9.1
October 9, 2023

How 30 Minutes & a WhatsApp Message kept me from Being in Israel on October 7th.

being in Israel

I was supposed to be in Israel on the morning of October 7, 2023.

I was sitting on a plane at Dubai Airport for my 9:50 a.m. Flydubai flight to Tel Aviv. Call it good luck, karma, or just sheer coincidence (as an agnostic, this is what I believe it to be) but I did not fly to Tel Aviv that day and avoided traveling to Israel by a mere 30 minutes—literally.

Let me back up and give you a little more context before I get to what happened on the morning of October 7. Or, in this case, and thankfully for me, what did not happen.

At this stage in my life, I consider myself a bit of a veteran traveller. I have no idea how many cities and towns I have visited all over the world but the last time I checked, Israel would have been my 47th country, had I made it there.

People generally seem to throw around the phrase “bucket list” a little too easily these days (myself included) but on my ultimate bucket list—the granddaddy of all bucket lists—there are two things I’ve always wanted to do and haven’t been able to yet:

1. See the aurora borealis (the Northern Lights). I’ve traveled the lengths and breadths of Iceland, Norway, Finland, Estonia, and Denmark, you name it, and I’ve tried my luck to find it. But the aurora continues to elude me. Next stop: Alaska!

2. Go to Israel. I read a book called Exodus when I was a teenager. In it, author Leon Uris traces the birth of modern Israel. The book isn’t literary fiction, it’s a historical novel, more of a “pick up and read at the airport” variety. But it shook me and touched a deep part of my heart in a way that few books or art of any kind ever have. And since I read it, going to Israel, especially Jerusalem and Bethlehem, has been a part of my being. It’s a deep yearning, an ache in my heart that I wanted to fulfill for many, many years.

Given the extremely sensitive nature of the Israel-Palestine situation, I never thought there’d be a day when going to Israel was even a possibility for me. This is particularly true since as an Indian citizen, whose government has historically aligned itself with the Palestinian cause, for the longest time Indians simply weren’t allowed to visit Israel.

But over the past decade or so, the situation in Israel seemed to have settled a bit. The last big war between Palestine and Israel was in 2014, and since then things have appeared relatively calm. During this time, Israel had even started to open itself to tourists.

So, imagine my ecstasy when a few years back Israel started to allow Indians to visit as tourists. After many false starts, I was finally able to be in the right country at the right time and finally booked myself as part of a “Women’s Only” tour group to Israel between October 7 and October 15 of this year.

The day I got my passport back from the Israeli embassy with my visa stamp, I had a goofy grin on my face for 24 straight hours. Just getting the sticker visa on my passport was such a massive step toward realizing my childhood dream. I repeatedly told myself, “The aurora may have slipped by you but Israel is sooo happening for you, Roopa.”

To say I was excited and enthralled when I made my way to Dubai Airport at 6 a.m., Israel time, is one of the ultimate understatements of the year. I was probably the first person to check into my flight, clear immigration and security, find my gate, and park myself to wait. An hour later, we boarded the flight. It was around 9:45 a.m. then, and although the flight was supposed to take off at 9:50, I didn’t overthink the fact that we started boarding five minutes before since almost all airlines these days overestimate their arrival time, that way they’re always “on time.”

The other passengers and I happily made our way inside the plane and took our seats. A young woman requested me to exchange seats with her since she and her husband were sitting separately, and I was thinking of ways to kindly say no since her husband was in a middle seat and I had paid extra money for my aisle seat. During this tete-a-tete, I was about to turn my phone to airplane mode when my WhatsApp pinged.

I almost didn’t check the message. I thought, “What could be so urgent, Roopa­? Just wait till you get to Tel Aviv and then check it!” But I decided to check anyway. It was from my tour operator, and the message said:

“Hi everyone. Just now read the news about the war situation. It’s an emergency situation—please don’t board your flight to Tel aviv if you’re about to. Please take a flight back to India.”

For a second, I thought I was being punked. Apart from some intermittent scuffles, the past decade had seemed so quiet that for a second I forgot the gravity of the Israel-Palestine situation and how things can turn on a dime there. It took me a moment to process what my tour agent was saying; then I regrouped, went on CNN.com, and realized that the first rocket was launched by Hamas from Gaza a mere 30 minutes before my flight was scheduled to take off.

Interestingly, there was an Emirates flight that left Dubai at 8:15 a.m. I remember almost booking my passage on that flight, but I decided not to because I would arrive way too early at the Tel Aviv airport where I was to meet the rest of my group mates and our local Israeli guide.

It was between the 8:15 flight and the 9:50 flight that one of the bloodiest wars between Israel and Palestine broke out.

Following my tour agent’s advice, I got off the plane. I didn’t return to India but decided to stay put in Dubai for a few more days. I did, thankfully, get off the plane.

But when I think back to that moment, I am still so shook up and stunned. I keep thinking I genuinely must’ve done something good in my life because it seemed like so many energies worked in my favor on October 7.

If the first rocket had been launched 30 minutes later, I would have been on my way to Tel Aviv, and who even knows what would’ve happened once I got there. When I read the nightmare stories of Hamas kidnapping and killing locals and foreigners, my entire body starts to shudder at what could’ve happened to me.

My heart breaks at what is happening in Israel. And as much as my ultimate bucket list continues to remain unfulfilled, I am so grateful for whatever good fortune it was that saved me from making that trip to the Holy Land.

Unfortunately, I think the possibility of my visiting Israel is gone. The suddenness of Hamas’ attack on Israel and the fact that the most sophisticated military organization in the world had no clue that an attack of this magnitude was imminent on their soil makes me incredibly nervous moving forward. Not to mention that my family and friends would probably hold me down themselves if I even brought up the idea of visiting Israel again.

Putting aside my own almost-perilous situation and the horror of what could’ve happened had my plane taken off on October 7, my heart bleeds for the people of Israel. And while this is understandably a touchy subject for most around the world, my heart also bleeds for Palestinians and the harrowing life they lead on an average day, especially those who live in Gaza. No one should have to live the way they’re forced to live.

I hope that in a world that is only too eager to fight and go to war, there would be space for dialogue and peace. It’s probably a ridiculous and naïve sentiment to hope for, but that’s what I am going to do. Because something good and positive happened to me on October 7, so I’m going to throw the same positivity out into the world and, hopefully, a minuscule part of it will stick.

Till then, I pray for Israelis and Palestinians and for everyone caught in a conflict-zone.

God Speed.

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