With Loved Ones in Danger, Gaza Crisis Is Felt Acutely Here

  • Asaf Zilberfarb in Israel, in an undated photograph. (Courtesy Asaf Zilberfarb)

    Asaf Zilberfarb in Israel, in an undated photograph. (Courtesy Asaf Zilberfarb)

  • Said Alhouseini in an undated photograph. (Courtesy Said Alhouseini)

    Said Alhouseini in an undated photograph. (Courtesy Said Alhouseini)

  • After a luncheon with Dartmouth students former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert chats with student Asaf Zilberfarb, who is from Israel, on Nov. 12, 2013, in Hanover, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    After a luncheon with Dartmouth students former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert chats with student Asaf Zilberfarb, who is from Israel, on Nov. 12, 2013, in Hanover, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

  • Asaf Zilberfarb in Israel, in an undated photograph. (Courtesy Asaf Zilberfarb)
  • Said Alhouseini in an undated photograph. (Courtesy Said Alhouseini)
  • After a luncheon with Dartmouth students former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert chats with student Asaf Zilberfarb, who is from Israel, on Nov. 12, 2013, in Hanover, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

Sharon — Cora Swanberg just graduated from The Sharon Academy and checks Facebook as often as any other teenager.

But in recent weeks, she has been paying much closer attention to the posts of Said Alhouseini, a Palestinian exchange student her family hosted during her junior year of high school.

“It is the toughest night that residents of Gaza City are witnessing,” Alhouseini, posted on Facebook on July 29. “There is no power, a complete darkness. Only the flares now and then to light up the sky. There are loud bombs everywhere, literally no safe place. … The pressure of the missiles is indescribable, my ears hurt from all the buzzing of the warplanes and the bombing, and my legs are barely carrying me. … We are all scared and we can’t do anything except pray that a new day will show up, holding hands with peace and tranquility.”

Alhouseini, via email exchanges with the Valley News last week, described his time attending The Sharon Academy during the 2012-2013 academic year as the best time of his life. But since the current crisis in Gaza began, life has changed dramatically, he said. Alhouseini has been accepted to Marmara University in Istanbul, but given recent events, he does not know if he will even be able to attend.

“I’d say that I have stopped living for the past 20 days. There’s no safety, no food, no water, no power, no Internet, no phone signal. … After the third day of the operation, I asked my parents if my brother and I could sleep in their room. I was so scared of dying alone or losing any of my family members,” he said.

“Sometimes, I wish I wasn’t born to see all of this happening.”

The conflict in Gaza is thousands of miles away, but the dissemination of photographs, articles and opinions through social media has made the crisis much more palpable for residents of the Upper Valley from across the political spectrum, especially those with a direct link to the conflict. Distant as the Upper Valley may be from the conflict area itself, there are a surprising number of direct connections.

“I knew about the situation growing up, as my parents made sure I was aware of the conflicts in the world,” said Swanberg, Alhouseini’s host sister. “But living with Said, and really understanding what he is dealing with, put a new perspective on things. When I hear his stories and talk to him, it’s harder to stay here and not do anything.”

“It’s hard to know he’s in danger,” she said.

Michael Livingston, head of school at The Sharon Academy, remembers Alhouseini as a bright, even-keeled young man who was grateful for the opportunity to come to the United States and learn.

“It’s very powerful and very alarming to read his posts on Facebook,” Livingston said. “When he was here, he had some pretty amazing stories to tell us. We would talk about snow days, and he would talk about the days they were confined to their houses because of shelling.”

The current crisis in Gaza was precipitated by the killing of three Israeli teenagers and the subsequent killing of a Palestinian teenager, which escalated tensions to the point where the Israeli Defense Forces launched an aerial attack on Gaza on July 8, in response to rockets being fired from Gaza by Hamas. On July 17, Israel sent in ground troops to support the aerial bombardment. As of Friday, more than 1,600 Palestinians had been killed, and 66 Israeli soldiers and two Israeli civilians had been killed.

‘It’s My Life on the Line’

Of course, it’s hard to imagine a more stressful situation than being directly in the middle of the conflict.

At first glance, Asaf Zilberfarb seems like many other rising sophomores at Dartmouth College. But Zilberfarb served in a military intelligence unit in the Israeli Defense Forces for 31/2 years before he started college, and his summer spent at his home in the Israeli city of Modiin has been both dangerous and stressful. Israel is protected by a sophisticated missile defense system known as Iron Dome, but it does not intercept every rocket, and the lives of Israeli citizens are often interrupted by air raid sirens.

“Life here is pretty difficult right now, and it’s been difficult for a while, even before this round of violence broke out,” Zilberfarb said last week by telephone from Modiin, which is near the West Bank. “We are currently affected by rockets fired from Gaza on a casual, daily basis. I’m accustomed to what I need to do, and to be fair, most rockets are intercepted immediately by the Iron Dome. But when you’re out on the street and the siren goes off, it is one of the scariest things you have to deal with. It depends on where you are, but you have about 15 to 90 seconds to find shelter.”

Zilberfarb is often frustrated by the polarized comments about the conflict that he sees on social media.

“People are very quick to make strong statements and judgments on what’s happening here when they have nothing at stake, when they haven’t lived here or seen the reality. It’s my life on the line and the lives of my family and friends and loved ones.”

Israeli citizens are required to serve in the country’s defense forces, and Zilberfarb worries about his friends who are in uniform. Some 86,000 reserve soldiers have been called up since the beginning of the current crisis.

“Many of my friends have been called back,” Zilberfarb said. “They’re not anonymous faces that no one knows. I have a younger brother who’s serving on the front lines, and we only hear from him once in a while when he has the free time to call. We live from one phone call to another, hoping that everything is fine.”

Lou Maresca, a West Lebanon resident, and his wife, Ruth Craig, also live from one phone call to another. Their son, Caleb Maresca, learned Hebrew and converted to Judaism in high school. When he graduated in 2013, he emigrated to Israel and joined the Israeli military as a “lone soldier” — a serviceman without parents in Israel. He is in specialized training and not serving in Gaza. But Lou Maresca said his son could be called to the front at any time.

“We are more worried than a lot of the parents of lone soldiers we talk to who have lived in Israel, because this is not that foreign to them,” Maresca said. “For us, as Americans, this is incredible and beyond belief. If this goes more than another few weeks, he will get closer to being involved, and if it goes on longer than that, he will get involved. He’s our only son, our only child. The carnage is unacceptable at this point.”

‘We Don’t Live in Freedom’

Lara Harb, who grew up in the West Bank town of Ramallah, also deplores the violence and death. Harb teaches Arabic language and literature at Dartmouth.

“It’s difficult for me as a Palestinian to see what’s going on, and to have my second home, America, support what Israel is doing,” she said. “ Over 1,300 people have been killed, and most of them are women and children.”

Harb said she believes the only thing that will end the violence is an end to the occupation of Palestinian territory.

“The reason you have unrest, with ongoing Palestinian demonstrations, is because people’s lives are restricted by the Israeli occupation. We don’t live in freedom. We’re not independent. We’re not free to develop our communities because of the military presence that surrounds us.”

Like Zilberfarb, Harb is frustrated by the polarized conversation about the conflict.

“What frustrates me is that in the U.S., the average person has a very uneducated, strong opinion about the situation there. I wish everyone would really think about the basis of their opinions and inform themselves. The information is there if people would like to see it,” she said.

Harb hears about the conflict from family and friends in the West Bank, but mainly follows the news through British media, like The Guardian.

“U.S. coverage is shameful,” Harb said. “If you’re just basing your opinion on American media, you don’t have all the information. They consistently seek to humanize one side by highlighting the Israeli losses, giving background and context, and to dehumanize the Palestinian side by not only reporting Palestinian deaths as abstract numbers, taken out of context and not providing any background or even names, but also by blaming the victims themselves for their own deaths. I mourn all lives lost, whether Palestinian or Israeli.”

Bernard Avishai is a scholar and writer who divides his time between Wilmot, N.H., and Jerusalem. He is a visiting professor of government at Dartmouth and teaches business at Hebrew University. He sees the current crisis as a particularly volatile moment in the history of the conflict.

“It’s been a hundred years since the beginning of World War I,” Avishai said . “People in Sarajevo and Vienna had no idea that 100 years ago today, they were precipitating incredible, unimaginable horrors. We could be sitting here, a year from now, with the West Bank in a state of insurgency, East Jerusalem Arabs up in arms … or we could be looking at a cease-fire five days from now. As soon as the tunnels are destroyed, Israel could accept an American cease-fire plan, which acknowledges the need to work toward demilitarization of Gaza and tremendous economic development in Gaza.”

“The one I would choose is self-evident,” Avishai said. “At this point, for me to predict the more likely outcome is three parts wishful thinking, one part dread and one part information.”

Avishai writes on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for The New Yorker, among other publications. He hears about the conflict from friends and relatives, but he says he also spends a great deal of time on the Internet, gathering information.

“You can bet I haven’t spent very many moments in the last three weeks away from my computer,” he said.

Missing Home

People on both sides highlighted how different the Upper Valley is from the battle-scarred region they call home.

Alhouseini, the former Sharon Academy exchange student now back home in Gaza, said, “People in Vermont are really welcoming and open-minded and they never care where you come from. Being a student at TSA was like a dream come true. It’s such an amazing small school that really broadens one’s horizons. I really miss the spectacular wilderness of Vermont as well.”

Avishai also said he likes the pace and peace he finds in the Hanover area.

“I like people who let you finish your sentences,” Avishai said. “I like drivers who don’t try to kill you to get a 30-second advantage. There’s a lot to love about New Hampshire. But it’s also true that Israel is a place of thick social relationships, very fevered political associations and very vivid political challenges. I can’t say that at a time like this I feel good about not being there.”

Like Avishai, Harb finds it extremely difficult to be away from her home.

“Having grown up in Palestine, having friends there, knowing the faces I see on TV, seeing them being devastated — it affects me. It’s a second reality present behind my actual reality in Hanover. People around me don’t realize that. It lives with you. You continue your everyday life and teach and research, but there’s always this other reality that is traumatic.”

Lauren Bender can be reached at lbender@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.

Clarification

Dartmouth professor Lara Harb said, “The reason you have unrest, with ongoing Palestinian demonstrations, is because people’s lives are restricted by the Israeli occupation. We don’t live in freedom. We’re not independent.” An earlier version of this story misquoted her.