Saturday 20 March 2010

Having a Strong Army is Sometimes a Disadvantage

Once upon a time many years ago, military strength was an admired quality. Military leaders were heroes, and their conquests hailed as folklore among ordinary people. Examples of such hero military officers include Napoleon, Nelson, Montgomery and others. It seems, however, that military strength has become less and less admired over the years to the point where it could even be regarded as something of a disadvantage.

There can be no doubt that the Jewish people would have welcomed a strong military fighting force to protect their interests, particularly over the period of the holocaust and the Second World War when millions were mercilessly slaughtered. I sincerely believe that many of these innocent lives could have been saved if a Jewish army were in existence at that time. It was a basic and obvious necessity that a Jewish army was formed upon the creation of the State of Israel. From the outset, the results achieved by the Israel Defence Force (IDF) was astonishing. Its first war, the War of Independence in 1948 was miraculously won, despite having little organisation, structure and weapons. When confronted by the might of the armies of no fewer than 5 Arab countries, the nascent IDF prevailed in one of many miracles that Israel and its army has achieved.

Since then, the IDF has transformed itself into one of the world's most powerful fighting forces. The integration of practices that are not standard in other armies, and the adoption of the latest technologies have ensured that man-for-man, the IDF is arguably stronger than other army on the planet. This is probably just as well due to the fact that Jews continue to be discriminated against in Israel and elsewhere. The IDF ensures that an event like the holocaust can and will never happen again while the Israeli army is there to protect all Jews.

The IDF has been called upon to fight many battles and numerous wars in defence of the State of Israel, the Jewish homeland. The enemies of Israel and the Jews have, however, cleverly utilised the changes in public sentiment to gather popular support for their position against this mighty fighting force.

Recent years have seen the general public admire military strength less, and favour the underdog instead. It is more common for public sentiment to support those who seem to be at a disadvantage rather than admire those who have worked hard to build a superior position for themselves. Somehow, it seems unfair that one side should be stronger or better equipped while their opposition is fighting them with lower quality equipment and less manpower. This is the classic notion of supporting the underdog, whether or not the underdog is justified in gaining this support. Unfortunately, when the innocent underdogs desperately needed this support during the massacres of the holocaust, it was not forthcoming. Now, it seems to be the mainstay of public sentiment.

The Arab world, and the Palestinians in particular, have picked up on this change in public support and have succeeded in taking advantage of it to the maximum extent possible.They succeed in portraying the might of the Israeli army in the most negative possible light. There is no image that the Arabs enjoy seeing more than that of the Palestinian David fighting the Israeli Goliath. It is for this reason that they ensure that Palestinian army is hidden behind the camouflage of "civilian resistance". This means that the uniform of the Palestinian fighters is jeans and T-shirts, and the base that these fighters use is the front room of an apartment or a school classroom.

These tactics are designed to draw Israeli fire into civilian areas, and to parade dead and wounded "civilians" around who have been attacked by the Israeli army. If this was all, then it would be bad enough. Unfortunately, however, the use of these tactics gets even more cynical. This cynical behaviour revolves around the unjustified use of children in public relations campaigns and in military operations.

The famous case of the Palestinian 12-year-old, Mohammed Al Dura is one of the most famous of these cynical attempts to take advantage of support for the underdog. Al Dura was shot during an exchange of fire at the Netzarim junction in Gaza between IDF soldiers and Palestinian gunmen in September 2000. Obviously, the Palestinians immediately accused the Israeli army of his murder. The case was eventually heard in a French court of law which ruled that Al Dura was not shot by IDF soldiers. The question which I ask is what a 12-year-old child was doing in the middle of this shoot-out? I asked the same question when I saw film clips of children being sent towards the border of Gaza in the middle of the night in an attempt to draw the Israeli soldiers guarding the border into action. These children are sent to test the reaction time of the Israeli guards. In the event that the Israeli soldiers may, Heaven forbid, open fire on one of these children who are running towards them with backpacks designed to look like explosives packs, the cameras are ready and waiting to film the "tragedy" in order to distribute it to all the news networks.

During the Gaza War (Operation Cast Lead), the IDF took to making thousands of telephone calls to individuals and families who were known to be residing in apartment blocks that were to be targeted by the Israeli Air Force (IAF), due to them being used by Hamas militants to fire upon Israeli civilians. Instead of evacuating the targeted site, the reaction of many of these civilians was to marshal as many of their friends and family onto the roof of the building. By doing this, they relied upon the fact that they knew that the IAF would not fire their rockets due to the IDF's policy of preventing civilian casualties wherever possible. And, if the IAF did fire their rockets, the resulting story of firing upon civilians would serve the Palestinian cause excellently.

Many ridiculous scenes which were manufactured by the Palestinians to gain public sympathy and support have been shown on international television. I recall seeing one which involved a "dead" person recently "killed" by IDF fire suddenly jumping off the stretcher that he was being carried on. Despite the fact that one would think that such scenes would expose the disgusting tactics used by the Palestinians, current levels of political correctness and favouring the "underdog" cause people somehow to look past this dishonesty and support the Palestinians.

Israel needs to have a strong army in order to continue to support the country and Jews around the world. The army has been called on many times to fulfil this role. It is not only important to have a strong army, it is important also to show the strength of our fighting force. This will hopefully deter some of our enemies from even trying to take us on. There is, however, a price to be paid in our current society for this. The price is that public opinion will always be against you , no matter how justified your actions or your fight may be. This is the price that the IDF is paying.

Despite this "curse", I don't believe that the IDF has a choice, but to continue to do what it is doing. I am proud that Israel has succeeded in building a fighting force with the power of the IDF, despite the odds. I am also proud that the IDF sets out to behave in a way that is moral and sensitive, even to those who are enemies of Israel. Even though it would be good to also have more support from the international community to recognise the justification of this fight, one cannot please all the people all the time. The report of the Goldstone Commission is just one example of how easily people can be sucked in by the public requirement to favour the underdog. If the price to pay is that public opinion does not support us, I am happy to give up on this. At least I know that Jews have a protective force to call upon at all times.

Blame it on the Occupation

I recently happened to switch on BBC World News, a channel that I don’t usually watch. As I surfed by the channel, my attention was attracted by voice of an Arab speaker when I heard him criticizing Israel. Although this is not an unusual thing to hear, I generally express interest in these types of news clips to try to gain as broad a perspective on the ongoing Middle East conflict as possible. I found myself tuned into the “Doha Debate”. This is a BBC sponsored debate that takes place a number of times a year, and is broadcast from the capital of Qatar. Chaired by BBC broadcaster Tim Sebastian, the debate has covered a variety of Middle Eastern subjects over the years that it has taken place.

The program that I tuned into on this occasion saw two members of Hamas debating against two members of Fatah. The chairman continuously suggested that the conflict between these two rival groups was preventing them from focusing on the real objective at hand i.e. building a Palestinian state. The audience of young students showed their disillusion for both parties by accusing them of not being true leaders to the Palestinian nation, and called for the resignation of both parties.

When boxed into a corner by the line of questioning, both parties repeatedly made sure that the audience understood that the suffering by the Palestinian people is the result of the “occupation”. This is nothing new. It is a phrase that is used frequently, and appears to be a concept which has unanimous consent across the Arab world and beyond. There would be few phrases that create more unity than this. But what is this occupation that they refer to? I wish to examine this in a little more detail.

In 1948, the UN Partition Plan for Palestine was implemented. The Arabs were enraged that a piece, the tiniest piece, of the Middle East would be inhabited by Jews. According to them, the Middle East was (and remains) the exclusive domain of Muslim Arabs, and the Jews have no place here. The War of Independence ensued during which time the Arabs were fortunately unsuccessful in achieving their objective of driving the Jews out of the small piece of land that we were allocated. (One wonders if it would have been regarded as an occupation if they had been successful and taken over the Jewish land).

The source of the occupation, according to Palestinian claims, was the Six Day War in 1967. Up until this time, the Palestinian people did not exist. The West Bank was under Jordanian rule, Sinai and Gaza under Egyptian rule and the Golan Heights under Syrian rule. There was not talk of creating a “Palestinian” state in these territories. The only intention of the Arabs was to expel the Jews from Tel Aviv, Netanya and the remainder of Israel. As most people now know, Israel launched a pre-emptive strike in 1967. The Arab armies, that were preparing to attack Israel, were caught unaware, and were completely destroyed. This afforded Israel to take the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai and the Golan as its spoils of war. These lands are the source of the so-called “occupation”.

This also created the “Palestinian” people. It was easier for the Jordanians, Syrians and Egyptians to hand over the responsibility of resisting the Israelis to Arafat and the newly created Palestinian people. As a result, the “Palestinians” carry the responsibility for expelling the Israelis on behalf of the entire Arab world. Most Arab countries adopt the attitude of being prepared to do whatever is required behind the scenes, but not necessarily to be at the front of the battle. In turn, the Palestinian leaders have kept their people suppressed and downtrodden to ensure that they feel animosity towards the Israelis. This corrupt practice is now becoming much more evident to the ordinary Palestinians as was evident in the Doha Debate that I watched.

Soon after war in 1967, East Jerusalem was formally annexed to Israel. The Golan Heights were similarly annexed in 1981. Instead of being under a military government, these pieces of land were formally joined to the Land of Israel. There was no intention of ever allowing Jerusalem to be split again, and no intention of allowing a situation where Jews have no access to their holiest site, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and similarly the Golan Heights. The military administration over the remaining areas continued until the Sinai was returned to Egypt as part of the peace agreement signed in 1979. Parts of the West Bank were handed over in their entirety to the trusteeship of the Palestinian Authority under the Oslo accords of 1993 (so-called Area A). Further parts of the West Bank were placed under joint Palestinian control (Area B) in terms of the same accords. Gaza was evacuated in its entirety during the summer of 2005, and is now under the control of Hamas.

In truth, the bulk of the so-called “occupied” land is no longer occupied. At most, one could argue that Area C of the West Bank is occupied, with Area B partially occupied (if such a term exists). If I was to be exceedingly generous, I could also bring East Jerusalem and the Golan under this definition even though we know that these areas are no longer occupied due to the fact that they have been annexed to Israel. What is clear to all is that the vast majority of the “occupied” territories are no longer occupied.

So why is there an ongoing attempt to seek sympathy from the international community over the occupation? If the Palestinians are serious about wanting to create a nation and a state for themselves, why do they not set about building their state with whatever they have? This was the approach taken by the Israelis in 1948 despite having a very small piece of land to call their own. And now, a short 62 years later, Israel has many achievements to be proud of. Unfortunately, the approach taken by the Palestinians has been to continue to act with aggression, to seek international sympathy and to do everything except build a state. They continue to suppress their people and to ensure that they live miserable lives to ensure that they will also continue to feel animosity towards the Israeli “occupation”.

On the basis of their actions, I am doubtful as to whether the Palestinians really wish to build themselves a state. It feels more to me like they are doing all in their power to grab Israeli land and send the Jews packing. Using the excuse of the “occupation” is a convenient tool to garner international support to expel the Jews from land, no matter how small it may be. Every little bit counts.

A smart person once said that you teach people how to treat you, by what you tolerate from them. I do not wish to teach the Palestinians that we will give up land to them each and every time they lodge a further complaint. I do, however, wish to teach them that the Jews are here to stay. Any agreement with them which is struck on the basis of mutual respect and recognition of each other’s rights to exist as a free and secure nation will be respected and welcome. Anything less will not.

I do not wish to present a situation that all is perfect with the Palestinians and the conditions under which they live. It certainly is not. The problem is that I have not seen the Palestinian leadership or the Palestinian people undertake positive actions to show that all they want is a free country of their own. Until such time as I see the Palestinians really devote themselves to building a nation and a state, I will never trust their actions. Each time they complain about the occupation, this will always signal to me that they are using tactics to gain support for the expulsion of the Jews. It is a tactic that will never allow them to achieve their objective, and will ensure the continuation of the Middle East conflict.

Israelis have seen through these tactics. The recent intifadas and wars have convinced even the most left-leaning Israelis that the Palestinians will stop at nothing except the expulsion of the Jews from Israel. In turn, Israelis will not let this happen. The Jewish army will ensure that the Jews will continue to keep what is rightfully ours. Many of the Palestinians have understood this, but their leaders continue to convince them that resistance (and the associated loss of life) brings them closer to their objective. This, however, will not happen. The sooner they realize this, the better off we will all be. Israel is here to stay.

Saturday 13 March 2010

Yerushalyim Shel Zahav (Jerusalem of Gold)

Over the course of the nearly 12 years that I have been living in Israel, and before that during numerous visits to Israel, I have had the privilege of visiting the holy city of Jerusalem many times. I spent a number of years working in the city, and commuted each day to my office there. Although I long ago decided that I would not like to live in the city, it definitely holds a mysteriousness for me and has a unique atmosphere that I feel a strong connection with. Despite this fact, I have never taken the chance to be in Jerusalem over Shabbat. So, when I was recently invited to spend last Shabbat in Jerusalem, I grabbed the opportunity with both hands. I am so pleased that I did so.

One of the things that I love about living in Israel is the real and noticeable difference between Shabbat and other days of the week. It is not only the fact that most businesses and all schools are closed, it is the fact that the whole atmosphere is completely different. My most favourite time of the week is on Friday afternoon when the shops begin to close for Shabbat, and the air is filled with the delicious smells of chicken soup and cholent (a traditional Shabbat dish prepared and cooked before Shabbat, but eaten on Saturday for lunch). Daily life in Israel is so hectic and people are always rushing and scurrying about to try to pack as much as possible into the limited hours that the week offers. When things begin to relax on a Friday afternoon and everybody slows down a little, it really feels like a different world.

Last week, we decided to spend an hour or two in the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighbourhood of Mea Shearim on Friday afternoon as people were running their last-minute errands before the shops finally took a welcome break. Here, it seems the weekday intensity is heightened quite substantially, especially on a Friday. It was tiring just to watch people as they rushed about their business trying to beat the weary shopkeepers who, themselves, were rushing to close their stores to finish their pre-Shabbat preparations. A walk through the new city of Jerusalem after this revealed that most people had already gone home, and the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall that forms the main focus for the new city's commercial area was practically deserted.

We decided to welcome Shabbat at the Western Wall. As the only remaining structure which formed part of the second Temple, there is no holier site in the Jewish world. We approached the Western Wall from the Jaffa gate and crossed through the Armenian Quarter and Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. We were accompanied by numerous others like ourselves who were wishing to celebrate the holiest day of the week at the holiest location. All were in their finest Shabbat clothes - the ultra-Orthodox had donned their traditional smart robes, streimels and hats in honour of this holy day. The air was electric, but this was nothing in comparison to what was happening at the Western Wall itself.

Thousands had gathered at the Kotel in groups and in singles to experience the magic of Shabbat. Some were gathered in their regular prayer groups as they are privileged to do each week. They were obvious by the fact that they had an established location at the wall that they occupied, and looked like a permanent structure. There were groups, Israelis and foreigners, who were obviously there on a one-time basis and who praying fervently, hardly able to believe the wonderful location to be celebrating their prayers. There was a group of IDF soldiers in a prayer group, and who broke out into a dance during the course of their prayers. Excited onlookers joined the dance and their prayers. There were others like myself who strolled around looking for a group to attach themselves to in order to pray. Because of the wide variety of styles of prayer, I tried a few groups before finding the one that suited my style best. At various times, singing could be heard from across the Kotel plaza of groups welcoming the Shabbat bride. Each group was singing a different tune, but each more fervently than the next.

After I completed my prayers, I wandered around amongst the groups praying there just to listen in to the style of prayer and tunes they were singing. It was difficult for me to tear myself away from this wonderful, happy, holy place. Everybody was so happy. There was so much dancing, singing and joy . I just wanted the scene to last forever.

Eventually, the hunger took over and I was forced to pull myself away to return for our Shabbat meal. As I walked away and back through the Old City, the fact that many Arab merchants still had their shops and stalls open did not detract from the wonderful atmosphere that prevailed.

Now, more than a week later, the effect of the scene at the Kotel on Friday night has still not worn off. In fact, it is a feeling that could live with me forever. Any visit to Jerusalem feels special for me. Going to the Kotel, in particular, always feels like an enormous privilege. This is especially true when considering the amount of history that has taken place at this holy site. The Friday night scene was, for me, one of the greatest highlights I have experienced.

Perhaps we make up a feeling of holiness when in Jerusalem because of our knowledge of the history attached to the city. I feel, however, that it has a holiness of its own. Something that cannot be made up, but has to be experienced in person to really be felt. The Jewish people have had a connection of holiness to this city and this location for over 2,000 years. During this time, many of my ancestors could only pray about the possibility of being there as part of a far-flung unrealistic dream. Living in Israel, I am truly privileged to live this out on behalf of those of my forefathers who were not able to do so. But mainly, I did it for the joy and honour that I felt for myself.

"If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither,
let my tongue cleave to my palate if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy."
(Psalms 137, 5-7)

Sunday 7 March 2010

How Can Israel Absorb so Many Refugees?

"Israel cannot allow every person who
wants to come here to leave Africa and
enter. But at the same time, we
cannot forget our commitment and
obligation to human rights."
- Tomer Warsha.

Since the year 2000, African refugees have been streaming over Israel's border with Egypt. The refugees, who come from Sudan (including war-torn Darfur), Eritrea and Ethiopia are estimated to number between 15,000 and 20,000 in Israel.

Most of the refugees have made their way from their countries of origin by foot across some of the world's most inhospitable terrain. They have come across the Sinai desert through Egypt, and have survived against incredible odds. Not only did they need to survive the wrath of the desert, lack of food and water and exposure to the elements, they also had to cross war zones and international boundaries at significant personal risk. More than a few refugees were shot by the Egyptian authorities when trying go find their way across Egypt. Many horror stories have been told about the way in which men, women and children have been killed in cold blood after succeeding to escape from the war raging in their home country. Equally, many happy stories have been told by refugees who celebrated upon reaching Israeli sovereign territory. Even though few refugees come equipped with laptops, mobile phones or GPS navigation equipment, somehow word has managed reach far-flung parts of Africa that Israel is a safe landing point for refugees.

Israel is a safe landing point for refugees because there are few nations in the world who understand the plight of these refugees better than the Israelis. There are few who understand what human beings are forced to experience when they are hunted down only because they happen to belong to a certain religion, creed or nation. While they are hunted down, those in the world who can put a stop to this murderous behaviour simply stand and watch. And when those who are being pursued managed to escape from the horrors of the war which seeks to kill them, no nation in the world will give them an alternative home. Despite the world pledging that this will never happen again, it is indeed happening again. Thankfully, there are few who know this feeling. Unfortunately, too many Israelis understand this from personal experience. It is undoubtedly fitting that, as a nation, Israel has opened its frontier and its hearts to these refugees.

People have rallied around to provide shelter for the refugees, no matter how basic. Food and clothing has been collected and donated. Jobs have been found to allow them to regain some of their dignity, and to allow them to begin caring for themselves. Places in local kindergartens and schools have been found for their children, no matter how different the environment is from their natural habitat. Volunteers have been working hard to bring the families some fun activities to give them something to smile about. A heart-warming newspaper article was carried recently showing activities provided to refugee children to coincide with the Jewish holiday of Purim. I felt a great deal of pride that in 62 short years, we have picked ourselves up from being a helpless and persecuted people, to a being a nation that is able to help those that are helpless and persecuted.

But how much can a country the size of Israel be expected to do for these people? And how many more will we be able to absorb? With a population of only 6 million people, and with a country smaller than many of the states of the USA, it is impossible to simply absorb all who knock on Israel's door without limit. Too many native Israelis live under the poverty line and require help from the state and the welfare organisations. This leaves few resources to provide to the likes of the Sudanese refugees who have nowhere else to go. Despite this fact, the refugees are finding a safe and nurturing environment to be able to rebuild their lives. Many of the hotels who have employed the refugees talk about how wonderful the Sudanese are to have as employees. They are happy and dedicated to their jobs. It shows how far a little dignity can go.

To me, it seems as if the western world is too occupied with "greater" things which cause it to lose sight of some of the small, but vitally important issues. Helping a person who has been displaced by war and has nowhere in the world to go must surely rank high on the list of priorities. If not, the world has really lost its way, and the lessons of the holocaust have surely not been learned.

In a way, the dilemma that Israel faces with regard to how to treat the refugees is a good dilemma to have to confront. It is good because it reinforces the fact that we are independent and in a state of our own, and now we have the ability and the obligation to help others. I am convinced that the 6 million people who were exterminated at the hands of the Nazis would have exchanged their situation for our "problem" in a heartbeat.

Although Israel finds itself in a difficult situation, we have the obligation to do for these people what the world did not do for ours.