Reprinted from Poughkeepsie Journal 7/25/14
The sound of an alert coming from a smartphone is a common sound to hear in Israel now — the beeps and vibrations mean that a missile or rocket attack has been detected.
“You’re walking down the street and everyone’s alarm is going off,” since most everyone there has the Red Alert app, which provides real-time updates, said Rabbi Daniel Polish of LaGrangeville.
Polish and his wife, cantor Gail Hirschenfang, make a trek nearly every year to Jerusalem, one of Israel’s largest cities, where they rent an apartment.
This year, the couple found themselves in the middle of Operation Protective Edge, the conflict between the Israeli military and Hamas, Palestinian organization that governs the Gaza Strip.
Israel “is under siege in a way it hasn’t been before,” despite other conflicts, said Polish, clergy of the Congregation Shir Chadash in Poughkeepsie. “It was traumatic but … I was able to leave. I can only imagine what it’s like to live with it day in and day out, to grow up with it.”
The battle continued this week, despite U.S. officials reporting progress in efforts to end the fighting that has killed more than 788 Palestinians and 34 Israelis, The Associated Press reported.
Israel has been bombarded with rockets from the Gaza Strip, while the Israeli military has hit Gaza with numerous airstrikes.
Because America supports Israel, “we cannot express views which might conflict with that,” said Aziz Ahsan of Hopewell Junction, an attorney and former Mid-Hudson Islamic Association trustee. “It creates an ‘us-against-them mentality.’ ”
The latest Israeli and Hamas tensions follow a stream of violence, along with stalled peace talks.
In June, three Israeli teens disappeared while hitchhiking in the West Bank. Israel blamed their abduction on Hamas, which praised the kidnapping but has not taken responsibility for it.
Israeli forces launched an operation to find the teens, arresting hundreds of suspects during reportedly “aggressive” raids.
Polish was at a conference for Jewish and Catholic leaders in Berlin, Germany, on June 30, when “it was announced that the (bodies) of the three teens had been found,” he said. “There was a profound sense of sadness shared.”
Polish and his wife headed to Israel, as planned, after the conference, and arrived around the time that a Palestinian teen’s charred body was found in a Jerusalem forest, in what Palestinians say was a revenge killing.
“What was striking to me was the profound sense of sadness among the Israel Jews I met, and really a sense of anger at those who perpetrated this,” Polish said.
Three Israeli Jews later admitted to beating and burning the Palestinian teen alive.
“Right after news got out about this awful murder, rioting broke out in East Jerusalem on the Arab side,” Polish said. “At night we would hear the yelling and screaming and carrying on.”
Impact on civilians
On July 8, fighting officially began and the couple heard the air raid warnings in Tel Aviv.
“I noticed hastily improvised signs” alerting people to seek shelter when “rockets come down,” Polish said.
Police and military were “everywhere, and it reminded us that we were in a very tense place. The country was on high alert,” the rabbi said. “During the day you’d hear sirens, at night you’d hear helicopters over the house.”
One night, a “loud explosion” woke the couple up. In the morning, they learned it was part of the rioting, Polish said: Three light rail stations had been vandalized and were heavily damaged, according to The Associated Press.
When sirens sounded on July 10, indicating rocket activity, Polish and his wife decided to stay in the hallway of their apartment building. They hadn’t been able to locate a nearby shelter.
“No one could ever have imagined Hamas sending (rockets) to Jerusalem,” the rabbi said. “One would assume it’s more or less safe. Once you realize that rockets can reach Jerusalem … there was so much fear and anxiety.”
The streets of Jerusalem would usually be packed the next day, Friday, “with everyone prepping for Shabbat … but they were virtually deserted. … The playgrounds were totally empty,” Polish said. “On Friday night, we had planned on an open-air Sabbath, in an old train station in Jerusalem. I was looking forward to going.”
But all public gatherings had been canceled, he said.
“The Orthodox chief rabbi of Israel gave permission to cancel Friday night and Saturday morning Sabbath services. That’s unprecedented,” Polish said. “I never remember that happening. This really is a singular event.”
The U.N. high commissioner for human rights has warned both sides against targeting civilians and said war crimes may have been committed.
“Almost 80 percent of the dead (in Gaza) are women and children and elderly,” Ahsan said. “Civilians nothing to do with the conflict.”
The U.S.-born cousin of the Palestinian teen beaten and burned alive was reportedly beaten unconscious by Israeli police recently, because they claimed he participated in the riots. He returned home to Florida after spending days in jail and on house arrest, according to The Associated Press.
The teen said he had no part in the riots and various U.S. agencies “did nothing about this,” Ahsan said. “An American citizen, standing outside the family home …”
Under President Barrack Obama, “Hamas is a terrorist organization, however under (former President George) Bush, they had a free and fair election,” Ahsan said.
“If America is promoting democracy, they have to respect the will of the people,” he added. “Hamas does a lot of good for the local population, that’s why they had the grass-roots support. Anyone who has militant views is addressed.”
Since Polish and his wife got home, he’s had moments of feeling tense.
“I felt unhappy about leaving,” he said. “You feel a solidarity with what they’re going through.”
Nina Schutzman: email@example.com, 845-451-4518 Twitter: @pojonschutzman