3 area residents join solidarity mission to Israel report increased pessimism, but gratitude for vis

Three Northern California Jews were among the 80 or so mostly North American Jewish leaders who went on an emergency two-day solidarity mission last week to the Jewish state.

Sponsored by the United Jewish Communities with the support of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the mission had a two-pronged purpose to express solidarity with the Israelis and take their message back home.

"I don't think I've ever been thanked so much in two short days in my life," said Rabbi Jason Gwasdoff, spiritual leader of Temple Israel in Stockton and one of the mission participants. "The Israelis shared their appreciation that we would come on such short notice and come in such great numbers to be with them and express our solidarity."

Howard Steiermann of San Francisco had a similar experience. Noting that the women who work the passport control booths at Ben-Gurion Airport are usually stone-faced, he said when he told one of them the purpose of his visit, she was visibly touched.

"I said I wanted to show solidarity, that we're not abandoning you, and that we support you and she was really thankful. That's why I went, and it was very successful for that reason."

All three area participants said they had witnessed with their own eyes how trust between Arabs and Jews has been completely eroded.

"There is a huge amount of betrayal and shock," said Liki Abrams, an Israeli-born resident of Foster City.

"Israelis feel they have no partners for dialogue, that they can't trust [the Palestinians]. They are left with very bitter feelings."

Gwasdoff said he was definitely feeling more pessimistic after what he heard. "Israelis are really shaken," he said. "Especially because of the involvement of Arabs within Israel. Israelis that used to go to a restaurant or go shopping and knew people in an Arab village, now they don't know whether those people will be friendly and they're afraid to go."

Steiermann did give one example of continuing hope, with several Arab and Jewish schoolteachers meeting under a sukkah, but it was only a small step.

Abrams said Israelis were also feeling frustrated with their own government, for promising them peace and then not delivering.

"Even those who were gung-ho for the peace process are moving to the right," she added.

Speakers to the group included Prime Minister Ehud Barak, acting Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, opposition leaders Ariel Sharon and Natan Sharansky, and the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk. Interspersed were several visits to the scenes of recent clashes.

In Gilo, for example, they visited a hilltop community on the outskirts of Jerusalem that has seen heavy exchange of gunfire over the past few days with a Palestinian village in the valley below.

The mission arrived just after Israeli security forces had erected 7-foot concrete barriers and bulldozed mounds of dirt and gravel to shield hillside apartment buildings from gunfire — perhaps the first step in what Barak warns could be a "unilateral separation" from the Palestinians.

The day before, on Oct. 17, an Israeli police officer had been shot and critically wounded a few feet away from where the mission now stood.

Two Israeli tanks now stood watch over the valley. But gunfire continued the next day, and the day after that.

Steiermann said the strongest picture in his mind was seeing Israeli sharpshooters atop apartment buildings in Jewish villages, on the lookout for any potential disturbances. To his American mentality, it was almost shocking.

Abrams added that Americans couldn't comprehend what it's like to live as the Israelis are at this time.

"It's difficult to imagine what it's like to get up in the morning and think, 'Do I want to go to the market today when there might be a bomb or attack?' she said. "It affects your daily routine and takes away the security you once had and it infuses fear. This is something we hear but absolutely cannot see or comprehend. You have to be there to feel it."

Israeli President Moshe Katsav told the mission: "Now I'm not sure that the path of peace is irreversible. It does not depend on us. We don't see any determination among the Palestinian leadership."

The mission itself couldn't have come at a more critical time, said the Israelis.

The fact that 18,000 hotel rooms are currently unoccupied — many of them due to cancellations by American Jews — has fueled a sense of abandonment and isolation that now pervades Jewish Israel.

But Israel is not under siege by the Palestinians, as many perceive through media reports.

Ronald Lauder, who, as chairman of the Conference of Presidents, has greater access to information than most diaspora Jews, conceded to fellow mission participants that his wife feared that he was "going to the battlefront."

The mission's arrival was widely reported by Israeli media, as was the vow by the UJC that a steady stream of missions will flow over the next month or two. The next is planned for Oct. 29.

"If you just watch the news, you could easily get the impression that the whole world is against us," said Reuven Makover, a 32-year-old photographer in Jerusalem.

Throughout the visit, their Israeli hosts referred to mission participants as "brothers and sisters" and "family," and "our commanders in the field."

Indeed, aside from the show of solidarity, the participants were there to arm themselves with the facts — as Israel is explaining them.

"We don't expect others to draw a parallel between us and the Palestinians, because we have acted in the right," Barak told the participants just before they departed for home Oct. 19.

Upon their return home, participants planned to press the Israeli case within their local Jewish communities and congregations, and especially through the local news media and their political representatives in Washington.

For its part, the Israeli government, after admitting it was slow to justify its actions as the clashes spun out of control, has now assembled a task force of former and current diplomats and spokespeople, including Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg.

They are fanning out across Western Europe and North America in hopes of swaying public opinion.

By all accounts, it will be an uphill battle.

The Israelis said the Palestinians grabbed the "underdog" mantle from them long ago, and asserted that their opponents manipulate the media to advance their cause, providing picture-driven television networks like CNN with scenes of wailing mothers or frenzied funeral processions.

Moreover, they noted, the media obsessively tallies the number of those killed, as if disproportionate Palestinian casualties is a sure-fire gauge for determining who is aggressor, who is the innocent.

Rarely is it mentioned, they said, that the youngest Palestinians somehow find their way onto the front lines of street confrontations and are not killed in their homes, or schools, or mosques.

The most damning images, though, and those that understandably turned the world against Israel, said the Israelis, were that of 12-year-old Mohammad al-Darrah being shot and killed in his father's arms.

However, as Maj. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon, the Israeli army's deputy chief of staff, outlined in a detailed explanation, Mohammad died in the crossfire as Palestinian snipers were to the left of him, right of him and directly above him.

He also said the boy was not just an innocent passer-by, but one of a crowd of rock-throwers.

Ya'alon went on to explain the circumstances that led to several other clashes that he said were reported internationally from the pro-Palestinian standpoint.

"We can't cope with the lies, to go into details again and again," said the general.

Mission participants peppered Ya'alon with questions about the "excessive use of force" for which Israel has been denounced at the United Nations.

They asked why not use water cannons or even soap bombs, to deny rioters the sure footing needed for hurling rocks or Molotov cocktails.

Ya'alon responded that the defense establishment had weighed the options and chosen rubber-coated bullets and sometimes live ammunition.

He said his forces have "acted responsibly and with great restraint."

And although "within two hours we can finish the Palestinians," Ya'alon said, "it is vital that we have legitimacy for our activities — moral legitimacy and international legitimacy."