We takes on new meaning 40 miles away from Gaza Strip

When in San Francisco, in times such as these, we proudly and rightly declare our “solidarity with the Israeli people.” We often speak in terms of “we” as in the old slogan, “We Are One.”

But the “we” of which I now speak is born of personal experience, of being here in Israel for a sabbatical and unexpectedly finding myself and my wife, Anat, and my 8-year-old daughter, Tamar, in the middle of yet another miserable Middle Eastern war. Now, the “we” is deeply personal.

Just three weeks ago, I visited Sderot in southern Israel as part of a Jewish Community Relations Council delegation of California Assembly members. We were guests at a Chanukah celebration at the Alon Elementary School and received cute gifts from a class of adorable first graders.

Two things at the school stood out: the school’s bomb shelters every 30 meters, and the building’s hardened, rocket-proof cover. Rockets had already been falling sporadically in the area for weeks. The kids at the Alon school (and all citizens of Sderot and dozens of other cities, towns and kibbutzes) have only 15 seconds to find shelter from the incoming bombs.

In San Francisco we feel solidarity with the people of Sderot and the region at a distance of 9,000 miles. Here in Holon, a 40-minute drive from the war zone, the headlines on the morning of Dec. 30 told of a Hamas volley of rockets. A Grad missile landed in Ashdod, killing a mother of four.

The “we” I am feeling comes from Hamas’ threat to send “hundreds of suicide bombers and car bombs” into Israeli cities. This would presumably include Holon, where I am with my daughter, for whom the adult war around her is beyond her comprehension. For that matter, I am not certain that we adults really comprehend the wars we fight all that much better, and this became clear while trying to explain this war to her. Words such as “terrorism” or “Hamas” or “legitimate targets” are challenging to explain in light of her persistent demands as to “why we can’t just all be friends?”

So this time I feel the “we” rather intensely. It is not the “we” of political solidarity with Israel, which is absolutely essential. It is not the “we” of slogans and speeches. It is the “we” as in me and my loved ones. It is the “we” as in my Israeli wife’s best friend whose twin teenage sons will be in the IDF in just two and a half years. It is the “we” of everyone in this part of the world whose own life, and the lives of those they love, are threatened by this conflict.

And so I expand this circle of “we” to innocent civilians just across the line in Gaza only an hour’s drive away that are caught in harm’s way — mainly because of Hamas’ use of human shields. News earlier this week included an IDF air strike on a Hamas rocket factory that also hit a nearby house killing five Palestinian girls in one family.

It is important to note that the IDF is taking great pains to strike only Hamas targets, and that Hamas deliberately places its military infrastructure in civilian residential areas. And Article 28 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states that the “presence of a protected person may not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations” and that should civilians “be within or in close proximity to a military objective they must accept the risks resulting from an attack directed against that objective.”

As the father of four daughters, though, I feel empathy with the Palestinian parents now mourning the loss of their five beautiful little girls. As far as I’m concerned, this circle of “we,” the parents of little ones, knows no ethnic or religious bounds. If I didn’t have such feelings, I would lose my humanity. That is why I am reassured by the knowledge that Israel showed tremendous restraint as its citizens endured 6,000 rocket attacks since Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005, deciding to respond with force only after the situation became untenable, and reassured by its commitment to minimize civilian casualties.

“We” (my family) will be here in Israel for another three weeks, at which point I will return to the Bay Area, where the existential quality of the word “we” will again be transformed by distance. During this time, “we” are grateful for the solidarity for Israel coming from the Bay Area as we stay only a short drive from Gaza. At the moment, this small two-letter pronoun “we” has far more meaning than I ever thought possible.

Yitzhak Santis is the director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council’s Middle East Project. He is currently in Israel on sabbatical.