JERUSALEM, Israel — Lindenwood University senior Ben Joseph Woods landed in Israel two weeks ago expecting, in his words, “to bop around the country and visit friends.” What he didn’t expect was to be caught in the middle of renewed violence between the Israeli Defense Forces and Hamas militants in Gaza.
On Monday, Woods — an observant Jew active in the Chabad movement — left Jerusalem for Tel Aviv. Speaking from there by phone Tuesday, Woods said he and his friends were at the Western Wall in Jerusalem when the rocket attacks began Saturday.
“We saw smoke coming out of the West Bank, which we could see from behind the wall, but we weren’t sure if it was rocket fire or what,” Woods said. Because it was the Sabbath, he said, it was difficult for observant Jews to gather information via the media about what was going on.
Despite his recent experience in Jerusalem, where he “could hear the bombs and see smoke,” Woods said “in the country as a whole it’s business as usual.” He said he’s planning on heading south to Hebron in the West Bank later this week.
On Sunday, a separate group of 37 U.S. college students — including Washington University senior Jenna Rabisse and Washington University law student Marc Goldstein — landed in Israel as part of a 10-day Mayanot Birthright trip.
Channa Mayer, 29, the group’s leader, said in an interview Tuesday that she and the students headed north to the Golan Heights region after landing. Some of the planned activities had changed for security reasons, said Mayer, and Birthright had suggested the group not use certain roads on Wednesday when it travels to the Mamshit area for a day in the southern desert.
In retaliation for rocket fire aimed at southern Israeli towns, Israel began an air assault Saturday targeting Hamas militants in Gaza. Palestinian officials say that more than 370 people have been killed.
In Ballwin Tuesday, Muslims gathered at the Daar-ul-Islam mosque where leaders denounced both Hamas and Israel for the violence, especially the civilian deaths.
“This is a great tragedy we are facing,” said the mosque’s imam, Mufti Minhajuddin Ahmed. “We cannot face our own consciences today, or God tomorrow, if we allow violence like this to occur without speaking up and doing all we can to bring an end to violence from both sides.”
Ghazala Hayat, a professor of neurology at St. Louis University, said the members of the mosque were united in their criticism of both Israel and Hamas. “The violence against the innocent people of Israel and the violence
being done against the innocent people of Gaza is doing damage for any possibility for lasting peace,” she said. “The kinds of images we’re seeing … gives fuel to the extremists on both sides.”
Khaled Hamid, a member of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, criticized what he said was Israel’s over-reaction. “The Israeli Defense Forces response is out of proportion to the harm done due to the attacks on Israel, and so it deserves more denouncement,” Hamid said. “(Israel Defense Minister) Ehud Barak said this is being done to teach Hamas a lesson, but you don’t teach a lesson by killing civilians. The cycle of violence needs to stop.”
About 70 people gathered at the Old Courthouse downtown Tuesday afternoon, calling on Israel to end attacks in Gaza. They held American and Palestinian flags and signs reading, “Free Gaza,” “Stop the Murder” and “End the Occupation” as rush hour traffic streamed past.
The rally was the group’s third, and organizers plan on holding nightly gatherings as long as the crisis continues.
“Stop the bombing, stop the killing, sit down and talk,” said Hedy Epstein, an organizer. Israel needs security, but so do Palestinians, and “it doesn’t come from a gun or a bomb, it comes when you talk human to human. They’re creating a new generation of hatred.”
Epstein and others said Israel would not act without the tacit approval of the United States, and Americans can pressure their leaders to withdraw that approval.
“Call your senator, call your representative,” said the Rev. Elston K. McCowan, a protester and Green Party candidate for mayor of St. Louis. “Silence is consent. We need to speak out about this kind of atrocity.”
Both Hamas and Israel were blamed for violating a truce, but speakers said Israel’s military response was disproportionate.
More protests against Israel’s actions are planned for today outside the office of U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, at the corner of Brentwood Boulevard and Manchester Road and Thursday at the corner of Grand and Lindell boulevards, both at 4 p.m.
A protest at Boeing, which some antiwar activists are targeting for supplying military aircraft to Israel, also is in the works.
In Israel, Birthright leader Channa Mayer is leading her third trip and said while “everyone is talking about the violence and is aware of the situation, this is par for the course in Israel every couple of years.”
As part of the Birthright agenda, Israeli soldiers join the American students for part of the trip. Mayer said eight soldiers originally were due to join her group Tuesday, but only seven would, in fact, make it.
“The eighth soldier was called up in case they have to go into Gaza,” she said.
The Associated Press and Greg Jonsson of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.