Tel Aviv: a city paralysed
Tel Aviv felt as if someone had pulled the plug. On Friday (07.10.) life was still raging here. For many of the approximately 500,000 locals and for thousands of tourists from all over the world, life was idyllic on that day.
The mood was exuberant: the air was a warm 27 degrees Celsius, people were sunbathing on the beach or strolling along the promenade. Many were chilling to live music in one of the casual beach bars. I let myself be carried away on a wave of good vibes. I had arrived from Berlin the previous evening together with my husband.
Wherever we went on Friday, the atmosphere was super relaxed, people were welcoming – it was obvious no-one had any idea what atrocities were being prepared just 60 kilometres to the south.
As the sun sets over the metropolis, many a busy street becomes a night-time promenade. It is precisely this "vibe" that everyone loves about Tel Aviv: those who live here, as well as those who are just visiting to recharge their batteries.
Then it's all over. Suddenly. Saturday morning, half past six: people across the city were woken by sirens. For most of those who live here, no reason to worry. Missile alarms are normal and the missile defence shield "Iron Dome" is considered almost impenetrable. And most tourists in the city simply turned over again in their hotel beds.
For they too knew the score: missiles are shot down before they reach Tel Aviv. It is not the explosive power of the missiles that is dangerous, but the parts that fall from the sky when the missiles are shot down by the missile defence system. Why should I worry about that in my warm hotel bed?
Not long after, I was convinced otherwise: an extremely loud report, like a clap of thunder, the walls of the hotel room shook. It didn't sound at all as if the rockets were being fired far from the city. I sought shelter in a bunker for the first time in my life. Yet everyone seemed pretty relaxed. Still.
The mood changes
The mood changed as the first reports spread around eight o'clock: The missile defence system had not repelled all the attacks, not in Tel Aviv and especially not further south. There were reports of casualties, even deaths. Worse still, Hamas terrorists from the Gaza Strip were said to have taken hostages on Israeli territory.
From now on, the mood in Tel Aviv was paralysed, as if someone had turned off the lights. The only places open on this day were those that had already started working before the news of the horror broke: breakfast cafes frequented primarily by tourists.
The two waiters serving breakfast were concerned: one could not reach her father-in-law, who was travelling near the Gaza Strip. The other took the precaution of warning guests: "If there really is another attack, the shelter is over there in the building next door." She said it in a tone of "could be, but it's unlikely". But she, like almost everyone in town, underestimated how much this day would end up shaking the country to its foundations.
Only gradually did people become aware of the full extent of the terrorist attacks. While people were still booking massages at the reception desk of my boutique hotel in the morning, an increasing number of people were dying 60 kilometres further south. What was worse: it just continued.
The reports were coming in thick and fast: more and more dead, more and more hostages, more and more places said to be occupied by Hamas terrorists. The full extent of the violence was not yet known.
Military helicopters flew incessantly over Tel Aviv. Down in the streets there was yawning emptiness. Hardly anyone dared to leave their house, for fear that the terrorists might have reached Tel Aviv by now and be taking hostages there as well.
There were hardly any taxis, the bars and restaurants remained closed, and only a handful of supermarkets dared open their doors. The beach, populated by thousands the day before, was deserted. The police had cordoned off the entire coastline; no one was allowed into the sea.
Hundreds of heavily armed police officers stood on the beach promenade or sat at the tables of closed restaurants, where yesterday the mood had been celebratory. Their eyes scanned the sea – from whence an attack might come, bringing terror to Tel Aviv. The swimming ban created a clear field of fire for the police. In Tel Aviv, fear continued to spread.
The reality of violence
In our boutique hotel, the massage therapist failed to show up for work because the taxis weren't running. Just like the bartender. The receptionists, concerned but not yet shaken, unceremoniously opened a few bottles of wine, put them on ice and invited the guests to help themselves at the pool bar. Free of charge. Tel Aviv rocks, even when rockets are hitting the centre of the city.
But even here, on the roof terrace of the luxury hotel, reality couldn't be ignored forever. By nightfall, the ice cubes had melted, the wine was warm and the last remaining receptionist was now in serious trouble: as of 8 pm, there were rocket alarms every ten minutes.
She had to keep moving the tourists in the building into the bunker in the third basement. How many tourists were actually still there? Who had already left? Had everyone heard the latest alarm? It was chaos. What remained was the unbelievable professionalism of the receptionist, who was used to sending people to the shelters when the sirens sounded. For all the routine, however, her fear by now was palpable.
Just get out
The receptionist chatted with her friends and relatives in the bunker of our luxury hotel, worried about whether everyone was alive, whether someone had been kidnapped, and who was being sent to war as a reservist that night.
And all the tourists were trying to book flights. Everyone wanted to get out, out of the bunker, out of Israel, as fast as they could. As do we. But about a third of the flights were cancelled and the airlines' booking sites hopelessly overwhelmed by the mass rush for tickets. Those who could find a taxi driver drove to the airport and tried their luck on the spot.
Anywhere was better than the city, which until a day ago had been a paradise for those seeking an escapist lifestyle. But almost everything was booked out. At midnight, I managed to book a flight to Crete with an airline I'd never heard of.
Six hours later, the receptionist from yesterday was still there. She had had no sleep and was at the end of her tether. She gave us biscuits for breakfast – because the cafes were not open on Sunday – and even got us a taxi, which we shared with other hotel guests.
At the airport it soon became clear: the flight to Crete had been cancelled. The flight to Dubai of a fellow passenger in the taxi was overbooked. Together with hundreds of other tourists, we stood for a long time in front of the large monitor wall with boarding data and tried to book every single departure on the airlines' websites. It seemed hopeless, the earliest departure was often not for three days.
After an hour, I managed to get hold of two of the last tickets for a flight to Budapest in three hours. I didn't care about the price. The main thing was to get out. What really infuriated me later, however, was that all the tickets had been sold, but around 60 percent of the seats on the plane were empty.
Many passengers had either not made it to the airport or they had already flown earlier. And since the low-cost airline offered neither the possibility to cancel nor standby lists, where all free seats could have been given to waiting passengers shortly before departure, we took off in a somewhat empty, but almost fully booked flight to Hungary.
© Deutsche Welle/Qantara.de 2023