In 2011, my wife and I were staying with friends in BeerSheva. They had no bomb shelter at that time. At 5:30am, we were startled out of a deep sleep by the loudest alarm I had ever heard. Following the instructions our host gave us the night before, we went to the center of the house, laid down on the floor, feet facing Gaza, covered our heads and started counting. 30 seconds later, we hear a thud as the first rocket landed somewhere nearby. A few seconds later, we heard the second rocket land with a thud. In 2011, rockets reaching as far as BeerSheva were fired off of a truck which had two rockets on them. They fired one, then the other. Then they moved the truck so Israel couldn't find it.
Later that morning, around 9:30am, before the shops were open, my wife and I were walking in the old city of BeerSheva. Another alarm, but no one around to tell us what to do or where to go. We didn't know the direction of Gaza. We were on our own. We spotted a substantial looking wall. Laid down next to it and hoped that it would provide protection. And we counted........one thud and a few seconds later, the other. We were fine. We found out later that one rocket landed about a quarter of a mile from the house where we were staying. One person was severely wounded from the shrapnel.
Three days later we visited Sderot. There they have 15 seconds. Driving the roads, we had one eye looking for bus stops. In 2011, bus stops were built as bomb shelters. We knew if we heard an alarm, we had 15 seconds to stop the car, get out and run for the shelters. We were told that mothers who were driving with two kids in car seats had to stop the car and make a decision as to which kid they would take and which kid they would leave in the car. No one could get both kids out and make it to a shelter in 15 seconds. We visited with a psychologist who works with kids with PTSD from the emotional trauma of the rocket attacks they live with. Tremendous work. Unfortunately needed.
During the 2012 Israel-Gaza conflict, I and Rabbi Cliff Kulwin from Temple B'nai Abraham flew to Israel with games and school supplies for kids in various towns in the Negev under the threat and barrage of rocket attacks. We knew the risks. I also knew that we would have an Israeli driver from the Jewish Agency. Knowing the staff, I knew that one possible driver was the mother of a young child. I was 68 at the time. If I died, that is not so tragic. If, however, my coming to Israel to show solidarity with the people of the Negev and to bring bring toys and games to kids led to the death or injury to a young mother, that would be a tragedy. I did not want to impose that risk on a young mother.
One of our visits was to Askelon. One of the shelters was the basement of a large apartment. Kids up to the age of about 5 yrs. had been inside the basement for about a week straight. The parents thought it would be less traumatic for little kids to stay there all the time than to run in and out every time they heard an alarm. Adults and older kids were often outside, but close to the shelter. When they heard the alarms they could get to the shelter. Each time you hear the alarm, the fear runs through your body. Tough way to live. It takes it's toll emotionally and physically.
We visited other towns over the next few days, including Ofakim. We were in the Community Center when we heard the alarm. I felt panic and fear and started to move quickly. The head of the Community Center told me to slow down. We have time. We all went downstairs to the basement shelter. In a few minutes we were back upstairs and we resumed our meeting.
We spent the evening leading up to the cease fire in Kibbutz Erez. Erez is on the border of Gaza. Many alarms. Many rockets going overhead. The hour before the cease fire was to go into effect, the rockets were shot off every few minutes. Last chance to try to kill an Israeli. The Israelis were countering with cannon fire over our heads into Gaza We were in a safe room listening to all the action. The bomb shelter also doubled as a spare bedroom used primarily by the grand kids when they visited. Fortunately that was my bedroom for the night. No alarms that night thank God.
We flew home the next day. We were emotionally and physically spent by the time we got on the plane. I essentially never get sick. I was sick for almost two weeks after I returned. The stress got to me. And I was only in Israel for about five days. Rabbi Kulwin ended up sick as well.
In 2014, 2000+ rockets have been fired at Israel. Yes, the Iron Dome can knock out 90%. Living with the threat from the other 10% becomes intolerable. Many people can hear an alarm and have bomb shelters. Many like the Bedouin, most other Arabs and many Jews do not. Whether Israelis have a shelter or not, many cannot get to it in time, particularly some of the elderly or in-firmed. Living with the constant threat from rockets or invasion through tunnels is intolerable. We need to stand with all Israelis at this time. Hopefully there will be a lasting ceasefire and all the people in the region will be on a path of lasting peace and prosperity.
Jim and Kala Paul at the Greater MetroWest Israel Solidarity Rally in Whippany
Over the past three weeks, ever since the launching of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, we in the Jewish community have spent a great deal of time helping our friends in New Jersey - Jews and non-Jews alike - understand what is happening on the ground in Gaza. We have provided special phone briefings from our office in Jerusalem, answered questions about various aspects of the operation, and attended rallies throughout the state in support of Israel’s right to self-defense.
Many of us also have relatives in Israel whose safety is constantly on our minds. In my case, I have a daughter who made Aliyah a year ago and is finishing her year of Israeli national service, which consists of working with autistic children. During the last few weeks, my wife and I have fielded daily phone calls from her as she has gone from initial terror at witnessing missiles land within her neighborhood or being shot out of the sky by Iron Dome, to anger at Hamas for causing so much bloodshed. She has attended at least two funerals of fallen IDF soldiers, one of whom was a lone soldier from the US and the other an immigrant from Ethiopia. In both cases, she and others attended to ensure that the soldiers would not be alone as they were laid to rest.
More recently, as the operation has dragged on and the death toll, especially of Palestinian women and children, has risen, I have begun to hear from members of our community who are now being confronted by colleagues, neighbors and friends questioning the validity of Israel’s approach. They are also hearing American news commentators and journalists increasingly condemn Israel for disproportionality or for perpetuating a “cycle of violence” that puts Israel and Hamas on the same moral level.
This Friday, I met with a very thoughtful individual and AJC board member who printed out for me a copy of New York Times columnist Nicolas Kristof’s recent op-ed Who’s Right and Wrong in the Middle East? (Read the op-ed here.) Kristof is an extremely eloquent writer and, as in his other opinion pieces, he approaches the events in Gaza with a critical eye. I found myself agreeing with some of his arguments and certainly with his desire for peace in the Middle East.
On the other hand, I found myself disagreeing with many of his underlying assumptions and even some of his facts. Because of the complexity of the issues related to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, it’s impossible to gloss over or generalize details without distorting the overall picture. While I too sympathize with the loss of innocent life on both sides of the conflict, I can’t help but come to different conclusions about the root causes of the issues and therefore what needs to be done to achieve peace. Below are some of the problematic assertions that Krystof makes followed by my thoughts.
The Palestinians have a right to live in peace in a state of their own. I completely agree with this statement, but Kristof seems to have forgotten that Gaza, as opposed to the other areas conquered by Israel in the Six-Day War, is not under occupation. Israel withdrew its troops and settlers unilaterally in 2005 and Gazans had the opportunity to set up a mini-state with no restrictions. The fact that there is an Israeli blockade of certain goods and materials into Gaza is the result of terror groups firing missiles at Israel. The blockade does not include food, energy, supplies or medicine which Israel allows in on a daily basis. Israel has said on many occasions that if Gaza were to stop its missile attacks on innocent Israeli civilians, it would lift the blockade.
Both sides have plenty of good people who want the best for their children. Yes and no. Although there are extremists on the Israeli side, those individuals take a hard line in terms of security for Israel and don’t advocate the killing of innocents. We have seen that a huge number of Palestinians support or condone terrorist violence as a way to achieve their goals. Israeli society and Judaism in general, on the other hand, have a high regard for human life and terrorism and the killing of innocents is condemned on every level.
Mahmoud Abbas is the best partner for peace that Israel has ever had. This is a mantra that is often repeated, but I sometimes wonder if it is really true. While Abbas has certainly condemned violence as a way of achieving Arab aims, in many respects he is more hard line than Yasser Arafat. Many argue that his negotiating positions are more rigid than Arafat’s and that Israel has truly made concessions for peace while the Palestinians have not budged from their starting positions. It’s hard to make peace if the other side is not prepared to make tough decisions.
Israeli actions are just encouraging more Arab violence. I am not sure what else Israel can do about missiles being lobbed at its population centers. For years, Prime Minister Olmert ignored the rockets that were being lobbed at Israel while he was in office. Despite that inaction, the missiles kept coming, which refutes Kristof’s theory that tempered action will cool things down. Perhaps Kristof is implying that Israel should just learn to live with the missiles without making any effort to respond.
Finally, what Kristof does even mention in his op-ed is probably one of the most important factors: Islamic extremism. I think it is hard for Westerners, especially those used to living in liberal, secular states, to understand the power of religion as a motivator in the Middle East. Kristof, along with many others, most likely believes that rational, thinking human beings will always be able to work out their differences. Any group that is motivated by religious hatred, however, is not prepared to compromise, and it is a mistake to apply Western values and motivations to these extremists. Right now, these groups – Hamas and Islamic Jihad, just to name a few – are calling the shots, and until they no longer rule Gaza, there is no one with whom Israel can sit down and discuss peace.