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Saturday, Dec 01 2012 11:00 PM

SARAH NEAL: For Bakersfield native living in West Bank, war is never far

By The Bakersfield Californian

Now that Hamas and Israel have agreed to a cease-fire, things are supposed to get back to "normal." The thing is, I'm not really sure what "normal" is. Or how to be "normal" afterward. It's hard to describe what it's like living on the fence of war and peace. Of course, I'm happy that we're not being fired on, or that we didn't have to launch a ground invasion of Gaza. I was so relieved to see one of my good friends come back from his reservist duty earlier this week. I'm happy each and every time I see a friend come back home -- safe. I thank God for the peace, no matter how temporary it might be.

That being said, I now have war in the back of my mind. It's tapping away at the back of my subconscious. Last Friday night, as I lit my Shabbat candles, I kept thinking to myself, "What if another siren goes off like last week?" Today, as I was working in the preschool and the kids were sleeping, I kept thinking about my current biggest fear: to be in the preschool with sleeping kids and an air raid siren goes off. As I walk down the street, I am vastly more aware of my surroundings and where the closest place to take cover could be. When I travel to Jerusalem, I find myself scanning the roadside for Arab kids with rocks just waiting for an Israeli car to drive by. That being said, I'm really trying to not live my life in fear and terror. If I stop doing what I need to do and lock myself in my bedroom (which happens to be my apartment's shelter), they win.

My Israeli friends have been trying to instill courage in me. Most "sabre" Israelis (born and raised here) have crazy stories about war that we, as Americans, can't even begin to imagine. People in my age group have lived through intifadas and the Gulf War. Add a few years to that and we're talking also about another Gaza War, the Yom Kippur War, and even the 1967 Six-Day War. I have friends who grew up taking a backpack, lunch and gas mask to school. You know, in case of chemical warfare. My friends and family have stories about hiding in the bathroom (since there weren't really shelters back then), putting duct tape around the door frame, wearing their gas masks, and hearing gunfire and rockets so close that it felt like it was coming into their homes.

This is how Israelis reassure me that things are fine and I shouldn't worry. They tell me stories about the last Gaza War and the time their car got firebombed or stoned on the road. They tell me stories about how they used to be friends with many Arabs until (enter whichever war or terrorist attack you want here) happened. They tell me that they're sorry they didn't even think about calling to check in on me, well because, (shoulder shrug) that's how life is.

That's how life is? How is that possible? A nation of men and women grow up knowing and seeing war. Apparently, I'm now "really Israeli" because I had to run into a shelter a few times recently. It makes my heart break a little bit with each story I hear. I think about the last time I was with my friends in America. We never spoke about war, international, national or even local politics. All I can think about now is that Hamas in Gaza is currently rebuilding the same tunnels that were used for smuggling rockets from Iran. Iran is trying to broker a deal with Jordan, our neighbor to the east, by offering them 30 years of free oil. Also, Iran is loading ships with rockets for delivery to Gaza. Syria, to the northeast, is in the midst of a civil war. Lebanon, to the northwest, is backed by Hezbollah. Egypt, to the west, can't afford to break its peace agreement with Israel because of the billions of dollars in aid it's receiving from America. Will that stop Egypt? Its president is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is backed by Hamas.

I've lived in pretty rough neighborhoods before, but nothing compares to the one Israel lives in. I've seen pretty crazy things, including a hijacked mini-bus hostage situation outside my Los Angeles apartment, but it doesn't compare to seeing rocket trails outside my bedroom window followed by a boom that shook me to my core.

Yet we are still here. Yet I am still here. We will continue to be here. I will continue to be here.

I can't really describe how or why, I just know that despite my fears and anxieties, I will continue to live in Israel. I will most likely continue to have fear and anxiety, but I'm hopeful that with time, it will fade. All I can do is face the fear, look it dead in the eyes, and then continue on with my day -- however that works. I have to trust that our mighty Israel Defense Forces are strong and well-equipped. I have to stay strong and savvy and aware of what's going on around me. I have to talk to people about religion and politics (things too politically incorrect to speak about in other places) and stay informed.

As I'm sitting here in the computer lab at the elementary school where I teach, I can't help but think about the fact that just a few years ago I was living my simple little life in Bakersfield, serving coffee at a local Starbucks, blissfully unaware of anything that didn't directly affect my immediate life. Would I go back? No. How could I?

This week, the week following the cease-fire, our elementary school had a "special program" for the kids. The program was all about tolerance. Talk about courage. Where I've begun to feel hate in my heart over the pain and terror of the last week, this school has decided to take a huge chunk of time and teach the kids all about tolerance. What a beautiful thing to do. Teaching this to the children has resoftened my calluses.

I think that "hate" is one of the most dangerous words in the English language, as well as a dangerous emotion. It's one that I try to stay as far away from as I can. I'm thankful that in the midst of one of the most challenging times in my life, so far, we have taken time out to learn something good and positive. Something that will hopefully be ingrained in these children's hearts as much as it is in mine.

Sarah Neal, a 1999 graduate of Centennial High School, managed a Starbucks in Bakersfield before moving to Israel two years ago. She now lives in Tekoa, Gush Etzion, in the West Bank near Jerusalem.

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