By Yadira Betances and Margo Sullivan
A look of disgust on her face, Laurie Tishler Mindlin spoke of bus stops, soccer fields and playgrounds being turned into bomb shelters, and showed photos of a collection of rocket remnants kept at an Israeli police station.
Her voice choked up when she described sitting in the middle of a bus and knowing she might not be able to get out if a rocket hit it.
Tears rolled down her face as she talked about the children she met — scared to come out of their homes, wetting their beds, or picking fights at school for no reason at all.
Mindlin, executive director of the Merrimack Valley Jewish Federation, heard the nightmarish stories when she visited the Gaza border and the Israeli city of Sderot in November.
"I love Israel and I just wanted to connect to my people who are there and are bearing the brunt of it," she said. "Now I have an understanding of the impact of what that experience has on them."
The conflict between Israel and the Islamic militant group Hamas in Gaza is just the latest chapter in a bloody, decades-old dispute. It's one that many Merrimack Valley and Southern New Hampshire residents are watching closely because of family or religious ties, or both.
Rabbi Karen Landry, spiritual leader at Havurat Shalom in Andover, recently returned from visiting her sister Susan Nirens and her family, who live in Israel.
When Israel began its air strikes on Gaza in late December, there was a feeling that it was coming down hard on Hamas with the message that it was going to protect its civilians, she said.
"The feeling among the Israelis is that we cannot live under constant bombardments," Landry said. "The world was completely oblivious of what was going on in Gaza before this. It really pulls at your heart strings."
Rabbi Ira Korinow, spiritual leader of Temple Emanu-El in Haverhill, said all the years of "rockets raining over civilians" have people on edge and seeking shelter whenever they hear an alarm.
But he does not justify the violence.
"This is not an excuse. This is not going to help Israel or Palestine in the long run," Korinow said. "War doesn't accomplish anything — it creates greater hate. War and all this killing makes it endless. This is a lose-lose situation for Israel, Palestine and Hamas."
"It's really a painful situation to watch," added Rabbi Louis Rieser of Etz Hayim Synagogue in Derry, N.H.
The conflict has hit close to home for some members of Rieser's congregation who worry about family members living in the heart of the violence.
"My sister-in-law went shopping to buy groceries for her parents," said Emil Campeanu of Derry. "She heard a siren and ran into the building. A rocket hit 20 yards from her. If she was still in the car, she would have got it."
His wife's 83-year-old father is trying to survive Hamas rocket attacks. When he hears the siren, he's supposed to move to a stairwell or a fortified room within 15 seconds. But at his age, he can't make it.
Many of the Etz Hayim members had hoped Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in the September 2005 "land for peace" exchange would improve relations between Palestinians and Israelis.
Instead, Hamas has used Gaza to launch rockets into Israel.
"We've been here before," Rieser said. "What do you hope to get out of this? It's hard to know when you read even (Palestinian leader) Mahmoud Abbas saying, 'This is a fight that didn't have to be.' There's no joy in that. It's hard to know what to do."
The Israeli government's decision to attack Hamas on Dec. 27 was a matter of self-defense, according to Miriam Gitterman of Chester, N.H.
She returned from a tour of Israel last Sunday. Although she had left for Newark Airport before the fighting began, she was aware of the mounting tensions.
"I was aware the truce — or treaty — was coming to a close," she said. "Everyone (in Israel) seems to want peace. They just don't know how to get it. What impressed me most is I never heard bitterness, hatred or lust for revenge."
The war of public opinion
Many local Jews said they are disappointed with the way this most recent conflict has been portrayed by the media.
The news outlets have aired dozens of pictures of Palestinian children injured in the rocket attacks. The injuries are disturbing, Gitterman said, but no one is reporting the fact Hamas snipers have put their children in harm's way by using them as shields and firing weapons — or stockpiling them — in neighborhoods.
Mitchell Feig of Londonderry, N.H., said the news reports imply that Israel is firing missiles indiscriminately into Gaza. But based on the number of people who have been killed since the fighting began, he said, it should be plain to anyone the Israelis are trying to avoid civilian casualties.
He also complained about "conversations in the media," that pressure Israel to agree to a truce. Israel has agreed to truces before. But Israel's foes, like Hezbollah and now Hamas, have used past truces as opportunities to re-arm, he said.
Gitterman said Israel may be losing the propaganda war partly because its leaders try to defend their people.
"There was a picture in the Jerusalem Post of a school being bombed," she said. "No Israeli children were hurt because they were not in school" because they had been evacuated.
Campeanu senses Hamas has lost support in the Arab world, however.
"The Arab world is far less pro-Hamas than it was — or we thought it may be," he said. "Especially Egypt has realized how dangerous these people are."
Mindlin, the head of the Merrimack Valley Jewish Federation, agreed.
"I'm actually optimistic because the moderate Arab countries were not blaming Israel," she said. "Hopefully, that was an indication of their disapproval of Hamas."
Local Muslim leaders hope for peace
Aslam Kartalli, president of Selimiye Camii Mosque in Methuen, said members of his congregation are always praying for peace in the region.
"To have peace is the main thing, because the theme of our religion is peace," he said. "Hopefully something happens very soon."
Any organization that kills innocent people does not represent our religion."
Mary Lahaj, Muslim chaplain at Simmons College in Boston, has been involved in dialogue with Christians and Jews for almost 25 years. She will participate in an interfaith prayer service at Merrimack College in North Andover on Jan. 22, an annual event aimed at promoting understanding between Christians, Jews and Muslims.
"The conflict is the elephant in the room," she said. "As people of faith, we want to see what we have in common, not sit around and talk about the conflict."
Lahaj blames the Bush administration for the escalating violence in Gaza.
"There was no voice of reason, no balance and no moderate voice that can be heard," she said. "They just continued to ignore the conflict, and both sides continued to fight for their own interest."
Lahaj said the first step in resolving the conflict in Gaza would be for both sides to have empathy and compassion for the people they are fighting against.
"When you hear someone from the other side say what is really hurting them, your heart softens and you begin to share that compassion that they so need," she said.
Lahaj said no one of any religious background can sit and watch what's going on without being affected by it.
"You don't have to be a Muslim, Arab or Christian without feeling that one innocent person dying is killing the whole human race," she said.
Lahaj said she feels hopeless, helpless and frustrated when someone asks her to condemn terrorism by extremist groups like Hamas.
"When I see what's going on in Gaza, I send e-mail (condemning the terrorism) and wonder, 'Why don't I hear any condemnation? Why is this silence so deafening to me?'"
No simple solution
Korinow, the Haverhill rabbi, said what is needed in Gaza is an immediate cease-fire, followed by members of the European Union stepping in to monitor the situation and keep Hamas from shooting rockets into Israel.
Secondly, Korinow said the U.S. government should become more involved in helping to solve the strife in Gaza, like presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton did.
"It was clear that they put the peace process on the back burner," he said of outgoing President George W. Bush. "Had the Americans taken a strong position on the war in Lebanon, a lot of needless death might have been avoided, and we may be closer to peace than where we are today."
With President-elect Barack Obama taking office next week, Korinow said his hope lies with the new administration.
"We've already seen that when the U.S. is directly involved, there has been some progress made," he said.
Landry agreed that a cease-fire would help alleviate the situation.
"Everybody is calling for a cease-fire, as I am praying and hoping," she said. "This has to stop and can only stop with a cease fire. Neither the people in Gaza or Israel can live like this."
Landry's mother, Betty, will be flying to Israel tomorrow. The rabbi said she is not afraid for her mother's safety, but fears for her nephew who is turning 18 and will have to enter the Israeli army.
"On the one hand, it seems like an endless battle, but I think that in spite of the fact that the area has seen hundreds of years of hatred, there's a glimmer of hope," Landry said. "You have to have hope, otherwise you can't live there."
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