On Thursday, July 6, at 9 a.m., Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a longtime supporter of Israel, was interrupted twice in attempts to place a call to Eli Moyal, mayor of the Israeli city of Sderot.
Palestinian terrorists have been attacking the city almost daily with Kassam rockets in recent weeks. Moyal had to interrupt both calls because of rocket attacks.
Villaraigosa wanted to reach out to the people of the Jewish state, and he chose Sderot, just outside Gaza, which has a population of 20,000, after conferring with local Jewish leaders. On hand for the pre-planned call were City Councilman Jack Weiss, Los Angeles Jewish Federation President John Fishel, Simon Wiesenthal Center Associate Dean Rabbi Abraham Cooper and Israeli Consul General Ehud Danoch.
The conversation barely got beyond the introductions.
Just as Villaraigosa began to move to substantive matters, Moyal interrupted, saying: "I'm sorry. We're going to have to have this conversation some other time. We've just been attacked by seven Kassam rockets," he said over speaker phone.
Five to 10 minutes later, Consul General Danoch called Moyal a second time and reached him on his cell phone. Just as Danoch was about to push the speaker phone button, Moyal again cut the conversation short because of another barrage of rockets.
"This experience shook all of us to our core," Villaraigosa said in a statement. "I have tremendous respect for Mayor Moyal and the people of Sderot, who live their lives in the shadow of terror. It makes you grateful for the peace and safety that we have here in Los Angeles."
The attempt by the mayor of America's second-largest city to reach out to the people of a nation he so admires became a lesson in the explosiveness and unpredictability of the Middle East.
Weiss said that the immediacy of the circumstances behind the termination of Villaraigosa's call with Sderot's mayor "really brought home the suddenness of terrorism." Weiss represents Los Angeles' Fifth Council District, which includes such heavily Jewish areas as West Los Angeles and parts of the San Fernando Valley.
The Kassam attacks also underscore the escalation of Palestinian attacks on Sderot and elsewhere in the region, and the dangers these attacks represent to Israeli citizens, Fishel said.
"Most folks here in Los Angeles don't necessarily understand Israel's geography and how close Sderot is to [Gaza] and the attacks' impact on the normalcy of the lives of men, women and children," Fishel said.
Sderot, which is located less than a mile from the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip, has seen an upsurge in attacks since Israel's withdrawal from Gaza last year. The targets have recently included schools during school hours, Jewish Telegraphic Agency has reported, causing Sderot's student population to drop by more than 15 percent over the past year.
In response to news of the call, Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Southern California Chapter said that Villaraigosa has every right to call city officials around the world to express his solidarity with them, especially when they face the consequences of war and natural disasters. But given that the mayor has called Israeli civic leaders, he has an obligation to call Palestinians, Ayloush said.
"When it comes to the Middle East, it is important to remember that there are two sides who are suffering due to this conflict," Ayloush said. "But there is one side that's suffering even more: that is the Palestinians, because of the occupation."
To date, Villaraigosa has not yet called any Palestinian officials but hasn't ruled out doing so in the future, spokesman Ben Golombek said.
Los Angeles' mayor has twice visited Israel and hopes to make another trip there again soon.