Residents talk of the tension in the Middle East


In recent days, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been thrust into international media spotlight as a result of a series of missile attacks between Israel and the Hamas-ruled Palestinian territory known as the Gaza Strip.

For Berkshire County residents who have traveled to these regions of the Middle East, to study, to pray, to visit family and friends, the images of fiery black smoke plumes, airborne rockets -- with young children in the midst -- have been unsettling.

"What's happening there now truly breaks my heart," said Katelynn Chapman, of Pittsfield, who also directs the Berkshire Dream Center. "This is something that should be talked about. We can't just say ‘aww, that's too bad' and move on."

As a Christian, Chapman studied at Jerusalem University College for five weeks in 2009, traveling from the West Bank to Tel Aviv, but was deterred from Gaza. She said she met both Israeli and Palestinian people along the way.

"You can sense the tension there," Chapman said. "On the buses, people with machine guns come on to check things. You know of the dangers. At the same time, I can say that people I met from both places are so very warm and wonderful,"

She said that behind the smiles and hospitality, people still remain guarded.

"Every day you see that because it's a part of their lives, every day," said Chapman.

Within the Berkshire County Jewish community, Rabbi Josh Breindel of Temple Anshe Amunim, Jewish Federation of the Berkshires Executive Director Arlene Schiff, and Rachel Barenblat of Con gregation Beth Israel in North Adams said the recent outburst in Gaza is not discouraging its members from traveling to Israel.

Breindel recalled his first visit to Israel, around December 2001.

"Things were very bad there, but tourism was absolutely continuing," he said. "Coming from the United States, I was a little anxious at first. There, people can point out shrapnel marks in historic sites. As an American, it gives you a whole new sense of what it is like to live under the threat of terror."

Schiff said a couple of local families are currently or planning to travel on solidarity missions to volunteer with Sar-El Volunteers for Israel, which supports the Israel Defense Forces.

"Since the rockets and missiles have hit, life there just doesn't stop," she said.

Najwa Squailia, of Pittsfield, is the daughter of a Palestinian mother and an American father who grew up in the Berkshires. They have Christian relatives living in Beit Jala, roughly six miles south of Jerusalem, safe from the missile attacks.

While studying at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, around the time of the Second Intifada, Squailia was part of the Palestine Action Coalition and worked with American Jews, Israelis, Pal estinian-Americans and others "aiming to broaden the discussion around Israel/Palestine beyond what was then being presented in the mainstream U.S. media."

"They're like Siamese twins," she said, "the fates of Israel and Palestine are inextricably linked."

She said she also wants to help inform people about U.S. tax dollars being contributed to Israeli defense accounts. In 2007, the Bush Administration and the Israeli government agreed to a 10-year, $30 billion military aid package, a commitment the U.S. government is still honoring.

Squailia said she keeps in touch with friends and reads reports from various international news outlets (The Guardian based in England and Haaretz, an English-language Israeli news source) to get a greater, more balanced perspective on the conflict and its effects.

"What's frustrating here and in the media is that you don't see the voices of the Israelis and Palestinians who have been working together for decades now. You do not hear the voices for peace," Squailia said.

On Tuesday, Rabbi Barenblat sent a letter to her congregation in wake of the violence. She said most people she serves have family or friends in Israel.

In paraphrasing the correspondence she said, "We all have heavy hearts following the news, and though our politics may differ, we are all united in our prayers for peace."

She said the congregation is open to anyone who needs support, whether their loved ones are in Israel or Gaza.

"This is not the world any of them want their children growing up in," Barenblat said. The rabbi said she has focused her time on writing and talking about co-existence.

"It's hard for us to imagine because we've never lived with that [kind of conflict]."


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