No simple answer to war on the border

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Half a world away, the people of Qana in southern Lebanon are burying their dead: more than 50 civilians, most of them children. Israeli ground troops continue to push north to fight Hezbollah inside the border, and helicopters continue to search and destroy enemy targets.

Half a world away, the people of Haifa, Israel, near the Lebanon border, hide out in shelters listening to Hezbollah rockets explode in the streets.

Here in the Lakes Region, Tala Zilberman, a 22-year-old Israeli camp counselor at Center Day Camp in Windham, watches the news flashes every night, checks online for news reports in Hebrew and talks with family and friends in Israel.

Zilberman can’t help but think of the campers she cares for at Center Day Camp when she hears of the humanitarian crisis going on back home: innocent families killed by Israeli air strikes, Hezbollah rockets and guerrilla warfare on the ground between Israeli troops and Hezbollah fighters.

When asked by the ever-inquisitive children at the camp about the war, she gives one reply, “It’s complicated.”

This current escalation of violence along the Israel/Lebanon border comes as a shock to Zilberman, but not a total surprise.

While teaching the campers about Israeli culture at the camp, she often gets the question and tries to explain to the children, in the simplest terms, how certain Muslim nations in the Middle East don’t want Israel as their neighbor.

Zilberman remembers when Israeli soldiers were abducted by Hezbollah and killed six years ago while patrolling the border just as two soldiers were kidnapped on July 12, sparking the current conflict in Lebanon.

Israel released Hezbollah prisoners to Lebanon in exchange for the soldiers’ dead bodies to give them a proper Jewish burial.

“It was an intense and stressful time and we thought what’s happening now would have happened then,” Zilberman said.

Zilberman is no stranger to living with the constant threat of violence at her home in the town of Nir Oz near the Gaza Strip on the eastern border with Israel.

Now the northern border is the focus of the attack as Hezbollah launches missiles in towns like Haifa where her brother-in-law’s family lives. They are now waiting out the violence in a shelter, afraid to walk the streets.

Her friends in Tel Aviv don’t talk much about the possibility that Hezbollah might soon attack the city, but she knows, while not explicitly expressed, that fear is always present in their minds.

Jenna is a young woman from Scarborough and a former Center Day Camp counselor living in Tel Aviv. She has asked that her last name remain anonymous.

Jenna said the escalation of violence didn’t start until Hezbollah began attacking Haifa. That’s when she started to see dozens of Israel helicopters flying north to the Lebanon border.

“When it first started, I was terrified,” Jenna said in e-mail correspondence. “I have always had the entire Atlantic ocean separating me from war. Never have I been living a two-hour drive from it.”

Many locals in Tel Aviv told her that they believe the city is “the safest place to be” and that Hezbollah doesn’t have the missile capabilities to hit the metropolis, contrary to media speculation. Still, Jenna is worried, but is learning how to live in wartime.

“Now, however, I am more used to what’s going on and living more like an Israeli, but not completely,” she said. “I still get nervous whenever I hear planes and helicopters and have located the nearest bomb shelter to where I live.”

The United Nations Security Council has yet to negotiate a cease-fire agreement with Israel, but intends to authorize the deployment of international peacekeeping forces on the ground.

David Tanguay, former Navy commander and leader of the local American Legion Post in Windham, is familiar with the political mess in Lebanon.

In 1984, he escorted the U.S. Marines out of Lebanon during the 15-year civil war there.

At the time, several political factions, influenced by surrounding countries like Syria, Israel and Iran, were all fighting for political power in the country.

After the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut was bombed, Tanguay helped the solders evacuate Lebanon.

During the day, there was relative calm as they loaded up military ships from departure, but at night, Beirut erupted into a war zone, he said.

“When we went in there, Beirut was one step from the Stone Age,” Tanguay said. “It was bombed to oblivion.”

Now, more than a decade after the end of that civil war in 1991, Lebanon had just begun to emerge from the wartime destruction, borrowing money to rebuild the country, and held democratic elections in recent years.

Hezbollah, a Shiite militia force, has gained strong support from some parts of the country by providing social services the Lebanese government can’t afford. This militia is now exacting violence on Israel as a means to further their political aims.

After Hamas kidnapped one Israeli soldier in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers on July 12, Israel responded with force.

Though counselor Zilberman defends Israel’s right to protect itself, she asserts that the less violent Israel can be, the less violence Hezbollah will evoke.

“People in Israel don’t want a war,” she said, “They just want their soldiers back.”

Her heart and condolences are with the soldiers’ families, praying for their safe return, she said, and those impacted on both sides of the border by this war.

When asked how the heavy loss of civilian lives weighs against the return of two Israeli soldiers, Zilberman said there’s a fundamental principle at stake here, the right of Israel to live in peace.

“I know it’s not going to end until we get our soldiers back,” Zilberman said. “It’s about our right to live in peace, our right to walk the border without the fear of being kidnapped. We’re fighting for the quiet peaceful life that we once had years ago.”

The other day, one 8-year old camper asked Zilberman “what was the difference between Maine and Israel,” since Maine is home to Muslim and Jewish people who both live in peace here.

“What are they fighting about?” the girl asked.

Sadly, there’s no simple answer to that question, Zilberman said.

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