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A man seen at the entrance to a bomb shelter that was opened in the Golan Heights, in northern Israel, May 8, 2018. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)
A man seen at the entrance to a bomb shelter that was opened in the Golan Heights, in northern Israel, May 8, 2018. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

After missile barrage, some in Golan seek shelter as others find serenity

Kibbutz residents say Thursday's cross-border exchange didn't rattle them, but in Druze villages a lack of bomb shelters leaves jitters over the next time missiles may fly

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

EIN ZIVAN — The sounds of children playing and birds chirping on Thursday afternoon in this Golan Heights kibbutz provided as good an answer as any to how the community was coping with the cross-border tensions that hit their peak just 12 hours earlier.

“We are not in a state of emergency here,” insisted community head Karen Shimonovich, speaking to The Times of Israel on a grassy hill in the middle of the verdant kibbutz.

“We’re continuing with our daily routines because this provides people with the strength to continue to function,” she said.

Despite the kibbutz’s location just half a mile from the Syrian border, a relaxed atmosphere seemed to cloak the small community. In other Jewish villages around the Golan Heights, there was the same sense of serenity and an almost religious devotion to sticking to routine Thursday, despite having been woken the night prior to the sound of Iranian missiles whizzing in their direction.

In some places though, especially Druze towns, any attempt at calm was overshadowed by concerns over lack of access to bomb shelters for the next time missiles fly.

“We’ve gotten used to hearing explosions every so often over the last seven years due to the civil war in Syria,” Shimonovich said. “Last night as well, it was still just noise. Nothing fell on our side.”

Illustrative: Children running after swans in Kibbutz Ein Zivan in the Golan Heights. (Haim Azulay/ Flash90)

Thursday morning’s booms were anything but ordinary, though, and a far cry from the errant shells from the Syrian civil war that sometimes land near the kibbutz’s agricultural fields. In what is being called the largest flare up in Syria since the 1973 Yom Kippur war, Iranian forces inside the country fired 20 rockets at Israel, in a widely expected revenge attack. According to military officials, four were shot down, while the rest fell somewhere short of the border.

In response, Israel targeted dozens of Iranian and Syrian sites, nearly wiping out Iran’s military presence in the country, according to Defense Minisgter Avigdor Liberman.

 

Yes, it is less pleasant now that the fire is being pointed directly at us, as opposed to the occasional errant shell from the civil war,” Shimonovich offered. “But the resilience of the families here is incredibly strong, and we are constantly preparing residents for every scenario possible,” she asserted. 

The kibbutz director said that more disturbing for her than last night’s rocket barrage has been the sustained slaughter of Syrian civilians by the Assad regime just a few short miles from her home. 

“If we’re already talking about daily routine, that more than anything is what makes it difficult to maintain my own,” she said while picking at the grass.

Shimonovich explained that her sentiments echoed the overwhelming attitude throughout the 330-member kibbutz, which has periodically raised money to send to their neighbors on the other side of the border.

Kibbutz Ein Zivan director Karen Shimonovich. (Courtesy)

Five miles north in Kibbutz Merom Golan, “routine” was similarly among the first words used by community leaders to describe how they were coping with Israel’s first direct confrontation with Iran.

“For the most part, routine has continued,” said the kibbutz’s tourism director Shefi Mor.

He acknowledged that his industry was one of the few to be directly impacted by last night’s events, with dozens of tourists canceling their weekend stays at the Merom Golan hotel.

However, Mor was hopeful that by Sunday, the stream of tourists to the northern Israeli community would return to its normal numbers.

Until now there hasn’t been any damage to property or civilians in the Golan Heights, and this needs to be said clearly,” said the tourism director. 

But while Shimonovich boasted of her community’s preparedness for escalation, Mor admitted that Merom Golan had a number of holes in its defense system.

Illustrative: Israelis care of the cows at the farm of Kibbutz Marom Golan in the Golan Heights on July 19, 2017. (Kinsbursky/Flash90)

All homes built after the mid 1980s are required by law to have a secure room that can withstand rocket attack. However, those built upon the kibbutz’s founding in 1967 do not offer such protection. Therefore, they are reliant on communal bomb shelters located just outside those households.

But with many of the residents living in those older homes well past retirement age, being forced to race outside for adequate cover leaves them defenseless in the event of an attack that is more than “just noise.”

Mor recognized that even the swiftest of residents would not be able to reach a communal bomb shelter in the roughly 10 seconds that they have once a siren sounds.

“You might not make it in time before the first shell hits, but there are still other precautions you can take,” he said.

Gabi Coneal, Merom Golan’s plainspoken economic director, said it was impossible for the kibbutz to provide “100 percent insurance.”

Kibbutz Merom Golan tourism CEO Shefi Mor sits in his office on May 9, 2018. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

“Building protective rooms in all of the older homes would cost a fortune. However, our communal shelters are fully equipped and we are constantly checking to make sure they have electricity and running water,” he assured.

Moreover, those without direct access to a protective room in their own homes represent just one-sixth of the kibbutz’s 700 residents. Coneal said the largely older minority has learned to deal with the reality.

Feeling helpless

But the concerns of Merom Golan residents seemed dwarfed by those in the Druze village of Mas’ade nine miles north, where communal bomb shelters are largely non-existent.

Sitting on plastic chairs outside the town’s local council building, Nabih Abu Fakhr, Ziad Na’eem and Salman Massoud recalled feeling “helpless” overnight Wednesday when sirens blared throughout their community.

Unlike Ein Zivan and Merom Golan, which were far enough from the rocket barrage that no sirens were triggered, residents of Druze villages further north along the Syrian border endured a much longer night.

(From L-R) Nabih Abu Fakhr, Ziad Na’eem and Salman Massoud sit on the street in the Druze village of Mas’ade in the Golan Heights on May 9, 2018. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

In addition to sirens, the Mas’ade municipal employees explained that their apparent close proximity to Syrian air bases meant they were exposed to both the initial Iranian attack as well as the relentless Israeli response.

“There was nowhere for us to go, and the explosions lasted for five hours,” said Fakhr.

Massoud explained that while new homes in the village are equipped with protective rooms, such buildings number less than half of those in all of Mas’ade.

Furthermore, “because of the crowding, there is no room to build communal bomb shelters throughout the village,” he said.

Admittedly, the municipal workers have found themselves in a unique position with the recent Iranian-Israel showdown.

A bomb shelter in Kibbutz Merom Golan on May 9, 2018. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

As Syrian citizens who have refused Israeli citizenship, Na’eem explained that they never anticipated to come in the line of fire of events on the northern border.

“Most of us support Assad and feel more attached to Syria than Israel, so the fact that the attack last night still reached our village was not something we expected,” the Mas’ade resident said.

The three municipal employees boasted of having family on the other side of the border and blamed the carnage that took many of their relatives’ lives on the Islamic State terror group.

“The violence is sickening. We are against it now too. Be it from Iran or from Israel,” Na’eem asserted.

Four miles further north in the larger Druze village of Majdal Shams, the divergence from the atmospheres in the nearby kibbutzim war further apparent.

Majdal Shams Local Council chairman Shai Weiner. (Courtesy)

The town’s local council chairman Shai Weiner explained that unlike their Jewish neighbors, the Syrian Druze do not serve in the army and are therefore less familiar coping with the outbreak of conflict.

“Even though there were no direct hits in Majdal Shams either, the noise was much more scarring for many of the residents, and not just because it lasted longer than what those in the kibbutzim heard,” he said.

Weiner is not a resident of the Druze village but was tasked in January with representing the town as part of a High Court decision ordering Majdal Shams to hold its first municipal elections in October.

Residents of the village praised the work the interim council chairman has done in the short time since taking office to improve access to bomb shelters.

Weiner said that construction of additional shelters in schools was underway, providing an alternative solution to the roughly 25% of residents in the village of 10,000 who do not have a protective room in their homes.

Similar to Mas’ade, the streets of Majdal Shams were largely empty Thursday afternoon.

Israeli Druze from the village of Majdal Shams attend a demonstration in support of their Syrian Druze brothers on June 15, 2105. (Jule Gamal/Flash90)

Where residents of the kibbutzim made a point of projecting normalcy, the Druze villagers did not appear to have the same motivations.

Weiner said that he believed the town would return to its characteristic liveliness by the end of the weekend.

“People are still more hesitant to go outside for the next couple days,” he said, “but don’t forget that most of them didn’t sleep at all last night.”

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