Thursday, November 22, 2012

Operation Pillar of Cloud: Wrapped Up - For Now?

It has been a relatively quiet day so far in Israel, with the sound of thunder replacing the sounds of airplanes and rockets.  A rain storm is expected in parts of Israel and that certainly beats a missile storm.  A cease fire, sponsored primarily by Egypt, was put into place last night at approximately 9 p.m..  Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other factions continued to fire rockets at Israel for about another 2 hours after that time, but Israel did not respond to these provocations and the cease fire took hold.

It was a particularly bitter day of fighting for both sides yesterday.  A terrorist bombed a passenger bus in central Tel-Aviv, injuring a large number of people, and many rockets were fired at Israeli cities and towns in the south.  Meanwhile, the Israeli Air Force responded by stepping up its campaign and bombing numerous targets in the Gaza Strip.

Many Israelis, particularly in the south, opposed the cease fire and were urging Prime Minister Netanyahu to make the decision to launch a full scale ground invasion of Gaza in an effort to make it less likely that Hamas would launch another barrage of rockets at Israel any time soon.  However, Netanyahu faced enormous world pressure from numerous quarters, including, most significantly, the U.S. and chose not to proceed with the ground assault.   There were also many in Israel who viewed a cease fire as a possible opportunity to work on some sort of longer lasting arrangement with Hamas and the Palestinians.

Although many Palestinians in Gaza are reportedly celebrating - and Hamas has declared November 22 to be a "national holiday," it is really hard to believe that this was a victory of any sort for Palestinians.  More than 100 Palestinians were killed, hundreds more were injured, and Gaza suffered major damage as a result of Israeli attacks.  Although Hamas succeeded in hitting Israeli targets and causing damage, it sustained very major damage to its military infrastructure and weapons caches and other types of damage as well.

This was also not a victory for Israel.  Although Operation Pillar of Cloud caused significant damage to Gaza's military capabilities and its leadership, Israel also suffered from several missile attacks that hit its cities and killed and injured its residents.

YNet News has reported the following statistics:

More than 1500 rockets and missiles were fired at Israel by Hamas and its cohorts;
875 exploded in open areas in Israel;
421 were intercepted by the Iron Dome system, which only intercepts projectiles that are likely to cause damage;
152 rockets and misssiles landed in the Palestinian territories;
More than 500 people were treated in Israeli hospitals for war-related innjuries over the 8 day operation.

Al-Jazeera reports that an estimated 162 Palestinians in Gaza were killed during Operation Pillar of Cloud but it is unclear how  many of these people were civilians.  It is also unclear whether this number is even accurate.  Various sources report that the IDF attacked more than 1,000 targets in Gaza over the course of the 8 day operation.

Haaretz printed an excellent post-mortem article, written by Chemi Shalev called Gaza Requiem which provides a fairly balanced picture of things, in my view.

It is unclear how long this "truce" will last.  It could be days, weeks or even months.  Hopefully both sides, and other international players interested in a peaceful resolution, will make a push to broaden the cease fire and make efforts to reach a wider and longer lasting peace deal.  Failing to do so will simply usher in another round of violence and the fighting in the region will continue.  While many pessimists insist that this is bound to be the case, we can only hope that the pessimists can eventually be proven wrong.

On a personal note, I was at a wedding in central Israel last night.  Invited guests included more than 100 military personnel, many of whom were close friends of the groom.  With the current military situation, the groom had been advised that very view of his friends would be able to attend.  As the cease fire was announced, just in time, a large number of these invited guests were able to come straight from their posts to the wedding - dressed in full military gear and fully armed.  But it was a bit of joyous timing for the bride and groom who were able to celebrate with many of their friends and were also able to enjoy their wedding with the knowledge that a truce had been reached.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Day 8: Close to a Deal? Fighting Continues.

There was a flurry of diplomatic activity yesterday in Israel, Egypt and Gaza as various countries and organizations tried to broker a cease fire deal of some sort. Word began leaking out that a deal had been struck to commence a cease fire - or at least a "lull" by late yesterday evening.  TV stations (and the Egyption president) announced that the Hamas government would announce a cease fire arrangement of some sort at approximately 9 p.m., followed by the official commencement of a temporary truce at about midnight. 

As the cease fire approaches, Hamas ramped up its efforts to cause maximum damage to Israel and its civilians.  Tens of rockets were fired at the city of Beersheva, as well as other southern Israeli cities, some of which scored direct hits.  A shopping mall was hit.  Missiles also hit a bus with some passengers and a residential home.  A young Israeli soldier, Yosef Fartuk, age 18, was killed, along with a contractor.  In total 5 Israelis have been killed since hostilities began.

This condominium building was hit yeseterday in the central Israeli city of Rishon L'Tzion, early in the evening,  by an  Iranian made Fajr 5 Rocket.  The residents heard the alarm and all went into the "Shelter Room."  The rocket went through four stories but the residents were mostly uninjured with a couple of people suffering minor bruises.  Newer buildings in Israel are all buillt with a "shelter room" surrounded by thick concrete walls.  Israelis have been urged by the Israeli Government to take shelter in these rooms as soon as they hear an alarm in their are.  In this case, listening to these instructions saved lives.

Building in Rishon L'Tzion - Nov 20, 2012 Courtesy of YNet News
With the combination of stepped up attacks from Hamas aimed at Beersheva and other areas, the amount of damage and the missiles sent to central Israel, the Israeli government responded by having the IDF step up its attacks.

Diplomatic efforts are apparently continuing in an effort to diffuse the crisis and come up with a cease fire arrangement.  U.S. Secretary of State is in the region and is meeting with Israeli, Egyption and Palestinian leaders.  Many other international diplomats are involved.  It does appear that a deal was close yesterday but may have been disrupted by the severe attacks and damage caused  by Hamas as the cease fire time approached.  Reports also suggest that Hamas was only pushing for a short "lull" rather than a longer term arrangement.

Israel is not interested in a truce deal that will simply allow Hamas to use a short pause to obtain more rockets from Iran and that start filing missiles in another few days or even weeks.  Israel is insisting that any type of  deal address at least some of the broader issues and include guarantees from Egypt or other countries that Hamas will not continue to bring rockets and weapons into Gaza.  In exchange, Israel is reportedly willing to ease its control of Hamas borders but only if it can be satisfied that a military embargo will be put in place.

Meanwhile, as the fighting continues, Israelis have been watching the news and seeing Hamas rockets fired at their homes and other civilian areas.  While the IDF faces world pressure to avoid civilian casualties at all costs, the Hamas goal is to cause maximum civilian casualties.  Some Israelis can't help but think that Israel should lob rockets into crowded Gaza civilian centres in response to the attacks on its civilians if that is the only way of deterring Hamas.  But of course, Israel will not do that.  It is committed to mainting the ethical and moral highground and fighting the war agains these Hamas terrorists as humanely as possible.

Despite IDF efforts to avoid civilian casualties, Palestinian sources have indicated that more than 100 people in Gaza have been killed by Israeli attacks, some of whom have been civilians.

This pattern of violence is all too familiar in this region.  At least some Israelis are hoping that this war will lead to a renewed sense of urgency to address broader issues and try to resolve the whole Palestinian-Israeli dispute.  It is hard to say that there are many Israelis who believe that this is likely - since Hamas controls the Gaza strip and has stated repeatedly that it is committed to the goal of destroying Israel.  Nevertheless, some believe that Hamas does have a pragmatic side and that it might even be a negotiating partner that will be more likely to enforce and uphold commitments that it makes unlike Fatah (the PLO). 

In any event, the ongoing costs of this constant struggle are staggering.  They take a heavy toll on both sides, economically, militarily and in so many other ways.  We continue to hope that we will be able to find a deal with the Palestinians that will work for both sides and that will put an end to this conflict.  Unfortunately, looking the trends in the region and, particularly, the spread of radical Islam in Egypt, Turkey and other countries in the area, it is difficult to be optimistic. 

Update - at 12:30 p.m.:

Two terrorists placed a bomb in a bus in central Tel-Aviv just after 12:00 p.m. today.  The bomb exploded injuring more than 10 people, 5 of them seriously.  The two terrorists reportedly ran off the bus.  The explosion shattered the bus but, fortunately, was not as lethal as some of the bus explosions that suicide bombers have undertaken in the past in Israel.  The combination of the ramped up level of attacks on Israel yesterday (which may have derailed the cease fire plans) and now this type of attack may well harden Israeli resolve to continue or broaden the campaign against Gaza.


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Day 7: Operation Pillar of Cloud: On the Edge

Some Assembled Israeli Troops - Sunday Nov 18, 2012
There have been a number of developments in Israel's latest battle with Gaza.  It appears that Operation Pillar of Cloud is now at a critical point.  If Israel and Hamas do not reach a truce deal within a day or two, it appears likely that Israel will commence a, full scale ground invasion of Gaza.  According to the IDF, there are approximately 57,000 troops assembled and ready to commence the attack.  Last night, Israel's cabinet met late into the night to discuss truce options.  The cabinet is said to have concluded that there were no viable cease fire options at this point but that it was committed to trying to reach a deal.  Israel's main concern is that a limited cease fire deal that would simply allow Hamas to rearm with new weapons from Iran and then start another round of fighting after a short lull.  This would not be an acceptable outcome.

There has been a flurry of diplomatic activity.  Secretary General of the U.N. Ban-Ki Moon has become involved, a joint French-Qatari truce proposal was presented to both sides and various other countries have been meeting in Cairo with Egypt acting as the lynchpin to most of these discussions.  The German foreign minister just completed a meeting with Israeli officials.  U.S. Secretary of State Clinton in en route to Israel.  In a televised interview yesterday, Hamas leader Khaled Meshal taunted the Israelis to begin a ground invasion and made various threats about the damage that Hamas would cause if such an invasion were to incur.   He insisted that Israel had "requested" the cease fire talks even though Israelis spokespeople stated that this comment was about as accurate as Hamas claims that it had attacked Israel's parliament or shot down F-16s (neither of which have occurred).  Of course, this may have been posturing to try to claim victory on behalf of Gaza residents, who have faced some very serious attacks from the Israeli air force and have suffered heavy losses.

Nevertheless, there is no cease fire in place at this point.  This morning, Hamas ramped up its rocket attacks.  More than 60 rockets were fired at Israel between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m. alone, with 20 of these rockets fired at Beersheva.  Although many of these missiles were intercepted by the Iron Dome, three rockets hit targets in Beersheva, causing significant damage.  A shopping mall was hit, a home was destroyed and a passenger bus (with passengers) was hit.  There are reports of numerous injuries, some of which are apparently very serious.

YNet News Photo - Beersheva Nov 20, 2012
While it is often common in these situations for the two sides to ramp up their final attacks just before a cease fire, this latest round of attacks on Beersheva and Ashkelon is bound to harden the resolve of Israel's southern residents who are demanding results from this operation.  It is Israeli residents in the south who have been facing rocket barrages for years and who have pushed the government most adamantly to take action on behalf of their cities and on behalf of the whole country.  It is crucial for the Israeli government that any truce deal guarantees a fairly lengthy period without rocket fire.  |Without this kind of deal, it would make little sense for Israel to halt its operation.

Meanwhile. the IDF continued its attacks on different parts of Gaza overnight, aiming at military targets, weapons storage facilities, missile launching sites and Hamas military leaders.  Reports from Gaza have indicated that more than 100 Gaza residents have been killed since the start of these hostilities, at least 20 of whom have been civilians.  It is hard to imagine that a continued battle with Israel is really a good thing for the people of Gaza.  It seems that it would be much better to negotiate a longer term deal that would address concerns that both sides have.  However, at this point, there is little indication that the two sides have been able to reach this type of deal.  It remains to be seen whether talks will progress today and tomorrow or whether the situation will deteriorate further.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Day 6 - Operation Pillar of Cloud

On Friday evening, we ate Shabbat dinner outside in the Rehovot area.  At some point over the course of dinner, we saw some bright flashing lights in sky, off in the distance.  Soon afterwards, we heard a large explosion.  We later learned that Israel's Iron Dome system had intercepted a rocket that had been fired at the Gadera area.  Yesterday, sitting at our home in Ra'anana, we heard a loud sound late in the afternoon.  The windows in the house shook.  We then learned that the Iron Dome had intercepted two rockets that were fired at Tel-Aviv, about 15 km away from here.  Fortunately, for us, these two incidents are about as close as we have come to any kind of involvement in the current hostilities.  But the situation has been much more difficult for many Israelis and for Gaza residents.

Dozens of rockets were fired today from Gaza at Israeli towns and cities in the south, including Beersheva, Ashkelon, Ashdod and Sderot.  Many were intercepted by the Iron Dome system, although there were reports of explosions in Ashkelon.  According to IDF reports, between 6 a.m. and 2 p.m. today, more than 60 rockets were fired at Israel by Hamas and its allies.  Hamas issued a statement on Sunday night indicating that it fired approximately 1,090 rockets at Israel by Sunday night.  The IDF has claimed that it has intercepted 310 missiles and/or rockets since the start of the operation.

The IDF has been carrying out a vigorous air bombardment campaign in an effort to put a stop to the Hamas rocket bombardments.  The IDF reported earlier today that approximately 1,350 targets have been hit, many of which have been missile launching sites.  It has been reported that approximately 85-90 Palestinians have been killed with several hundred injured.  Israeli spokespeople, from both the government and the IDF, have emphasized that Israel has made every effort to avoid civilian casualties and has used the best intelligence that it has to target Hamas military sites, including missile launching sites.   In this kind of battle, is, of course, impossible to eliminate all civilian casualties.  The flip side is that Hamas has been sending its rockets with the explicit purpose of attacking and terrorizing civilians, even though it has not been that successful in causing casualties.

As of the time of this writing, there are reports of significant dialogue between the two sides over the possibility of some type of cease fire.  Egypt is apparently brokering these talks, which are said to have involved the U.N., the U.S., France, Germany and other countries as well as, of course, Israel and Hamas.

From the Israeli side, Israel is wary of concluding a cease fire that only lasts for a few days or weeks.  There have been quite a number of situations over the past seven years, since Hamas took power in Gaza and began firing rockets at Israel where a cease fire or truce of some sort has been put into place.  However, within days or weeks, or in some cases, months, Hamas has started firing rockets at Israeli towns and cities, sometimes blaming other "militant factions" in Gaza and claiming that it could not control them, even though Hamas is the governing power in Gaza.

To end the current operation, Israel has therefore reportedly asked for a 15 year truce, to be "guaranteed" by Egypt.  Israel has also asked that there by an outright ban on the importation of weapons into Gaza and that Hamas agree to prevent the firing of any rockets at Israel - not only by Hamas but by any other faction as well.  Thousands of Israeli reserve troops have been called to report to duty and are now in place.  These are primarily civilians, who serve in the IDF for one month per year of reserve duty or whenever else they are called to report.  IDF spokespeople have indicated that the army is prepared to proceed with a full scale ground invasion at any moment if an acceptable cease fire deal cannot be arranged.  Neither the Israeli government nor the Israeli public is interested in a temporary cease fire which will simply require Israel to conduct another similar operation in the coming days, weeks or even months after Hamas has had an opportunity to rebuild its rocket supply.  If that is all that is being offered, there is significant support in Israel for an expansion of the current operation even if that involves alienating world opinion in Europe and other places, even the U.S.

From the Hamas side, the Palestinians have issued their own demands, which include asking that Israel lift its "blockade" of Gaza, agree to cease Israeli policy of targeted killings of key terrorist targets and agree to refrain from any kind of strikes in Gaza.

The fascinating thing is that all of these discussions are being carried out through intermediaries since neither Israel nor Hamas recognize the other.  Nevertheless, the successful resolution of a deal to exchange Israeli prisoner Gilad Schalit, who had been held by Hamas in Gaza, provides a ray of hope that Israel will be able to negotiate some sort of deal with Hamas.   There are reports that Israel is willing to discuss lifting a blockade of Gaza, if there is an inspection process put into place, with mutually agreeable inspectors who will ensure that weapons are not being brought into Gaza.

In the meantime, both sides are actively continuing their activities.   Hamas continues to launch rockets at Israel and the IDF continues to conduct aerial bombardments against targets in Gaza.  Against this backdrop, Israel faces significant world pressure to cease its operation, much of which comes from countries which are hostile towards Israel in any event.  There have also been a barrage of false or misleading media reports just as there were in Israel's previous operation in Gaza.

For a demonstration of the type of propaganda that Israel faces, here is a link to a compelling story involving CNN.  The web site "Elder of Zion" reports that CNN has now retracted a false accusation that it publicized against Israel.  When Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Kandil visited Gaza, he was photographed holding a dead four year old child.  Reuters publicized the allegation that the child had been killed by an Israeli attack.  It soon became clear, initially from the Palestinian side, that the boy was actually killed by a Hamas rocket that was misfired or exploded prematurely.

As of the time of writing, Khaled Meshal, the head of Hamas is holding a press conference in Cairo to discuss the situation.  It is likely that we will hear from Israeli government spokespeople shortly afterwards.  The next 24-48 hours will undoubtedly be critical.  If a cease fire deal is not reached, there is every indication that Israel will embark on a full scale ground operation in Gaza.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Day 5: Operation Pillar of Cloud

It is the fifth day of Israel's Operation "Pillar of Cloud," in Gaza, an operation which the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) undertook to put a stop to the rocket fire that Israeli towns and cities had been absorbing for weeks from Gaza.

Estimates of the number of rockets that have been fired from Gaza vary between 400 and 500.  All of these rockets, sent by Hamas and affiliated organizations, have been aimed at civilians.  Most of these are "Grad" Rockets, with a maximum distance of approximately 40 km.  This puts cities like Ashdod, Ashquelon, Beersheva and Sderot at risk but not Israel's major population centres.  Hamas also has a number of "Fajr 5" rockets, which apparently have a range of up to 75 km.  These rockets could hit cities as far away as Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv and other population centres in the Sharon region.  However, the IDF claims to have eliminated many of the more sophisticated launching platforms for these rockets through its pinpoint air attacks.  As a result, only a small number of Fajr 5 rockets have actually been fired.

Earlier today, a Hamas rocket hit a building in the coastal city of Ashquelon.  Two people were injured and the building suffered significant damage.

IDF Soldier watching Iron Dome Interceptor Deploy
On the Israeli side, one of the major stories of this operation so far has been the "Iron Dome" missile defence system.    Produced by Rafael Advanced Defence Systems, the Iron Dome system fires interceptor rockets in incoming missiles and blows them out of the air with an estimated 80% success rate.  Two Fajr 5 missiles, fired at Tel-Aviv, have been stopped by the Iron Dome sytem.  In total, reports have estimated that Israel has shot down between 220 and 250 incoming missiles using this system, out of a total of between 400 and 500 rockets.  Using satellite rader, the Iron Dome system detects where the missiles are headed and makes a decision about whether or not they should be intercepted.  If the incoming missile or rocket is headed to an open space area or into the water, the Iron Dome does not fire.  If the missile is headed towards a population centre or other important target, it deploys.  Without the Iron Dome system in place, Israel would have sustained very significant damage during the first four days of this operation.

Different sources from Gaza have estimated that between 40 and 50 people have been killed in Gaza as a result of the IDF operations, with between 10 and 15 of these characterized as "civilian casualties."  Considering that there are estimates that Israel has carried out more than 1,000 different attacks, there is ample evidence that the IDF is taking significant precautions to minimize if not eliminate civilian casualties.  Despite what some of the world's media might have people believe, this is certainly nothing like the situation in Syria where thousands of civilians have been targeted and killed by the Syrian military. 

That is not to say that this is a very good situation for the people of Gaza to put it mildly.  But it is important to remember that Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005.  The people of Gaza elected a Hamas government, with the avowed goal of destroying Israel.  Rather than invest in infrastucture, economic opportunity and education, the Hamas government has spent an enormous amount of money building up its weapons supplies and has insisted on firing rockets and missiles at Israeli towns, with or without Israeli provocation.  Hamas supporters respond by indicating that Israel has "blockaded" Gaza and turned it into an "open air prison."  While there is some truth to the fact that Israel has tried to control what goes into Gaza, the main concern is, of course a ban on weaponry entering the strip.  Israelis (and everyone else around the world) know full well that Hamas would use any weapons that it had against Israel without any concern about the ramifications.  At the same time, the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt has opened the borders with Gaza and Hamas has been able to bring large supplies of more sophisticated arms to Gaza from Egypt and other countries. 

Contrast Gaza with the other Palestinian Authority areas.  Many of these areas have seen an increase in Israeli-Palestinian economic cooperation, signfiicant growth in the Palestinian economy and relatively few military confrontations.  With a large area of beachfront access, monetary contributions from countries around the world and a population in need of economic opportunity, Gaza could make significant progress if it were to devote its attention to economic development rather than ongoing hostility with Israel.

Meanwhile, as far as the current operation is concerned, there is mounting worldwide political pressure on Israel to agree to some sort of cease fire.  Many Israelis are opposed to an early cease fire as are most of Israel's southern residents.  Israel has had many skirmishes with Hamas over the seven years since Israel withdrew from Gaza.  Each time, once there is some sort of cease fire in place, after a few days, or weeks, Hamas soon starts to fire rockets once again at Israeli towns and cities.  The situation becomes untenable for Israeli residents of the towns and cities that are under fire and they are forced to again call on the IDF to respond.  Many Israelis have been calling for the IDF to launch a full scale ground operation and cause much more severe damage to Hamas' ability to continue its attacks against Israel.  However, the cost of this type of operation would be quite high.  Both sides could suffer a large number of casualties and the Israeli government is wary of putting its troops in harm's way if it is not absolutely necessary.

Beyond the concern about the troops, and the possible casualty level in Gaza, there is no assurance that a sustained ground assault would actually improve the political situation.  If the people of Gaza are intent on supporting a Hamas government, which much of the world views as a terrorist organization, there is little chance that Israel will be able to reach a peace deal, even a short or medium term arrangement, any time soon.  Unfortunately, this may mean that Israel will have to conduct this type of operation again, even after a cease fire, once Hamas again begins firing rockets and missiles at Israel.

While the Israeli cabinet on Friday approved of an order for the IDF to call up to 75,000 reserve troops to report for duty, it is unclear whether or not the IDF will actually proceed with an all out ground assault.  Comments from worldwide political leaders seem to suggest that a cease fire of some sort is imminent and Prime Minister Netanyahu is apparently under a great deal of worldwide pressure to agree to terms of a truce.  Israel continues to maintain that any cessation of hostilities arrangement must include an absolute ban on any kind of missile or rocket fire from Gaza.  Without this type of deal in place, it is unlikely that Israel will agree to an early cease fire. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Operation Pillar of Cloud in Gaza - Day 2

Given the situation here  in Israel, I thought I'd add a second update about the current situation, at least as far as it can be distilled from current news reports (on line, t.v., radio and print media).  To try to be fair, I have read through some non-Israeli sites as well.

From various reports, the Israeli operation - "Pillar of Defence" or "Pillar of Cloud," depending on how you translate it has attacked more than 100 targets in Gaza, including, Gaza's military leader Ahmed Al-Jabari, who was killed in an attack on his vehicle yesterday.

Reportedly taken at approximately 3:00 p.m., Nov 15, 2012

The Israeli military operation came in response to weeks of rocket barrages from Gaza fired at civilian population centres.  As I wrote in my last post, there was mounting public pressure for the Israeli government to take action and stop these rocket attacks, which were occurring daily, sending thousands of people into shelters.

Today, there were a number of developments that have grabbed the news in Israel.

One rocket from Gaza hit a building in Kiryat Malachi, killing three people, including a pregnant Lubavitch emissary.  Kiryat Malachi is located about 20 miles north of the Gaza Strip.

Damaged Building in Kiryat Malachi, Nov 15, 2012

By most indications, the majority of the Hamas arsenal is capable of reaching targets within a 40 km radius of Gaza.  However, Hamas does have some additional rockets which are more difficult to launch.  These can apparently reach greater distances.  Early this evening, there was an alarm in the Tel-Aviv area.  Two rockets landed in Tel-Aviv.  No damage or casualties were reported.  Official Israeli spokespeople have indicated that they believe that Hamas' capabilities of reaching these areas are very limited, since many of these larger rocket launchers have been destroyed.

Within the 40 km radius, Hamas has fired hundreds of rockets since the beginning of the operation.  More than 100 rockets have been fired at the city of Beersheva  (a city which we will read about in this week's Torah portion - I had to mention that since I've been learning the portion...).  In any event, the "Iron Dome" system has intercepted a significant number of these rockets but things are quite chaotic for residents of Beersheva, as well as residents of other towns and cities that are proximate to Gaza including Ashdod, Ashkelon and, of course, Sderot.  In these areas, school classes have been cancelled, residents are spending a great deal of time in shelters and many residents are going to stay with relatives or friends in more northern parts of Israel.  The City of Ra'anana has invited residents of affected cities and towns to come and stay with people in Ra'anana until things are back to a more liveable situation.

News sources have reported that the Prime Minister of Egypt, Hisham Qandil, is expected to visit Gaza tomorrow in an effort to broker a peace deal between Israel and Hamas.  However, Egypt withdrew its Israeli ambassador as soon as hostilities began and has been fairly hostile towards Israel itself since the election of the Muslim Brotherhood.  So there is little reason to believe that this will be an effective visit.

Israeli army spokespeople have indicated that there will be intensive operations in Gaza throughout the night.  Israel has also publicized the fact that it is prepared to call up 30,000 reserve troops in the event that a full scale ground incursion into Gaza is required.

While most Israelis, I believe, would prefer to see an end to hostilities as soon as possible, the population remains overwhelmingly supportive of the current operation.  In fact, quite a number of Israelis feel that the IDF should continue the operation until Hamas' ability to launch rockets at Israel is severely limited, if not eliminated.  There is concern that a quick cease fire, brokered under world pressure, will simply delay another round of hostilitites for a short time period and allow Hamas to rearm itself with weapons brought in from Egypt, often supplied, apparently, by Iran.  The Israeli government is confident that a more thorough operation would result in a much longer term truce as it would cripple the military and strategic capabilities of Hamas.  It is unclear whether or not this would really be the case.

So far, the U.S., Canada and Britain (as well as some others) have strongly supported Israel's right to act in self-defence, while the loudest voice of opposition has come from Russia (aside from various Arab or Muslim regimes), which has called the Israeli operation "disproportionate" while calling on Hamas to cease its rocket fire.  As an aside, doesn't it seem quite ironic that Russia, of all countries, would call the Israeli operation "diproportionate?" Especially - when considering the indiscriminate Russian "anti-terrorist" operations in Chechnya and taking into account the well known fact that the IDF goes out of its way to avoid civilian casualties, even when facing an enemy that is deliberately targeting civilians?  Other countries have taken less strident positions one way or the other. 

There are likely to be signficant further developments over a short time period.  We can only hope for a quick and peaceful solution and one that will bring a genuine truce between Gaza and Israel.

Operation "Pillar of Cloud" - Latest Battle in Gaza

Hamas Military Leader Al-Jabari Killed by the IDF


 "God's angel had been traveling in front of the Israelite camp, but now it moved and went behind them. The pillar of cloud thus moved from in front of them and stood at their rear."

This passage from the book of Shemot (Exodus) 14:19 references the protective "pillar of cloud" that was intended to defend the Israelites in the course of their escape from Egypt.  

The Israeli Defence Forces have named the current operation in Gaza "Pillar of Cloud," a nod to this passage in the book of Shemot, though they have also provided an accompanying English translation - "Pillar of Defence."  

Over the past number of weeks, Israel has faced an increasing onslaught of rockets from Gaza.  These rockets have hit Israeli towns and cities of Sderot, Ashkelon, Ashdod and other areas.  The population in these areas has been living with the constant threat of rocket fire, forced to take cover in a bomb shelters on very short notice.  There was mounting public pressure in Israel to take action to stop these attacks.  Options included a full ground assault on Gaza (like the operation "Cast Lead") in late December 2008, a series of air attacks or other operations.  

Israel chose to begin the operation yesterday (November 14, 2012) with a series of targeted attacks against long range missile sites and the leadership of the military command of Hamas.  One of the targets was Ahmed Al-Jabari, the military chief of Hamas.  The IDF has also announced that more than 100 other targets have been attacked since the start of the operation.  More than 100 rockets have been fired back at Israel since the beginning of the operation.  Many of these have been aimed at Beersheva and some of been intercepted by Israel's "Iron Dome" system.   This morning, three Israelis were killed by a rocket that hit a building in Kiryat Malachi, a town that is located about 17 kilometres from Ashkelon.

Egypt has recalled its ambassador from Israel and has been grumbling about Israeli operations.  With the Muslim Brotherhood controlling the Egyptian government, there is definite concern about the possibility of increased hostile activity on Israel's southern border or even a broader regional escalation.  At the same time, there is widespread public support in Israel for the Gaza operation, which came in response to significant provocation by Hamas and other terrorist groups, intent on aiming rockets at civilian population centres.  Israel could not continue to absorb these rocket attacks from Gaza without eventually taking military action.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Hina Party - Yemenite and Moroccan

Engaged Jewish couples originating from Arab countries have the custom of holding "Hina" (Henna) celebrations about a week before their wedding.  Up until yesterday, I had only been to the Yemenite version of these parties (as some of you may know, I was a very important participant at one of them...) but I can now say that I have also attended a Moroccan Hina.  To be more accurate, the Hina I recently attended was a mixture of a Moroccan and Yemenite Hina, though on balance it was closer to the Moroccan version.  I thought I would write a bit about these celebrations.

In both cases, the focal point is the Hina, a cosmetic paint derived from the henna plant.  I recently learned that the custom may date back to the Biblical book, Shir Ha-Shirim, the Song of Solomon:
"My Beloved is unto me as a cluster of Camphire (henna) in the vineyards of Ein-Gedi" Shir HaShirim, 1:14
or in Hebrew: אֶשְׁכֹּל הַכֹּפֶר דּוֹדִי לִי, בְּכַרְמֵי עֵין גֶּדִי
In both cases, members of the family put some henna on the bride's and groom's hands.  Different commentators have suggested that the custom may relate to good luck, fertility, protection for the couple or may provide other special benefits.  In any case, the party is usually quite a festive occasion with lots of music, dancing and food, including many sweets.

Yemenite Hina

One of the interesting traditions at many of the Yemenite Hina celebrations that take place in Israel is the custom of having the bride (and sometimes the groom) change outfits on a number of occasions during the course of the evening.  The different outfits are usually different bridal outfits that were worn in different regions of Yemen.  I have been to Hina celebrations where the bride has worn has many as 5 different outfits, though I think I have only seen the groom change once or twice. 

The most famous outfit features a headpiece surrounded with flowers, usually red and white carnations, and adorned with silver jewellery.  The jewellery is usually handmade and is often heirloom jewellery that has been passed through the generations in the immediate or extended family.  The dress itself may be accented with gold.  There is often another outfit featuring a bright red hood, that is said to originate from the Sa'ana region of Yemen and a third outfit that is primarily black.  Here are some of the pictures that I have been able to dig up (but not from personal family celebrations):

At a Yemenite Hina, other family members will often dress up as well.  These days, there are professionals who supply all of the costumes, sometimes enough for 20 or 30 family members and close friends to dress up.  Often many of the aunts and cousins, dressed in traditional garb, will carry baskets on their heads with henna and lit candles, while singing (ululating) and dancing.  The highlight of the event is the placing of henna dye on the hands of the bride and groom.  At many Yemenite Hinas, the guests are invited one by one to come up to the couple and say a few words of blessing before placing some henna on the hands of the bride and groom (and themselves).  There is often a band with a singer performing traditional Yemenite melodies while many of the guests dance some of the well known folk dances.  Though I have had a number of opportunties to learn these dances, I am still trying to master them.  Let's just say dancing is not my forte.

As I mentioned, other family members will sometimes dress up as well, like this 10 year old girl pictured on the right...(some of you might recognize her...)

The featured food can include Yemenite delicacies like Malawach, Jachnun, Sabaya, Kubana and many sweet desserts.  I'm not going to write about each of these foods at this point...

I should mention that if you happen to be invited to one of these affairs, the expected gift is some type of present, not necessarily cash itself, which will, of course, be the anticipated gift at the forthcoming wedding celebration...

Moroccan Hina

As with a Yemenite Hina, the bride will usually change outfits at least once or twice.  The outfits are not quite as ostentatious but are probably somewhat less conservative.  At the recent Hina I attended, the groom wore a traditional white outfit, while the bride wore a beautiful white dress and then an outfit that featured red, primarily.  The groom's outfit featured a classic Moroccan fez.  One of the bride's outfits featured a completely open back, something that one would not be likely to see at a Yemenite Hina.

At the Moroccan Hina, the henna is mixed with equal fervour by a carefully selected family friend or relative.  Special family members, usually either the mother or grandmother of the bride, place the henna dye on the bride's and groom's hands.  Gifts are usually exchanged with the family of the groom providing the bride with a special piece of jewellery, often a necklace or earings or even both.  The family of the bride may give the groom a new watch or other item.

The bride and groom are brought into the room with great fanfare on a set of velvet covered throne style seats, pushed along with a chain of traditonally garbed family members following behind.  Like at a Yemenite Hina, there is plenty of traditional music, food and dancing.  At the affair I attended, the Hina component itself was more limited than at a Yemenite Hina, since only the immediate family members placed henna on their hands. But the occasion was an equally festive celebration of a pending wedding.

Whether the Hina party is Yemenite, Moroccon or of some other origin, it is bound to be a joyous occasion marked by traditional music and dancing, lots of food and maybe even some alcohol.  In some ways, it is almost an opportunity for the bride and groom to celebrate their wedding twice, in a short time span. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Canadian Supreme Court Strips Pfizer of Patent Rights for Viagra

Pharmaceutical giant and Israel-based corporation Teva has been handed a huge victory by the Supreme Court of Canada after a lengthy legal battle with Pfizer.  Teva can hold its head up high after the Court stripped Pfizer of its patent rights to Viagra.  

Pfizer originally applied for the Viagra patent in 1994 and the patent was granted in 1998.  It was due to expire in 2014.  Teva and another pharmaceutical company, Novapharm (now part of Teva) applied for a notice of compliance to be able to produce a generic version of Viagra.  The case made its way through the Federal Court system and wound up in Canada's highest court.

In a 7-0 decision, released on November 8, 2012, the Supreme Court struck out Pfizer's patent.  The thrust of the Court's decision was that Pfizer had failed to disclose, in its original patent, that the key working ingredient in Viagra is sildenafil.  The Court explained that the purpose of a patent is a societal bargain.  The party seeking a patent gives up its right to secrecy and discloses the product.  In exchange, the party is granted a time-limited monopoly during which it can fully exploit its invention.

The court ruled that Pfizer had failed to disclose full information about Viagra.  In doing so, according to the court ruling, it disentitled itself from the right to take advantage of the patent monopoly.

It is unclear how quickly Teva will now be able to flood the market with a new, cheaper, generic version of Viagra.  However, this is bound to be good news for Canadian men (and men around the world) who suffer from erectile dysfunction and their partners.  With the expected drop in price, even men who do not suffer from this condition may decide to take the drug for a test ride.

The ruling comes at an opportune time in Canada.  With the ongoing lockout of professional hockey players in the NHL and no televised ice hockey, Canadian men will have more spare time on their hands on Saturday nights, often reserved for watching Hockey Night in Canada.   A deeply discounted version of Viagra is bound to generate all kinds of new possibilities.


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The U.S. Election, Obama, Netanyahu and Israel

So after four years of run-up, the U.S. election came and went yesterday.  Although the electoral college system is quirky and flawed, the U.S. still ranks among a fairly small number of truly democratic nations that hold properly democratic elections and transfer power peacefully.  Election night is a great evening (or morning) of television drama and can be quite suspenseful some years.  While things were uncertain at some points last night, there was definitely an early sense that it was going to be President Obama's night, even while Ohio and Florida remained unpredictable.  By the end of the night, Governor Romney gracefully accepted that the American people had spoken and lauded the American democratic system. 

Israel shares that great democratic tradition with the U.S. and other distinguished company and will go to the polls in January 22, 2013, although as of the writing of this blog entry it appears that the political landscape in Israel is not likely to change any more dramatically than the U.S. changed as a result of its 2012 election.

The whole topic of Israel and the Middle East attracted quite a bit of interest during this U.S. campaign., probably more so than many previous campaigns.  Like in the case with many other issues in this U.S. election, particularly social issues, people's views were very polarized.  There were those, like vice Presidential candidate Ryan and Governor Romney himself, trying to portray President Obama as someone who had "thrown Israel under the bus."  On the other side, there were those like former World Jewish Congress Chair Edgar Bronfman, who staunchly defended President Obama as a great friend of Israel.  Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu seemed to have gotten himself involved in the campaign in a very partisan and unprecedented fashion and this may not have been such a great tactic for ongoing Israeli-U.S. relations even though it might assist Prime Minister Netanyahu in his dealings with his domestic constituency.

In looking at President Obama's record in his first term, it does seem odd and uncomfortable, to say the least, that the President would fly to the Middle East and visit Egypt - in a very apologetic way - and not find the time to visit Israel. While I appreciate that President Obama visited Israel before the 2008 election (and it is fair to say that his trip was better planned and more graceful than Romney's visit this year), he should have found the time to visit Israel at some point during his first term.  Hopefully, he will visit soon.

It was also unhelpful, to say the least, to lay all of the blame for the failed peace negotiations on Israel by insisting that the first step that must be taken, as a precondition for any negotiation is a building freeze.  President Obama realized this and backtracked somewhat.  But his call for a return to 1967 borders also seemed to be handled in a deliberately provocative way even though he added "with mutually agreeable land swaps" to the phrasing.  At the time time, Prime Minister Netanyahu's response was predictably excessive and seemed intended to further the rift with the U.S. President.  Despite all of this, most analysts who are genuinely interested in a peaceful solution recognize that the eventual result will have to be a two state solution with mutually agreeable land swaps.  This is even a solution that the present Israeli government has endorsed - and certainly the kind of solution that former President Bill Clinton pushed so hard to achieve, while remaining extremely popular in Israel.

Another source of tension between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama has been the issue of Iran.  President Obama has overseen a series of very significant sanctions imposed on Iran in an effort to cease the Iranian nuclear program.  Yet despite these sanctions, it is far from clear that the sanctions will actually result in Iran dismantling its program.  So it does seem reasonable for Prime Minister Netanyahu, as he proposed at the U.N. to ask that the world draw a "red line" beyond which other means may become necessary if Iran continues to develop a nuclear program.  Neither President Obama nor Governor Romney were willing to stake out a "red-line" position and in the third U.S. debate, their positions on this issue sounded very similar if not identical.  It may well be naive, given Iran's history, to assume that Iran will concede its position as a result of the sanctions or that this plan of action will actually stop Iran from producing nuclear weapons.  But it is unclear whether any U.S. president would support Israel in conducting a pre-emptive attack at this time.

It may well be the the source of tension is also related to a personality clash between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama or a perception of policy direction rather than actual policies that have been implemented.  In fact, the level of strategic, military and economic cooperation between Israel and the United States is it one of its highest points ever and the two countries remain very close allies and friends.

In Israel, the perception of antipathy towards Israel by President Obama apparently translated into a voting trend by absentee American voters living in Israel choosing to vote for Governor Romney by a margin as high as 85% to 15%.  Of course, the explanation that has been suggested by some is that a significantly high percentage of American expatriates living in Israel are observant Orthodox Jews who might also share some of the social policy preferences of the Republican party and are likely to vote for "right wing" parties in Israel.  I am fairly confident that if one were to poll Conservative (Masorti) and Reform American Jews living in Israel, the results would be quite different.

On the other hand, President Obama apparently carried close to 70% of the Jewish vote in the United States itself.  While some suggest that this is because many American Jews are apathetic about Israel, I don't think this is the real explanation.  American Jews tend to share many policy preferences on a whole range of social issues with the Democrats rather than the Republicans (ranging from abortion and gun control to who might be the most suitable candidate for appointment to the Supreme Court).  Further, while many of these American Jews are staunchly supportive of Israel, that is not necessarily synonymous with being staunchly supportive of all of Prime Minister Netanyahu's policies.  In fact, many very committed Israelis have views about the peace process and other matters that are diametrically opposed to those of Israel's current Prime Minister.  Overall, most American Jews probably prefer Edgar Bronfman's viewpoint that President Obama is, and will continue to be a strong friend of Israel rather than the rhetoric that was coming from the likes of Sheldon Adelson.

Even though President Obama has vowed to continue the strong relationship between Israel and the United States, there are certainly areas of concern.  The tension over Iran's nuclear program will heat up as Iran draws closer to its goals.  The continuing absence of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians is also a sore spot and one that is potentially explosive.  And the personal tension between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu has probably been exacerbated after Netanyahu's failed efforts to bolster Governor Romney's campaign.
The tension even increase further if President Obama chooses to become as involved in the Israeli election as Prime Minister Netanyahu was in the American election.

Yet, it seems to me that with all of this said, the best thing that President Obama could do in the area of Mideast policy, would be to plan a visit to Israel, Jordan and the area governed by the Palestinian Authority at a fairly early stage in his second term.  With a short but meaningful visit, President Obama could send a confidence boosting message to the Israeli public and to the Palestinians that would probably help him regain some of the trust he would need to oversee a peace deal successfully. 


Saturday, November 3, 2012

100th Blog - Thoughts About "100" Events...

This is the 100th blog post that I have written on this site, which started in October 2010.  I have now added a Table of Contents page, which appears on the home page of the blog and which groups the various posts by categories.  At this point, the blog posts are divided into seven different types which are listed.  I may add one or two categories in the coming months.  I welcome suggestions.

In thinking about the number 100, I thought it might be interesting to look at what was happening 100 years ago in different places, including some Israeli areas.

This is a picture of Rehovot, Israel in 1912 that was taken by a photographer named Leo Kahan, who was working for the Viennese Yiddishe Zeitung newspaper, according to the site Zionism-Israel.  Rehovot today has a population of more than 110,00 and is the home of the famed Weizman Insittute of Science.   

Moving north and a bit closer to home, 1912 was significant for another future Israeli city.  The Company for Jewish Settlement in Israel formed the "Ahuza A – New York" group to purchase land in Israel for agricultural settlement.  The First World War delayed the plans of the group, which did not get started officially until 1922.  This group founded Ra'anana, which would eventually become a city of approximately 70,000, located north east of Tel-Aviv (and my current home...).  Ahuza Street is now the busiest street in the city, filled with stores, restaurants and other businesses.

Getting back to the "100"| theme, I thought I would mention that an Israeli football (soccer) team - Maccabi Petah Tikvah was founded in 1912 and is still operating today as Israel's second oldest football club.  I haven't been to see them play yet.  But since there are no hockey games to attend when I am in Toronto due to the NHL player lockout, maybe the sports budget should be spent on Israeli soccer games to kick up the nationalist sentiment.

I also note that Raoul Wallenberg, who saved the lives of tens of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust, was born in 1912.  This is quite relevant and timely, since many cities around the world, including Toronto, are commemorating Holocaust education and awareness week in November.  Wallenberg is being featured prominently this year at many Holocaust awareness events.

1912 was also an election year in the United States.  The presidential race was a rare four-way contest.  The incumbent was a Republican, President William Taft.  Former President Theodore Roosevelt ran under the banner of the Progressive Party after losing his bid to win the Republican nomination.  (That type of scenario may sound familiar to Israelis who see new parties created every time there is an election...which will be taking place in January 2013).  In the 1912 campaign in the U.S., the Socialist Party  candidate, Eugene Debs, picked up 6% of the vote.  But the winner and new president was Democrat Woodrow Wilson  who was actually only nominated as the Democratic Party candidate on the 46th ballot after an epic battle with William Jennings Bryan. Although it is highly unlikely that we will see a 46th ballot again any time soon, we may well see 46 recounts of the Ohio and Florida votes in Tuesday's upcoming presidential election in the U.S.

1912 was also the year of one of the first women's suffrage parades in the U.S.  It would be 8 more years until the U.S. Constitution would be amended and American women would be granted the right to vote under the Nineteenth Amendment.  Canadian women began voting in 1919, other than in the Province of Quebec which delayed this right until 1940.  In Israel, of course, women had the right to vote from the inception of the State in 1948.  As an aside, as I have written in one of my gender equality articles elsewhere in this blog, women at Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Toronto, Canada were granted the right to read from the Torah and come up for aliyot this year, in 2012, some 100 years after these suffrage parades in the U.S.  (I had to add that in, just to rile up a bit of controversy and spice up the blog...)

So those are my tie-ins to mark this 100th blog.    Oh wait - I should also add that the Titanic sunk in 1912, though I don't have any kind of tie in for that....  So for now I plan to continue writing these blogs and I hope you have enjoyed reading them (or at least some of them) and continue to do so.  

Wishing everyone a great week - Shavua Tov!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Fireworks At Weddings in Israel? Call the Police!

Some Israeli weddings can feature extravagant fireworks displays.  I have driven by a few wedding halls, visible from the highway, that have promoted their explosive offerings on eye-catching billboards.  But some pyrotechnic presentations go overboard and can become quite dangerous.

In mid May 2012, at a Palestinian wedding at a town near Ramallah, a fireworks display misfired causing injuries to 28 people, 4 of whom were seriously injured.  No doubt this sparked the subsequent police crackdown on illegal fireworks usage that has led to a number of arrests.

According to YNet News, Israeli police confiscated more than $10,000 worth of illegal fireworks in a raid last month (in September, 2012).  The fireworks were to be set off during a wedding.  The bride was apparently fuming mad at the arrest of her groom, his father and another relative.

Yesterday, October 31, 2012, police reportedly seized more than $25,000 worth of fireworks and arrested the groom at the Shuafat Refugee Camp.  The fireworks display that had been planned apparently would have rivalled some of Israel's official fireworks displays that are presented on national holidays.

This police photo shows some of the confiscated items.  Many  of the weddings, primarily Palestinian weddings, featuring these large scale displays have been taking place just north of Jerusalem.  Complaints from nearby residents as well as the injuries that occurred earlier this year have led police to conduct more raids.

Meanwhile, in Shuafat, it now looks like the bride and groom will have to create their own fireworks, assuming the groom has been released from custody.

If you are planning a wedding or some other event in Israel that will feature fireworks, it is probably a good idea to ensure that you have the proper licence and authorization for the intended display.  Otherwise, it could be lights out if the police show up.