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Experiencing the Arab/Israel conflict on a personal level

Dave Gordon - Wednesday, 25 July, 2007

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There is war in the Middle East again, and the dailies and weeklies fill us in on whatís going on with Israelís latest battles at the Lebanese front. But few really know about the human toll the fighting is taking. The Jewish Magazine speaks to Israelis, and those who have recently traveled to Israel, to learn more about the effect the current crisis is having on the people in the region. Some stories are ones of fear and frustration, some of hope and optimism; but it is, after all, difficult not to be affected in some way in such a small country.

Jessica Fishman, 25, made aliyah three years ago from Minnesota, served in the IDF for two years, and now working in public relations. "Things are awful here," she says. "There is this heavy atmosphere, less people go out, nobody is smiling. I am too afraid to go outside. It is impossible to escape the reality that there is a terrorist organization that wants to destroy us."

Many of her friends are in the army in the north now, and she expects to be called for reserve duty at any time. "People are weighed down with worry for their loved ones, parents for their children serving in the army, young girls for their boyfriendsÖ" A third of Israelís population, she says, has either faced some kind of threat or needed to relocate.

"In the meantime, life is fairly normal, depending on your understanding of normal. I guess if normal is being called into a meeting at work to be told where the bomb shelters areÖand I canít focus at work worrying for their safety and future."

But Fishman sees the military operation as a necessary move, to rid Israel of future threats of terrorism. "People donít get that sometimes you have to go to war to get peace, because this is not an ideal world. Just as peace would not have been achieved by talking to the Nazis, peace will not be achieved by talking to hizbollah."

Martin Lockshin, on sabbatical as Professor of Humanities and Hebrew, at York University, returned from his trip to Israel about a week after the crisis began.

"In Jerusalem you donít really feel it. It hasnít really been affecting daily life. Some in Jerusalem were hosting families from the north," he says.

In an interesting twist, however, he said that he heard of people who, perhaps tongue-in-cheekily, thought relocating to Bet-el, near Ramallah, past the Green Line, could be safer than being in Haifa.

Lockshin says that he noticed wide support for the operation among the Israeli public. "There will always be people to the Left who are vociferous about negotiating, but Nasrallah [Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, leader of hizbollah] doesnít want to negotiate. There was concern about how much you can accomplishÖ they had six years to build up without any disturbance. It is a difficult task for Tzahal to deal with. This is a real opportunity for Israel to deal with an implacable enemy with a certain amount of support in the world."

On the plane Lockshin met a relative of someone who was killed by a rocket attack, who was flying in for the funeral.

In Toronto, the Consulate General of Israel, Yaíacov Brosh, talks about his family and their experiences living in Haifa. His mother, sister, and her two sons are wandering between home and shelter. "Of course they are concerned. They donít leave Haifa because they work there, and my mother doesnít want to leave her home," he says.

As a widow living by herself, he says his mother isnít comfortable when she has to go to the shelter, sometimes seven times in a 24-hour period, regardless of day or night. "She tries to keep high spirits and morale. Of course the feeling is not great, and itís far from normal nowadays," he says.

Brosh says that the vast majority of the Israeli public is certainly not happy with the situation, but as a whole, they, "certainly understand the vital necessity of the operation and show a lot of strength. They certainly support the Israeli government in its decision for this operation." The Knesset, he adds, maintains bipartisan support for the governmentís actions, from right wing to left wing, coalition and opposition.

Hizbollah has a large infrastructure, a huge amount of artillery and weapons, says Brosh.

"Israelis are under threat from the terrorists who have declared to destroy Israel to ashes. We didnít initiate this and we donít want it. They attacked without cause. We would like to see Lebanon flourish, because itís in our best interest, but we wonít allow the crisis to continue."

Sigal Konig, 28, is working for the BBC newsdesk in Israel. Konig for a time lived in Toronto but now lives in Israel, and up until recently worked for Israelís press office. Her boyfriend was drafted shortly after the operation began. "Thank God heís not in Lebanon," she says.

Her sister-in-lawís family, who are visiting from Boston, are all from Haifa, and were in the underground shelters for a few days. "Israelis have had enough. You hear it everywhere. The mood is tense, no question about that, but people are backing Olmert and Peretz," Konig says.

"This situation will subside with Lebanese intervention and other Arab statesí support. Until then, weíre not progressing anywhere. I think the Israelis have gotten so used to these kinds of events that they are very indifferent about the whole thing. But I do think that they do worry despite their indifference."

Adi Shulman, 23, was born in Israel, though she doesnít really consider herself a sabra. She says she has always felt more at home in Canada since leaving when she was six, at the time of the first Intifada in 1987.

She describes her recent trip to Israel for two weeks for her cousinís wedding as "far more intense," than expected. They planned to stay in a town near Haifa called Kiryat Ata. On the morning of the wedding, they awoke to the news of the two kidnapped soldiers. "Instantly the mood changed," she says.

Later, during some sightseeing, they heard two explosions close by. They jumped in the car and drove home, hearing on the news that it was in fact two rockets that hit the neighbourhood.

"As much as I would have liked to continue and not be deterred, the sirens, the sound of bombs in the distance, and the constant sound of the news, drastically altered Ö our trip," she says.

Shulman lost a distant relative in the bombing of the train station in Haifa, which killed eight people. He was the son of her grandfatherís cousin. His mother was close with her grandmother. "It was devastating because her son who was killed had celebrated his sonís bris days before he was killed, and was actually talking on the phone with his mother when the bomb fell," she says. On the flight home she was sitting next to a man who lost his brother-in-law in that same bombing.

Air raid sirens were constantly ringing, and Shulman and family did not have a bomb shelter in the building they were staying in. The city was unprepared for the attack, she says, and many public shelters remained locked. Some were rusted and rat-infested due to poor maintenance over the years of inactivity.

They sat in heavy traffic heading south to stay with a friend, though she says many people remained in the area, including one aunt and one uncle, and their families. They tried to advance their flight home, but everything was booked.

"Everything is closed and the city is very quiet," she says. "All in all it is intense, yet, Israelis are resilient and capable of adapting to these dire situations and staying optimistic and very supportive of their government and proud of their values."

Her hope is that Israel gains support from the international community, and doing so means reconsidering its strategies for dealing with terrorists. "I can understand and empathize with the difficult decisions facing the Israeli government and people, however, I believe that the nature of the politics of war has changed drastically in the last while, and the importance of the international community is extremely important."

Katherine Lisser, 27, is a new olah from Montreal, now living in Haifa.

"For the past two weeks, sirens, bombs and shelters have been my life. I have been in shelters up to seven times a day," she says.

Her boyfriend goes to school nearby, and classes were cancelled when bombs blew up two classrooms and the cafeteria. She has several friends who have been called to reserves.

"I am very afraid for them. I think the worst part of all this is the randomness of it all, not knowing where it will hit or when the next one is even coming," she says, adding that many Arab villages have been hit by Lebanese bombs indiscriminately, as well.

"I feel for the innocent people suffering in Lebanon, but we are all suffering," says Lisser. "I am sad to see this country this way as it has such beauty and energy, but have realized that if you live here, it is a way of life."


Originally published: Jewish Magazine, Sept. 2006


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