A world away from the rocket strikes, destruction and death, hundreds of Minnesotans quietly prayed for peace Saturday as violence escalated between Israelis and Palestinians.

At synagogues across the state, one prayer was echoed throughout while elsewhere, others prayed for the Palestinians. At the University of Minnesota, students on both sides protested Friday.

But for people like Jehad Adwan, anxiously watching the news unfold only made him fearful Saturday for his family and friends overseas.

"They are in the middle of all that," said Adwan, 43, a Palestinian-American who's lived in Minnesota for more than a decade.

From his Blaine home, he battled headaches Saturday from tirelessly staring at his computer and TV screens, following every development in the Gaza Strip. When he called his parents on Saturday at their Rafah home near the Egyptian border, he heard the rumble of bombs in the background.

"It has turned much worse in the last 10 years," he said of the decades-old battle. "It could get a lot worse before it gets better."

Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, agreed that the conflict combined with instability in the Mideast has created a "combustible" environment on the verge of war.

"This could represent an escalation in turmoil in the Middle East," he said. "[And] what happens in the Middle East ultimately affects the U.S."

The violence is far from Hunegs' St. Louis Park home, but not his family. He watched the heightened tension thousands of miles away, worried about his brother-in-law, who lives in Tel Aviv.

"There have been more peaceful days in the Middle East," Hunegs said.

Despite the increasing violence, Steve Silberfarb of St. Louis Park boarded a plane Saturday to fly to Israel for a three-day trip with other Jewish leaders, helping Israelis stuck in the crossfire.

"We're lucky in a way, we don't just watch TV; we have stuff we can do to help Israel," said Silberfarb, who is CEO of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation. "I don't think anybody could have anticipated this escalation. For Palestinian civilians and Israeli civilians, it's tragic."

At the corner of Snelling and Summit avenues in St. Paul, 84-year-old nun Florence Steichen joined anti-war protesters on Friday, as she does every week. This time, though, the focus was on the Gaza Strip, with Steichen promoting Palestinian freedom.

"We're seeing the same pattern over and over again; it just keeps getting worse," she said. "It's heartening to see it in the news so that maybe the Americans will pay attention. People can't ignore what's going on."

Steichen has followed the Gaza conflict since working for Bethlehem University in the 1980s. The violence she saw unfold there decades ago is now only intensifying.

"I don't know anyone that's personally neutral," Steichen said. "It's an emotional issue."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141 • Twitter: @kellystrib