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For Americans With Family In Gaza And Israel, The Faraway Conflict Hit Home

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

For Americans with family living in Israel and Gaza, the recent fighting there hit close to home. Many stayed in constant touch with their loved ones as Hamas fired rockets into Israel and as Israeli warplanes carried out airstrikes on Gaza. And with an uneasy ceasefire holding after 11 days of hostilities, their fears and feelings about a conflict thousands of miles away are still quite raw. NPR's Connor Donevan spoke to some of those Americans.

CONNOR DONEVAN, BYLINE: Whenever Libby Lenkinski gets a text or a call from her sister or her parents, she has the same reaction.

LIBBY LENKINSKI: I'm like, oh, wow, I was just thinking of them. But that's because there is never a moment that I'm not thinking of them.

DONEVAN: Lenkinski lives in Brooklyn. Her immediate family lives in Tel Aviv, which was a target of Hamas rocket barrages. So when she checked in with her sister...

LENKINSKI: Hi.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hi. How are you?

DONEVAN: ...The rockets were a constant topic of conversation. On a call late last week just before the ceasefire, her sister worried about a last burst of attacks.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Everyone's expecting that the finale will be tonight, so I'm a little bit more edgy than I was in the last couple of days.

LENKINSKI: So far, any sirens or anything today?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Nothing.

DONEVAN: Lenkinski says her sister had panic attacks, worried about leaving the house and having to sprint to a bomb shelter with her two girls. She says the conflict even intrudes on her nieces' play dates.

LENKINSKI: The first thing that they talk about with these 8-year-olds is, what did you do when you heard the sirens? Were you scared? I wasn't scared. Oh, my mom was crying. Oh, my mom wasn't crying. You know, just that's what's on their minds. And that is really devastating and awful.

DONEVAN: Lenkinski works for the New Israel Fund, a left-leaning group that she says is staunchly anti-occupation and is working to build Arab-Jewish partnerships. And as worried as she is for her own family, she knows the danger is much greater for Palestinians living in Gaza.

LENKINSKI: Palestinians in Gaza don't have any protection from the bombs that are being dropped by Israel on their homes. They don't have anywhere to run.

DONEVAN: Israel's Iron Dome defense system prevented most Hamas rockets from reaching their targets. In the end, 12 people were killed in Israel, more than 240 were killed in Gaza, and hundreds of businesses and homes were destroyed there. Video clips on social media captured the damage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking non-English language).

DONEVAN: The voice in this clip prays for resilience as the camera takes in a pile of sheet metal and concrete rubble that used to be a home. It belonged to relatives of Deanna Othman's in-laws. They evacuated as bombing intensified nearby, she says.

DEANNA OTHMAN: And then they came back to find, you know, the entire thing basically eviscerated.

DONEVAN: During the fighting, Othman and her husband called her in-laws as often as they could get through.

OTHMAN: It's really difficult to even know what to say because, you know, what are you supposed to say to somebody who is, you know, seeing the bombs fall around them? You really don't have much that you can say other than, we're praying for you. We're thinking of you. We're sharing your information. We're sharing your videos.

DONEVAN: She shared that video of the destroyed home to her Twitter followers. Othman is a high school teacher in the Chicago suburbs. She's also an activist, a board member with the Chicago chapter of American Muslims for Palestine. She says the contrast between her family's reality in Gaza and hers in the U.S. is wrenching.

OTHMAN: There is a lot of guilt that we feel as, you know, Palestinian Americans that, you know, our family is going through with us. And I'm sorry, but (crying) we feel powerless in a lot of ways. Despite how hard we work, despite, you know, how many thousands of people we bring out onto the streets, it sometimes feels like it's nothing, you know, when somebody's life is under threat.

DONEVAN: Her anguish hung over what should have been a happy time celebrating the Eid holiday with family members now that COVID-19 restrictions had been lifted. And while the airstrikes have ended, Othman doesn't feel much relief.

OTHMAN: The ceasefire is just an end to the threat of imminent death, basically. But they - you know, the greater issue is, you know, the siege, the occupation in general, the displacement, all of that.

DONEVAN: She says it's up to Israel to end all of that. And until then, violence will always be a fact of life in Gaza. Another Palestinian American who feels that way is Said Durrah, who lives outside Washington, D.C. He has dozens of cousins in Gaza who are so used to the violence that his conversations with them can be surreal.

SAID DURRAH: The way that they talk about it is the way that you and I would talk about preparing for a vacation. And what I mean is they're thinking to themselves, oh, don't worry. I already placed everything in the bag. It's by the door in case there's an air strike and we have to be evacuated.

DONEVAN: During those calls, they try to keep it together for the sake of their children.

DURRAH: How raw do they want their emotions to be on this call, knowing that they're surrounded by their family? Everybody needs to act normal for these kids and for their neighbors and for everyone else. There's not people from Gaza running through the streets when an airstrike is happening like, oh, my God, this is happening to us. Everybody buckles down and just puts the rest in the hands of God.

DONEVAN: While Sayed Durah is used to checking in on family members during outbreaks of violence between Israel and Hamas, David Shriberg of Bloomington, Ind., is not. His daughter was on a high school trip in Israel this month.

DAVID SHRIBERG: The last few weeks are not going to go down as my most productive weeks otherwise just because, you know, when your child's in a war zone, like, it's hard to think about anything else.

DONEVAN: As he got updates from his daughter, his fears eased somewhat.

SHRIBERG: It turned out in the building that she was staying in that the bomb shelter was, like, right by her room, apparently. You know, and they did a drill, and, like, you know, we - I have to say, like, you know, I mean, it was scary. But actually talking to her helped us because we could hear kind of how it sounded to her. The roles kind of shifted a little bit, and my daughter's, like, trying to reassure us.

DONEVAN: But he spent a lot of time on social media looking for any updates on the situation, and he found a lot of posts that were disturbing.

SHRIBERG: The things that, at least for me personally, I find most alarming is seeing people pass along information that's, to me, clearly anti-Semitic - things about, like, Jews controlling the media or, you know, all sorts of kind of absurd memes. I see them being passed along kind of, I guess, under the guise of Palestinian rights, and I just find that incredibly alarming.

DONEVAN: He says the civilian deaths in Gaza are a tragedy, but he says Hamas' military strategy deliberately puts Israel in a, quote, "horrific position" where it can't defend itself without killing civilians. Israel is important to him, he says, because there needs to be a safe place in the world for Jews. Here in the U.S., the anti-Semitism he saw online this month and the anti-Semitic violence of recent years worry him.

SHRIBERG: To me, it's very soul-crushing, you know, just at a personal level because I see it invading our lives in a way it hadn't before. And frankly, I'm seeing a lot of people just, like, seemingly not care.

DONEVAN: So it's not over for him even though his daughter is back home in the U.S. now, and it's not over for Said Durrah, Libby Lenkinski or Deanna Othman, either. They fear another escalation in violence is never far away, and their families are never far from their minds.

Connor Donevan, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRUCE BRUBRAKER'S "OPENING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.