Ronen Gan-El was on the way to drop his son off at his Brussels school when he found out about Tuesday morning’s explosion in the airport and metro, which left 14 dead and scores injured.
“I actually heard about it from someone in Israel. My wife’s mom called and said, ‘Listen, there’s been an attack at the airport,'” Gan-El told The Times of Israel over the phone. “I thought she meant the Israeli airport.”
Eventually he realized the attack had occurred in Zavantem, just a few miles away, on the outskirts of the city that has been Gan-El’s home for the past three years.
The next attack struck even closer, he said.
“The second hit in a metro station called Maalbeek, which is pretty close to the European Union where my wife works,” Gan-El said. “We were lucky, my wife missed the metro today.”
When he heard where the second attack had occurred, Gan-El had already made it to work after leaving his son at kindergarten.
“I ran like crazy,” he said. “I’m from Sderot, I’m from the south. I have enough experience with terror, but even I was scared. I ran like crazy to get my wife from a metro station. And I just took her home.”
The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks.
“Soldiers of the caliphate… carried out an attack targeting the crusader state of Belgium, which is fighting Islam and its people,” the group said in a statement posted online. “We promise the nations of crusaders that are allied against the Islamic State that dark days lie ahead, in response to their aggression against our State… what awaits you will be harder and more bitter, with Allah’s permission.”
Local media was reporting a total of 34 dead — 14 in two bomb blasts in the departure terminal of the airport and 20 more in the second explosion a short while later at the metro station. Dozens were injured in both incidents.
The public transport system in the city was shut down in the wake of the blasts, which authorities quickly categorized as terror attacks.
At first the Jewish schools in Belgium were put on lockdown, keeping the children within the buildings, but eventually they instructed parents to come pick up their kids and take them home.
For Gan-El, an Israeli emissary who has worked in the Brussels Jewish community as a Hebrew teacher for several years, the attack did not come as a surprise.
“It was clear that they wanted to do something big. We actually had two professional [security officers] come in last week and say, ‘Look, you have to be careful. They are planning, they are planning,'” Gan-El said.
The Belgian government also indicated that there had been signs that a terrorist attack in Brussels was imminent.
Saleh Abdeslam, one of the planners of November’s devastating terror attacks in Paris, was arrested four days ago in Belgium. He reportedly told his interrogators that a terror cell in the country was prepared to carry out an attack.
Abdeslam told investigators “he was ready to restart something in Brussels… we have found a lot of weapons, heavy weapons, in the first investigations and we have found a new network around him in Brussels,” Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders told AFP on Tuesday.
Those apparent intelligence failures, and what travelers described to the BBC as a “confused” response by the police after the airport bombings, did not leave an impression of security or safety on Gan-El.
“We can’t trust the authorities here,” he said. “This is a new thing for them. They react hysterically. They have no idea what’s going on. You see the cops are very agitated, the soldiers are very agitated. You feel like they don’t know what to do.”
As a result of those fears, the Belgian Jewish community has already canceled many of its plans for the upcoming Purim holiday, the progressive International Jewish Community announced on Tuesday.
“We all grieve — for the deaths, the loss and the pain — but also for our sense of safety and security. With everything that has happened, the IJC is cancelling its Purim event, which was planned for tomorrow night,” the community said in a statement.
“It is not a time for risk and certainly not for celebration. For the moment, we are still planning on coming together for Shabbat. As we figure out what is the best way forward, in consultation with security experts and the authorities, we will let you all know,” the IJC said.
Some in the Jewish community saw echoes of the 2014 terror attack on the Belgian Jewish Museum, in which four people were killed by 29-year-old French-Algerian Mehdi Nemmouche.
“What began with the jihadist fatal attack on the Jewish Museum nearly two years ago has now reached the airport and metro,” Kenneth Bandler, director of media relations for the American Jewish Committee, wrote in an email about the Tuesday morning attacks in Brussels.
“This is yet another shocking, appalling and deadly attack on innocent Europeans by radical terrorists,” European Jewish Congress President Moshe Kantor said in a statement.
Gan-El was born in Belgium but lived almost his entire life in Israel. His wife and son are Israeli-born, but his daughter was born in Brussels.
“It feels like the (Belgian) government doesn’t know what to do, and that’s really scary,” he said.
“It’s really frustrating because I have kids here. Who will defend them? Me?” he asked.
The young father and his family came to Belgium for the work opportunity and chance to contribute to the Jewish community, but the attacks and wanting response by the government are driving Gan-El to reconsider his living situation, he said.
“We are thinking about coming back, if things continue as they are,” Gan-El said.