A few nights ago, I was asleep in my hotel room when a thunderous crash woke me. A rocket aimed at the resort town of Eilat landed across the street with no warning or sirens. Without panicking, but feeling rattled, we followed instructions to a safe room — although this time we arrived after the fact.

This summer I am in Israel as part of an outdoor teen "camp" with Israeli scouts. Although I've visited Israel several times, the purpose of this trip was to experience Israel in a different way. For reasons never anticipated when I signed up for this program, I most certainly am experiencing Israel in a different way.

As a student for nine years in a Jewish day school, I have learned much about Israel, having visited several times with my school and with my family. This past year an Israeli teen taking a gap year before her army service lived with our family for several months. During this time we frequently discussed the Arab-Israeli conflict — sometimes in Hebrew. My grandfather fought as a teenager in the Israeli War for Independence. Therefore, I felt fairly knowledgeable about Israel, including its history and its modern day existence. Yet knowing about Israel from the comfortable distance of the United States is nothing like experiencing the conflict with which Israelis live every day.

In the past few weeks, along with millions of other Israelis, I have heard sirens — so loud that my head wants to explode — warn of incoming missiles. When the alarm sounds, I have fewer than 30 seconds to find shelter. If I am outdoors in the open, I immediately drop facedown to the ground and cover my head, hoping that this missile is one of the 90 percent intercepted by the Iron Dome. Each alarm raises an important and unsettling question: Why me — why us? Why do people who do not know me or my friends want to kill us? As a 16-year old American I have never had to ask myself this question, while my Israeli friends live constantly with the fact that people only miles away want them to die. I found it hard to comprehend why I spent a good deal of time last week in shelters in Ness Ziona, a city whose main strategic value could only be a massive Cinema City (with excellent deals on Israeli chocolate and popcorn combos).

Hamas now claims it objects to Israeli oppression and closed borders between Gaza and Israel. If Hamas were protesting Israeli governmental policies toward Gaza, however, its members would aim their missiles at the various Israeli Defense Force bases scattered across the southern Negev desert or at other military targets. While Israel's aerial strikes result in the tragic deaths of Palestinian civilians and military action exacerbates the enmity, Israel's motive of preventing constant and potentially fatal attacks on its citizens is, at least in theory, humane and moral. Hamas, on the other hand, fires indiscriminately at population centers to maximize fear and panic.

Many of my friends in the southern coastal city of Ashkelon now sleep in safe rooms rather than wait to relocate frenetically when the inevitable sirens sound. These families are in no way military targets that threaten the people of Gaza; indeed, most support a two-state solution. Nonetheless they are targeted for death because they have the bad luck to live eight miles from Gaza and because they live in a country whose existence Hamas denies, whose people Hamas seeks to annihilate, and with whom Hamas refuses even a peaceful coexistence.

If Hamas wants to fight Israel and its policies, it should engage Israel militarily rather than targeting Israeli civilians and putting the people of Gaza in the line of fire. Nor should any Israeli purposefully kill a Palestinian civilian when defense of its people is not the motive. For this reason, the right wing Israelis who tortured and killed a Palestinian teenager for revenge are, like Hamas, guilty of an unforgivable and heinous crime that has nothing to do with defending innocent lives.

Perhaps I am a naive teenager, and I understand that Hamas is an extremist, terrorist organization whose members do not act rationally, but I wish that those Palestinians and Israelis who value life could overcome the extremism that leads to senseless death and perpetual hate. When I am forced to take refuge in a shelter or while I am lying face down on the ground hoping that Iron Dome works this time, I am also wondering why people on both sides of this terrible conflict cannot abandon their useless posturing and inflammatory rhetoric, sit down together and work toward peace.

Leah Smith is a rising junior at the Park School. Her email is leah.smith598@gmail.com.


To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.