From following tweeting Palestinians under attack to hiding in an air shelter with Israeli grandchildren, the intensifying crisis in the Gaza Strip has drawn in Westchester residents on all sides of the issue.
Local Jews and Arabs alike are wrestling with deeply felt personal responses over the latest news from the Middle East. Both sides have sustained a level of destruction not seen since Israel's 2008 military invasion to reduce the assault of rockets from Hamas-ruled Gaza.
By Saturday, 46 Palestinians had been killed and more than 400 civilians wounded. On Sunday morning, the conflict seemed to be intensifying. At a press conference in Thailand Sunday, President Barack Obama denounced the firing of missiles at Israeli cities by militants in Gaza, saying "there is no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders."
The conflict feels close to home for Nihal Qawasmi, 17, of Yonkers. Born on the West Bank, she said she has been glued to Twitter where tweets under the "#Gaza" and "#gazaunderattack" hashtags bring direct updates of airstrikes and growing number of fatalities.
Her goal now is to "educate others as much as possible" on Palestinian issues via social media. She also attended a Friday demonstration outside the Israeli consulate and plans to show up at more protests. "It's a humanitarian issue," she said. "The world has to wake up."
The latest violence has Yoel Magid, 68, of Scarsdale, reacting in a completely new way. He landed in Tel Aviv on Saturday morning for a family vacation and drove up to his son's apartment building just as sirens went off. As he ran inside a shelter with his two grown children and their families, they heard a double explosion as the Israeli military's new Iron Dome interception system, built with a $200 million assist from the U.S. government, intercepted an approaching rocket and detonated it.
A former 25-year resident of Israel who lived through the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the executive director of Scarsdale Westchester Reform Temple said he was "very emotional" Saturday because it was his first time dealing with a military situation in the presence of his four grandchildren, aged 2 to 10.
"I fear for their future, growing up this way," Magid said. While "Israel has a strong military and its mission is to protect Israel," he said, the focus should remain on peace negotiations because "no matter what Israel does today [in Gaza], it's not going to be a long-term solution."
The fact that Israel is coming under increasing public attack for the ferocity of its counterassault on the Gaza is nothing new, said Ronnie Reckseit of Scarsdale as he left a Shabbat service at Shaarei Tikvah Scarsdale Conservative Congregation.
"The Israelis always get blamed for what's happening to the pathetic Palestinian people in Gaza," he said. "It's never mentioned that the people in Gaza are shooting rockets at Israel . . . I think Israel has a serious problem because of an American administration which is responsible for the uprising in Gaza in the first place."
Over on Walnut Street in Yonkers, the airstrikes also prompted strong reactions but the issue was viewed from a very different perspective by the city's Muslim-American community. Lori Pugh of Mount Vernon was one of the moms in headscarves and long skirts who was picking up and dropping off children for Saturday Tai Kwon Do and Q'uran classes at Andalusia School, a branch of the Islamic American University.
While the Israeli response was the equivalent of "an elephant stepping on an ant," the real issue is a "humanitarian crisis for everyone," she said. The ability to find solutions is made more possible now because "there's a better picture of the Arab front in a way that we've never had before," Pugh said.
She believes that Palestinians, Arabs and Jews must sit down together in honest discussion, something that happens once monthly at the Andalusia School.
"It's not just eating hummus and loving each other," said Maria Kannry, a board member of The Dialogue Project, which has been hosting the sessions for the past six years. "We've had people storm out -- and always come back."
The group includes religious leaders and war survivors who applied to be part of the circle, which has a waiting list. For all involved, said Kannry, the conversations are teaching that "the mutual murder of each other is not what brings justice for anyone."
She said her nonprofit group hosts similar circles throughout the New York area and is seeking funding to start more, including another one in Westchester. "We are building relationships by developing skills that allow trust to evolve," she explained.
Kannry said some of the Jewish members were initially concerned about meeting in a Muslim school where prayers are held.
Before, she noted, "If the imam is calling for prayer, it's been a call for war against the Jews." But reactions on both sides have changed. "There's such a comfort level now in being in each other's places."
For more information, go to the organization's website at thedialogueproject.org.