Two local clergymen leading a tour of Israel gave more details Saturday of their group's brush with the four-day old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Rabbi Larry Kaplan of Temple Israel, Wilkes-Barre, and the Rev. Robert Zanicky of First Presbyterian Church, Wilkes-Barre, are leading a group of 44 clergy and members of various faiths and congregations on a tour of Israel. On Friday, the group was in Jerusalem when a Hamas rocket was fired at the city.
On Saturday, both clergymen responded to The Times Leader's requests for an account of their experience.
The group arrived in Tel Aviv Nov. 10, and is scheduled to stay in Israel until Nov. 21. The group spent several days in the Galilee area before arriving in Jerusalem Wednesday night. The group passed by the scenes of previous bombings and encountered Palestinian protesters outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, but there was no inkling of trouble early on in the trip, according to Kaplan.
Until a few days ago, our biggest concern was Syria, to the North just beyond the Golan Heights, Kaplan wrote. We had heard that there was some military activity after rockets landed in the Golan Heights over the Syrian border and some Israeli tank fire back towards Syria. We were in the Golan Heights on Tuesday standing on Mt. Bental where we could see the border with Syria and the Valley of the Tears, the site of the 1973 war.
It was not until Friday evening, on the cusp of the Sabbath, when the group had its first brush with the conflict. The group was walking from its hotel to a popular Reform synagogue shortly after 4:30 p.m. when sirens sounded warning of an impending rocket strike.
The 40 or so of us were about half way to the synagogue- we actually were walking down Martin Luther King (S)treet at that moment- when air raid sirens went off.
I had recalled during my few years living in Israel as a student that often the beginning of the Sabbath was marked by a siren, so even though it lasted for quite a while, I told the group it was just the advent of the Sabbath and we kept walking. After all- it was dusk- the Sabbath was literally beginning at that moment.
But then we saw people running- I asked a few people in Hebrew what was happening, and they said they didn't know- but it definitely was an air raid siren. So we turned around and returned to the hotel.
We had been hearing loud booms, and then what sounded like very loud fire crackers before the sirens went off- but thought (hoped?) they were sonic booms from a jet.
As we approached the hotel it was clear that some kind of ordinance had been fired into Jerusalem.
A single rocket had been fired at Jerusalem, landing in an open area southeast of the city and injuring no one. A rocket was also fired at Tel Aviv earlier Friday, and likewise injured none, according to Associated Press reports.
When they arrived at the hotel, staff briefed the group about how to access a basement emergency shelter in case the sirens sounded again. Zanicky described the shock of the situation and confusion in the faces of hotel guests after the rare attack on Jerusalem, a holy city to Judaism and Islam.
There was no panic, but there was concern on every face, whether tourist or Israeli, he wrote. This just does not happen here! Across the border of Gaza yes, but Jerusalem? Perhaps something in the Golan Heights, but Jerusalem? What if a rocket from Gaza hits the Dome of the Rock? Who would be blamed and indicted?
Following the attack on Jerusalem two members of the group decided to end their trip early. Kaplan said he had no indication any other group members would leave early.
The group altered its plans to visit Christian sites in Jerusalem on Saturday, visiting Masada and the Dead Sea instead, after hearing of stone throwing incidents at the Mount of Olives and learning tour buses were not traveling to that area of East Jerusalem Saturday.
Kaplan expressed eagerness to put the attacks behind him.
Jews and Christians have come from the Wyoming Valley to visit Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the Holy land, he wrote. We've had an amazing trip so far, and still have a few days left. May they be filled only with the sounds of peace.