Sunday 30 August 2009

When to Release Prisoners

The recent release of Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, on "compassionate" grounds has raised many issues regarding the release of convicted prisoners. This is especially true of those convicted of terrorist murders. In my view, this crime falls into a category all of its own.

Let us not fool ourselves. This was no "compassionate" release, at least I hope that it was not. Even the attempt to dress this up as such has been very weak. This is clearly a strategic move in conjunction with the Libyan government. When is a strategic move like this justified? It is hard to judge whether this move is justified or not as we have no sight of what price the Libyans are paying. Is it oil? or something else? No doubt this will all come out in the end. It seems as though the Scottish government felt that the release was justified. By all accounts, the British government also agrees with the release. Gordon Brown condemned the manner in which the prisoner was afforded a hero's welcome in Tripoli, but did not condemn the release itself. Recent documents point to the fact that the government in Westminster was aware of, and involved in the release. The American government has vehemently criticised the release, along with a number of European governments.

From an Israeli perspective, it is interesting to watch these events from a slight distance for once. Usually, it is us who are involved in the turmoil of having to decide whether releasing murderous thugs is justified, possibly allowing them to murder again. And it is us who have to consider the families of their victims who deserve their justice. So, for now, it is good to be a bystander. But our turn will hopefully present itself once more in the near future in the form of an agreement for the return of Gilad Shalit.

The dilemma associated with such prisoner release deals is acute. I don't believe that any politician or government employee felt satisfaction in the release of Megrahi. There is no doubt that this decision was taken with a great deal of reluctance and pain. But how does one evaluate whether the quid-pro-quo is worth the price? What national interest can be so vital that it justifies the insult that is heaped upon the families of the victims, and that drags the system of justice through the mud? In the case of Megrahi, we do not know.

In the case of the Gilad Shalit, any deal for his release will undoubtedly involve the release of many hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. This will include many who are terrorists and who have murdered innocent Israelis. This does not consider the hundreds of prisoners who have already been released in shows of "goodwill". This is a euphemism for the release of prisoners without any direct consideration in return. Will these actions be justified? There appear to be many conflicting views.

The Israeli government, by even contemplating continuing negotiations on this basis, has shown its agreement to the principle. This is despite the statements by government ministers that a deal for Gilad's release should not be at any price. So what is a price worth paying? Is it too much to release 400 prisoners? or 450? To me, this is a really tough call to make.

It is my hope that the families of the victims whose murderers have been imprisoned can understand that even this will not return their loved ones. Justice may have been done, but their loved ones cannot be reunited with their families. In the case of Gilad Shalit, he can be returned to his family. If the release of a murderer, or 400 murderers can return Gilad to his family, I feel that this is a risk worth taking. This is an opportunity to change the future of a family that has suffered so much in the past. It also does not preclude the responsibility to keep a careful intelligence watch on the released prisoners, and to ensure that any future attempts to take valuable lives and commit terrorist actions be prevented in every way possible.

My heart goes out to the Lockerbie families, and to the families of the victims of the terrorists who may be released in a deal to free Gilad. They deserve their justice. I feel sure that Megrahi will not re-offend, but I feel that the British government owes it to the Lockerbie families to explain what has been extracted in return.

For the Israelis, seeing Gilad with his family will be enough for us. Let us pray this day comes soon.

Sunday 23 August 2009

Holiday at Home

In some countries, it is customary to take a summer holiday abroad. I remember this particularly when we lived in England. Although the summer days are long and daylight can last until past 10pm, the summer weather is so unreliable that planning a holiday in England entails taking a huge risk. As a result, most people in England who are seeking a true summer break head off to Spain, Portugal, the Caribbean, the USA, Israel or elsewhere in the Middle East. The opposite is true of a country like South Africa. Travelling abroad for South Africans is extremely expensive due to the great distances involved and the currency exchange rate. Add to that the fact that there are so many wonderful holiday destinations within the country, that it is unsurprising that many South Africans have their summer holidays in Cape Town, Plettenberg Bay or on the Natal south coast.

Israelis generally like to travel a great deal and is no surprise to encounter Israeli tourists in any and every holiday location, no matter how remote. With the wonderful summer weather in Israel, it is perhaps ironic that many Israelis like to travel during the summer months to escape the stifling Israeli heat. Almost anywhere is cooler than Israel at this time of year.

In tandem with many Israelis travelling abroad are the waves of holidaymakers, many of them Jews from Europe and the USA, coming to Israel for their summer break. For religious Jews who are concerned about eating kosher food and observing Shabbat, Israel is an easy and relaxing holiday. There are many choices available for eating out, and it allows the combination of a sun-filled beach holiday with spirituality by combining beach and pool visits with pilgrimages to some of the holy sites.

I am not conventional when it comes to taking holidays. Over the years, I have been required to travel abroad a great deal for work. So when it has come to having holiday, I prefer to stay home. Living in Israel, staying home can be combined with a wonderful break and classic summer holiday. I like to sleep late (in the comfort of my own home) and then head out to the beach which is only a 20 minute drive from home, or possibly a local swimming pool. This allows the feeling of being on holiday whilst having the comforts of home. We are able to eat out in our local restaurants to add to the holiday feeling. We can also take day trips to parts of Israel that we have not visited before at all, or not visited recently. In my view, this all makes for a relaxing and inexpensive holiday whilst enjoying the best of what Israel is able to offer.

This year, with the financial crisis having hit holiday budgets very hard, it is natural that many have been forced to take local holidays rather than travelling abroad. Although there are many wonderful holiday destinations to travel to in Israel, the truth is that the cost of many of these are the same as or greater than travelling abroad even when including the cost of the flight. As a result, even these are out of the financial reach of many people under the current economic climate.

I know that my family would much prefer to travel abroad given the opportunity to do so. I don't wish or plan to deny them this chance. They do have the opportunity once in a while to travel abroad for family visits. They would, however, like to have more opportunities for overseas trips. But when I see how much of a break one can have by staying home, it is almost a shame not to take advantage of the wonderful things that can be done within Israel.

Besides going to the beach every day to catch some good waves, I enjoy the opportunity to get out during the summer time. This includes walks and picnics on the beach, eating out and generally being outdoors. I also enjoy day trips to any of a number of different places in Israel including the Sea of Galilee and the north, or the deserts and the Dead Sea in the south. No holiday would be complete without the spiritually uplifting experience of a visit to Jerusalem. No matter how many times I visit Jerusalem, each visit feels like a new experience.

Now that my holiday at home is over for this year, I can honestly say that I have thoroughly enjoyed it and feel rested and ready for the next challenges. I am indeed fortunate to live in a place that offers me this chance. Even those who do not live in Israel are invited to have a holiday at "home".

Saturday 15 August 2009

Why So Little About Guy?

Zach Baumel - Zvi Feldman - Yehuda Katz - Ron Arad

Guy Hever - Majdy Halabi - Gilad Shalit

Israeli soldiers who go missing in action usually generate a great deal of media coverage and attention from the Israeli public. Examples of this include the cases of missing flight navigator Ron Arad, Gilad Shalit currently being held in Gaza by Hamas as well as Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser whose bodies were returned to Israel by Hezbollah last summer after they were taken immediately prior to the second Lebanon War.

The names of Zachary Baumel, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz are slightly less well-known. These are three soldiers missing since June 1982. They went missing in the battle of Sultan Yakoub in the first Lebanon War. In the course of that battle, 21 Israelis were killed with many more injured. In addition, the above 3 soldiers went missing without trace. It is claimed that the three soldiers and their tank were paraded in Damascus, alive and well, on the day of their capture. So what happened after that? And why have we not seen the same intensive efforts to find out what happened to them despite the best efforts of their parents?

Another case is the one of Guy Hever. Guy went missing in August 1997 after he was reported to have left his base in the Golan Heights on his way home, carrying only his military weapon and his house key. It is claimed that he was seen a short time later waiting at the Katzabiya junction for a lift to the central part of the country, and home. This was the last sighting of Guy Hever to date. The junction at which he was last seen is only 1 km from the Syrian border. Prior to his disappearance, Guy was sentenced to a period in military confinement for falling asleep during his guard duty. This led military officials to claim that he may have deserted his post or even that he may have committed suicide following his punishment. They also claimed that he may have fallen and been killed on his way home. Extensive searches for Guy yielded no clues as to his whereabouts.

It took 3 years of huge efforts on the part of Guy's family to convince the IDF to declare Guy missing in action, and then to seriously explore the possibility that he may have been captured by the Syrians. The family still feels aggrieved by the fact that they believe important information has been withheld by the IDF which is significant to the case. Following the declaration that Guy was missing in action, the government tried on a number of occasions to obtain information about Guy from the Syrians and also via the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN. Unfortunately this has all been to no avail. Two years ago, a Syrian group claiming to hold Guy requested a prisoner swap with Syrian prisoners held by Israel. Investigations into this request by security officials yielded no positive results.

The family has succeeded again recently in raising the profile of Guy's disappearance with the government. Contacts between Foreign Minister Lieberman and his Russian counterpart over the past few weeks created the opportunity for the Russians to pass a message to Syrian President Assad requesting information. Guy's mother Rina is convinced that her son was captured by the Syrians. She claims that the foreign ministry is also convinced of this fact. Now the Israeli government is seeking information about Guy from the Syrian government on "humanitarian grounds".

But I feel that the public has a right to know why Guy's case has received so little publicity? Why did it take so long to declare Guy missing in action? The IDF has a responsibility to account to each and every parent as to what has happened to his son or daughter when he or she is not returned home safely after his or her compulsory military training. This is true even if the soldier has been injured or killed as a consequence of his own actions. The soldier is in the care of the IDF, and the IDF has an obligation to every parent. In the case of Guy Hever, there is a case to be answered by the IDF as to why more was not done, and why it was not done sooner.

A case similar to Guy Hever is the one of Majdy Halabi, a Druze soldier who went missing in May 2005 when hitch-hiking back to his base from his home village of Daliyet-el-Karmel. His disappearance attracted little media coverage despite his family's efforts to raise its profile. No trace has been found of him, and his family claims that he was abducted by an Islamic terror organisation. Majdy was declared missing in action by the IDF in June 2005.

I am a parent who will deliver his son to the IDF in little more than a year for his compulsory military training. I will do this willingly, and with pride. The Jewish homeland needs Jewish soldiers to defend Israel and the Jewish people, and my son is eager to do his duty. When I hand him over to the care of the IDF and the Israeli government, I expect them to treat him like he is their son. I expect them to take exceptional care of him, and I expect them to take every action to deliver him home safely to us when his job is done. I expect them to do the same to every parent in the country who has willingly given their son or daughter for national service. And, in the event that the child cannot be returned home safely, I expect them to provide every piece of information available and to answer each and every unanswered question.

The kidnap of Gilad Shalit near Gaza more than 3 years ago has certainly raised the profile of the use of kidnapping of Israeli soldiers as a tactic to extract value from Israel by her enemies. The problem is that whilst Israel holds her captives in humane conditions, provides details of the prisoner's situation and allows visits by the Red Cross and even members of the prisoner's family, Israeli prisoners are denied all of the above and are often tortured, injured and killed during the course of their captivity. The name of Gilad Shalit remains on all our lips as we eagerly await the outcome of the current round of negotiations for his release. Let us not forget the Hevers, the Arads, the Baumels, the Katzes and the Feldmans who are also owed answers.

Now is the time for more information to be released concerning the cases of all soldiers missing in action. I hope to hear more about each of their cases in the near future, and we all look forward to redoubled efforts to return each of them to their homeland, dead or alive. This will generate renewed confidence in the IDF by both parents and soldiers who will serve their country in the future with greater enthusiasm and pride.

Sunday 9 August 2009

A Strange Thing Happened On Our Walk

Although I have been living in Israel for almost 11 years, I still find myself being surprised by certain things that are unique to Israel. This is a story about exactly one of those events. Its uniqueness can only really be appreciated by people who do not live in Israel as most Israelis would struggle to understand what the point of the story is. I believe that foreigners will understand well.

I was out with my wife on a walk late on a balmy summer's night last week. The outside temperature must have been around 30 degrees Centigrade, and the humidity was high. It was a typical Israeli mid-summer evening. We had eaten an evening meal that was sitting too heavy and had decided to try to walk off the effects of it. It was after 10pm and it was still busy in the streets of the town where we live. Many schoolchildren were out enjoying the summer holiday, and an equivalent number of adults seemed to be out and about.

We approached a block of flats where a family that we know lives, and we discovered that coloured lights had been strung out in the gardens of the block, and a barbecue party was in full swing. As we passed the gate, Doron came out in his BBQ apron to show some of his guests to their car. When he saw us walking by, he insisted that we come in to join the party. We decided to interrupt our walk briefly to pay a visit to the party.

What we found was astonishing (to me). The entire apartment block (which I estimate is about 10 apartments) was holding a combined BBQ party in the grounds of the block. Chairs, tables and festive lighting had been set up enough for all residents and their guests. Food and drink were flowing freely to all-comers. We discovered that the occasion for the party was to wish farewell to four of the young lads who will begin their 3-year stint of national service shortly. Although this is obviously a time of concern for all, especially parents, and not necessarily an occasion to rejoice, it is common practise in Israel to make an event out of it to wish the young boys and girls well along their way. Not only are the 4 neighbours entering the army within a few weeks of each other, they have managed to arrange it that they have all been called up to the same air force unit and will most likely serve their 3 years together.

Upon discovering this, and when witnessing the party taking place in front of me, the only words going through my mind were "only in Israel". I cannot imagine any other place where the neighbours in a block of flats would be holding a joint party for all residents to celebrate a family event such as this one. I could also not imagine another place where the 4 neighbours would have set out to be called up to the same unit, and actually even achieved this.

For native Israelis, these events are just a normal part of society. These things can happen and do happen in Israel. And when events take place which are out of the ordinary, even this fact is regarded as par for the course in Israel. This is one of the unique aspects about Israel which makes it so special to us, and others like us. One of the things that make us love living here. This is the thing that creates a magnetic force between this country and so many people, young and old, who come to pay a visit. Only in Israel.

Saturday 1 August 2009

A Sub in Suez

It was recently reported that an Israeli submarine passed through the Suez Canal, apparently in an exercise linked to the escalation in tensions with Iran. It felt a little strange to be reading about Israeli naval exercises. The Israeli Navy (IN), after all, seems to be the area of the Israel Defence Force (IDF) that one seems to hear least about. In an attempt to try to redress the balance, I wish to write some words about the IN, and about its submarine fleet in particular.

The IN was established along with the state of Israel in 1948. Its first ship was "A16", an old reconditioned American icebreaker. A16 would later become the INS Eilat and see service in the War of Independence. Eilat was later joined by other ships that were originally illegal immigrant ships, and were later reconditioned to join the IN. IN ships were in action during all of Israel's wars and military operations. Unfortunately, INS Eilat was lost during a routine patrol in October 1967. She was struck by four missiles 14 miles east of Port Said with the loss of 47 out of the 199 crew on board.

Today, the IN fleet numbers approximately 85 water craft to protect its 273 kilometre-long coastline. The craft include Corvettes, missile boats, patrol boats, commando boats, support ships and of course submarines. Naval bases are located in Haifa, Ashdod, Eilat and Atlit with the naval headquarters at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv.

The IN currently has three submarines in its fleet. They are all Dolphin class- Type 800 coastal submarines based at the Haifa naval base. Two of the submarines were acquired in 1999 with the third a year later. All three submarines were acquired with the help of German military financing. Prior to the Dolphins, Israel relied on three Gal-class subs. Two of its three decommissioned Gal-class submarines were reported to have arrived at a German shipyard in 2003 for refit and modernisation. They are due to be reactivated for the IN.

There has been significant interest in the weapons capabilities of the Dolphin-class submarines. The submarines were reported to have been delivered to Israel including standard missiles for such a vessel i.e. four 650mm torpedo tubes. It is believed that the missile systems were adapted and that the submarines were fitted with cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads. The range of the missiles fitted to the submarines is unconfirmed and also the subject of much speculation. There are those who claim that Israel fired a cruise missile in a test in the Indian Ocean in 2000. This missile, which is claimed to be nuclear-capable, was reported to have hit targets 1,500 kilometres away. This has been denied by the IN. Ongoing reports of missile tests by the Israeli submarine fleet, and its unsuccessful attempts to acquire US Tomahawk cruise missiles at the end of the Clinton presidency continue to fuel discussion and speculation. It is widely believed that Israel will have the ability to fire nuclear weapons from its submarines if this is not already the case. At the end of 2005, the German government also approved the sale to Israel of two additional Dolphin-class submarines.

It is difficult to write about Israel's submarine fleet without mentioning the sad story of INS Dakar. She sank on her maiden voyage from Portsmouth to Haifa following an extensive refit in 1968 with loss of all 69 crew members. Her last reported position was in the Eastern Mediterranean not far from the Greek island of Crete. For many years, the location of the Dakar and the reason for her sinking were unknown. The remains of the Dakar were finally discovered in 1999, but the cause of her sinking remains a mystery.

The story of the submarine crossing the Suez Canal made world headlines for a number of reasons.
1. It is well known that the submarines are based in Haifa and the IN has made it clear that there is no intention to base submarines in Eilat. If this is the case, the submarine was clearly on its way to another undisclosed destination south of the Red Sea. This gives rise to speculation about where the sub was going, and for what purpose.
2. Israeli submarines are not known to have sailed through the Suez Canal before. This act, with the canal under Egypt's control, demonstrates ongoing Egyptian cooperation with Israel and its military activities.
3. The submarine sailed unsubmerged through the canal indicating that the Israelis were not attempting to hide the sub from Egypt or others who may have been watching.
4. With the escalation of the hostilities with Iran over its nuclear program, this was viewed as a show of strength against Iran.

As is often the case with Israeli military exercises, it is difficult to know precisely what is intended. We will be sure to keep a watch for any further activities.