Thursday 27 November 2008

The Long Waite

I recently completed reading the autobiography of Beirut hostage Terry Waite. His book entitled "Taken on Trust" is excellently written and a worthwhile read. It has, however, left me feeling bewildered.

Terry Waite was the Archbishop of Canterbury's special envoy dealing with Middle East hostages. He worked tirelessly to negotiate the release of hostages held by various extremist groups around the Middle East, including those who were connected to the church as well as those who were not. He enjoyed some success in securing the release of a number of captives before he himself was captured in Beirut in January 1987. He was held for a total of 1,763 days, of which nearly 4 years was in solitary confinement. Waite's story is one of mental strength and survival. But, more than anything, his story is one of humility and modesty. Beyond describing facts regarding his treatment in captivity and some of his thoughts and frustrations during this time, Waite astonishingly has no bad word for his captors nor Hezbollah, the organisation which they represented.

I could not read one page of this book without thinking about Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held in captivity by Hamas for the past two and a half years. I could not help wondering whether he is being held in similar conditions to those described by Waite, whether he is being treated in the same inhumane way as Waite, whether he is also being chained to his cell and denied exercise and sunlight like Waite, whether he is also being allowed only one toilet visit each day and whether he has the mental strength to get through his ordeal. Terry Waite is undoubtedly a man of incredible mental fortitude, and yet the scars left on him by his ordeal will haunt him for the rest of his days. So how can we expect Gilad, who recently celebrated his 22nd birthday in captivity, to be holding up? The thought is a troubling one.

Unlike Waite, I have no qualms about wearing my heart on my sleeve. I try to think about what type of people would subject innocent human beings to this sort of treatment. If it was an isolated incident, it could be justified as an uncoordinated action by a renegade group of extremists. Unfortunately, this is not isolated and the group is not renegade. This is a policy adopted and condoned by many different groups around the Middle East. There is one thing that these groups have in common - they are all Muslim extremists. Do we, therefore, conclude that this is an action adopted to advance the Muslim cause? It is difficult not to. How can we justify having anything to do with such people? These are the people that Israel is being pressurised to sign a peace agreement with, in accordance with which a state bordering Israel will be created. Are these the neighbours that we would choose to live with? It is true to say that I am creating a generalisation about Muslims on the basis of actions of some of them. My problem is that I do not hear or see the so-called moderate Muslims standing up and opposing the horrifying policy of hostage-taking. Either they are quiet, or they are in quiet agreement. My interpretation is the latter.

There has been much criticism of the handling of the Gilad Shalit case by the Israeli government. I have to admit being part of this chorus in chiding the government for not doing more to get Shalit released before today. Having read Waite's book and taken further note of some of the recent press reports on this saga, I acknowledge that the criticism may not be entirely justified. It seems as though the requirements set by Hamas for his release are being continuously moved and revised. Each time the Israeli government begins to consider a proposal and to find logical ways to accommodate it or find a reasonable compromise, Hamas withdraws the offer. Even the Egyptians, who have been acting as facilitators in the exchange negotiations, have expressed their frustrations at Hamas. A cynic may conclude that they are more interested in playing mind games than achieving anything in a prisoner swap.

It is inevitable that people may bring the US prison in Guantanamo Bay as an example of how non-Muslims perpetrate similar criminal behaviour. Whilst not trying to condone the manner in which the Americans have handled Guantanamo Bay, and particularly the length of time taken to process the prisoners there, I find it very easy to distinguish between this and hostage-taking. If Gilad Shalit had received the most basic access to the International Committee of the Red Cross, and if his captors had provided his family with some information about his well-being, there may have been room for a discussion. But, by denying him even these most basic rights set out in the Geneva Convention, the hostage-takers set themselves apart as the most inhumane of people.

In his postscript, Terry Waite relates that he heard, subsequent to his release, that some of those who were responsible for guarding him were later shot due to the fact that "they knew too much". How can we possibly expect to hold a sensible negotiation with people like this? And yet, for Gilad's sake, we have no choice.

Saturday 22 November 2008

The Cycle of Extremism

I am always intrigued to follow the political leanings of people who come to live in Israel. My contention is that, no matter where on the political spectrum people stand prior to coming to live in Israel, they always seem to move to the right once they have settled into life in the Holy Land. In my view this is a natural outcome of what I call "the cycle of extremism".

Even though many people are politically well-informed about the Israeli situation prior to making the move, it seems as though they find there is a significant difference when viewing things from a distance as opposed to living it on a daily basis. For some reason, this seems particularly true of those who are naturally left leaning.

The traditional course of events causing this political shift often is started in one of two possible scenarios. It usually begins with an extremist Palestinian group attempting some sort of terror attack on an Israeli target, or alternatively attempting in a different manner to provoke the Israeli army and government into action. This type of provocation has, in the past, resulted in Israeli casualties. Thankfully in more recent times, the Israeli security services have managed to prevent casualties. Inevitably, the Israeli side is provoked into a response which is usually broadly reported in the press. This then provides the Palestinians with the "justification" to carry out a more extreme attack on Israeli targets. The second possible scenario sees the chain of events triggered by an action from the Israeli side. More often than not, this is an action to try to prevent terrorist actions from taking place either by initiating a military operation or by tightening the restrictions of movement of goods and people as a precaution. The tit-for-tat acts are usually played out in the same way, with the same results and consequences. These consequences often see ordinary citizens on both sides feeling more hatred towards the other side as a result of the violence between the parties.

The Palestinians use this in a very cynical manner to recruit support amongst their own people. Firstly, the fact that the Palestinians (particularly those in Gaza) suffer very poor living conditions is blamed wholly upon Israel. It is never presented that peaceful relations would allow Israel to give the Palestinians freer access to all that they require. Instead, every action is taken to ensure that Israel is forced to close the border crossings. This then facilitates the premise for propaganda in support of the fight against Israel by blaming Israel for the inhumane treatment of the Palestinians. The more the attacks against Israelis, the more likely the border closures and responses from the Israel Defence Forces. The greater the scale of the Israeli response, the more likely it is to solicit a reaction from moderate Palestinians. This creates a fertile recruitment ground for future extremists and "martyrs" to join the ranks of the fighters against Israel.

It is similarly true in Israel that more attacks by Palestinians serve to strengthen the resolve of Israelis to fight this evil terrorism, and cause Israelis to adopt more extreme views against compromise and peace. The Palestinians, by continuing to perpetrate attacks against the Israeli army and civilians, create an environment for making the Israeli negotiating position less flexible and less likely to be prepared to compromise with them. This, too, provides a basis for further extremism on both sides of the divide.

It almost seems as though the Palestinians turn on the tap of violence when they need to bolster their ranks with new extremists. It seems to be a sure-fire way to fill empty places. Violence solicits an Israeli response, which provides new Palestinian recruits who feel betrayed by the Israeli enemy.

The same is true in Israel where the average person feels greater hatred and less willingness to comprise with each additional attack. This is the "cycle of extremism" which seems almost impossible to break and lurches the whole of Israeli society to the right. With positions seemingly hardening on both sides of the conflict, this spells disaster for anyone who believes that a peace agreement is possible. Unless the vicious cycle of extremism can be broken, a peace will never be achieved in this region.

Saturday 15 November 2008

After the Elections

Although most of the world was focused recently on a certain election in the USA, we in Israel have held our own elections. Last week, Israelis went to the polls to elect representatives to more than 150 local authorities and municipalities.

All citizens and permanent residents aged 17 years old and above are entitled to vote in the local government elections. Each voter has two votes, a direct vote for the head of the council, city or town and a vote for representation of the council. As with the national government vote, the vote for the council representation is based upon proportional representation. Each voter votes for a party. The party presents its list of candidates and wins seats on the council in proportion to the percentage of the total vote that the party receives.

There were a number of interesting facts arising from these elections that are worthy of mention. The first of which is that the local government elections have hardly any link to national politics at all. Although the parties represented in the Knesset often run at the local government level, they usually do very poorly. In addition, national politics has no bearing on local elections whatsoever as local government elections are largely fought on local issues only. Perhaps the best example of this fact arises in the city of Sderot, which has been under the fire of Kassam rockets from Gaza for the best part of 7 years. It is generally accepted that the national government has not done enough to reinforce Sderot to protect it from the rocket fire. There are those who say that the national government has been negligent in the way that it has chosen to deal with Sderot, or not to deal with it by not providing sufficient protection for it. For much of the time that Sderot has been under rocket fire (and certainly over the past few years), the Kadima party has been in power. It seems very ironic, therefore, that the Kadima party candidate, David Buskila, was voted to replace incumbent mayor Eli Moyal. Adding further irony, Buskila was the first to criticise the national government when numerous rounds of rockets landed in and around the city in the days following the election.

The second point of interest is how the same issues seem to appear in many towns and cities. The battle for the mayoral seat in Jerusalem reflected arguments up and down Israel. The leading candidates in Jerusalem were Meir Porush and Nir Barakat. Porush was an ultra-orthodox candidate representing the ultra-orthodox parties in Jerusalem. Their power succeeded in electing Uri Lupoliansky, the outgoing mayor of Jerusalem. Barakat is a secular candidate who was defeated by Lupoliansky the last time around. Inevitably, the battle was along religious lines, but not necessarily as one may think. Most of the ultra-orthodox citizens voted for Porush, except for certain ultra-orthodox sects who had a long-standing rivalry with him. They, together with the modern religious and secular citizens, voted for Barakat. Barakat was the eventual winner by a comfortable 10 point margin. Many other citizens in cities across Israel also voted along religious lines. Religious voters preferred religious parties that would ensure sufficient funding to their religious schools and other institutions. They would also ensure that the laws of Shabbat and other Jewish laws would be protected in their local area. Secular voters, afraid of the religious imposing their will on non-religious citizens, rushed to vote for secular candidates who promised to oppose the might of the religious lobby. The argument over religious issues unfortunately drowned out the real issues facing most local authorities and their citizens today. These include running a balanced budget, eradicating corruption, providing an improved educational framework for all our children, reducing pollution etc. It is my view that these issues are far more important to Israelis, religious and secular, than the futile religious debate and should have formed the main points of the election platforms.

The animated debates that formed part of the election campaigns and the arguments that ensued between rival parties were, themselves, viewed with concern by certain people. The view of Jew arguing with Jew and accusations being flung from all sides was concerning to some people who understand the need for Jewish unity. This is particularly true at a time like this when we, as Jews, are under continued attack on many fronts. There were even those who attempted to prevent the debates from taking place in attempt to encourage greater unity.

It is my view that the attempts to limit these debates, as honourable as they may be, are futile. The course of the democratic process demands that people express their views and are prepared to present what is most important to them. It is also important for each voter to be able to identify what it is that he does not like about the party that he is not voting. If necessary, he should be allowed to challenge different party platforms in attempt to find the position and the party that best represents his views. Any attempts to quell this process ultimately end up destroying the democratic process. In Israel, we should be grateful for the democratic rights which are guaranteed to all citizens and we should be protecting them with all that we have. This requires us to defend the democratic process, even if this means pitting Jew against Jew in doing so.

Part of the democratic process also requires us to accept the outcome as the will of the majority, and to do our best to work within the framework set out by the duly elected representatives. It additionally requires us to create unity amongst ourselves to allow us to fight the common enemy that continues to try to destroy us and our nation. It is my sincere hope that we Israelis will be able to do this as well as we were able to defend our positions and platforms against one other.