BY ETHAN FORMAN
---- — SWAMPSCOTT — When it seemed Israel was about to invade the Gaza Strip to put an end to Hamas rocket attacks, the North Shore Jewish community held an emergency Israel solidarity rally at Congregation Shirat Hayam on Atlantic Avenue on Sunday night. At least 500 people attended, said Rabbi Yossi Lipsker of Chabad of the North Shore, co-chairman of the event with Rabbi Baruch HaLevi of Congregation Shirat Hayam, both of Swampscott.
The next night, Lipsker said a contingent from the North Shore headed to a “Freedom From Fear” rally at Congregation Mishkan Tefila in Chestnut Hill.
Sunday’s rally included various North Shore rabbis, members from various temples and other organizations. It was streamed live and videotaped and then sent to the Israeli Embassy, HaLevi told the audience.
“It’s important to come together, it’s important to rise up in these moments,” HaLevi said during the service.
Yesterday at 2 p.m. came word of a cease-fire after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton conducted talks in the region. A bus bombing in Tel Aviv, reports of airstrikes by Israel Defense Forces and more rockets launched from Gaza preceded word of the lull in fighting.
“As Americans and Jews, we have an obligation to support a democracy in the Middle East,” Lipsker said in an interview. He said the rally tried to put into perspective for those in attendance what this latest round of violence was all about.
“Israel is simply defending its civilians,” HaLevi said. “That is not what Hamas is doing.”
Local Jewish community leaders say it is wrong to draw a parallel between what Israelis are enduring, living under the constant threat of attack by Hamas rockets, and what those living in Gaza are going through. The civilians who are killed and injured by Israeli airstrikes are being used as “human shields” as a way to turn world opinion against Israel, HaLevi said.
HaLevi said he cannot understand why world opinion would turn against Israel, after it has endured 1,300 rockets strikes since January, not including the latest round of violence.
“It’s just getting down to basics,” Lipsker said. “This is a country that has made so many concessions to try and establish peace with its neighbors, and it seems all they get in return is more abuse.”
Lipsker said the irony of the rocket attacks is they are taking place from Gaza, from which Israel withdrew several years ago in the name of peace. He feels Israel is justified in its attack on Hamas militants — no government would stand by and allow for rockets to be fired on its cities, Lipsker said. Israeli citizens have been traumatized by the missile attacks, so much so they now have an app for their smartphones that tells them when a rocket is launched and how much time they have to make it to a shelter.
According to various reports, the latest round of rocket attacks and airstrikes between the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and Israel revolves around the Islamic militant group’s persistent launching of rockets into southern Israel in the face of Israel’s embargo of the strip of land along the Mediterranean Sea, where 1.7 million people live. It echoes tensions that flared in 2008 and 2009 when Israel led a short-lived ground offensive into Gaza.
While enduring continued rocket attacks, Israel last week targeted and killed a top Hamas military leader amid a series of airstrikes. Hamas retaliated by launching more rockets toward Israeli cities, forcing civilians to scramble to bomb shelters.
“This fellow,” Lipsker said of the Hamas leader who was killed, “has been a mastermind of terror with blood on his hands. An absolute butcher.”
The Israeli Defense Forces have been targeting military operations, but reports are more than 100 civilians have been killed and hundreds more injured. At least three Israeli civilians and a soldier have died, according to reports, and dozens wounded. The rocket attacks have been blunted by Israel’s anti-missile system known as Iron Dome.
Lipsker said Israeli forces “have exercised extraordinary restraint” while “Hamas goes out of its way to use civilians as human shields,” launching rocket attacks from mosques, hospitals and other everyday targets that then draw fire from Israeli airstrikes, leading to the high death count. Israeli forces have also been known to drop leaflets warning civilians of airstrikes.
“They go out of their way to target civilians,” Lipsker said of Hamas, “and Israel goes out of their way to avoid civilian casualties.”
Professor Kanishkan Sathasivam, chairman of the political science department at Salem State University, said he spoke with his students in his Middle East politics class earlier this week about the conflict, which has implications beyond Israel’s and Gaza’s borders.
“It’s a complicated situation about which we have very little factual information,” Sathasivam said.
“This is not really an Israel vs. Palestinian issue,” he said, given that Palestinians living in the West Bank have been quiet.
In the late spring and early summer, Hamas had seemed to quiet down as Turkey tried to persuade the group to work within the political system, given the Muslim Brotherhood’s success in taking power in Turkey and Egypt, with Hamas allied with the Muslim Brotherhood.
“That’s why the events of the past six days have come as a surprise,” Sathasivam said Tuesday. The response had been mild when Israel had targeted its leaders in the past. This time, Hamas sent “a massive barrage of rockets” into Israel.
Some experts say the conflict is due to Iran “almost forcing Hamas to engage,” Sathasivam said.
The conflict serves to turn public opinion in the United States and Europe against Israel, drawing attention away from Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the crackdown in Syria, he said.
However, the so-called Arab spring has changed the dynamics in region. It’s possible that Egypt and Turkey could use this conflict to lessen their once-strong ties with Israel.
“It’s a tough situation because of the facts on the ground,” Sathasivam said. “Gaza is a highly populated area where it’s tough to distinguish between good guys and bad guys.”
Shirat Hayam’s HaLevi said one has to accept that there are evil people in the world.
“We say as Jews, ‘never again,’ after the Holocaust, and when we say, ‘never again,’ it’s not just words, it’s actions,” HaLevi said.
“Stay informed” was the message of Chabad of the North Shore’s Lipsker during the rally, he said. “Stay informed, really, really informed. As Jewish people, we come together, and we pray.”
To watch a video of the rally at Congregation Shirat Hayam, go to www.ustream.tv/recorded/27131515.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.