Valley observers see both sides in Israel-Hamas conflict
An Israeli army tank keeps position near a security fence on the Gaza border with Israel, as Palestinians approach the fence east of Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, Friday, Nov. 23, 2012. Israeli troops fired Friday to push back Gaza crowds surging toward Israel's border fence with the Hamas-ruled territory, killing one Palestinian and wounding 19 in the first violence since a truce between Israel and Hamas took hold a day earlier.(AP Photo/Eyad Baba) Purchase photo reprints »
NORTHAMPTON — As a fragile cease-fire between Israel and Palestine already shows signs of strain following a shooting death at the border of the Gaza Strip, local opinions on who is the aggressor in the conflict vary.
The most recent escalation in violence began after rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip struck targets in Israel last week, prompting a military response that killed about 160 people, according to figures from the United Nations.
Alisa Klein, organizer for the Western Massachusetts Coalition for Palestine, said the most recent flare-up is part of an ongoing and predictable pattern of violence and aggression from Israel that coincides with elections.
Kenneth Schoen, president of the Jewish Historical Society of Western Massachusetts in Deerfield, feels Israel is simply defending itself from enemies surrounding it whose goal is the destruction of the Jewish state.
While Israel has a right to defend itself, the most recent attacks are not a matter of Israel defending itself from a superior force, said Jeff Napolitano, director of the Western Massachusetts chapter of the American Friends Service Committee.
Klein spent part of her youth growing up in Israel. She said she saw first-hand how Palestinians have been marginalized by an Israeli occupation.
Klein said she maintains close relationships with many in the region and travels there often.
It’s difficult for the American Jewish community to be objective about Israel’s actions, Klein said. Many take the view that Israel must survive at any cost and turn a blind eye to what she considers war crimes, she said.
Part of that willingness to ignore atrocities, Klein said, likely is a fear of instability in the region stemming from a mistaken notion that Israel is America’s only ally in the Middle East.
That notion discounts the relationships America has with Jordan and Saudi Arabia, she said.
Klein said many in the West are reluctant to be critical of actions taken by the government of Israel for fear of being labeled anti-Semitic. “We tend not to understand who Arab peoples are,” Klein said. “9/11 cemented that.”
Schoen said Hamas, the political party that governs the Gaza Strip, routinely creates havoc not only by launching attacks into Israel, but by doing so from locations next to mosques, schools and other civilian buildings.
That makes retaliating without incurring civilian casualties difficult, Schoen said.
Schoen said Hamas receives supplies of weapons from countries like Iran that have declared their desire to destroy Israel, and acts on their behalf when they launch attacks.
Napolitano said some people make the analogy that if Canada shot rockets into the U.S., America would retaliate in kind. “That’s a crazy analogy,” Napolitano said.
He said Israel and Gaza aren’t on an equal footing when considering military strength, infrastructure and the ability to communicate with the outside world.
“Israel has the fourth-largest military in the world; Palestine has nothing,” he said.
The attacks from Gaza have been launched by a small group of Hamas militants using weapons supplied from outside the region.
Labeling the Palestinians responsible for the attacks of extremists only serves to further demonize them, Klein said.
“They’re no more extreme than many on the Israeli side,” she said.
Napolitano said strikes from Gaza seem to be produced by frustration as more and more land is acquired by Israel under the notion of added security.
According to the BBC, Israel recently declared a 300-meter-wide exclusion zone around its border fence for that purpose, land that Palestinians claim is valuable for farming.
The Egyptian-brokered cease-fire was broken Friday when members of the Israeli Defense Force opened fire on a group of about 300 gathering near the Gaza border fence, some of whom they claim tried to break through.
Israel considers attempts to breach the border fence a violation of the cease-fire, according to the BBC.
According to IDF statements cited by the BBC, Israeli soldiers fired warning shots at the group, and when that had no effect they began firing at the legs of those gathered.
At least one person was killed and 10 others wounded as a result, the BBC said.
Klein said gatherings like that near the border are common and are usually peaceful protests.
“Gaza has been under siege for over four years,” she said.
Hours before the cease-fire began, a bus bomb in Tel Aviv injured 29 people, the first such attack in that city in about six years.
David Mednicoff, a professor of public policy and director of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said there are reasons why the intricacies of relations between Israel and Palestine are often lost in translation to those on the outside.
To a post-9/11 Western world, the idea of retaliating against a Middle Eastern enemy is a familiar one, where the notion of an ally being considered an occupier and aggressor is much less familiar, he said.
Even as the U.S. publicly supports Israel, he said, criticism and nuanced diplomacy were likely in play behind the scenes to try to stop the hostilities.
“Publicly, you stand by your friends,” Mednicoff said.
Many Americans don’t pay attention to global politics, he said, which leaves them unable to understand daily life for Palestinians.
Americans likely have an easier time identifying with an ally feeling threatened than identifying with a group under that ally’s control, he said.
The conflict creates rifts in the American Jewish community as well, Mednicoff said, with many in a rush to defend Israel’s actions without necessarily considering the stake Palestinians have.
Schoen, of the Jewish Historical Society, said practicing Jews pray for peace every day and hope that someday a negotiated settlement can be reached to bring an end to the conflict.
“We need the world to say, ‘Enough,’ ” he said.
Bob Dunn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .