When the rocket sirens wail, said Yoni Ari, you have 90 seconds to get to a bomb shelter.
That’s the reality north of Tel Aviv for the regional director of the Philadelphia Israeli American Council, who traveled from Wynnewood to visit his daughter, a Lower Merion High School graduate who joined the Israeli army, then found himself under attack.
“Everything you do during the day, you have to think where is the closest shelter,” Ari said in a phone interview as fighting rages between Hamas and Israel. “The streets in Tel Aviv and central Israel, they’re empty. It’s kind of a war zone.”
The conflict that’s dominated world attention for more than a week continues to escalate, raising tensions in Philadelphia as well, as Israelis, Palestinians, and their supporters take to the streets in a series of protests and rallies, each side denouncing the brutality of the other.
“We can’t just stand by and watch the massacre in Palestine by the racist state of Israel,” said Walid Aloui, 40, originally from Algeria, who joined 300 others at a pro-Palestinian rally at Rittenhouse Square on Saturday.
Khaled Kayed, a Palestinian born in Jerusalem, came to the rally with his Palestinian wife, sister, cousin, and uncle. All of them worried about relatives in the region.
“So far,” he said, “they are OK.”
The Black and Brown Coalition of Philadelphia sponsored the demonstration with the Philadelphia Free Palestine Coalition, whose organizer, Sean Emery, 22, called for an immediate end to the Israeli bombing campaign.
Not everyone needed to attend a rally to have strong opinions about the violence.
Abington house painter Zohar Fellus, 50, worries every day for his mother and siblings in Israel. But he doesn’t see a fast or easy solution to end the fighting. Israelis have been attacked — in local bombings that kill and injure but get little international news attention — since long before he came to the United States in 1998.
“Israel doesn’t want to attack any Palestinian territories unless they’re threatened,” he said. “Hamas, their motto is to eliminate Israel. You can’t have peace with terrorists. With Palestinians, it’s possible. Terrorists, no.”
This week the Israeli military unleashed heavy airstrikes on the Gaza Strip, the self-governing Palestinian territory on which Israel has imposed a land, air, and sea blockade. The strikes destroyed miles of tunnels and the homes of nine commanders of Hamas, which rules the area and has been designated a terrorist group by the United States, Israel, the United Kingdom, and European Union, and other countries.
Hamas has fired hundreds of rockets into Israel amid the worst fighting since 2014.
As of May 18, at least 213 Palestinians have been killed in airstrikes, including 61 children, with more than 1,440 people wounded, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Ten people in Israel, including a 5-year-old boy and a soldier, have been killed in the ongoing rocket attacks launched from Gaza toward civilian areas in Israel. More than 600 have been injured.
The roots of the conflict are enormously complicated, the immediate cause less so: Jewish activists who want control of the predominantly Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem invoked a law that allows Jews to reclaim homes they lost in the 1948 war that helped secure the existence of Israel, provided they still have old land deeds.
The law doesn’t offer Palestinian residents the right to reclaim homes currently inhabited by Jews, from which they may have fled during the same war.
When Palestinian residents in Sheikh Jarrah protested in early May, Israeli security forces responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. The fighting swept into the al-Aqsa Mosque, where thousands of Palestinians visited for Ramadan prayer. On May 10, Hamas fired rockets from Gaza toward Jerusalem and the south of Israel, and the Israel Defense Force responded with an aerial bombardment that leveled residential buildings. New showers of rockets soared from Gaza.
“The world gets brainwashed by narratives to call terrorists ‘freedom fighters,’” said Michael Balaban, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. “It’s not just the rockets, not just the terror of every single day being bombarded, it’s this double-standard narrative that points the finger at Israel and says, ‘You’re to blame.’ … Ultimately if you support Hamas and believe Israel is not allowed to defend itself, you’re condoning terrorism and you seek the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people.”
Imagine, said Ari, 49, the local Israeli American Council director, if a missile crashed into Philadelphia every couple of hours. That’s what it’s like. The Israeli “Iron Dome” defense system intercepts about 85% to 90% of the rockets, but some still get through.
“The missiles don’t see if you’re Jew or Arab,” he said, and both have been hurt in the mixed areas around Tel Aviv.
The solution, he said, is peace, through an end to the violence directed at Israel by Hamas.
“People who are controlling Gaza, their mission is to hurt Israel and they want to eliminate the Jewish state.”
On May 12 in Center City, Israeli flags waved as about 100 people turned out for an IAC-led march from the Philadelphia Museum of Art to the Horwitz-Wasserman Holocaust Memorial Plaza. Another pro-Palestinian rally is set for Saturday, May 22, in Center City.
“I’m reacting with horror at the now more than 100 Gazans who have been killed, and the thousands more made homeless by Israeli bombs,” said Justin Marshall, 24, of Mount Airy, who helps lead the Philadelphia chapter of If Not Now, a Jewish movement to end the occupation of the West Bank.
His friends in Israel find themselves dashing to bomb shelters, and that’s terrifying, he said. But they have the shield of the Iron Dome. Contrast that “to the people in Gaza, who have no protection whatever,” Marshall said.
Sophisticated Israeli fighter jets and artillery systems have struck scores of targets in impoverished Gaza, the home of about two million Palestinians, and one of the most densely populated places in the world.
“Israel has to end the apartheid system of laws in which Palestinians are allowed to be dispossessed of their homes, and dispossessed of their land, to make way for Jewish settlers.”
Of course he wants peace, Marshall said. Everyone does.
“I consider peace to be the presence of justice,” he said. “Anything less than full and equal rights for Palestinians is unjust.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article.