emotions.
“I’m working from home today,” admitted Nikki Avershal, 26, a business development executive at a Ra’anana-based start-up company. “Two sirens went off before noon and I don’t want to get stuck out there.”
Most days Avershal, who lives in central Tel Aviv, takes a one-hour bus ride to and from her office, but with the increase in rocket fire, she decided Thursday morning that her commute was too much of a risk. She admits that she was worried her coworkers might think she was overreacting and make fun of her, but in the end decided she had to do what she thought was best.
“I don’t want to be ostracized as someone who is panicky or hysterical, so I try to be calm. I don’t think anything would happen, but at the same time, I don’t want to find out if it would,” she says.
Avershal’s apartment sits on the top floor of a eight-story building, and its windows offer a stunning panoramic view of the blue Mediterranean. From her roof, it’s been possible this week to see the white smoky trails left behind by the Iron Dome’s interceptions.
On the bottom floor of her building is a SuperSol grocery store, which means that she shares her bomb shelter with dozens of food shoppers. When a siren rang out earlier in the week, Avershal says she was amazed by how light-hearted the mood was underground.
“We saw all these people and no one was really fazed. Not even tourists who were in the supermarket. You know, you don’t want to make light of the fact that all this is happening, because you don’t want to accept it as normal. You want to stay on the edge of fear and scared, but you also don’t want to panic.”