It’s a hot, bright day, a couple of weeks into Operation Protective Edge, which has seen thousands of missiles rain onto Israeli cities from north to south. In the center of Tel Aviv, the well-dressed pedestrians are a little weary; the bikers are a bit more aggressive, and the shopkeepers are all thinking about packing up early and heading home. No one is buying much these days anyway.
But stroll into the cool, air-conditioned lobby of one of the city’s most exclusive apartment towers, past the well-manicured ferns and the sleek leather couches. Step into the shiny elevator, push a button for the penthouse, and allow yourself to be swooshed up to the very top floor. From there, climb a set of stairs and push open a door marked “Private – Military Activity – No Entry, Please.” You’ll find yourself on a most unexpected miniature army base, where the mood is much lighter and the soldiers, surrounded by a breathtaking view of all corners of Tel Aviv, have no plans to go elsewhere.
Here, with the Mediterranean Sea to their right, the sparkling towers of Ramat Gan to their left and elsewhere the jumble of white- and sand-colored Bauhaus bungalows that have earned Tel Aviv a slot on the world’s top architectural playlist, a commander named Shai and his team of soldiers are keeping watch on the skies above Israel’s cosmopolitan jugular.
Across rooftops throughout Israel, the Homefront Command has deposited teams of soldiers – five, six, or seven at most – armed only with helmets and protective vests and high-tech binoculars to keep track of the missiles raining down on Israeli cities and help direct rescue teams in the worst-case scenario that the Iron Dome should falter and something should hit the ground. When the sirens blare, their mission is to spring into action, don their protective gear and monitor exactly where the rockets come in and where they fall. That information is then passed onto Homefront Command headquarters and rescue teams on the ground, in order to better coordinate ambulances and police action.
“Don’t let the silence and the sun fool you,” says Shai. “These guys were on high alert on the first two weeks of this operation. And remember that the first week was also a hard week of launches. There were almost no breaks, no release even to shower.”
In a war in which civilians have become the target and populated areas the absolute frontline, it makes sense that soldiers have moved in and taken over parts of residential buildings as part of their duties. What’s more surprising, perhaps, is how excited the locals are to have them invade.
“We have a list,” says Ido, one of the soldiers in this group, “of every cake available around here, and we’ve tasted all of them. We’ve gotten pizza. Shabbat dinners. But really, it’s the care that’s so amazing.”
Residents in the building were informed in advance that soldiers would be taking over their rooftop, setting up mattresses on the lower level to sleep and transforming the topmost spot into an operational observational point. They knew that the showers at their swimming pool, which sits on the building’s top floor and boasts a panoramic view of Tel Aviv only slightly inferior to the one that the soldiers monitor, would be used by soldiers when needed. The team says they have done everything in their power to not bother the residents, but nevertheless, residents keep knocking.
One woman, Yaffa, sends a text to the soldiers every Friday afternoon with a complete menu of what she is cooking for Shabbat, and then makes an extra family’s worth of portions and leaves it by the rooftop door. Her instructions? Eat until you are full, don’t thank me, and don’t you dare do the dishes.
Another resident has sent messages to make sure the soldiers know if they want to do laundry, her washing machine and dryer are always available and at their disposal. Others have sent pastries, coffee, and messages of thanks.
“The relationship between the average citizen and this unit is similar to the relationship between civilians and the Iron Dome units,” Shai says. “Citizens feel that the soldiers are here to protect them. So you get this feeling of, ‘What do you need? How can we help you? Can we send you a pizza or some cakes?’”
After touring that rooftop in the center of Tel Aviv, this reporter is taken by the Homefront Command to visit another team of observers, this time stationed on the top of an office building in nearby Petah Tikva.
Here, we are greeted by Avi, a happy-go-lucky commander whose unit on the roof is composed entirely of religious men performing reserve duty. Since this station holds businesses and not civilian homes, interaction with residents has been more limited. But that hasn’t stopped those who work in the tower from sending fruit and coffee, offering the use of their kitchen facilities, and even providing the wi-fi password to their business networks so soldiers can check their email and surf the Internet during down time.
“We’re all gaining weight,” admits Daniel, one of the soldiers in the unit. “We have too much to eat, and it’s all delicious.”
Those who work in the building are well aware there is a small unit of soldiers scanning the skies from just above them, but the average citizen strolling down the street in Petah Tikva, Avi says, likely has no idea.
“We try not to talk too much or explain exactly what we are doing here,” he says. “We have to protect ourselves. And the post is fully guarded. We have weapons here. It’s a small military base on top of a civilian roof.”
The team works round the clock, keeping shifts of about four hours each, similar to the team in Tel Aviv. One of their members is a rabbi, so he reads a lot of religious books in his downtime, and sometimes leads Torah classes or Talmudic discussions. On Shabbat, they keep their food warm thanks to a hot plate powered up in one of the building’s law offices, and on hot days workers are known to bring them watermelon or cold drinks.
“We’re different from combat soldiers,” Avi says, “because our specific job is to protect citizens. When they see us going upstairs [to the roof], they feel safe.”
But despite the abundance of free food and the beauty of the view, these soldiers have faced rocket threats on a daily basis with nothing but a vest to protect them. It’s a challenge, Shai says, they are happy to accept.
“In this war, there is the frontline, and then there is the homefront. When the rockets come here, whether they are intercepted by the Iron Dome or they hit something, the homefront becomes a frontline. And this unit is the only one that stands on that frontline without any shelter or any bunker. It’s just us and our helmets.”