Monday 25 June 2012

Summer Security Assessment

It may be my imagination, but it seems to me that the security situation in Israel somehow seems to heat up when the weather gets hotter.  Many of the wars that Israel has had to fight in recent times have taken place during the summer months.  Somehow, as soon as the summer is in full glow, the security threats appear to escalate.  I was doing a mental assessment of Israel's current security situation.  The truth of the matter is that the situation is not brilliant.  If I was the chief of general staff or head of the national security council, this is the type of assessment I would be making at this time.

The southern border with Egypt is probably facing its least secure time since the signing of the peace treaty with Egypt in 1979.  A number of attacks have been made on Israel from the Sinai Peninsula, and we know that the Egyptian police force has been unwilling to secure this area, in the way that they did during the Mubarak years.  This has resulted in the Sinai becoming like the Wild West.  Arms shipments are crossing the Sinai towards Gaza in massive convoys, and with alarming frequency.  Most of these arms come from the "terrorist godfather" Iran, while others are coming from the stock of munitions that was looted from Libya when Gaddafi was overthrown.  The freedom with which these convoys are reaching Gaza via Egyptian territory is concerning.

More than this, a number of recent attacks have been launched into Israel from Sinai.  For the first time ever, Israel's southern resort of Eilat has joined the list of Israeli cities that are susceptible to a terror attack.  The attacks are not necessarily being carried out by militants themselves, because they have succeeded in recruiting Bedouins in the Sinai to act as their proxy in the battle against Israel.  Suddenly, they are the ones launching rockets into Israeli territory on behalf of their Gaza benefactors.  The Israeli government has moved to reinforce security along the Sinai border, and is constructing a security barrier fence along the length of the border.  This only takes care of part of the problem of the lawlessness in the Sinai, and then only to a certain extent.  It will be impossible to completely eradicate the threat of missiles being launched from Sinai into Israel, or the threat of infiltrations along this border.  The security barrier and increased security activity will go a long way towards achieving this, but it will be impossible to do away with it completely.  The lack of law and order in the Sinai also means that the gas pipeline that travels through this area, and carries urgently needed natural gas from Egypt to Israel, will continue to be under constant attack.  It has already been exploded 13 times in the past year.  This gas is critical to Israel's economy, at least until gas begins to flow from Israel's own gas fields in the next year or two.

The ongoing political turmoil in Egypt does not add anything to the safety of the southern border.  There is a part of me that says that it would probably be better to have the Muslim Brotherhood candidate installed as president of Egypt, rather than the current situation where there is no president at all.  Social unrest is building along with the lack of trust in the interim military rulers to hand power over to the elected candidate.  Social unrest is a highly destabilising force which Israel would prefer to avoid at all costs.

The situation along the Syrian border is also very concerning.  Assad continues his crackdown on opposition forces, in spite of the fact that there is practically no way for him to emerge from this uprising in control of Syria.  His forces continue to murder and maim militants and civilians alike in the lead-up to his deposal.  There is no indication what sort of regime will eventually replace Assad when the time comes for him to leave office.  The lack of stability that this situation creates for Israel stretches far beyond the Syrian border.  Hezbollah has already been observed looting missiles from the Syrian arms stores.  Some of these missiles have the capability to reach Tel Aviv.  They have been relocated onto the Lebanese side of the border, something that does nothing to help Israel's security in this area.  If Hezbollah is taking missiles, it is not impossible that weapons and missiles are falling into the hands of other anti-Israel groups.  This adds to the lack of stability in the area, and in the wider region.

The instability along the Gazan border also continues.  More than 100 rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel last week.  Fortunately, most of them fell harmlessly into open areas causing no injury or damage.  There were a few, however, that did damage to buildings and caused injury to individuals.  It will not take long before one rocket hits its target causing risk to life and limb.  This concern is even greater now that schoolchildren have begun their summer vacation, and will no longer spend a significant part of their day in the more protected environs of the school buildings.  The IDF and its Iron Dome batteries are doing a great job to protect those in harm's way.  This will, however, not be enough under the current circumstances and the rocket fire must be stopped as soon as possible.

Judging by the above, the overall security assessment is pretty grim.  Threats abound from all sides, and this is not to mention the continuous challenges of policing the borders to the Palestinian Authority areas in the West Bank, and keeping Jerusalem secure.  We can also not forget the ongoing threats posed by Iran's nuclear weapons program, and the way in which Turkey has become hostile to Israel in recent times.  In addition, the growing social protest movement in Israel has been strengthened, and is set for another summer of demonstrations against rising costs and economic hardships being suffered by so many.

Many countries would be plunged into depression and despair by the security and economic challenges faced by Israeli people.  And yet, this is certainly not the feeling in Israel.  People are gearing up for the long hot summer as usual.  Families are preparing for their summer vacations, high school students are getting summer jobs and tourists are gracing us with their presence in ever-increasing numbers.  Roaming around the streets of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, it is easy to think that you are in a country that has not a care in the world.  The overall mood is good, and people are going about their daily lives with a very positive outlook.  I am not sure if this is people trying to kid themselves into a false sense of security, or whether it is the sign of Israelis continuing to build their country against all the odds. just as they have done for the past 64 years.  One thing is clear to all Israel's enemies, near and far.  It will take a great deal more than this to break the spirit of the average Israeli, and of our peoplel and our nation.  We are built of stronger stuff, and this comes out loudly and clearly in days like these when there is so much to be concerned about, and seemingly not much to smile about.  The smiles continue to grace our faces, and our optimism never seems to wane.  This is the enormous strength of Israel and her people.

Wishing everybody a happy and safe summer.

Tuesday 19 June 2012

Airing the Dirty Laundry in Public

During the course of last week, the Israeli State Comptroller published his report into the events that took place when the IDF halted the entry of the Gaza Flotilla into Israeli territorial waters in May 2010.  The State Comptroller is answerable only to the Knesset, and has the responsibility to supervise and review government policies and operations.  He has looked at the Gaza Flotilla incident by examining the planning and decision-making by the government and the defence establishment in the period leading up to the incident.  The actual military operation mounted, and the unfortunate events that took place on that fateful day when an IDF boarding party was lynched by the activists on the Mavi Marmara, did not form part of the report.  The resulting defensive actions taken by the IDF soldiers on the ship resulted in the deaths of nine Turkish activists.  These events have been the subject of investigations and well-documented reports published by the United Nations, by Turkey and by the IDF itself.  The State Comptroller has a free hand in Israel to examine and report on all actions taken by the government, and related organisations, and the report into the Gaza Flotilla incident is an excellent example of the extent to which this free hand is exercised.

The report is filled with criticisms of the way in which the Israeli government handled the incident.  Although the actual decision to board the ships to stop them entering Israeli waters is not specifically addressed or criticised, the way in which the decision was reached comes in for a great deal of condemnation.  Even the prime minister is not beyond reproach in the report.  Amongst its many criticisms, the report mainly criticises the prime minister.  He is taken to task for holding informal and undocumented meetings that discussed how to deal with the flotilla in the period leading up to the incident.  It is reported that government officials who should have attended these meetings were frequently not in attendance.  Special mention is made of the fact that the National Security Council, a body established by the government especially to deal with situations like this, was essentially kept in the dark in the lead-up to the incident.  The report is quite clear in holding the prime minister responsible for these failings.  He was personally involved in many of the discussions and much of the planning surrounding the incident, and the buck stops with him as far as overseeing legal and effective preparations for events like these.  No punches are spared in the 153 page report.  Every misstep in the process is laid out in black and white, and has been extensively reported in the international press.

It is common knowledge that Israel has come in for much international criticism regarding the events of the Gaza Flotilla.  International relations between Israel and Turkey are at a low point, and Turkey is determined to extract an official apology from Israel for the deaths of the 9 activists.  Israel has expressed regret for their deaths, but is refusing to issue an official apology.  Israeli soldiers have been cited in a Turkish court action, charging with them crimes relating to the deaths.  In light of these and other international condemnations of Israel, there is a real question as to why the Israeli government has permitted the State Comptroller and the international press to publicise the severe criticism of the senior government officials?  Surely, this can only fan the flames of the international disapproval that Israel continues to experience in relation to this issue.  It may even strengthen any legal cases in Turkish law courts or other international law courts against individual Israelis who were involved in the events.  What is the value of airing all Israel's dirty laundry in public?

The answer to these questions lies in Israel's democracy and democratic process.  As the only democracy in the Middle East, Israel often finds herself behaving in ways that are alien to those countries that surround her.  This even applies to Turkey, which was held out for a long time as the only Muslim democracy in the world.  We have yet to see a state comptroller's report into the actions of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan prior to the Gaza Flotilla, and we are also highly unlikely to ever see one.  In Israel's democracy, however, this is standard practice.  The public demands to know the truth about the behaviour of politicians and leaders, and holds them accountable for their actions.  The role of the State Comptroller is to provide the public with the information that it needs for its evaluation.  This information could potentially be vital ahead of general elections now slated for later during 2013 (the truth is that I don't believe that the criticism of the prime minister has done his election prospects any damage at all).  Although the state's national security is of paramount importance and there are numerous laws that prevent publication of sensitive information, this cannot and does not come at the expense of Israel's democracy.  This is a pillar of strength in the State of Israel in that it is vital for citizens to know that bad leaders and leadership will be publicly identified, and we need only wait until the next general election for them to be jettisoned.  The price of this democracy is that we may be  forced to air our dirty laundry in public from time to time.

If there is any consolation for the Israeli voting public, it is that the examples of poor governance displayed by Netanyahu and his colleagues and discussed in the report, seem not to be uncommon elsewhere in the democratic western world.  In an article published in the Jerusalem Post over the weekend, former White House deputy national security advisor Elliott Abrams revealed that similar problems exist in the hallowed halls and corridors of power in the USA.  He said that some of the best meetings held in the White House were informal and not documented.  On the other hand, a formal decision-making process that complies with all governance requirements does not necessarily result in the correct decision being taken.  He used the example of the decision taken by former US President George W. Bush not to take any decisive military action against the Syrian nuclear reactor.  He claims that the wrong decision was taken despite impeccable reports and intelligence having been presented, and all the correct procedural steps having been followed. In this case, Israel was left to destroy the Srian nuclear reactor, an act which is particularly apprecicated these days during the unrest in Syria.  Abrams claims that the most important thing in such situations, is having the right decision-maker, and not relying too much on the process.

The case against any Israelis relating to the nine Turkish activists will surely firstly need to examine the role played by the Turkish prime minister in allowing the flotilla to set out from Turkish ports.  The Greek government demonstrated in a subsequent attempt to convene a flotilla from Greek ports, that it was possible to prevent the flotilla from sailing and avoid confrontation.  Once the boats were already on the water and approaching Israeli territorial waters with hostile intentions, the Israeli government's only decision was how to stop them from proceeding rather than whether to stop them from continuing.  The combination of boats approaching Israel, hostile activists on board armed with all manner of weapons and the IDF determined not to allow the flotilla to enter Israeli waters was always going to be recipe for disaster.  One did not need any special intelligence to work this out, and the Turkish prime minister must surely have known this.  Prime Minister Netanyahu made reference to this fact by saying that, despite the extensive preparations made by the Israeli government and the IDF for the arrival of the flotilla, he was convinced that the Turkish prime minister would not allow the ships to set sail.  He was wrong, and the rest is now history.

As a concerned citizen of Israel, I feel assured by the State Comptroller's report, and by the fact that this has been made public.  We have a right to know, even if we decide not to punish the guilty parties.  Those who have erred also know that they will be held to public account in all that they do.  This is an important tool of a democratic state.  We will need to overcome the public humiliation of the dirty laundry having been aired, but this is a small price to pay for the defence of our democratic rights.  Well done to the State Comptroller.

Tuesday 12 June 2012

Gay Pride in the Holy Land

Last week was Gay Pride Week in Tel Aviv, which culminated on Friday in a huge parade through the streets of the city and along the beach front.  Gay pride flags were proudly flying from street lights across the city in anticipation of the event, and it has become a major attraction on the city's calendar of events.

The whole idea of homosexuality in the Holy Land seems to be a contradiction in terms.  For countries which have a strong religious base, the idea of free acceptance of gay rights seems a paradox.  It would be difficult to imagine gay pride parades in the Vatican City or Islamabad.  Many people put Israel into this category, and not without justification.  The sight of the ultra-Orthodox Jew, either with a big black hat or with a crocheted kippa (skullcap) and flowing side locks, is the one that many associate with Israeli society.   This is, after all, a Jewish country.   The Tel Aviv gay pride parade, and the Tel Aviv gay scene in general, shows a completely different side to Tel Aviv, to Israel and to Jewish people.  It is also a side that conjures up much emotion and controversy.

Many may be surprised to learn of the extensive gay scene in Tel Aviv.  The city was voted "Best Gay City of 2011" by readers of a well-known gay website.  With its fantastic climate, wonderful beaches, numerous restaurants and crazy night scene, Tel Aviv is an ideal destination for gay tourists.  The Tel Aviv municipality and Israeli Ministry of Tourism have recognised the value of gay tourism, and have spent a good slice of their budgets in promoting Tel Aviv to the international gay community.  Gay tourists are regarded as high quality tourists who are willing to spend money when on their holidays.  Tel Aviv draws tens of thousands of gay visitors to the city each year, and this has boosted the tourist industry substantially.  This seems to sit fairly easily with the persona of Tel Aviv, which is known to be the liberal centre of Israel.  There seems to be little opposition from Tel Aviv residents to the gay branding of Tel Aviv, and this somehow seems to contribute to the cosmopolitan face of the city.

Attempts to replicate the gay pride parade in Jerusalem have been less successful.  The city's gay pride parades have inevitably been accompanied by opposition and violence from the ultra-Orthodox community, which is not prepared to tolerate such an activity in the Holy City.   The parades held in the city have been a cat-and-mouse game in getting the city council (dominated by ultra-Orthodox councillors) to approve the parade, and then allowing it to go ahead without intervention by groups and individuals opposed to it.  Although the number of participants is substantially smaller, the statement that it makes is much larger.

While the issue of homosexuality is highly contentious and has much opposition within the religious community, it is also a subject that is becoming a greater part of the religious community.  It is reported that more and more members of the religious community are coming out of the closet as gays, despite the fact that it is a concept that is completely taboo within the community.  A number of Orthodox rabbis have publicly announced that they are gay, and this includes some who were openly involved in the Tel Aviv gay pride parade.  For the majority of Orthodox Jews, the gay lifestyle is regarded as contrary to Jewish law and its practices are totally rejected.  Despite this fact, it seems to me that the community is forced to at least recognise the existence of gays and their lifestyle.  This is, in itself, a major change from the attitudes that we seen until now.

In addition to giving a voice to an alienated sector of the religious community, the gay scene and gay pride parade in Tel Aviv also gives an outlet to Arab gays.  Most gays in the Arab community are forced to leave their families and their homes if they come out of the closet.  The Tel Aviv gay scene is happy to accept these people into their midst, and gives them the opportunity to live the life that they cannot live in their home environment.

As much as there are still those who are opposed to open expressions of homosexuality such as the gay pride parades, the city of Tel Aviv has really embraced the parade and the people that come with it.  It is an event like any other, which caters for a different sector of the population.  Not only does it attract much-needed foreign tourists, it is also makes a statement about the tolerant and accepting atmosphere in the city.  In the same way that the religious communities are allowed to live their lifestyle in the areas in which they have chosen to live, so it is true of the gay community of the city.  I think that this is a great advert for the city of Tel Aviv, and for the State of Israel.

Monday 4 June 2012

Ramping Up the Cyber Warfare

The discovery last week of the latest weapon in the war being fought in cyberspace, has confirmed to me the fact that the war against Iran began some time ago.  Flame is the latest in a series of computer viruses that have been found to have infected computers in Iran's nuclear industry.  Despite Iran's consistent protests that its nuclear program is intended only for domestic purposes, the fact that it has denied access for inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to see some of its facilities is clear indication that there is something to hide.  This was reinforced last week when images were released by the US showing frantic work on the part of the Iranians to erase evidence of certain activities.

Out of all the types of warfare being undertaken, the development of nuclear weapons is one which plays into the hands of the computer experts the most.  The nuclear industry is highly dependent on computerised systems for the control of the reactors, for the operation of the centrifuges and for much of the process that enriches Uranium to levels that allows for it to be used in nuclear weapons.  For Israel, this comes as a something of a relief as few countries around the world have the same level of expertise in software and hardware as the Israelis.  Israeli engineers have established a name for themselves in developing a number of products and features in the software arena which are "firsts" in the world.  These same skills have allowed Israel to tap into much of what is happening in the Iranian nuclear industry, and to cause disruption to retard or damage the process.

Israel embraced the need to conduct cyber warfare some time ago.  It is believed that unit 8200, which was established in the 1950s as an intelligence-gathering unit using the most sophisticated electronic technologies, was the first facility deployed to use its technological capabilities to wage cyber warfare.  Since then, it is known that specialised units for this purpose have been set up by the IDF, the latest of which is addressing new media, including social networks.  Not only is the IDF focusing on attacking enemy networks and computer systems, there is a great deal of work being done to ensure that its own systems adhere to the highest standards of security.

The latest Flame virus was discovered by Russian anti-virus company Kaspersky.  Some reports suggest that Flame may have operated undetected for as long as 5 years, and succeeded in evading 43 anti-virus systems deployed on Iranian computers.  During the time that it operated on individual computers, Flame was able to send copies of data stored on the computer back to its controllers.  It was also able to take screen shots of the computer, as was as activate the computer microphone to allow eavesdropping on nearby conversations.  If it infected 1,000 computers over a period of 5 years, a great deal of information could have been collected.

Flame comes hot on the heels of the Stuxnet virus which is reported to have destroyed centrifuges that were in use in Iranian nuclear plants.  Stuxnet was discovered much more quickly because it infected many more computers and, therefore, came to the attention of the anti-virus systems much more quickly.  There can be little doubt that for every virus we hear about, there are many more that go unpublicised.

Computer systems are in use in every aspect of a modern military environment.  They are used for simple tasks like administration and data storage, as well as for more sophisticated tasks such as the command and control of the most sensitive and most destructive weapons systems.  This gives massive opportunity for those who are able to use cyber warfare effectively, to infiltrate every corner of a country's security establishment.  This is the enviable position that Israel finds herself in today.  The next war against Iran will also certainly be fought on this basis.

This war has, in fact, already begun, and may have been ongoing for as long as 10 years.  It is a war that has no room for the faint-hearted, and has a great deal at stake.  Small errors can have huge consequences, and the survival of an entire nation could be resting upon doing everything right.  When Israel was found 64 years ago, she was regarded as being at a huge disadvantage because of the small poorly-equipped army that she was able to deploy.  Despite this disadvantage, Israel has survived and turned into one of the great military nations of the world.  With the advent of cyber warfare, the game has turned very much in Israel's favour.  The most unlikely of military powers is now more in the driving seat than ever before.  A cyber war seems built to fit the strengths that Israel has.  It would be foolish of the Iranians to think that they will be able to triumph in such circumstances.