Sunday 27 June 2010

What Does Hamas Really Want for Shalit?

Friday 25th June 2010 marked the fourth anniversary since Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was taken into captivity by Hamas. He was kidnapped on the Israeli side of the Gaza border and quickly smuggled into the Gaza Strip. This is where he has been held for four unrelenting years in the most evil and un-humanitarian way possible.

Even the most basic human rights required under the Geneva Convention have not been afforded to Gilad during his captivity. The International Committee of the Red Cross has made numerous requests to be given access to Gilad, all of which have been denied by Hamas. The excuse given is that such access will give the Israelis information about where he is being held, and this may result in an Israeli raid to try to free him. It is my belief that Israel knows exactly where Gilad is being held. The only thing stopping the IDF from mounting a raid to return Gilad home, is the fear that Hamas may kill Gilad if there was an attempt to free him by force. The IDF can never forget the death of kidnapped soldier Nachshon Waxman who was killed in a raid to free him in 1994.

During the past four years, the Shalit family has not left a stone unturned in their efforts on behalf of their brother, son and grandson. They have ensured that his name is on everybody's lips and in everyone's thoughts by mounting advertising campaigns, holding numerous meetings with government and holding events and activities. Gilad's grandfather recently met with Prime Minister Netanyahu to discuss the matter with him on behalf of the family. The family will leave on Sunday to walk from their home in the north of Israel to Jerusalem. They intend to set up a protest tent opposite the official residence of the prime minister, and not to leave it until Gilad is home. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the Shalit family, and their efforts under the most extreme and tragic of circumstances.

Hamas and other Palestinian groups have frequently made clear their desire and intention to kidnap Israelis, preferably IDF soldiers. We are led to understand that their objective is to use captured Israelis as tools to negotiate the release of their colleagues held in Israeli jails for terror activities. This is confirmed by previous prisoner swap deals which have been successfully negotiated, and in which hundreds of Palestinian prisoners have been set free by Israel in exchange for one Israeli, or even the remains of an Israeli. The Israeli government takes very seriously its responsibility to return home captured Israelis, or their remains, almost at any price. Still fresh in our memories is the deal done with Hezbollah to return the bodies of captured soldiers Eldad Regev z"l and Ehud Goldwasser z"l almost two years ago. We also recall the deal done to repatriate rogue Israeli businessman Elchanan Tenenbaum in 2004.

When considering the above facts, it is surprising that Shalit continues to languish in captivity in Gaza. There can be no doubt that Israel wishes to do all that it can to return him home as soon as possible. The government has appointed Hagai Hadas as its official negotiator on the case, and has enlisted the help of a German mediator with the express intention of concluding a deal to free Gilad. Hamas, on the other hand, seems not to have made any real steps in the direction of concluding a deal to free their colleagues in line with their stated intentions. Although not all the details of the negotiations have been made publicly available, judging by things that have come out in public and particularly reactions of the independent German mediator, there is evidence that Hamas has not been negotiating in good faith. There is a view that Hamas is not holding Gilad hostage for the purpose of releasing its prisoners, but rather for the purpose of holding Israel hostage. This, they are achieving very effectively.

This lack of good faith, and the tactic of holding Israel to ransom without any real intention of releasing the hostage, is consistent with much of Hamas' behaviour in its dealings with Israel. Whether it is the use of civilian neighbourhoods to wage war, the firing of missiles randomly at Israeli civilians or faking situations for the sake of international news cameras, Hamas has shown itself to be untrustworthy and unreliable in almost every respect. All the while that negotiations for the release of Shalit continue, Hamas remains in the news. The moment that the deal is done, there is a danger that they may lose the news headlines. Perhaps this is the reason why they don't intend to conclude a deal.

As time goes on and there is no evidence of any meaningful progress for the release of Gilad, I am increasingly of the view that the IDF may have no choice but to mount an operation to free him by force. While this does risk the possibility that he may be killed, it also represents a small chance that he may be freed. For now at least, this chance looks better than a possible negotiated solution.

Until then, our thoughts and prayers continue to be with Gilad. Special prayer for Gilad's safety.

Sunday 20 June 2010

Religion Taken Too Far

The story involving the Haredi school in the West Bank settlement town of Immanuel has stolen all the news headlines this week. While it was a welcome change to see stories of the Gaza flotilla raid drop from the front pages, this was not the story that we had hoped to see replace it. It is a story which truly begs the question as to how far religion should be taken, and at what price.

The story stretches back three years when the problems in the school in Immanuel first began. The high school, which is funded by the Ministry of Education, caters to the religious girls of Immanuel. The settlement houses a group of Slonim Hassidim, who are Ashkenazim with their ancestors coming from Europe, in addition to a community of religious Sephardim. The girls of both groups are designated to attend the girls school at the centre of the disagreement. At some point, the Haredim from the Slonim sect decided that the Sephardi families are not sufficiently religious for them, and that they do not wish their daughters to attend the school with the Sephardi girls. The main objections cited were that the families watch TV, have internet at home and adhere to a dress code that is too lax. In response, the Ashkenazi families included 25 Sephardi girls who were sufficiently religious for their standards, then separated their daughters from the remainder of the Sephardi girls. This went as far as building separation walls and structures in the schools to divide the two streams.

The Sephardi objectors to this situation took their case to the High Court of Justice to voice their opposition to the separation. The High Court ruled against the separation and forced the school to remove the walls and the separation. In response, the Ashkenazi sect decided to withdraw their daughters from the school. Once again, the High Court was called upon to judge this situation, and ruled that it is illegal for the parents to keep their daughters out of school. When the parents continued to ignore the High Court rulings, they were advised that they could be jailed for not sending their daughters to school. After consulting with their Rabbis, they decided that it is preferable to go to jail rather than send their daughters to the school. Eventually on Thursday, 35 fathers were taken to jail for a 2 week period. A crowd of 100,000 gathered to create heroes out of these parents, and to demonstrate against the High Court rulings which, they claim, come out against the Haredi community and violate Jewish law.

The court ruled, quite rightly in my view, that discrimination of this type is not acceptable in any school in Israel. This is a critical stake in the ground by the court, and came from High Court Judge Edmond Levey, who is religiously observant. The Ashkenazi parents claim in their defence, that this is not discrimination but rather a case of being allowed to decide which type of people their daughters mix with in their school environment. It is true that every parent wishes to ensure that their child attends a school which allows them to mix only with "appropriate" other children. "Appropriate" usually refers to others who have similar values, and are seeking similar things from the schooling system. For the Slonim in Immanuel, the level of religiosity of other students in the school is an important factor in determining who is appropriate for their daughters to mix with. If they had opened a private school and financed it from their own funds, they may have the right to determine who will and will not attend the school. Given that this is a state school operated by public funds, certain rules are laid down by the Ministry of Education. One of the rules is that the school will be required to accept all pupils in the catchment area whose parents wish to send them to a state school. The concept of segregating a state school to prevent pupils who are "not appropriate" appears to be almost without precedent.

The attitude of the Slonim towards the state school in Immanuel is unfortunately representative of the general attitude of the Hassidic community in Israel towards the state. On the one hand, they contribute very little to the state. They mostly do not work and, therefore, do not pay taxes or National Insurance contributions. Their children do not serve in the army nor serve the state in an alternative national service framework like all other Israelis are expected to do. They have no qualms about drawing benefits or stipends via their learning institutions which are government funded. And now, they feel that they have the right to dictate who should be entitled to attend the state-funded schools that their children attend. All of this in the name of religion.

It would be true and fair to acknowledge that Judaism has been enjoying one of its greatest periods of study and enlightenment of all time, and this has been driven by the religious community. It is also fair to point out that the secular Israeli community has largely facilitated, funded and secured those who have undertaken the study and development of Jewish texts and Jewish law. It is, therefore, extremely unfortunate that the religious community chooses to accuse the secular community of acting against it in terms which are reserved for only the greatest anti-Semites in history. This comparison serves to desecrate G-d's name in the most unacceptable way.

It is my belief that Judaism does not promote the concept of driving a wedge between Jews of different flavours and colours. On the contrary, the Jewish religion encourages togetherness and tolerance, even if some Jews are not sufficiently observant for others. One can still be a good Jew when sending one's daughters to a school where other children watch TV at home. After all, Jews were forced to compromise in this way for centuries until we even had the luxury of sending our children to Jewish schools. The prime minister expressed the view of millions of Israelis when encouraging the parties to come to a compromise in view of the magnitude of external threats that Israelis and Jews around the world continue to face. We can ill-afford to tolerate in-fighting of this nature when we require our strength and resources for other battles.

The Ashkenazi parents will most likely spend their time in jail, and return to Immanuel to fight the next round of the battle. In their view, anything which is done in the name of G-d (as dictated by their leading Rabbis) is more justified than any other action. It is indeed unfortunate that these Rabbis are the ones who are misleading their flock into a conflict which cannot be justified nor tolerated.

This is a classic case of religion taken too far, and should be opposed in every way possible to preserve sanity and fair play in Israel.

Sunday 13 June 2010

With Friends Like These ..........

The recent Gaza flotilla raid, which saw Israeli security forces killing 9 Turkish activists aboard the Marvi Marmara, has put Israel's relationship with Turkey under the spotlight. The anti-Israeli rhetoric by Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the waves of anti-Israel protests that followed the incident aboard the Turkish ship all seem to ignore the relationship that Turkey and Israel have enjoyed until now. But what is the nature of this relationship that it can collapse at the slightest sign of disagreement?

The Turks have a long-standing relationship with the land of Israel, and with the Jews who have lived here over the years. The Ottomans, the predecessors of the modern-day Turks, ruled over Jerusalem for a period of approximately 400 years stretching from 1517 until Palestine was handed over to the British Mandate in 1917. The period of their rule over Jerusalem was characterised by religious peace and tolerance, and included the reconstruction of much of the wall which surrounds the old city. Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognise the newly-declared State of Israel when it formally entered into diplomatic relations with Israel in March 1949.

Although Turkey is a Muslim country, it has long held a position as a bridge between east and west, and between Muslim and western cultures. Physically, Turkey's position at the intersection between Europe and Asia established Constantinople (now Istanbul) as an important trading city, and a location with a rich mix and diversity of cultures. This, together with the Balkan, Slavic and Greek influence from around its borders means that Turkey is not a "classic" Muslim country like those of the Arabian peninsula and the Arabian Gulf. The rise of Ataturk to the presidency of the first Turkish Republic further diluted the Muslim influence when Ataturk changed the alphabet from Arabic characters to a new Turkish alphabet based on Latin characters, and implemented further changes to reduce the influence of Arabic culture on Turkey. Despite significant success in creating a secular Turkish culture separate from Islamic culture, the Islamic influence on Turkey was never far away. With a population of nearly 70 million, and more than 90% of them Muslims, Turkey represents a significant Islamic centre of gravity outside the Arab world.

Turkey's somewhat schizophrenic personality seems to be strongly influenced by its position as the crossing point in the world. This has created a mentality of traders, of people who know how to look for the next good deal and to take maximum advantage of market conditions. Turkey tried for many years to be accepted for candidacy to the European Union. It was rebuffed on a number of occasions largely, I believe, because of the fear by the Europeans of admitting a country whose population will dwarf many of the existing members, and create a huge economic burden on the EU. The recent Greek experience has proved that this concern was justified. The result of its repeated failed attempts at joining the western alliance has been for the Turks to look east, and towards its Muslim brothers.

Israel's relations with Turkey over the years have had an opportunistic feel about them for both countries. Israel has had the opportunity to supply Turkey with arms, and Israeli tourists have had the opportunity to enjoy inexpensive value-for-money holidays in the south of Turkey. Exports by Israel to Turkey have been in the region of $1.5 billion per annum with approximately $1 billion per annum in the opposite direction. A free trade agreement was signed in 2000 between the two countries, and there was talk of the construction of pipelines for the supply of oil, gas, electricity and water. The economic relations were never underpinned by a real base of friendship and mutual respect. Rather, they were good while the opportunity presented itself. Turkey also attempted to use its bridgehead position between the west and the Muslim world to become involved in peace-making between Israel and its Arab enemies. Turkey's efforts never bore any fruits, and often seemed to be interrupted by Turkey's close links with its Muslim brethren. It seemed inevitable that the conflict of interests between Turkey's Islamic links, and its attempts to exploit the trading opportunities with Israel would eventually raise its head.

The first sign of a real crack came during the Gaza War of 2008. Turkish prime minister Erdogan was one of the most vocal critics of Israel's war with Hamas in Gaza. He warned that Israel's actions would bring it to self-destruction, and invoked Islamic sympathies by declaring that Allah would punish those who transgress the rights of the innocent. At around the same time, the ties between Turkey and Iran were gradually improved. For Turkey, Iran's more than 70 million people represent a significant economic opportunity. For Iran's Ahmadinejad, Turkey's relations with western countries could be exploited to promote his nuclear interests and his hatred of Israel. The moment for Turkey to decide between furthering its Iranian links or continuing ties with Israel was drawing nearer.

The Gaza flotilla incident a couple of weeks ago represented a turning point in Turkey's Middle Eastern allegiance, and showed clearly in which direction Erdogan is taking his country. The largest of the Gaza flotilla vessels, the Marvi Marmara, was a Turkish vessel, was sponsored by Turkish organisations and carried Turkish nationals. These were not ordinary peace-loving Turkish nationals with human rights on their minds. These were Turks who were armed and trained to come and seek confrontation with the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). If this is what they sought, they certainly fulfilled their wishes although it is not clear that they understood how far the IDF soldiers would go to protect themselves and their homeland. The more that is written about those on board the Marvi Marmara, the more it becomes clear that a bloodbath of some sort was almost unavoidable from the moment that this ship set sail from Turkey.

Erdogan has come out in criticism of Israel and its actions. He has ensured that the terrorists were afforded a hero's return to Turkey, and the deceased a hero's funeral. He has succeeded in whipping up anti-Israel fervour in Turkey in a way which is almost unprecedented. He has become the new saviour and hero revered by the Palestinian people and the broader Muslim world. Our new hero has even offered to escort a new flotilla to attempt to break the Gaza blockade with Turkish naval vessels, and with his personal attendance. Although I believe this is not seriously intended and is simply taking advantage of his press limelight, it would certainly be interesting to see where this would take him. Israel would almost certainly regard this as an act of war.

The friendly relations between Israel and Turkey are clearly something of the past. The closer Turkey draws to countries like Iran and Syria, the less economic benefit it is likely to enjoy from its now-shrinking relationship with Israel. This is also likely to harm its relationship with the USA, which has been strengthened in recent years by Turkey's membership of NATO. Turkey has represented an important foothold in the Middle East for the USA and NATO, but it seems unlikely that this relationship can continue in the same way as before in light of recent events. The USA and its allies would have taken careful note of Turkey's vote against sanctions on Iran in the recent UN Security Council vote. Turkey has shown its intentions in no uncertain terms.

The problem for Turkey in taking its current course, is that Iran has not necessarily proved itself to be the most loyal friend to its allies. Like Turkey, it is a master at exploiting relations for short-term opportunistic gain. So when Ahmadinejad (or his successor) decides Turkey's usefulness has run out, Turkey may find itself back in diplomatic no-man's land. For now, though, Turkey seems happy to take this route, and the associated risk. Perhaps Turkey and Iran are well-suited to each other. After all, birds of a feather do seem to flock together.

Sunday 6 June 2010

The Flotilla Fiasco

The events surrounding the fiasco of the so-called Gaza Flotilla over the past few days have captured headlines around the world. I join with all those who have expressed their regrets and condolences to the families of those who died in the incident. It is never good when people die unnecessarily, even if they are people who are enemies and have come to our land with the intention of destabilising our country and threatening our citizens.

I refer to the incident as a fiasco, not because I believe that the Israeli navy did the wrong thing by confronting the ships and preventing them from entering Gaza. On the contrary, I fully support the efforts made by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), and the navy in particular, to enforce the blockade on Gaza. The fiasco that I refer to is the violence that was initiated by some of the activists on board one of the flotilla ships, the Marvi Marmara, and the decision by IDF commanders to continue to drop commando troops onto the ship despite the fact that it was obvious that they were being launched into the middle of a lynch mob.

The Gaza blockade was implemented after the end of the Gaza War in 2009 with the objective of preventing weapons and military hardware from being brought into the Gaza Strip. This was in response to the ongoing rocket attacks from Gaza which were an attempt to endanger citizens of Israel. Although the blockade has not succeeded in completely halting the hostilities from Gaza, there can be no doubt that the rocket attacks have been significantly reduced in recent times. If a government is not taking every possible step to secure the safety of its citizens in their homes, the government is not fulfilling its obligations to those citizens. It is for this reason that the Israeli government has no choice but to implement a blockade on Gaza to protect the citizens of Israel.

The Gaza flotilla was a classic situation of lose-lose for Israel. From a public relations perspective, the outcome for Israel was always going to be negative, regardless of whether the ships landed on the Gaza shore or not. Hamas was well aware of this situation when they predicted that the situation would be a victory for them, whatever the outcome. The flotilla organisers came with the specific intention of confronting and embarrassing Israel and the IDF, and they succeeded in capturing the attention of the foreign media who were all on hand to report on the confrontation with the Israeli authorities when it took place. The images broadcast around the world were those which are the most sought after by terror organisations - those of "innocent" civilians fighting uniformed soldiers of an organised army. The truth is that that the "innocent" civilians are frequently not so innocent, and are simply members of a terror army who dress in civilian clothing and use civilian homes as bases for their attacks in an attempt to trick the public into giving them their sympathy. The Gaza flotilla was no different, with strong evidence of a civilian army having been on the ships. The extent of the preparation for a violent clash, the number of arms found on the ship and the violent response received by the Israeli boarding party all indicate the presence of a paramilitary force that came searching for a fight. There are also strong indications of Iranian involvement in terms of funding and supply of arms on the ships.

Despite Israel's meticulous preparations for the arrival of the flotilla, there was a failing on the part of the IDF. The extent of the violence that awaited the IDF soldiers became clear from an early stage. The tactic of dropping soldiers onto the decks from rappel lines, one at a time, seems to have been fatally flawed, and placed the individual soldiers into a position where they had no choice but to open fire to save their own lives. The boarding party was well trained to take over command of a naval vessel, but seems to have been poorly trained in controlling large crowds. On this occasion, the crowd control skills were badly needed, and sorely lacking. I don't feel that the crowd reaction was easy to predict ahead of time, so it is tough to suggest that the IDF should have known that these skills would have been required. The only criticism that I feel can validly be directed at the IDF forces, is the fact that they continued to allow soldiers to drop onto the deck when it became clear that the lives of the soldiers would be endangered by doing so. Some quick reactions and change of tactics may have changed the outcome of the incident.

Prime minister Netanyahu came onto TV following the incident to justify the IDF's actions in preventing the flotilla from entering Gaza. He also emphasized that the same action would be taken in the future, if there are further attempts to break the Gaza blockade. On this issue, Israel seems to be fairly isolated in the international community with a great deal of pressure being exerted on Israel to lift the blockade on Gaza. Naturally, it is easy for the international community to make such a call when it is not their citizens who would be endangered by such a move. The truth, however, is that opening Gaza would also allow Iran to establish more of a foothold in the territory, thereby bringing many European countries into firing range and risking the safety of their citizens. It is not clear that European countries realise this, or take the increasing threat posed by Iran and its cowboy president seriously. While this situation persists, Israel may be forced to act alone and fly in the face of international opinion. This would not be the first time that Israel will act against the opinion of the world, but it does not make it easier each time we are forced to behave in this way.

The critical reaction of the world seems to be in sharp contrast to the reaction to Iran's behaviour in recent years. It seems to be OK for the president of a country like Iran to stand up on every opportunity, and in every international forum and call for the destruction and the end of Israel. The muted responses to these actions, and to the increasing nuclear threat posed by a loose cannon like Iran seem to show significant bias, especially when compared to the treatment meted out to Israel after the Gaza flotilla incident.

All the while that Hamas continues to pose a military threat to Israel, the Gaza blockade should remain in place. Every action on the part of Hamas to reduce the threat to Israel and its citizens will undoubtedly be met with an easing of the Israeli blockade on the strip. Although it is clear that the situation in Gaza is not good, the desperation is called into question in light of the fact that Hamas decided to return all the goods that were brought in by the Gaza flotilla, and which were shipped to the Gaza Strip from Ashdod by Israel.

The arrival of the Rachel Corrie off the coast of Gaza on Saturday was a real lesson in what could have been with the Gaza flotilla, instead of the unnecessary violence and loss of life. The peace activists on board the ship made their protest against the Gaza blockade clear, and illustrated their point. When it came time, however, for the Israeli navy to take action, there was no resistance and no violence. The ship, together with its cargo, was peacefully routed into Ashdod harbour where the passengers and the cargo will be taken care of. This sent a message of real peaceful demonstration, honest intention to help the citizens of Gaza, and not an attempt to look for a confrontation with the IDF or the creation of martyrs.

Despite some recognition of the global Islamic threat by the international community, it seems as though the full extent of this threat is still not understood. Because of this, Israel is frequently forced to stand alone in confronting the Islamic threat that attempts to destroy her. The Gaza flotilla is a classic example of this. It is astonishing that the international community can be tricked into believing that the activists on board were all civilian, peace-loving humanitarians. The tactic by the terrorists to present themselves as civilians while fighting like an army is already well-known. It is now time for the international community to recognise it for what it is.