I have already been to Israel a couple of times before and it was at the top of my bucket list to take my family there and show them all the major sights where the stories of the Bible unfolded. For the past two years I have been planning and saving to take my family to Israel. Actually, it was my wife, an ex-travel consultant, who returned to paid employment who did most of the planning and paying.
My three children are 8, 12 and 14 years of age and I have just celebrated turning 50 so it seemed like the right time to go. We also have good friends who live in Jerusalem who we wanted to see and were able to stay with, which was also another motivating factor to go.
For the first week we were in Israel, and thanks to our friends David and Amy and their five children, we were able to fulfil so much of what I had planned for us to do.
It was the Jewish feast of Tabernacles so it was holiday time which meant everything was extra busy with a festival atmosphere. We spent two solid days in Jerusalem, along with all the other festival goers, walking around the old city, seeing Herod’s original temple stones, seeing the garden tomb and Golgotha, walking through Hezekiah’s tunnel, walking through the original streets (which are underground), going through the excavations of King David’s city and even seeing the original dead sea scrolls of God’s Word along with other ancient artefacts from over 4000 years ago.
We then spent three days up north in Tiberius where we swam in the Sea of Galilee, walked through Capernaum and the Mount of Beatitudes, and checked out the Jordan River. We returned to Jerusalem on Friday evening, 6 October, looking forward to celebrating Shabbat (Saturday) with our friends at their church, but sadly this never came about.
A surprise attack
Early on Saturday morning I was on the rooftop (upper room) of our friends' house, which is in the hills of Judea on the edge of Jerusalem overlooking the valley leading to the Mediterranean Sea. David, the friend whose house we were staying at, came up to say he had received a warning alert on his phone that rockets had been fired from Gaza and to be on standby.
I woke up the family and gently told them that we need to be up and ready to go to the bomb shelter if needed, but no panic. This was no surprise to my family as we had already been introduced to the family bomb shelter when we first arrived and knew that rockets being fired at Israel was not an uncommon thing.
It was then that we noticed some distant rumbling. A few minutes later David came back to us and said we needed to get downstairs as it looked like a rocket strike in our area was imminent. Immediately we heard loud bangs and the neighbourhood siren went off which was to alert us that we had one minute to get to shelter before impact. It was now time to get a move on.
My wife Jodie was in the shower in our upstairs room but thankfully, dripping wet and covered in towels, she, and the rest of us made it to the bomb shelter in time. Not long after closing the door we felt the ground shake and heard more rumbling. It is recommended to wait for 10 minutes from the time of the alert so while we were all together in the small room we held hands and prayed to God for His safety. I was not fearful and hopefully this rubbed off on my family as no one seemed to be upset, not yet anyway.
After 10 minutes of reverent prayer and praise together we emerged and saw up in the sky that the Iron Dome system had exploded a rocket high above the house. You could see the plume of smoke where it exploded and the white trail of the rocket and anti-missile. There was constant rumbling now and it only felt like a few minutes before the siren went off again. This time we felt some more rumbling as the rockets were again intercepted in the sky. The sky was now full of rocket trails.
We had a few more trips to the bomb shelter that morning but thankfully we only had one close call. As we gathered for more prayer and praise in the bomb shelter, the ground shook quite violently and it thundered loudly. We all knew this rocket had landed close. When we emerged, we saw a fire had started about 250 meters away in a vineyard which was where the rocket had landed. Our friends' house, despite being in Israeli territory and on the outskirts of Jerusalem, was right on the border with the West Bank, which had me very concerned. The fire was out of control for a short time which had us wondering if we needed to evacuate but thankfully after two attempts a couple of fire trucks put it out.
For the rest of the day, we had no more sirens in our street but we could tell by the rumbles and plumes of smoke rising from the valley floor that there was still a lot happening. We could see everything that was happening between Gaza and Tel Aviv, which was our view from the house. Gaza was about 60km away but obscured by a hill, but we could see Ashkelon and Ashdod which were about 40km away.
I spent most of the day on watch, as much gunfire over previous nights had been heard coming from the neighbouring village in the West Bank and this had me on edge.
When evening came, we could see the explosions of the rockets light up the sky as they were intercepted by the Iron Dome. Thankfully most of the fires in the valley had been put out but the sky was now full of the sound of fighter jets and large army helicopters.
For the next two days the sky was dominated by the Israeli Airforce and the rumbling continued, but this time it was Israel's military targeting Gaza.
Our friends knew many people who were called up to join the army. They literally had to drop everything and head to their assigned positions and many of them were still on holiday. We had a couple come and stay at the house with us who were relatives of David. Thankfully the husband had a pistol. There was also a group of 18 soldiers who were assigned to our village and they worked around the clock checking the border and driving through the streets. However, we still formed a night watch and took turns keeping an eye out through the night.
Over the next two days, while lots was still happening, our village remained quite peaceful. David was able to go to work in Natanya and we were able to help Amy with preparing food parcels for soldiers through David and Amy’s work, which is a Christian ministry called One for Israel. One for Israel is a group of Jews and Arabs who follow Jesus as the Messiah, and share the gospel with all people in Israel.
Outside of Jerusalem
Our original plans were to head down to the Red Sea for a few days. This was the safest place to be in Israel at the time so we decided to go, mainly so our host family didn’t have to worry about us.
Thankfully, during our week in Israel, only one rogue terrorist had been apprehended in our area who had likely come across from the West Bank. There was no report they caused any harm.
While we were in Eilat, next to the Red Sea, we heard news from David that all Israel had been told to stay put near their bomb shelters for 72 hours while the Israeli army surrounded Gaza.
David and family had also received more rocket fire in their area. One rocket damaging a home in the street behind them and another in the neighbouring Arab village. Both had caused serious injuries but no deaths.
David and Amy were able to host two Arab families who had no shelter to go to. They also carried on their work of helping provide care packs for soldiers. They also developed closer friendships with their neighbours who appeared to be very upset and they all started a neighbourhood watch together. They also received a cyber-attack which sent an alert to people’s phones saying that Lebanese terrorists had landed in the area and to stay locked up in their homes. This caused great distress for all involved, even after it was found to be a hoax.
We stayed three nights in Eilat, longer than we hoped but this seemed to be the right decision. We were able to swim in the Dead Sea, the Red Sea and the hotel swimming pool, and go out for meals which still made it feel like a holiday for the kids. They were still having great fun even if the parents were a bit apprehensive!
Our flights out of Israel were cancelled. Jodie was able to organise new flights with our travel agent in New Zealand but these were also cancelled.
We then heard from the New Zealand Consulate and they had organised seats on a flight just for New Zealanders to escape the conflict. Jodie had us booked on the flight that left the following day. By this time, we had travelled further up to a hotel on the Dead Sea, which was much closer to Jerusalem so we could make a last-minute dash for the airport in our rental car.
While at the hotel Jodie was able to talk to a man, who was one of many, who had been evacuated there after most of his village had been killed by the Hamas terrorists. He was just relieved to talk to her in English.
The next day we got up early and travelled from the Dead Sea to our friend’s house in Jerusalem, but Jodie’s phone map navigation took us down a wrong turn. We noticed we were on the wrong side of the large wall separating Israel from the West Bank. The contrast was stark, with roads with potholes and stray dogs and rubbish littered everywhere. Ignoring the navigation instructions we did a quick u-turn and were back through the right checkpoint.
We only had an hour or so to collect our belongings, pack our bags and say goodbye to our friends. This was an emotional time as we had to leave our dear friends in such bad circumstances. I would have loved to stay and help, but the window of opportunity to leave was such an incredible blessing that we had to take it. I really did not think we were going to be able to leave for quite some time.
Our trip to the airport was without incident. The flight, which was subsidised in part by the New Zealand Consulate, took us to Abu Dhabi. As we left the tarmac people clapped. We found out later that only two hours after we left there was more rocket fire in the area.
From Abu Dhabi we had to get a taxi to Dubai and a flight to Hong Kong to finally connect with our original flight plan which took us from Hong Kong to Auckland, and on to Wellington. We worked out that our trip home took a total of 70 hours.
Thank you for your support
While on the flight out of Israel there was no sense of relief because we were sad for our friends and for Israel, but we were amazed that we were able to make it out. I certainly did not think it was possible. Later, once we learned of the prayers and support from not only our church but from many other churches, and from people who do not even know us, we knew it could only be the prayers of the saints that enabled us to fly out.
For us now, we are good and we are glad to have had the incredible experience of going to Israel. But we dearly miss our friends and it is hard knowing there will be much hardships for all involved in the war.
We loved our small opportunity to help prepare care packs and to be there with our friends during this time, praying and seeking God’s comfort and help. Even now, a week later we are still shocked to be home and continually thank God for all the prayers and support we have had.
Stephen Shirley, 23 October 2023.
(Edited for length and clarity).