JERUSALEM - When the incoming missile attack siren sounded I was paralyzed. Some 50 feet from the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, the world's holiest site for Jews, I was in the middle of a mass stampede of men, clutching their various religious possessions, Bibles, prayer shawls and many-colored kipas on their heads, rushing by me at high speed.
From somewhere a warning in Hebrew boomed through the wide plaza in front of the Wall, its incomprehensible message (to me) sounding the alarm. I started to ask frantically "do you speak English?" From fast negative shakes of the head to the panicked looks of people trying to madly rush away, I could not get an answer or really understand what was happening.
Finally I approached a group of four kids, teenagers who had come for Friday prayers. I asked the first, "do you speak English"? He said no. His friend, however, looked at me as if I were an alien, wearing a white yarmulke given to me by a guard at the entry to the holy site, my bright red wind-breaker open and flapping in the cool breeze, and he said "Hamas, boom, boom."
But even then my brain did not process what was going on.
While most people were running away from the Wall, towards what I later learned are the bomb shelters in the colonnade that lines one side of the wide plaza, another group of men, in what I can only interpret as defiance, were running towards the Wall. Across the Jerusalem-stone lined ground, a cacophony of sirens, disembodied ominous warnings through loudspeakers, people screaming and religious men chanting their prayers, reverberated under, over and through me.
But, still, some very American part of me stood still in the middle of the maelstrom. In retrospect, my flight instincts have been severely dulled by the relative placid existence of living in a country like the United States, a country for which for millions of people terrorism is but an abstraction.
And then the dam broke. The plaza before the Wailing Wall is divided by perpendicular barriers separating the men from the women. Suddenly the barrier was opened by Israeli soldiers, and a similar stampede of women, their heads covered with black, blue, white and many other colored scarfs, rushed forward. They ran in my direction, many with children in their arms or being pulled by their hands, towards the shelters.
A strangely calm line of Israeli soldiers, both men and women carrying automatic weapons and dressed in deep olive colored uniforms, encouraged the movement of everyone still standing in the open space by forming a fast moving line, sweeping across and urging us towards the shelters.
I joined the river of humanity that was now flowing away from the Wall and entered the bomb shelter under an arch that was the opening to a long tunnel, now filled with people. Having been one of the last people to reach the shelter, I stood at the entrance, not inside and not outside.
Finally a voice in English announced, "This is the Israeli Police. The siren you're hearing," and here I was sure the man speaking would say "has been a drill," like the voice that comes through your TV set when the emergency broadcasting system beep is piped through your television.
"This is the Israeli Police. The siren you're hearing is real. Take cover."
Immediately to my left, a young woman wearing a light-blue scarf on her head clutched a baby, a few months old judging by his little body, while she weeped and closed her eyes. Behind me, I could see people crowded into the shelter, standing close to each other like passengers in the New York subway at rush hour. Men and women rushing by me and pushing behind me into the shelter, would shout names, frantically looking for their spouse or child or friend that had been separated during the mass exodus from the plaza.
Another warning, "This is the Israeli Police. The siren you're hearing is real. Take cover." A group of young people, standing under a nearby arch started singing -- I don't know what was the song, but the tone was unmistakable -- defiance. Further down from the arch that sheltered me, there was a regrouping of black-clad men, their beards long and prayer shawls over their heads, as they began the rhythmic rocking of Jewish prayer.
A woman collapsed a few feet from me -- a panic attack perhaps -- and she was immediately surrounded by a group of strangers, picking her up and speaking to her, one woman put a bottle of water to her lips, even as they carried her into one of the shelters.
Israeli soldiers seemed to be everywhere, both watching the crowd and scanning the plaza for stragglers or perhaps some terrorist that would punctuate the night by detonating a suicide-bomb.
And then, as quickly as it all began, the siren stopped.
For a moment all I could hear was the sound of both men and women crying, children who had been frightened into hysteria being comforted by their fathers and mothers, the singers sang louder and shook their fists at the sky. The men praying continued their rocking prayers, seemingly in a trance.
Soldiers started to wave at us to come out of the shelter. Speaking in Hebrew words I could not understand, calmly and gesturing with their hands for us to move back into the open plaza. Within a few minutes, the area immediately in from of the Wailing Wall was full of men praying, some covered with shawls and wearing 19th century style long black coats, others in modern clothes, their kipa and Bibles as the symbols of reverence.
Like the moment when the siren started, I stood motionless as thousands of people flowed across the plaza, the voices of thousands merging together, sharing shock, fear, relief with their companions.
My last memory of that night was the moment a friend found me -- I was standing on a step near the arch of the bomb shelter. He had frantically been searching for me among the thousands of people at the Wall after we got separated during the attack.
Fortified by a stiff whiskey, or two, he later told me that he only saw me in the chaotic crowd of thousands because I was wearing a red jacket, my protection from the crisp air of the early Jerusalem winter night.
The two Hamas rockets that triggered the siren missed Jerusalem, landing very near a Palestinian village in the West Bank, just over the border. Reportedly, no one was hurt.
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