Sunday 27 March 2011

This Really Feels Like War

The security situation in Israel has deteriorated dramatically over the past week. Although we have unfortunately become accustomed to having to endure persistent shelling from Gaza over the past few months and years, the events of the past week have even superseded that. Such has been the level of the escalation over the last 7 days, that the situation is feeling more and more like all-out war.

The latest onslaught started last weekend when no fewer than 50 missiles were launched from Gaza towards Israeli territory during a 40 minute period on Saturday. As always, missiles were launched in a random sort of way and were directed at civilian neighbourhoods. A Grad missile was launched into a neighbourhood of the seaside city of Ashkelon. Under the circumstances, it was miraculous that only two people were lightly injured in this barrage. The bombing did not let up in the first few days of the week. On Monday, further Grad missiles were fired on Ashkelon and Beer Sheva. Again, it is only due to good fortune that a few people were lightly hurt and that more serious injuries did not result. This set the pattern for the week which did not see a day without missiles being launched into Israeli territory.

The week's violence culminated on Wednesday when an explosive device detonated at a busy bus stop in Jerusalem. Although the device was relatively small (when compared to other bombs that the city has been forced to endure in the past), it was clearly intended to reap as much havoc and destruction as possible. A number of buses were at the stop at the time of the explosion, and many pedestrians were waiting or walking in the area. It was only due to the actions of one hero, David Moyal, that many more injuries and deaths were prevented. In this incident, 1 foreign national was killed and 60 others injured including children.

These events continued into Thursday when missiles were fired towards the most populous part of Israel. A missile landed not far from Rishon Le Tzion, and a mere 25km from Tel Aviv. Further missiles were fired on Friday and Saturday resulting in damage to people's homes, and it was again miraculous that deaths and serious injuries were avoided.

In the wake of the terror attack on the streets of Jerusalem, Prime Minister Netanyahu vowed to return the "quiet" that Israel has experienced over the past two years, back to its streets. It is a sad indication of our situation that the prime minister can say that we have experienced quiet despite the incessant firing of missiles towards innocent civilians. More than this, Israelis simply accepted his words without any fuss at all. This is not quiet by any independent standards, and we should not be forced to accept this situation as normal.

It is difficult to see how this situation can be brought under control without further escalation. The Israeli authorities are quoted as saying that Gaza is ruled by anarchy and it seems as though chaos is the order of the day. Although it is clear that not all the attacks have been initiated by the Hamas rulers in the Gaza Strip, they have created an environment which makes it acceptable for splinter groups to do as they please. It is increasingly difficult to know who is responsible for individual attacks or missile launches. It is obvious, however, that Hamas is doing little to prevent these attacks from taking place. Even if the attacks are not all directly initiated by Hamas, it seems clear that they are taking place with at least the tacit support of the rulers of Gaza. These attacks come and go without so much as a word of condemnation from the so-called "free world" countries.

Much is being made of Israel's "Iron Dome" protection system which is due for implementation this week, after many months of development and preparation. This is an anti-missile system that is designed to intercept the Kassam and Grad missiles which have been repeatedly launched towards Israel. The Iron Dome system is unique in that it is designed to intercept short-range missiles. They are more difficult to intercept by virtue of the fact that there are only a few seconds from the moment that the missile is launched, until it hits its target. During this short period of time, the anti-missile interceptor needs to be launched and hit its target in order to be effective. Iron Dome is designed to do this.

Ultimately, Iron Dome and similar systems will not prove to be a quick fix for the problem that we have. No matter how effective our defence systems prove to be, we will not be able to rest until we can bring a permanent halt to the firing of missiles from Gaza. Operation Cast Lead brought such a halt for a short period of time, but it was unfortunately only a temporary lull. If we are to believe the statements being made by Hamas, the only way in which they will stop their missile fire is if the Jews are no longer resident in the Land of Israel. Because this is obviously not an option, we have a stalemate situation.

The uprisings that are taking place in many countries around the Middle East form part of the background for the increase in the attacks on Israel. It seems like the protests and violence occurring elsewhere in the region are giving Hamas and its fellow terror groups further appetite for confrontation with Israel. The escalation on our doorstep feels more and more like we are headed into another war, as it is difficult to see how the violence will suddenly recede after having reached this level. This is despite statements today by Hamas that they are interested in returning to a "ceasefire" in the event that Israel refrains from its retaliation strikes. The offer of a ceasefire usually signals the need to rearm ahead of the next round of hostilities.

As much as I feel pessimistic about the prospects for a peaceful period ahead in the short-term, I also feel extremely optimistic about our continued existence in the Land of Israel in the longer-term. We are ready for the next war, both militarily and psychologically. In a sense, we are also resigned to the fact that this is unfortunately inevitable. As much as war, violence and terrorism kills a piece of our heart due to the casualties suffered, so it stokes the fire in our belly to continue to fight for our future here. This fire burns strong, and nobody has the power to extinguish it. Am Yisrael Chai - the People of Israel lives!

Sunday 20 March 2011

Being Happy on Purim

Today is the day that Jews around the world celebrate the festival of Purim. The festival celebrates the victory of the Jews of Persia over the anti-Semitic Haman, who sought to have them all annihalated. It was only through the actions of Queen Esther and her uncle, the righteous Mordechai, that the king was convinced to save the Jews and to execute his trusted adviser Haman instead. To mark this miraculous event, Jewish law requires that Jews be happy on Purim. In fulfillment of this commandment, it is customary for adults and children to dress in fancy dress, and for adults to consume copious amounts of alcohol. A rabinnic ruling says that people should revel on Purim until "they cannot tell the difference between the evil Haman and the saintly Mordechai".

But how can we be happy on Purim when, only one week earlier, 5 members of the Fogel family have been ruthlessly murdered in their beds? And how can we feel safe on Purim when communities near to the Gaza Strip had to endure 50 rockets being fired by the Palestinians randomly towards Jewish homes in a short space of 40 minutes yesterday? How can we celebrate the festival when the memory of the 8 young boys who were murdered 3 years ago while sitting in the library of the Mercaz Harav religious school in Jerusalem is still so fresh in our minds? How can we revel in the miracle of Purim when Gilad Shalit remains in captitivity for the 6th year, without his basic humanitarian needs being taken care of? Does Gilad even know that today is Purim? These events and others make it difficult to celebrate Purim and feel genuine happiness from the bottom of our hearts. Despite this, we are obliged to feel happiness and joy on this festival.

It seems unusual to be commanded to have an emotional feeling as part of one's obligations on a festival. And yet, this is the situation on Purim. Our rabbis draw a link between Purim and Yom Kippurim (Yom Kippur, also translated as "a day like Purim"), which is Judaism's most solemn day. They make the point that observant Jews would not consider the possibility of not fasting on Yom Kippur if they do not feel like it. By the same token, we are expected to feel happy on Purim even if we don't particularly feel happy. This is part of our commitment to G-d and the blind fulfillment of His commandments.

In spite of the sadness that many parts of Israel are feeling, Purim was celebrated today as usual and as in previous years. The parades in towns and cities went ahead to the sounds of blaring music and accompanied by adults and children dressed up in all manner of outfits. Young children fulfilled their fantasies of dressing up as princesses, superheros and movie characters. Gifts of food were given by people to their friends, and donations made to the needy to allow all to partake in the traditional Purim feast. The story of Purim (the Megilah of Esther) was recited for all to hear, and Haman's name was drowned out by boos and graggers in the traditional way. Dressing up parties continued into the early hours. In particular, in the settlement of Itamar, a special effort was made to be happy on Purim. The fact that we were able to be happy on Purim against the background of all the other events, is a great achievement and serves to honour G-d's commandment to an even greater extent.

Wouldn't it be good if we can wake up on the day after Purim, and feel the same happiness in evidence? Unfortunately, reality will come back to roost and we will be back to dealing with our daily threats, issues and feelings of loss. All these tragic events that we continue to suffer embroider the blanket of Jewish history in much the same way as the Purim events that took place in Persia all those years ago. In some ways, things have not changed at all. As much as I hope that we will be able to work through the everpresent threats and reach a situation where we can live in peace without anybody having the intention to harm or kill us, that time has not yet come.

Just as the Jews of Persia took it upon themselves to do all that they could to secure the future of the Jewish people, we do the same today. On this, the happiest day in the Jewish calendar, we feel particularly close to those who have to make the maximum effort to be happy today. We think about the surviving members of the Fogel family, and we think about the Shalit family who fight tirelessly to return their son and brother home. We think about all the survivors of the Holocaust, and we think about those families who have lost loved ones in war or terror incidents over the past 63 years and more. We thank them for making such an effort to be happy on Purim even if there is deep pain in their hearts. This is a sign of strength and resilience that the Jewish people have, and that we are not ready to give up on this battle for survival.

Chag Purim sameach. Happy Purim.

Monday 14 March 2011

Murder Most Horrid in Itamar

Israelis came out of the weekend with a feeling of shock, horror and revulsion. Although stories of the disastrous Japanese earthquake and tsunami fill the international news bulletins and those in Israel, there is a story closer to home which is taking us back to a place where none of us wish to be. This is the story of the brutal and senseless murder of 5 members of the Fogel family in the settlement of Itamar near to Hebron.

The details of the story are slowly being drip fed to the public as the details emerge. There were no witnesses to the heinous crime as all the witnesses were killed in the devastating attack. The story as we know it so far is constructed with pieces put together by those who discovered the scene, crime scene investigators and security personnel who continue to seek out the perpetrators of the attack. It seems as though the parents and 5 of their 6 children retired to bed after their usual Sabbath meal on Friday evening. Their oldest child, 12 year-old Tamar, went out after dinner to her youth movement activity. This could well have saved her life. She was the one who raised the alarm when she found that she was unable enter the house upon returning home later in the evening. The scene that greeted her and the neighbour accompanying her, was too horrific for words. Her mother, father, two brothers aged 11 and 4, and 3-month old baby sister all lay dead in their beds. Two other siblings seem to have been saved by virtue of the fact that the murderer or murderers did not realise that there were other children in the house in a separate room. The victims had all been brutally and forcefully stabbed to death as they lay sleeping in their beds.

It is not yet clear whether the crime was perpetrated by a person on his own, or whether there were accomplices. It is also not clear why and how the extensive security arrangements which surround Itamar and other similar settlements failed the Fogel family on this occasion. These questions will be answered in due course. For now, all we can think about is the fact that three young children have today buried their parents and three siblings. This is surely not the natural circle of life, and yet it is all too frequent in the reality of Middle Eastern politics.

Other questions abound as we absorb the full scale of this horror. What sort of person can enter the private home of people that he does not know, and take the lives of a family as they sleep in their beds? The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade have been quick to claim responsibility for this attack. The announcement was tinged with a sense pride, if it is at all possible to be proud about such a cowardly act. Can the killer justify this murder by the negative experiences that he has had or the lack of justice in his life? Is this truly a like-for-like revenge act? The Palestinian Authority and Hamas both appear to believe so if we judge by their luke-warm responses to the attack. Instead of coming out and condemning the massacre without reservation, they have both chosen to put out tepid statements about how they condemn violence of any type. This is not good enough, and surely sends a message to the Palestinian people that their leadership lends tacit support (if not open support) to such terrorism.

The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is a real war. It is a war that has been ongoing for more than 60 years, and shows no signs of abating anytime soon. It is a war that has claimed many casualties over the years. In war, there are casualties. Some of these are so-called "collateral damage", innocent civilians who accidentally happen to get in the way of genuine military conflict. The act of killing parents and children as they lie sleeping in their beds, however, does not qualify as "collateral damage". This is more like genocide. Even in a war situation, this type of behaviour can never be justified under any circumstances. Anybody who lends even the slightest justification to such a horrendous crime bears some responsibility for it, and its gruesome consequences.

The Fogel family was a religious and patriotic family. They loved the land of Israel, and believed that all parts of the Greater Land of Israel belong to the Jewish people. They were formerly residents of the Gaza Strip before they were forcefully removed by the government during the disengagement from the strip in 2005. They moved their family to re-establish themselves in the settlement of Itamar near to the West Bank city of Hebron. Their politics brought them into conflict with many Palestinians who lay claim to the West Bank and, indeed, much of the Land of Israel. They had witnessed the government take their home in Gaza and hand it over on a golden platter to the Palestinians. Since then, the Palestinians have done nothing useful with the land, nor the homes and businesses that were given to them. This was the background against the Fogel family moved to live in Itamar, and to die there.

The personal tragedy suffered by this family is currently overwhelming in its intensity. The political ramifications are, however, substantial and significant. How can the Israeli government be expected to agree to establish a Palestinian state on its borders when this type of behaviour is prevalent, and is likely to continue? The act of handing the Gaza Strip to the Palestinians has proved that no amount of territorial concessions will be enough unless it is all the land that we have. The worst part about this and other acts of terror, is the fact that the Palestinian Authority lends them some level of support. This is not creating a situation conducive to peace. With acts like this, it is clear that a peace agreement can never work in such an environment.

My thoughts go out to the family and to the mourners. May they be comforted amongst the mourners of Zion during this hour of extreme grief, and may they know no further sorrow. May the memories of the deceased be for a blessing.

Monday 7 March 2011

Everything is Permanent Until it is Changed

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced last week that he was changing his tactics with regard to the negotiations with the Palestinians. Until now, his position on the peace talks was that he was not prepared to enter into any "interim" agreement. Instead, he wanted to strike a "permanent" agreement which includes agreement on all the so-called final status issues. Now, he has changed his approach and says that he is willing to come to an agreement with the Palestinians on the basis of "temporary" borders. Despite the different language being used, has anything really changed in his approach?

It is not entirely clear what was driving Netanyahu’s original position to prefer a permanent solution rather than a temporary one. My interpretation is that he was trying to delay the declaration of the Palestinian state by position himself to reach agreement on all the most difficult issues before the state is established. The unresolved issues with the Palestinians have been dividend into issues that can be solved in the near-term, and others which should be delayed until later to be resolved (more contentious and difficult). From the outset when late Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin initiated the dialogue with the Palestinians, he believed that it would be better to show initial success in getting some of the easier points agreed before tackling the more difficult issues at a later date. This approach gave rise to the so-called “final status issues” which referred to the more difficult points such as the status of Jerusalem, refugees etc. which were to be delayed until later. There are those who believe that Netanyahu was employing a tactic to look like he was making progress, while not really making progress at all. Netanyahu is actually on record as saying that he thought that the final status issues could be resolved within a year. I am not sure that there were many who believed him when he said it, and the lack of progress more than a year later has proved their scepticism to be well founded. Was Netanyahu really saying that he did not want to come to any agreement with the Palestinians at all? I am not sure, but I believe it would be difficult to prove this.

The difference between what is temporary and what is permanent is a matter of interpretation. Everything is temporary, even whatever is permanent, because things change all the time. By the same token, everything is permanent until it is changed. So the terms temporary and permanent are really used simply to invoke some sort of human emotion and expectation about the direction and speed of how things will evolve. The truth about Middle Eastern politics is that it is enormously difficult to change anything. So even the so-called temporary agreements prove to be somewhat permanent because they are often difficult to change afterwards. I think that it is the last point which may have contributed to Netanyahu’s change of approach over the past few weeks.

If he decides to agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state with “temporary” borders, not a great deal changes from today’s situation. He is not forced to compromise on the difficult issues such as the status of Jerusalem, West Bank construction and the possibility of having to give up towns and settlements with substantial Jewish populations. Instead, he can agree to the establishment of the new state in the current configuration, by sending out the message that it is "temporary". Although agreement to the formal establishment of a Palestinian state will have dramatic political ramifications, the situation on the ground is unlikely to change much. The Palestinian Authority already rules over this land, so this aspect does not change. What changes is the level of international representation and recognition that such a state will have. Most importantly, such an act will serve to substantially reduce the international pressure that Netanyahu is currently under to agree to this state being established.

As soon as the temporary agreement is reached and the international pressure recedes, the daily reality of relations between Israel and the Palestinian state will probably continue along the same lines as today. The interdependencies between the two entities will not change dramatically and the security cooperation will continue as it does today. The unresolved final status issues will probably remain open for some time, as the pressure to agree these will decrease due to the fact that the Palestinians will have a state of their own. This temporary situation may, in fact, continue for tens or even hundreds of years in the current climate of the Middle Eastern politics.

What is likely to change once a Palestinian state comes into existence is the accountability of the Palestinian government. Today, it is a corrupt government that is not accountable to anybody except itself. Palestinain government officials frequently hide behind the fact that they do not have the same responsibilities as other countries as they are not an independent country. Their change of status will hopefully also mean that the international community will require certain standards of behaviour in the same way that these are demanded of other countries in the international community.

Netanyahu’s change of tactic superficially appears to change things substantially and, in some respects, it does bring about a big change in substance. I believe, however, that it reinforces the current status quo in more ways. It seems to me that the momentum towards the establishment of a Palestinian state is now unstoppable. Netanyahu recognises this, and will want to be seen to be supporting this process now that it is inevitable. At the same time, will wish to preserve as much of what he has at the moment without having to agree to give a great many things up. His idea of agreeing to the establishment of a state based on “temporary” borders is likely to satisfy the international community while not changing much on the ground.

The "temporary" solution seems to be Netanyahu's best chance of getting what he wants on both sides of the fence. This goes a long way to explaining his sudden change of heart.