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After Israel-Gaza Ceasefire, Mourning Continues, Survivors Try To Make Sense Of Lost Lives

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The mother of Palestinian boy Abdel Rahman Majdi Naim cries after her son was killed in strike on the building housing AFP's offices in Gaza City on November 21, 2012.
The mother of Palestinian boy Abdel Rahman Majdi Naim cries after her son was killed in strike on the building housing AFP's offices in Gaza City on November 21, 2012.

From his apartment in Tel Aviv, Mathew Markman could feel his building shake as Gaza-born rockets were intercepted and exploded in the sky.

He found himself hiding under stairwells and in parking garages when red alert sirens rang, warning residents to take cover from approaching missiles and debris. He's seen bloody Israeli and Palestinian bodies on TV and through reports on local and foreign websites, and grieved for the dead and injured.

"I know on the other end it's just as bad if not worse," said Markman, a student at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who added that he was cautiously optimistic about a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel announced on Wednesday. "I'm worried of a last-minute barrage on Tel Aviv or an attack by a party who wants to prevent a ceasefire from happening ... And I'm worried it won't hold."

He's also bothered for another reason: Hundreds of people have died or been injured on both sides of the border, but he's noticed that "people most significantly connect to death here in the Middle East through cold facts and figures."

"For both Israel and its supporters, and Hamas and its supporters on the Palestinian side, I believe these facts and figures are used to show and reinforce the belief that the adversary is inhumane and does not value human life or the other," said Markman, a graduate student in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies who spends part of his time studying foreign news reports on the region.

The human toll of rocket exchange between Gaza and Israel -- at least 140 Palestinian deaths, at least 840 Palestinians wounded, at least five Israeli deaths and dozens of Israelis wounded since escalated strikes between Hamas and Israel began last week -- will remain after rockets and air strikes are put to rest. The despair on both sides may never fade and the relative normalcy for Gazans and Israelis will take time to return.

On both sides and among supporters around the world, mourners and victims are struggling to explain and find meaning in the deaths of civilians and combatants. In London and New York, affiliates of an international anti-war group, Women in Black, will cover themselves in black clothing this week and stand silently in the streets to protest the loss of life in the region. Pro-Palestinian marchers have voiced opposition to lost Gazan lives outside Israeli embassies and consulates in several countries, while the usual prayers for peace in Israel that are said at synagogue services have taken on additional meaning.

In Philadelphia, Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center, an interfaith organization, wrote a prayer on Wednesday to mourn the dead, and sent it to rabbis via email and Facebook.

"And though we know that today there is no way to console You when among us some who bear Your Image in our being are killing others who bear Your Image in our being -- Still we yearn that from the unity of Your Great Name will come to flow a great and joyful harmony and life for all of us," it said.

At mosques in the U.S., Muslims have prostrated toward Mecca, and prayed for suffering to stop in the region, including Jerusalem, the third holiest city in Islam.

For Gazans and Israelis, deaths from the violence between the two groups often contrast in how the dead are culturally and religiously portrayed. Among those who have died in Gaza, including at least 54 civilians, many have been praised as martyrs who will be rewarded by God in heaven. Their photos have been uploaded to social media, while funeral processions have mourned their deaths and celebrated their lives as having been lost in what's seen as a cause of freedom.

"When you declare somebody to be a martyr you are making a meaning out of the death. They will be placed in the context of an overarching battle, even though many are not fighters," said David Cook, a professor of religious studies at Rice University who studies martyrdom in the Islamic world. Cook said Islam historically offered a wide definition of martyrdom, from stories of mothers who die during childbirth to those killed fighting to defend Islam. But Palestinians, he said, commonly use the term for civilians who die in the conflict with Israel, and posters of those martyrs are often placed around cities and towns.

In Israel, the fewer deaths -- many were likely prevented because of the nation's high-tech Iron Dome missile interception system -- are being treated differently.

"Those who die in times like these, especially soldiers, are considered heroes. But the word martyrdom, it has a very specific connotation in Judaism. It's usually when a Jew was forced to choose between his life and his religion," said Shmuel Shepkaru, a professor of Jewish history at the University of Oklahoma. "Israelis are mourning and burying the dead. Hopefully, there won't be more for either group."

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