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Residents tell of experience in Middle East conflict

YOUNGSTOWN — Perhaps no one in the Mahoning Valley could fathom a terrorist group lurking nearby deciding to indiscriminately fire rockets, missiles and mortar shells to kill as many local citizens as possible.

But that unimaginable scenario is a painful reality in many parts of Israel, a former journalist who lives near Tel Aviv says.

“Can you imagine terrorists shooting rockets in Boardman with the intent to kill you?” Janet H. Agassi said, referring to Hamas, the Islamist militant, nationalist and fundamentalist group that formed in the late 1980s and runs the Gaza Strip.

Agassi was among those who provided their perspectives on the evolving situation during a one-hour media briefing Friday to discuss the escalation of violence spreading through Israel in recent days, as significant clashes continue between Israeli security forces and Palestinian protestors.

The Youngstown Area Jewish Federation hosted the event. Bonnie Deutsch-Burdman, the federation’s director of community relations and government affairs, moderated.

As of Friday, about 119 people, including 31 children, have been killed, according to Gaza officials. Eight were killed in Israel as Israeli forces have bombed and sent troops to the Gaza border after militants fired additional rockets into Israeli cities.

Agassi, a former ABC News producer who came to Israel in 1982, said Hamas has been, in effect, holding the country and region hostage.

The ongoing clashes and violence also have caused many children in Israel to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder — to the extent that “the sound of a tea kettle whistling can traumatize them,” she added.

Exacerbating the problem is what Agassi sees as a plethora of inaccurate reports on the violence from numerous foreign news outlets. In a quest to be first and beat their competitors, too many of them print incorrect information or fail to provide proper context, she explained. Agassi added many people — especially those who are uninformed — have little or no understanding of the situation in Israel, which makes the need for fair and accurate reporting more urgent.

In a recent article that appeared in Newsweek magazine, Avi Mayer, the managing director of global communications for the American Jewish Committee, wrote Hamas “has maliciously been fanning the flames” of the clashes between Palestinian protestors and Israeli police forces that began before last week.

Some people erroneously have tried to portray the escalation as an Israeli scheme to take control of a mosque entrusted to Islamic custodianship since the Six Day War in 1967, or a nearly 50-year legal battle between Israeli Jews and Palestinians regarding several homes in a Jerusalem neighborhood — both of which are inaccurate, Mayer writes.

“Fundamentally, this is about Hamas and its dedication, in word and deed, to destroying the Jewish state and murdering Jews. And it is about basic morality,” he said.

Agassi’s 36-year-old son, Arik Agassi, who was born in Youngstown, recalled that he experienced the sound of rocket fire and sirens, as well as having to be whisked to a nearby bomb shelter with his two young children.

In addition, some families have been forced at gunpoint by Hamas to stockpile rockets and similar artillery in their basements, the younger Agassi said.

While defending itself, Israel has no desire to kill innocent civilians intentionally, yet Hamas is intent on committing genocide, he continued.

“I want an end to this,” Agassi said, adding “terrorism is terrorism” regardless of which political or other views are being used to justify such violence.

Kobi Sigler of Youngstown, who’s originally from Acco, Israel, shared several stories of fond memories growing up in that city. He also worried about the safety of his nieces, nephews and other relatives potentially in harm’s way.

“We just need one missile to hit in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Sigler, who also teaches at the Akiva Academy, a private school in the Jewish Community Center of Youngstown for high-achieving students in kindergarten through eighth grade of all faiths.

“I feel tears to see my city torn apart,” he added.

Deutsch-Burdman noted much of what is occurring in the situation throughout Israel is complex, with many geopolitical implications, but Hamas enjoys indiscriminately firing artillery and is happy if it strikes population centers.

“It’s complicated and not as cut-and-dry as you hear,” she added.

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