As American Jewish leaders and politicians flew to Israel to bring back eyewitness accounts of the war with Hamas, Jewish groups here arranged for Israeli leaders to brief their members by phone and fundraising efforts were launched to help Israelis under attack.
On Tuesday afternoon, several thousand people turned out on little notice for a pro-Israel rally held across from the Israeli Consulate, sponsored by AMCHA (Coalition for Jewish Concerns), Fuel For Truth, the National Council of Young Israel and about 20 other organizations.
Despite the cold temperatures, the spirited crowd responded warmly to a number of speakers who stressed that their presence was as Americans opposed to terror as well as Zionists supporting Israel’s right to defend itself.
Several young people who were themselves wounded in Hamas terror attacks or lost friends or relatives in attacks addressed the rally, as did Fuel For Truth executive director Joe Richards, who asserted: “Free Palestine … from terror, and from Hamas.”
A rally in solidarity with Israel has been scheduled for Sunday at 11 a.m. at 42nd Street between First and Second avenues. It is co-sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York and UJA-Federation in cooperation with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
It was all part of an effort here and across the country to help get Israel’s message across as the fighting in Gaza intensified with an Israeli ground invasion and a mounting Palestinian civilian death toll.
Representatives of the Presidents Conference were in Israel this week to meet with Israeli leaders and tour areas of southern Israel that have come under almost daily Hamas rocket and mortar fire.
While touring Sderot, the group narrowly escaped one attack.
“We were walking outside with the mayor and were pushed into police headquarters [when the 15-second warning alarm sounded],” Malcolm Hoenlein, the group’s executive vice chairman, told a conference call organized by the United Jewish Communities. “You don’t realize how fast 15 seconds is. We had just gotten into the police station when there was a huge thud. It shook the building. We went outside with them and found that [the mortar] hit 100 meters away.
“You can understand why this is a weapon of fear. Several people were taken to the hospital; trauma is widespread. It is said that 70 percent of the people there are traumatized.”
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg also traveled to Israel on a solidarity mission and he too found himself caught up in a Hamas attack. But in a conference call with reporters Monday, he minimized the danger.
“I went from one room to another [reinforced room] — all of five or six feet,” he said. “The people who were in danger were not myself or the others traveling with me. It was those who are the people of Sderot. The real heroes are the Palestinians and the Israelis who are putting up with this.”
Traveling with Bloomberg was Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Queens-Nassau), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East. He recalled that the dash to the reinforced room was “the fastest five steps the mayor and I ever took.”
He said the room was an underground fallout shelter that was used as the command post by those who were tracking all Hamas missile firings. Israeli-designed equipment determined the site of each missile firing and projected where it would land. Those monitoring the equipment then sounded the appropriate siren to warn residents of an imminent attack.
“All decent, democratic, peace-loving people have sympathy with the Palestinians who are being held hostage by the Hamas terrorists,” Ackerman said. “The lesson [Hamas is learning] is, ‘If you don’t like to be hit back, don’t hit.’”
Asked if he was concerned that Israel would be pressured by the international community to halt its military response to the Hamas rocket barrage before it accomplished its objective of halting Hamas missile attacks and preventing the smuggling of additional weapons into the Gaza Strip, Ackerman replied: “I would be dismayed if Israel succumbed to international pressure before deciding on its own what was in its best interests — to continue or tone down this effort. This was a well thought-out move on the Israeli side.”
Hoenlein said he was told that Israel collected the phone numbers of 800,000 Gaza residents before the war that began Dec. 27 and then called them before bombing their homes “in an attempt to limit civilian” injuries.
Ackerman pointed out that after some Gaza residents received warning calls, they rushed with their children to the roofs of their apartment buildings to “defy the Israelis to blow up the house. … These are people who would risk their own children by storing rockets and missiles in their homes that are used to kill Israelis.”
Hoenlein stressed that although Israel was looking for international help in preventing future Hamas rocket and mortar attacks, it did not believe the United Nations was the proper venue because of Hezbollah violations of the 2006 UN truce in Lebanon.
“Hamas has to be disabled from continuing the wave of terror against its own people and Israel,” Hoenlein added.
Bloomberg said it was only when he was in southern Israel near the Gaza Strip that he felt in jeopardy.
“I was in Tel Aviv and life went on and people had smiles on their faces,” Bloomberg said. “Children were in playgrounds and it was a perfectly safe place to go. Israelis have an amazing joie de vivre. They look forward to a better life.”
Isaac Herzog, Israel’s minister of welfare and social services, told 500 participants in the conference call Monday that Israel’s military “operation is progressing exactly as planned. … We want a tranquil border; there is no other objective.”
He said Israeli troops had “moved into the launching sites where 80 percent of the missiles were launched at Israel.” Nevertheless, he said, Hamas has continued firing rockets and “around 900,000 Israelis are in the emergency area around 40 kilometers” from the Gaza Strip.
“They have to go to shelters whenever sirens are sounded and children do not go to school and a lot of business is paralyzed,” Herzog said.
Because Hamas has been firing long-range rockets that have reached as far as Beersheva, extra precautions have been taken for college-age students participating in the Birthright Israel program.
Gidi Mark, the program’s CEO, said there have been more than 4,000 participants in Israel since the war started and that the “attendance rate is around 90 percent” compared with 97 percent in the past.
Of all those who have participated in the trip since Dec. 27, Mark said, “only one or two asked to go home before the end.”
“People feel so comfortable because we have very strict security,” he said. “Safety considerations are the number one priority. Participants do not get close to the no-travel zone.”
The North American Jewish federation system announced it is seeking to raise $10 million to augment humanitarian and social needs programs in southern Israel. And the Jewish National Fund began an emergency multi-million dollar campaign to “provide immediate relief” to those in southern Israel. The money would be used to build a secure indoor recreation center and a fire station.
Editor Gary Rosenblatt contributed to this report.