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The GW Hatchet

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GW students in Israel learn to live under rocket fire and wailing sirens

The Israeli Defense Force salutes. Photo courtesy of Tomer Canaan
Troops in the Israeli Defense Force salute during a military ceremony. Photo courtesy of Tomer Canaan.
Updated: July 21, 2014 at 9:05 a.m.

When two GW students boarded planes to Israel at the beginning of the summer, neither gave much thought to whether they would find themselves in the line of rocket fire a month later.

But as the conflict between Israel and Hamas escalated, juniors Tomer Canaan and Samantha Beck have both heard air raid sirens that have sent them running for cover as rockets tear through the sky. Over the past week, Israel and Hamas have traded rockets and missiles, leading to two Israeli deaths and hundreds of Palestinian casualties.

They are just two of the six students who are registered with GW’s Office of International Programs as located in Israel. Nine others are in the West Bank this summer, and the University has not made plans to evacuate any of the students from the region.

Canaan, who is originally from Israel but now lives in New Haven, Conn., spent the month of June in a cultural immersion program in a village in the Galilee region, but has spent the last few weeks visiting family about 30 minutes south of Tel Aviv.

The first time he heard the sirens, Canaan said he thought it was coming from the television or a ringing phone, but his father told him it was a rocket siren, and the pair realized they weren’t near a bomb shelter.

“We are essentially sitting ducks in this case. If a rocket were to fall on our roof, there would be nowhere to hide,” he said in an email. “Unlike what is shown in international media outlets, Israeli bomb shelters are common, but not common enough that every civilian has access to a nearby shelter.”

And while Beck is studying in Jerusalem, further from the Gaza Strip, she has also had to rush to bomb shelters – twice in one hour last weekend, she said. Hamas fired several long-range rockets that were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system above Jerusalem.

A decommissioned Israeli tank on a hilltop overlooking the West Bank. Jeremy Diamond | Hatchet Photographer
A decommissioned Israeli tank sits on a hilltop overlooking the West Bank. Jeremy Diamond | Hatchet Staff Photographer

During some of the Hamas strikes, Canaan said he watched from the balcony of his family’s home as the Iron Dome missiles stopped the rockets.

While the defense system has kept the civilian casualty count in Israel at just one, Canaan said the rockets have had a serious psychological impact.

“Countless times I was awoken by rockets and I panicked and began sweating profusely,” he said. “The sirens and explosions do not make you feel safe, even if the Iron Dome system is shooting down rockets.”

Beck said she was inspired by how Israel came together as a nation after three kidnapped teenage boys were found dead about three weeks ago.

When Hamas began firing a daily barrage of rockets, Beck said she was “scared of the unknown,” but felt more confident after seeing how well-prepared the country was for the conflict.

She witnessed that readiness when sirens sounded as she was traveling on Jerusalem’s light rail. Soldiers instructed passengers to exit the train, lay on the ground and cover their heads.

Beck said her time in Israel has been eye-opening, as she has watched people carry on with their daily lives as Israel and Hamas trade fire. But living in Jerusalem, she doesn’t feel as threatened as those living near the Gaza Strip, where civilians have 15 seconds to get to a bomb shelter.

“They live with this notion every day, and it’s sad to think that it’s normal for them,” she said.

Canaan plans to return to the U.S. on Friday, but Beck will stay in Jerusalem for another month.

This post was updated to reflect the following correction:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that Tomer Canaan is from New Canaan, Conn. He is from New Haven, Conn. We regret this error.

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