Showing posts with label Gaza. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gaza. Show all posts

Monday, July 21, 2014

War in Gaza: Some Thoughts

There is a great deal going on this 14th day of Israel's Operation "Protective Edge."  I have not been writing very many articles recently but I thought an article about the ongoing war with Hamas was overdue.  There are many different angles to cover and many different viewpoints across the Internet, the media and public opinion.  Much of the writing is of course very one-sided.  A great deal of the anti-Israel rhetoric has included vitriolic anti-Semitic attacks unrelated to any legitimate points.  On the other hand, some of the rhetoric on the Israeli side can be criticized as well for being propaganda rather than serious commentary.  Ultimately, anyone writing about this conflict will have a set viewpoint that will colour his or her analysis.  But it is not always the case that there are two sides to every story.  Some fights really are fights of good against evil (or various shades of that theme) and history is filled with examples of such conflicts.

It is not my intention to paint everything as simply black and white but rather to review some key points that have emerged from events so far.

1.  Hamas is a terrorist organization that is intent on killing Israelis and has no interest in peace.

While this sounds like harsh, one-sided rhetoric, it is unfortunately true.  Not long after 2005, when Israel pulled up its settlements from Gaza and left most of it, Hamas was elected as the leadership in Gaza and solidified its hold on Gaza society.  Since then, there have been three significant military conflicts with Israel, all precipitated by Hamas intensifying its use of rocket fire at Israel.

How is this really helping or assisting the people of Gaza?  It is really hard to come up with a good answer to this question - other than "it isn't."  When Israel left Gaza, it left greenhouses in tact, and it left the Palestinians in control of a large amount of prime beach front territory.  With enormous amounts of U.N. aid coming to Gaza, the Palestinians could have chosen a different path.  They could have build hotels in Gaza to build tourism.  They could have put the money into schools, education, sewage, infrastructure.  The current war between Israel and Hamas has shown that enormous resources have simply been used to stockpile different types of rockets and to build extensive tunnels that allow Hamas terrorists to make their way into Israel underground to try to kill or kidnap Israelis.

2.  Israel was left with no choice but to fight this war.

This is the corollary to the first point and it has been reinforced in the events that followed the commencement of the war.  The war was not started because of the Hamas kidnapping and murder of three Jewish students nor was it started because of the reprisal attack carried out by some Israeli vigilantes who murdered an innocent Arab boy.  It was started by Hamas making a decision to fire an unceasing barrage of rockets at Israeli civilians.

What would any other country do?  How could Israel not respond to this?

The difficulty that Israel has faced is that the rockets are being fired at Israel from built up residential areas, mosques, schools (even U.N. run schools), and other densely populated places.  Israel has the capability of determining where the missiles originated from.  Most countries, faced with repeated missile fire from a certain area, would simply destroy the whole building or area.  Certainly the U.S., Russia, France and many of Israel's other vocal critics (with respect to the issue of "restraint") would have little hesitation in destroying everything in sight, even if that meant a large number of civilian casualties in order to stop missile attacks on their country.  If Israel were using this method of responding to rocket fire, the deaths of Palestinians would be in the thousands by now, not the hundreds.

3.  The Cost of the War is high for both sides.

The current war has resulted in many deaths and injuries on both sides.  The media love to report raw numbers as if the numbers were the most important thing.  It is true that the Iron Dome missile defence system has done an incredible job of protecting Israelis from most of the incoming missiles.  It is also true that the people of Gaza do not have properly equipped bomb shelters, missile warning systems or sophisticated means of protecting themselves from the Israeli army.

But on the other hand, it is Hamas that is putting these civilians at risk by firing missiles at Israel from civilian locations.  It is no answer to say that Israel should exercise "restraint" or not respond, start a unilateral cease fire or take some other one-sided action that sees Israel continuing to absorb Hamas rocket fire.  Israel must respond, even if the response causes civilian casualties in Gaza.

For Israel, the soldiers are mostly conscripts from Israeli society who are serving their country and who are asked to trust that the political and military leadership are making decisions that will minimize the short and long term likelihood of a prolonged war.  They hope that Israel's leadership will protect the security interests of Israel's citizens.  The soldiers are friends, family members, acquaintances.  They are called into action to protect the people of Israel and answer the call.  The loss of even one soldier in Israel is a difficult, tragic and heart wrenching event for the people.  The loss of 18 soldiers over this past weekend and 7 more today was simply horrible.

This is not all intended to downplay the value of life or the loss of life of Palestinians.  Many Palestinians have been killed and injured.  The numbers are much higher than the number of Israelis.  But that is the unfortunate and tragic result of this type of war, which was started by Hamas.  Hamas was offered two different cease fires so far, after the war began, both of which were brokered by Egypt, accepted by Israel but  but rejected by Hamas.  Hamas has chosen to fight or continue the fighting three times now where there were alternatives.  It is Hamas that is endangering Palestinian civilians by continuing this war.

One can only hope that the people of Gaza will start to see that a different approach in dealing with Israel would have very different results.  Contrast the situation in Gaza with the situation in the West Bank to understand that point clearly.  Under the leadership of the Palestinian Authority, many West Bank Palestinian are working with Israelis in productive ways and are reaping the benefits of economic progress, stability and relative calm.

4.  Hamas has very few friends right now - which makes a cease fire difficult to arrange.

Much of the world realizes that Israel has few alternatives and that Hamas is a terrorist organization.  In the past, Hamas relied on Egypt to quietly supply it with weaponry, permit it to smuggle items in to Gaza through the Rafah border crossing and then pressure Israel into a cease fire before it could damage Hamas.  The situation is quite different now.  The current Egyptian government has little time for Hamas and recognizes that Hamas has embarked on a dangerous operation with no realizable end-goal that makes any sense.  Russian President Putin has been remarkably restrained, at least as reported publicly.  Canada has been strongly supportive of Israel and the U.S. has been publicly supportive.  While there have been anti-Israel demonstrations across the world, most western governments seem to have realized that Israel is facing a terrorist threat and has few alternatives but to continue its current operation.

The most vocal supporter of Hamas has been Turkish president Erdogan, who has made the ludicrous allegation that Israel is "far worse than Hitler." Yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu rightly commented in a press conference that this is the type of statement we would expect to hear from Hezbollah, Al Qaidah, or Iran - not from Turkey.  That is all not necessarily a surprise but it is quite disappointing to consider that this is the direction Turkey seems to be heading.  Of course the proper response would be to ask Erdogan about Turkey's genocide against the Armenian people and to put everything into context.  How crazy is it for the leader of a country which has never really accounted for its massacre of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Armenians to be comparing Israel to the Nazis in the context of a war in which hundreds of civilians have been killed, unintentionally.

The challenge that the world faces right now is the lack of a broker to arrange a deal between Hamas and Israel.  John Kerry has no credibility with Hamas (the U.S. has no diplomatic relations with Hamas and views them as a terrorist organization).    So Hamas has turned to Mahmoud Abbas, Turkey and Qatar.  To be an acceptable mediator, it seems, you have to be prepared to describe Israel in Nazi-like terms.  Much like Palestinian leader Hanan Asharawi has done in calling the Israeli operation a giant war crime while refraining from saying anything about Hamas and its tactics.  So the question remains - who can broker a cease fire or push Hamas into accepting some type of deal?  The answer is unclear.  For the Israeli political and military leadership, the best answer is that more time is needed to further limit Hamas' ability to start another war any time soon.

5.  Prime Minister Netanyahu has been very measured

Prime Minister Netanyahu has generally acted in a manner which has been statesman like and impressive.  He pushed his cabinet to agree to two different cease fire proposals, even though acceptance would have meant that Israel would fall short of its aims.  He made every effort to avoid launching a ground war in Gaza until he was forced to do so.  He has ordered the army to take every precaution to minimize the number of Palestinian civilian casualties even while Israel has been facing unceasing rocket fire.  Prime Minister Netanyahu has been holding together a coalition that includes members who have publicly advocated re-occupying Gaza completely - along with other members who strongly support continuing peace talks as quickly as possible.  

6.  Things must change or this will happen again soon

What can Israel do to prevent this from happening again soon?  That is the really challenging question.  For those on the left and sometimes, for Israel's critics, the answer is that Israel should simply "end the occupation" and everything would be fine.  But isn't this what Israel tried in 2005 in Gaza?  Israel left unilaterally.  The result has been three wars.  Unilateral disengagement has not worked in Gaza and it will not work in the other territories.  Ultimately, Israel needs a genuine, enforceable peace deal with a partner that is committed to the arrangement.  As long as Hamas continues to run Gaza, there can be little hope of an arrangement like this any time soon.  Perhaps the people of Gaza will realize this and will bring about a change in their political leadership.  But at this point, many will have been scarred bitterly by this war and will want nothing to do with a government that takes a moderate approach to Israel. 

Unfortunately, the picture is grim.  A cease fire deal with Hamas in the short term will not lead to peace or to any long term solution of the current issues unless Hamas changes its positions dramatically which is not about to happen.  Accordingly, Israel has little alternative but to destroy as much of Hamas as it possibly can and destroy the terror tunnels that lead from Gaza to Israel.  Perhaps in these circumstances, a different type of government will emerge that has an interest in some kind of deal with Israel.

In the meantime, I am certainly hoping and praying for a speedy but successful end to this war and for Israel's soldiers to return home safely and in good health.  I am also hoping that civilian deaths in Gaza can be minimized and that the Palestinians can find a way to make much better decisions.  They deserve better than these Hamas-led wars.



Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Kerry's Peace Proposals - Status of Current Negotiations

It is often said by mediators that a good deal between two sides is one which leaves each side equally unhappy.  That is the essence of a negotiated settlement where two parties have diametrically opposing demands and are trying to find a peaceful way to resolve their differences.  Indications are that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to find a way to come to some of these middle ground positions in an effort to present a plan to Israel and the Palestinians that has some chance of acceptance.

Certainly, there is no shortage of naysayers on either side of the conflict.  Israeli cabinet ministers Naftali Bennett and Ze'ev Elkin have been pushing Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to walk away from the talks and reject Kerry's imminent proposals.  Similarly, officials on the Palestinian side of the table, including PLO Secretary Yasser Abed Rabbo have indicated that Kerry's proposals will not be acceptable to any Palestinians. 

At the same time, there are a number of high ranking Israeli cabinet ministers, including Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid who maintain that a deal that is acceptable to Israel is within reach.  Any such deal, from the Israeli side, could necessitate a change in the current Israeli government.  Given statements made by Minister Naftali Bennett, he and his party would leave the government rather than agree to the type of peace plan being presented by Kerry.  On the other hand, there is significant skepticism in Israel that the Palestinians will accept this type of deal, even if Kerry can get the Israelis to agree.  Moreover, Israelis have real concerns as to whether the current Palestinian leadership could deliver the type of "peace" contemplated by the agreement.  Statements by various Palestinian officials seem to suggest that this type of deal will not be good enough and the Palestinians will reject a U.S. brokered proposal, yet again..  But that remains to be seen.

What are some of the key issues?

1.  Recognition of Israel as a Jewish State and Resolution of the Palestinian Refugee Issue.

In a sense, these issues are very closely related.  From an Israeli perspective, the UN partition plan in 1948 contemplated a two state solution - one state for the Jewish people and one state for the Palestinian people.  There can be little historical dispute that the Palestinians rejected the plan and declared war on Israel.  Over the course of that war, some areas were seized by Jordan and Egypt that would have been parts of the Palestinian state.  Other areas were captured by Israel and many Palestinians fled those areas.  Yet between 1948 and 1967, the Palestinian and pan-Arab animus was still directed at Israel with the goal of eliminating Israel's existence.  Such was the Arab rhetoric leading up to the 1967 war and the 1973 war - and for many years afterwards.  It is still the rhetoric of Hamas.   

The reason that Israel has insisted on recognition of Israel as a "Jewish state" as part of a peace deal is to signify that both sides accept a two state solution as a permanent peace deal.  It is not a stepping stone towards greater conflict.  Israel would recognize a Palestinian state with all of the trappings that a state might have, subject to security considerations.  The Palestinians would be expected to do the same and would agree to Israel's right to exist.  

What does a two state solution really mean?  It means that each side gives up its dream, goal or aspiration of taking over all of the territory held by the other side.  It also means that each side solves its own refugee problems within the borders of its territory.  For the Palestinians, this type of deal should leave them free to bring every single Palestinian refugee, from across the world, to the nascent Palestinian state, if they so choose.  Should that not be the purpose of a two state resolution?  Since 1948, Israel has absorbed millions of refugees, including Jews who were no longer welcome in Yemen, Egypt, Syria, Iran and other Arab countries.  The Palestinians will need to do the same and absorb the Palestinian refugees in their new state.

Most Palestinians have continued to demand the "right to return" to Israel.  This insistence is nothing more than a rejection of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state and the expression of an intention to override Israel demographically.  It is, quite simply, for Israel, a non-starter.   If, as some suggest, Palestinians continue to insist that a large number of Palestinians be permitted to return to Israel rather than the new Palestinian state, this would be a deal breaker, in my view.

2.  Status of Jerusalem

Under the U.N. partition plan, Jerusalem was going to become an "International City."  It was never envisioned as part of the Palestinian state and certainly not its capital.  Between 1948 and 1967, much of Jerusalem was held by the Jordanians, with little push by the Palestinians to declare it the capital of Palestine.  In 1967, Israel recaptured parts of Jerusalem, including the old city and ultimately annexed most of the city.  Regardless of what some countries in the world might formally maintain, Jerusalem is not "occupied territory" as defined under the Geneva conventions. It was not legally held by Jordan nor was its status clearly defined. Since Israel has controlled Jerusalem, from 1967, the holy cites have been fully accessible to the different religious groups that claim access to them.  The Muslim Waqf has controlled the Al Aqsa Mosque and Christian holy cites have been overseen by Christian authorities. This contrasts with the picture that existed in Jerusalem between 1948 and 1967, during which time Jews were barred from attending the Jewish religious cites in old Jerusalem.

One of the key Palestinian demands is that East Jerusalem, including the Old City, become the capital of the new Palestinian state.  Once again, this is something that is simply not going to happen any time soon.  There would be no political will in Israel for dividing Jerusalem and certainly no appetite for Israel to relinquish the one place in the world that is holy to the Jewish people.  So Secretary of State Kerry has proposed using suburbs of Jerusalem, including Kafr Aqab or Abu Dis and calling those suburbs "Greater Jerusalem" or some other terminology so that "Jerusalem" can still be listed as the Palestinian capital.  While this would be unpalatable to many on both sides, it may be a reasonable resolution of the issue, especially when combined with the fact that Palestinians would continue to control the Muslim religious sites in Jerusalem as they do today, even though the Dome of the Rock sits on the very spot that was once the Holy Temple.

3.   The Settlements, the Border and Security

The United States has proposed a formula involving an approximate total amount of land for each side, equal to the 1967 borders.  The idea of "land swaps" would mean that Israel would keep the largest major settlement blocs while giving up other areas to the Palestinians.  There are certainly many on both sides who oppose this proposal entirely.

Many Palestinians have demanded that Israel withdraw, entirely, from all land that Israel has held since 1967. This would include major residential blocs, some of which were inhabited by Jews before 1948 (such as parts of Gush Etzion).  Some Israelis have demanded that Israel retain the vast majority of the West Bank and refuse to agree to turn over any territory, whatsoever.  Neither side is likely to get everything it is after in a negotiated settlement.

Media reports suggest that the settlement issue would be resolved through a number of approaches.  Under Kerry's proposals, which have not yet been formally announced, Israel would keep or annex the largest settlement blocs, but it would also agree to evacuate some areas of the West Bank on which there are now Israeli settlements.  Palestinians would receive other territory, with the total territory under Palestinian control for the new state the approximate equivalent of the 1967 borders.

The real challenge is security here, particularly security for Israel and even for Jordan.  Israel can ill afford, from a security perspective, to agree to the establishment of another fundamentalist terror-sponsored regime on its borders.  After Israel evacuated Gaza, the Gazan people promptly elected the rejectionist, terrorist group Hamas as its leadership.  Shortly afterwards, Hamas began lobbing rockets at Israel.  A repetition of this, in a different area, would be entirely unacceptable to Israel and would threaten Israel existentially.  Kerry's plans have apparently floated various approaches to address this security concern including a continuing, but gradually lessening Israeli presence in the Palestinian state or some type of U.S. presence.  This could present one of the greatest challenges for Israel and one of the biggest leaps of faith that Israel would have to make to agree to a deal.

Israel has a very small margin of error here the wrong decision or concession on security issues could be suicidal.  That is not to say that this is the plan of the current Palestinian leadership.  But looking at events in Syria, Egypt and other Arab countries in the Middle East, it is reasonable for Israel to insist on security measures that will be honoured and verifiable, irrespective of the type of Palestinian government that might get elected.  Some of these precautionary security terms are likely to be unacceptable to the Palestinians and that is where Kerry is working with both sides to try to find some way to reach a deal.


There are, of course, numerous other issues.  After all, many books have been written about this issue, from various historical, political and other vantage points.  I have reviewed some of them elsewhere on this blog.

The real question is what is going to happen now - and will anything come of this.  Most Israelis apparently remain unconvinced that a deal will be possible, according to recent Israeli surveys reported on by YNet News and Haaretz.  Many Palestinians have signified that they would view this type of deal as a "sell-out" and would reject it entirely.  So it is far from clear that there will be any kind of resolution.  Nevertheless, here are a few possibilities:

1.       Israel could agree to the deal, whether unconditionally or with some reservations.  In order to do this, it  appears that Israel's government would change, at least somewhat.  It is likely that Bennett would leave the government and that Labour, under the leadership of its recently elected new leader Yitzhak Herzog would join.  It is unclear whether some or all of the "Yisrael Beitenu" MKs would leave the government and if they were to leave, whether Netanyahu could still cobble together a majority that would support the deal.  If a Netanyahu-led government were to support the deal, my sense is that a deal could also win support in an Israel-wide referendum, even if the margin of victory was slim.

2.  Israel could agree to the deal, as above, but the Palestinians could reject it, either in connection with the ongoing talks or as part of some form of referendum.  This is probably the outcome that most Israelis anticipate, although there are signs that Abbas may be prepared to agree to a proposed deal, even if he does so conditionally or with some reservations.  It is unclear what the Palestinians will do if these talks fail.  They may look to the world community to try and exert economic pressure on Israel by advocating boycotts and divestment.  Some countries in the world have already been susceptible to these overtures.  Or they may declare a third intifada.  Either of these approaches would likely be disastrous for both Israel and the Palestinians and would probably set back a peaceful resolution by another twenty or thirty years, at least.

3.  The Palestinians could agree to the deal, as above, with some reservations or unconditionally.  However, Bennett could then cause the collapse of the government and Netanyahu could prove unable (or unwilling) to put together a coalition that would support the deal.  This could result in new elections in Israel or it could bring about a new right wing government that includes the religious parties and that has no interest in any type of peace deal.  In this scenario, (i.e. if the Netanyahu government were to fall) my guess would be that we would see a new election fairly quickly, though I am not about to predict the results.  It seems to me unlikely that Netanyahu would cling to power by cobbling together a far right -wing government.  I think he would be more inclined to hold an election. 

Stepping back from all of this, there are many reasons for pessimism and it seems unlikely that we will see an Israel-Palestinian peace deal any time soon. There are so many complicated issues, so much "bad blood," and so much hatred.  Yet, as I have told some of my friends, we are living in an age which has seen the collapse of the U.S.S.R; a peaceful resolution of the dispute in Ireland; the end to South African Apartheid; and many other world changes that people would have believed to be possible in our lifetime.  So maybe, just maybe, a peace deal between Israel, the Palestinians and the neighbouring Arab states will be another one of those historical moments.

It seems to me that both sides need this type of deal if they truly wish to avoid sentencing their children and grandchildren to generations more of bloody conflict.

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.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Bull Accident in Gaza Last Week: Man Killed During Slaughter Attempt

Muslims around the world celebrated the holiday of Eid-al-Adha, commencing on Friday October 26, 2012.  The holiday commemorates the willingness of Abraham (Ibrahim) to sacrifice his son Ishmael and the willingness of Ishmael to be sacrificed according to God's will, although God intervened to provide a ram for the sacrifice instead.  Jewish people read a slightly different version of this story (akeidat Yitzhak - the binding of Isaac) in synagogues around the world on the second day of Rosh Hashanah and will read it again this Shabbat, November 3, 2012 as part of Vaeirah.  

The Muslim custom for celebrating the holiday in many countries is to slaughter a cow, goat or sheep just before or during the holiday.  Millions of cows, goats and sheep are slaughtered around the world during Eid days.  Accidents are apparently common since many of the people buy the animal and bring it home for slaughter rather than taking it to a butcher.  Interestingly, this custom is not so far from home.  Many Yemenite Israeli Jews and other Israeli Jews from middle eastern countries buy goats or sheep and arrange for their slaughter just before the major Jewish holidays - Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuoth.  Some still arrange to have the Shochet (the ritual slaughterer) come to the house to take care of business although this is less frequent now than it once was.

Taking the bull by the horns and slaughtering the animal by yourself can be tricky business if you are not experienced.  According to YNet News, a Gaza health official reported that a Palestinian man was killed last week while trying to slaughter a cow himself.  Some other reports indicated that it was a bull.  YNet News also reported that 150 other people were hospitalized in Gaza due to knife wounds incurred in the process of slaughtering animals or from injuries caused by the animals to the would be butchers or to bystanders.

Other news agencies picked up this picture, apparently taken in Pakistan, of a loose animal attacking a boy on a soccer field during a failed animal slaughter attempt. Score one here for the bull.

Observant Jewish people often complain about the high cost of Kosher meat but perhaps there is a value after all in having the Shochet take care of the slaughtering, unless you have the proper training. Yemenite Israelis usually arrange for the slaughter of goats rather than bulls before the holidays and the handling of these relatively harmless goats is probably much less risky, from my personal observation.  For those still going ahead with the home slaughter - aside from wishing "Eid Mubarak" - (a "blessed holiday of Eid,") it is probably wise to add aman ("safe") to the greeting.