Behind the Headlines: a New Daily Ritual in Tel Aviv: Leaving Home As Darkness Nears

Gas masks and sealed rooms are bad enough; even worse is being stuck in a mile-long traffic jam when the air raid sirens go off.

The Thursday afternoon traffic was even worse than earlier in the week. The new Tel Aviv-Haifa road was filled with cars moving slowly when all of a sudden the music on the radio stopped and the now familiar short beeps, followed by the civil defense code “Poisonous Snake,” was heard.

From the looks on the faces of the people in the car next to us, it was the first time for them, too. This was different. What do you do? Do you put on your gas mask and continue driving in order to escape the area where today’s missile might land? Or do you put on your gas mask, sit by the roadside and wait for further instructions from Nachman Shai, the IDF spokesman?

As it was, Shai, nicknamed “the national valium,” cleared the different areas relatively quickly, and after 15 minutes only the people in one area were still ordered to remain with their gas masks on and in their sealed rooms. That was “Area Heh,” stretching from Tel Aviv to Hadera, including Netanya, to where many of the Tel Avivians have escaped.

Driving north in the gas mask, it seemed that a majority of fellow travelers chose to do the same. Although most of the drivers and passengers did wear their gas masks, there were also some typical Israeli “macho heroes” who chose to ignore the civil defense and IDF instructions and continued driving with open windows, laughing at those who wore their masks.

PREVENTING TRAFFIC JAMS

The one Scud missile fired from western Iraq at 6 p.m. Thursday landed in the West Bank, and according to the IDF spokesman, no injuries or damage had been reported.

Because of the early hour of Thursday’s missile, it is believed that the civil defense authorities will speed up their all-clear orders in order to prevent the huge traffic jams on the outskirts of Tel Aviv in the afternoon, as well as the opposite flow of traffic in the morning.

At a meeting Wednesday afternoon in Tel Aviv, officials from the Transport Ministry, civil defense and the Tel Aviv municipality decided that only cars carrying three or more passengers will be allowed into Tel Aviv. According to the officials, this will help the now dangerous situation on the road.

However, this decision will most certainly pose a serious problem for the tens of thousands of Tel Aviv residents who have temporarily taken residence north of their city.

According to the officials, there will be large parking lots available at several spots north of Tel Aviv, from where public transportation will be organized.

But what if you have a dog you can’t leave in your temporary home in Herzliya, Netanya or Hadera? What if your job demands that you use your car in Tel Aviv during the day, and you don’t know anyone who would travel with you to Tel Aviv in order to fill up the quota?

This future restriction is believed by many Tel Avivians to be a desperate attempt by Tel Aviv Mayor Shlomo “Chich” Lahat to lure his escaping residents back to the city, which until the missile attacks used to boost itself as “the city that doesn’t sleep.”

Lahat, who received severe criticism for his outspoken attack on the “deserters,” as he called them, has refused to accept any reasons given for moving out from what seems to be Saddam Hussein’s main target.

However, most of the Tel Aviv residents who indeed have “run away” from their city simply ignore their mayor’s comments. There are not many people who are prepared to be “sitting ducks” if they can prevent it.

The routine usually goes like this: You call your relatives in cities such as Hadera, Yavne, Herzliya and Netanya to see if they’ll be home, and then, grabbing your overnight bag, you, as well as tens of thousands of others, leave Tel Aviv as early as possible in the afternoon.

Maybe it is cowardice. Maybe it is “deserting.” But as long as the missiles keep whizzing over the country, and Hussein continues threatening with chemical and biological warfare, thus preventing the usage of shelters, then most Israelis do what they fell they must.

Spending two hours on the road in each direction, driving from Netanya to Tel Aviv, is not fun, especially when you know that this trip usually takes less than an hour. But if this is what it takes to prevent yourself and your family from being hit by the missiles, than this is what you do.

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