Thursday, March 15, 2012
Since Friday March 9, 2012, more than 200 rockets have been fired from Gaza to various parts of Israel. These attacks have been aimed at Beer Sheva, Ashdod, Ashkelon and even the more northern city of Gedera. Israel has responded with a number of air raids on Gaza. Many Israelis have been injured in the rocket attacks. There are also estimates that more than 30 Palestinians have been killed in Israel's responding raids, some of whom were civilians.
The latest round of violence erupted after Israel assassinated Zuhair al-Qaissi, the secretary general of the Popular Resistance Committee. Al-Qaissi was linked by Israeli military officials to an August attack from the Sinai that resulted in the deaths of 8 Israelis and injuries to 40 others. Al-Qaissi was reportedly planning another similar attack.
Although the period leading up to this latest round of escalation has been described as a "period of calm," some 50 rockets have been fired at Israel from Gaza over the past two months, during this "truce." It's not very hard to imagine what the United States might do after receiving one or two rockets from Canada or Mexico, let alone 50.
Since the rocket attacks began last Friday, more than 200,000 children were forced to stay home as schools were closed across a large area of the Israeli south. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis missed work and there was significant property damage caused by the rockets.
The damage is generally viewed by Israelis as only a small fraction of what Israel might face if it were involved in an all-out war with Gaza, Lebanon (Hezbollah forces), Iran and potentially even Syria. Nevertheless, the psychological impact has been tremendous, particularly on those families living within range of these attacks. And despite these challenges, a solid majority of Israelis are apparently still supportive of Israeli preemptive action on Iran's nuclear facilities.
Israel has successfully deployed its Iron Dome anti-missile system to provide defence to these attacks from Gaza. The system has reportedly succeeded at intercepting a large number of rockets though the estimated success rate various widely. The Iron Dome is primarily intended to prevent rocket attacks on civilian areas and has had some success in that regard. Most of the rockets were allegedly fired by Islamic Jihad and some smaller offshoot organizations with public claims from Gaza that Hamas was not involved. One might be forgiven for being skeptical about these claims.
Although Egypt brokered a stated "truce" on Tuesday, rockets attacks have continued with at least 3 rockets fired at Beer Sheva earlier today (Thursday March 15, 2012). Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad have denied any responsibility, pointing to smaller "splinter" groups.
Israel's Iron Dome system is not an anti-ballistic missile system. Israel has been working on the Arrow ABM system, which is designed to intercept longer range missiles and rockets but it is not yet fully developed. The upshot is that Israel is likely to face very heavy rocket fire from a variety of geographic sources if hostilities break out with Iran. Such attacks will cause heavy structural and economic damage and may also result in a significant number of Israeli casualties.
The difficult calculation for Israel and its political leadership is weighing this heavy cost against the enormous costs of a potential nuclear attack from Iran. Given the very public statements made by Iranian leader Ahmadinejad calling for Israel's destruction, coupled with Iran's vigorous nuclear weapons program, it may well be too perilous for Israel (and for the rest of the world) to stand by and wait for this attack, even if by so doing, Israel can buy another few years of relative peace.
Israel's experiences in the second Lebanon War in 2006 and its various skirmishes with Gaza since than have suggested that any future war that Israel might face with its hostile neighbours will be markedly more damaging to Israel's civilian population than any of its previous wars. But the reality is that Israel is constantly facing an existential struggle which is only likely to dissipate when a real Arab spring arrives and brings with it widespread peace. Looking at what has been taking place in Syria, Iran, Gaza and even Egypt, the Middle East, unfortunately, is still stuck in the middle of a cold winter.
Wednesday, March 7, 2012
As the news is filled with reports of potential hostilities between Israel and Iran, we are celebrating the Jewish holiday of Purim. Purim is a holiday marking the victory by the Jewish community of Persia - which, though the bravery of the story's heroes, Mordechai and Esther, was saved from a plot by the evil villain, Haman, to destroy the country's Jewish community. Sounds familiar? Well, we'll leave the discussion of modern day Iran (ancient Persia) for another day...
Purim is one of the happiest holidays on the Jewish calendar. Throughout Israel, cities celebrate "Adloyadah festivals." "Adloyada" (literally - "until you don't know") comes from the tradition of having a bit too much to drink on Purim and celebrating wildly. But these are not drunken festivals. (Unlike the parties that many people are attending tonight and tomorrow...) Far from it. These are family oriented street parades, held in the centre of many of Israel's cities.
Ra'anana held its festival yesterday, the day before Purim began. The parade began at 4 p.m. All of the city's schools were represented with themed floats and a group of selected students marching along. Ra'anana, like most other Israeli cities, has a variety of school types - religious, secular, pluralistic, and special schools for art, music and sports programs. All of these different schools were represented. Thousands of people lined the main street, Ahuza Street, which was closed off to all traffic from about 3:30 p.m. The parade marched along Ahuza for about an hour and a half.
Meanwhile, the Ra'anana City centre ("Yad L'Banim") was turned into a giant dance club from the early afternoon. Students, who came to school in a wide range of costumes, were let out of school at noon. Thousands of kids made their way to Yad L'Banim, which was set up with a DJ, lots of security and a party atmosphere. The weather cooperated - it was a sunny 20C.
The holiday of Purim officially began at sundown this evening. Across Israel(and throughout the world), Jewish people went to Synagogue, community centres or other locations to hear a public reading of the "Megillah" - the Book of Esther - which is read from a parchment scroll. Israelis were also frantically preparing baskets of food and sweets to give out to neighbours and friends tomorrow - as is customary on Purim. Many Israelis are also participating in the Mitzvah of charitable gifts to the needy, another Purim custom.
Kids are off school for three days - Wednesday, Thursday and Friday - to celebrate this relatively "minor" holiday. But for many kids, the holiday is a favourite. Unlike a "chag" - a "holy day" - buses are running, stores and restaurants are open and there are no extensive restrictions on activities. Most people are working, at least a half day. People everywhere dress up in all kinds of costumes and there is a general carnival atmosphere. And to top it off - the temperature is predicted to hit the high 20s C by the weekend, marking a real change from the much needed rainy season that has soaked Israel over the past few months.
The festivities will be continuing all over the country for the rest of the week. There are Adloyadah festivals in many other cities on Purim and the day after. Purim officially begins with Megillah readings in the City of Jerusalem one day later than the rest of the world (and the rest of Israel) - tomorrow night. And Israelis will be celebrating with festive meals across the country in the afternoon on Purim day.
Because of the timing of Shabbat this year - kids will wind up having had a break from school from Tuesday at noon - until Sunday morning. For many kids, this is definitely the best part of celebrating Purim.
Chag Sameach! (Happy Holiday!)
Thursday, March 1, 2012
(Israeli Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran - from Haaretz)
Justice Asher Grunis was sworn in on Tuesday as the new President (Chief Justice) of the Israeli Supreme Court. Among a range of impressive qualifications, Justice Grunis also has a Toronto connection - a PhD from York University. Justice Grunis replaces Justice Dorit Beinisch, who was the first woman to hold the post of President of Israel's highest court.
The induction ceremony was held at the residence of Israeli President Shimon Peres. Along with a number of speeches, the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah ("the Hope") was performed and the panel of Israeli Supreme Court judges sang along. That is, with the exception of Arab Justice Salim Joubran. Justice Joubran apparently has idealogical objections to singing Israel's anthem. His public non-participation has touched off a debate in some circles about the level of loyalty to the State of Israel that ought to be required for a justice of the Supreme Court.
On one level, the issue that has been raised related to "Hatikvah." The Israeli national anthem speaks of the yearning of the Jewish soul to return to the Jewish homeland, the land from which the Jewish people were exiled. The anthem concludes with the dream of being a "free nation, in our land, the land of Zion, Jeruslem." The anthem is glorious and it captures the essence of the Zionist project - to build a Jewish homeland in which the Jewish people can live as a nation. For Israel, as a Jewish state, the anthem is appropriate and relevant.
But for Israel as a democratic State, which protects the rights of all citizens to live in the country, to practice their religious beliefs and to maintain their own national, cultural or ethnic identities and aspirations, it is understandable that Arab citizens would refuse to sing this particular anthem. I really don't see a problem with that. Other countries have equally offensive anthems. In Canada, the French version of the national anthem includes the line "they know how to carry the cross," suggesting that only Christians are true citizens. I cringe every time I hear it and would certainly refuse to sing it publicly at this type of induction ceremony, but I really don't believe that would be used as a litmus test to measure one's commitment to the country. In fact, in a country like Canada, it is particulary obnoxious because Canada purports to treat all Canadians equally, regardless of religious affiliation. Israel declares openly that it is a Jewish and democratic State, so there is a difference.
On the other hand, the issue of "loyalty" does have other aspects to it and is not confined to the question of whether or not a Supreme Court Judge should publicly sing Hatikvah. Israeli Jews are subject to universal conscription and must serve in the Israeli army or perform national service. There are currently exemptions to this requirement. Ultra-religious Jews, who are studying full-time in Yeshivas are exempt, for the time being. I have written about this in other blogs. Arab Israelis are also exempt, though Druze Israelis serve in the army. Overall, this means that approximately 75% of Israeli citizens of draft age are now eligible to be conscripted with the remainder exempt. Israeli army service can greatly affect a person's future employability with many employers placing a great deal of weight on the type of military service that a candidate performed.
The issue of military service is quite different than that of the public singing of Israel's national anthem. Here, changes should be made. If Israel, as a democracy, takes steps to ensure that rights and freedoms and all types of employment are open to all citizens, then all citizens should share the responsibility of protecting the State.
Steps are already being taken to conscript the Ultra-Religious Jews. This will assist the State of Israel and it will also improve the post-army employability of these Haredim. There may still be an exemption for a very small number of exceptional students, who are studying full-time in Yeshivas, as envisioned by Israel's founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. However, the vast majority of Haredim should be expected to perform military or national service.
With respect to Israel's Arab population, this is another group that should also be expected to perform military or national service. Israel's Arabs work in Israel in every conceivable profession, from blue collar jobs to working as professors, judges, doctors and lawyers. Surely, as part of "equality," military or national service is a reasonable requirement in a country in which universal conscription is a necessity and a reality.
Israel's politicians and military leaders will need to take steps to ensure that the army or the national service can and will accomodate any unique needs of Arab conscripts, just as they have begun to take steps to ensure that Ultra-Religious soldiers can be properly integrated. They will also have to sort out security and loyalty issues. The flip side is that Israel's Arab minority population will also have to recognize that there is a price to be paid for living in the only truly free and democratic country in the Middle East. They should be prepared to participate in protecting that privilege. Ultimately, an army with full universal conscription in Israeli is likely to lead to better integration and understanding between diverent religious and ethnic groups.
If Israel does implement truly universal military or national service, it will then make sense to ask candidates for high level positions, including Supreme Court positions, about their past military or national service. They will probably still not be required to publicly sing "Hatikvah" but it seems entirely reasonable to expect that a Supreme Court judge would have performed military or national service in a country with universal conscription, provided that minority rights are fully protected.