Monday 26 November 2012

Hatred and Ceasefires

In the hours following the terror attack on a bus in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, I had the same thoughts that I recall thinking during the course of the suicide bombing campaign in the Second Intifada.  I was desperately trying to envisage what sort of person it could be who would leave an explosive on a bus knowing that it would kill and maim innocent men, women and children.  I have also wondered in the past what sort of person would kill themselves in a restaurant or other public place, just because they have the opportunity to kill innocent men, women and children around them.  I cannot imagine the person who would undertake such a ghastly act, and why they would think that this is justified in any way.  I felt the same when I saw missiles being launched towards civilian areas, with the express hope and intention that they will hit apartment blocks or shopping centres full of innocent people trying to go about their daily lives.  And yet, there are such people in this world.  Many of them are neighbours of Israel who believe that they have full justification to massacre civilians.

When discussing this with one of my colleagues, the answer seemed quite obvious to him.  His take on the matter is quite straight-forward.  He simply said, "you have to understand how deep the hatred goes".  Perhaps he is right and we do need try to understand how deep the hatred goes, as difficult as this seems.  The problem is that I simply cannot understand hatred of this magnitude.  I have met people who do have a genuine and justifiable reason to hate deeply.  These are people who still have numbers that were branded onto their arms, and who were subject to the most depraved behaviour known to mankind.  They were herded and kept like cattle, and were forced to witness the deaths of close friends and family members at the hands of some of the most evil people ever known.  Deep hatred would be fully justified under these circumstances.  Strangely, many of these victims do not feel the hatred that may be expected of them.  Somehow, it is not in them to bear a grudge and feel hate in this way.  It seems to me that the type of hatred that we see coming from Gaza is hate that has been taught and cultivated over many years, and passed by one generation to another.  Even if we assume that this has arisen as a result of maltreatment, this has certainly not been at the hands of Israelis.  Even when Israel controlled Gaza, the treatment of the Palestinian population was in accordance with security requirements.  Israel certainly did not maltreat Palestinians in a way that cultivate the hate that is in evidence, and that could ever justify the deliberate murder of women and children.

So where does the hatred come from, and why is it so strong?  Although some say it goes back many centuries, there is a noticeable increase in the hatred since the State of Israel was declared in 1948.  Perhaps this was the moment that the anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist sentiments could be directed towards a physical entity, rather than a bunch of individuals.  It also represents the moment that the Arab leaders promised their people that Israel would be wiped off the map, and that the Jews would be driven into the sea.  To date, this promise has not been fulfilled despite their best efforts.  This also gives a basis for hatred, even though it is misdirected in many cases.  It may also be the case that Arab leaders ensure that the dissatisfaction of their citizens is channelled in the form of hate towards Israel, rather than directed towards the leaders who are the real cause of the suffering of their people.

The guns have now gone silent following another outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Hamas.  It was noticeable how the war was fought between the different parties.  Israel did all that she could to avoid civilian casualties.  Some targets were not fired upon when there was a risk that civilians would become involved.  The strikes that were made, were undertaken with pinpoint accuracy to avoid civilian casualties.  Hamas took a completely different approach.  Their objective was to place at risk the lives of as many civilians as possible.  Their rocket fire was always aimed at areas of high civilian population.  Hamas was happy to risk the lives of its own population by creating human shields out of people.  Rockets were fired from apartments where women and children live.  The leadership hid itself and some of its ammunition stores under a hospital.  All of this would ensure that Israel, with its humane attitude, would not aim its fire at these areas.  In the event that fire was directed towards these targets, it would make a great news story for the waiting press pack.  Not only is it difficult to wage a war against such people, it is also virtually impossible to make peace with them.

Operation "Pillar of Defense" has ended, and the rocket fire has finally ceased.  If it was not for the wonderful and heroic "Iron Dome" system, Israeli civilians may have been subject to 400 more rockets landing in their towns and cities.  This is to add to the thousands of rockets that have been fired incessantly over the past ten years, and more.  What is perhaps most astonishing about this situation, is the reaction of the international community.  It is incredulous that Israel is continuously criticised for being the aggressor, and that foreign countries try to dictate to Israel that any response to attacks on its citizens should be "proportionate".  What could be regarded as disproportionate, when a missile is fired towards the centre of a town or city with the aim of killing and maiming civilians?

Perhaps the international community should also try to understand the form of hatred that is being bred towards Israel in places like Gaza, and elsewhere in the region.  There should be an attempt to appreciate that this is hatred that is being taught by parents and in schools, rather than hatred based on rationality.  As such, it appears difficult, and perhaps even impossible to counter.  It is against the background of this hatred that ceasefires are agreed, and peace treaties negotiated.  It seems fairly clear that, while this hatred continues to be bred amongst the younger population and passed from father to son, ceasefires and peace arrangements will only ever be temporary.  Unfortunately, under these circumstances, a permanent peace can never exist.

Sunday 18 November 2012

Operation Pillar of Defense - Showing the Best of Israel

On Wednesday, Israel's patience finally broke down.  After months, and even years of incessant rocket fire from Gaza towards communities in the south of Israel, the government finally decided that enough is enough.  A pin-point assassination was launched against the military leader of Hamas, Ahmad Jabari.  In addition, air force planes were sent in to target the longer-range missiles stationed in the Gaza Strip waiting to launch attacks on the densely populated areas of central Israel.  Operation Pillar of Defense hit the road, and is now already into its fifth day.

It is not only that Israel has the right to defend herself and her citizens against these attacks.  The imperative is a great deal stronger.  The Israeli government and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have the responsibility that requires them to do so.  Israelis and foreigners alike seem to understand this.  The only criticism that is being levelled against the government by Israelis in the wake of the latest operation, is that it came too late.  For now, even the most dovish of the international leaders have at least expressed a level of understanding at Israel's decision to launch this operation.  It is clear that none of these leaders would tolerate one missile being fired at their civilian populations, let alone the thousands of missiles that have been fired towards Israel over the past few months.  It should be clear that this is a war of necessity, and not one of choice.  The aggressor is Hamas, while the IDF is taking the role of simply defending the nation that it is responsible for keeping safe, and out of harm's way.  Israel has no desire to kill, hurt or injure Palestinians.  Israel also has no interest to take control of the Gaza Strip.  The only objective of this operation is simply to stop the rocket fire which threatens Israeli citizens on a daily basis.

Even though we have unfortunately seen this more than once or twice, even in the recent past, the reaction of the Israeli nation is astonishing.  Now that I am a parent of two young soldiers in the IDF, I am able to see things from a slightly different angle than was previously the case.  The more I see, the more proud I feel.  Our young men and women in uniform are the most incredible asset to our country and to our people.  Even though they are merely children, they understand the responsibility that falls to them in this hour of need, and they are happy to accept this burden and to defend our country.  They are nervous as they make their way to their bases, knowing full well what awaits them when they get there.  They don't disclose their nerves to the outside world and, when the moment comes, they do their job with pride and purpose.  The State of Israel and the Jewish people owe everything we have to these young soldiers.

They are not alone.  When the call went out to the reserve forces to begin their preparations and to move to their bases, the response was overwhelming.  Some were called out in the middle of the night and on Shabbat.  Many of them are husbands and fathers to young children.  Some are entitled to defer the call to duty for justifiable reasons.  Many run sole proprietor businesses.  And yet, they moved to bases in a green swarm without a hesitation.  Roads were congested with buses and cars as thousands of reserve soldiers travelled to their staging points.  The patriotism and the incredible sense of pride and enthusiasm with which they defend their country never ceases to amaze me.  I feel sure that the grandparents and great-grandparents of these soldiers, many of whom lived during the period of the Holocaust and through anti-Semitism in Middle Eastern countries and who were unable to defend themselves without a Jewish army, would feel immense pride if they had the merit to witness this activity.  They are the true embodiment of modern-day heroes.

For Israel, by far the most important story of the war so far is the success of Iron DomeIron Dome is the anti-missile defense system which was developed entirely in Israel, by Israelis for the defence of the State of Israel.  Iron Dome has the unique capability of being able to respond to extremely short-range missiles, to shoot them down before they hit their targets.  The sophistication and accuracy of Iron Dome is such, that it only deploys itself when missiles are launched in the direction of populated areas.  At times, there are only 15 or 20 seconds available to detect the incoming rocket, and launch an Iron Dome anti-missile missile to destroy the rocket.  Over the past five days, almost 750 rockets have been fired from Gaza into Israel.  Approximately one-third of these have been intercepted and shot down by Iron Dome.  About 30 rockets have hit targets in Israeli populated areas.  This indicates two things.  Firstly, a very high proportion of the rockets from Gaza are purposefully being launched towards densely populated areas in Israel.  Secondly, the Iron Dome success rate has been remarkable.   There was one reported Iron Dome miss yesterday, and the missile crashed into an apartment building in Ashdod.  One cannot even begin to imagine the devastation that may have been caused if Iron Dome was not in existence, and not doing the unbelievably effective job that it is doing.

For a war of this level of intensity, the casualties have been relatively few.  This is no thanks to the tactics that have been adopted by Hamas.  On the contrary, they have been doing all that they can to maximise the casualties.  The IDF has aimed its attacks at almost 1,000 targets across the Gaza Strip.  Some of these attacks have been aimed at individuals who are instrumental in orchestrating and carrying out attacks on Israeli civilians.  Including the targeted assassination hits, there have been approximately 70 deaths on the Palestinian side.  Considering that war inevitably has "collateral damage", particularly when missiles are being fired from residential neighbourhoods in Gaza, this is remarkably low even though each civilian killed is regrettable, and should be avoided at all costs.  Israeli deaths have been limited to three people killed on Thursday in Kiryat Malachi.  This is thanks to a fantastic job by Iron Dome, and excellent support by the Home Front Command which has ensured that people know how to stay out of harm's way even when the rockets do hit.  It is nothing short of miraculous that we have managed to avoid further loss of life and serious injury when the Palestinians have shown such great determination in trying to create as much death, destruction and havoc as possible.  This says a great deal about the type of enemy that we are fighting against.  There is no hesitation to launch missiles from within their populated areas, risking the lives of their own citizens.  There is no hesitation in targeting the most densely populated areas of Israel with massive missiles.  Israeli citizens have much to be grateful for in terms of the fantastic protection that has been afforded us by our army, and by our anti-missile defense systems.

The name given to the operation in Hebrew is "Amud Anan" (עמוד ענן).  Although this has been translated into English by the IDF as "Pillar of Defense", in reality it is a biblical term which really means "pillar of cloud".  It refers particularly to the divine cloud which guided the Israelites through the desert, and shielded from those who might do them harm.  It is a perfectly chosen name, as we pray that our soldiers and civilians will be guided and protected by the amud anan in the same way that it guided and protected the Israelites in the desert.

Our forces are gathering in large numbers on the borders of Gaza in anticipation of a ground invasion.  The backup systems have gone into high action to make sure that everything is done behind the scenes to support this to the best of our ability.  We are immensely proud of our boys and girls in uniform who are unflinching in their commitment to protect our country, and our right to exist in freedom.  We wish all our soldiers Godspeed in the coming days, and it is our prayer that the operation to rid Israel of the attacks from its enemies will be effective and swift in its execution.  May all our soldiers be protected in all that they do.  The will and prayers of an entire nation are with them.

Sunday 11 November 2012

Barack is Back - The Aftermath for Israel

While half of America celebrates the results of the presidential election, many Israelis will be feeling quite depressed about the results.  It would be safe to say that most of Israel was rooting for Romney (or whoever would have opposed Barack Obama).  In four short years, Obama succeeded in alienating much of the Israeli public, and there is a fairly flat feeling about the prospect of Obama continuing similar Middle East policies over the next four years.

Of course, it is true that Israelis have very different interests than Americans have when viewing the presidential election.  Americans are justifiably mostly concerned about economic issues, and about domestic issues such as universal health care.  These are issues which are of much less interest to the average Israeli, even though the man on the street in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem still cares a great deal about who will govern from the White House.  The reason for this is quite simple.  The White House has historically had a substantial impact on events in the Middle East in the past, and this is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.  People are clearly hoping that this influence will be exerted to help the security of the Jewish people in Israel, and also to advance the cause of peace in the Middle East.  The experience of how this influence has been exerted over the past four years does not engender any feeling of confidence that the current status quo is likely to change, or that the current situation will move in a positive direction over the next four years.  Even though life for Jews in Israel has been far worse in the past, people continue to live in hope that it will be a lot better with the help and influence of the White House in the future.

When Barack Obama came to power four years ago, there was a great deal of scepticism in Israel about how a president with such close family links to Islam, could be good for the Jews in Israel.  The euphoria and excitement that swept through the USA, however, convinced many to give Obama the benefit of the doubt and the chance to prove himself one way or the other.  Now, four years later, many believe that he has proved himself, and that their initial scepticism was fully justified.  In President Obama's first presidential visit to the Middle East, he made a point of stopping in Egypt to lay out his policy for the region.  Since then, he has not stepped foot in Israel nor shown himself to be particularly engaged in Middle Eastern issues.  He has waged a battle against policies that Prime Minister Netanyahu has pursued to secure the safety of Israel as a Jewish state, and has allowed Iran to reach the verge of producing a nuclear weapon by not being prepared to support the required military action to remove this threat.  Even though not all Israelis are supporters of Netanyahu and his policies, Obama's opposition to these policies have been viewed as unhelpful to Israel's cause and her security.  Obama has not been sufficiently willing to speak out against the continued missile fire under which so many communities in the south of Israel have been forced to live under, and to make clear to the perpetrators of these attacks how unacceptable this situation is.

Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush was the one who coined the phrase "if they are not with us, they are against us", in the context of the war on terror following the 9/11 attacks.  Israel has been fighting a war on terror for much longer than this, and understands very well the fact that there can be no "abstentions" in this important issue.  Those who do not strongly support the fight and help to take steps to assist in eradicating terror, effectively enable it by their lack of action.  Those who do not actively work to eradicate the nuclear threat from Iran, are those who enable it.  Responsibility for this extremely worrying situation will fall to all of those who were happy to be spectators while it was clear that a nuclear weapon was being constructed by a rogue regime with full knowledge and in full sight of the world.  The UN was set up in the wake of the Second World War with a brief of preventing conflicts and avoid future wars.  This type of activity is surely exactly what the UN has been set up to act against.  Even though the clear understanding is that Iran's nuclear program has the worst of intentions, it is being allowed by the world, and by Barack Obama in particular, to proceed almost unimpeded.

With this background, it is hardly surprising that Obama doesn't have a place in the hearts of many Israelis.  There are those who claim that the Obama administration has done more than any other US administration to provide arms and funding for weapons to Israel.  It is also clear that a strong US economy is good for Israel's economy in many respects.  So, action taken by Obama to strengthen the US economy is good and extremely important for Israel's continued well-being.  But these are indirect, and often invisible to the Israeli eye.  The most public and obvious matters, being the Iran nuclear issue and the continued conflict with the Palestinians, particularly Hamas in Gaza, are always going to be the issues that grab the headlines.  These are also the things that will capture the attention of the Israeli public, and by which Obama's success and failure with regard to his policy on Israel will be measured.

What remains unclear, is the extent to which the personal lack of agreement between Netanyahu and Obama may affect Obama's Israel policy.  Netanyahu is reported to have got on the wrong side of Obama on more than one previous occasion, and was extremely clear in his support for Romney in the presidential election campaign.  Indications from the White House are, that this will not influence Obama's attitude towards Israel, but this remains to be seen.  Despite the lurch towards democracy by some Middle Eastern countries as a result of the Arab Spring, Israel is still the only truly democratic country in the Middle East that the US can truly rely upon as an ally.  Their partnership in the war on terror is also a critical for both the US and Israel.

Perhaps its a good thing that Israelis have a very low expectation of the support that Israel will get from the new Obama administration.  At least, this means that the chances for disappointment are much lower than was the case four years ago when he took office for the first time.  Of course, we would all like to be pleasantly surprised, but there is no expectation that this will be the case.  The real fear is that we will wake up one day during the course of the next few years, and find that Iran has a nuclear bomb.  This will change the shape of the Middle East, and of the world.  It is our hope that Obama will at least take action to prevent this nightmare becoming reality.  Even though Israel is known for acting independently where required, and is not bound to US agreement or support on these matters in any way, the problem is a global one and not one which is only a threat to Israel.  While Israel is clearly one of the main targets of the Iranian aggression, this issue should not be left entirely to Israel to take care of.  The US and other countries around the world have a clear share of responsibility.  The time to act is now.