Showing posts with label Hamas. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hamas. Show all posts

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Travel Comments and Israel Update May 2024


I am writing this blog as I fly back to Toronto from Israel via a circuitous route of Amsterdam and Paris. A fairly crazy route but $1,500Cdn less in economy than flying any other available route (other than via Ethiopia which didn't interest me).  I thought I would write a bit about the routes I have been taking back and forth and then deal with some other issues.

Flights Between Tel-Aviv and Toronto these days - via KLM/Air France or El Al


It is a close competition between KLM and El Al as to which is the more unpalatable flight between Israel and Europe. KLM uses bare-bones Boeing 737 planes for the 4 hour 50 minute flight from Tel Aviv to Amsterdam. There are no entertainment screens or plugs for charging devices. No wi-fi available, even for texting. The airplane configuration is 3-3 and it's very cramped. The seats don't recline. The "meal service" is one sandwich (served warm) of kosher egg and vegan cheese with tomato - served to everyone. In fairness, slightly better than the El Al offering of a yam and gouda microwaved sandwich but only slightly.

There is also drink service so I was able to get a red wine - a South African Shiraz that was passable. That is one up on El Al which only distributes bottles of water.

This would be fine for a 2-3 hour flight - but for a five hour flight it is really unpleasant. Air France, by contrast, for flights between Tel Aviv and Paris - about 4 hours - uses beautiful new planes with wi-fi, entertainment systems, full meal service and full drink service - even cognac.

Given the circumstances in Israel these days, I am not about to complain too much. But there is a major difference among the airlines that are still flying between Europe and Tel Aviv.

I should mention that Air Canada recently cancelled all flights through August. United and Delta are scheduled to restart sooner. As far as I understand, ITA (Italy), Lufthansa, Austrian and Swiss are all flying to Israel - along with Lot Polish and Emirates/ Fly Dubai.  There may be others.

If you are planning to fly to Israel any time soon - and you want to be sure (or almost sure) that your flight will take place, a connection with El Al is probably the only itinerary you can really count on these days. (Though an economy ticket, if you can find one, might cost $2,500-$3,000). Other airlines are likely to be cheaper and more comfortable. But they may not actually fly.

Landing in Amsterdam is very inconvenient. The immigration area is understaffed and overcrowded. It can take 45-60 minutes to get through immigration. This is a huge contrast with Rome and London, both of which have reasonable immigration procedures in place.  I would strongly advise against any kind of short connection through Amsterdam.

For the rest of the route, I had a stopover in Paris. We were required to go through French exit customs before getting to the gate - which was almost as bad as Dutch immigration.  Long lineups, understaffed area and some out of order machines.  For all of those people who complain about Canadian airport immigration incompetence, try going through Amsterdam or Paris and then report back.

The Air France flight back from Paris to Toronto was incredibly crowded - one of those 3-4-3 configurations (in what felt like it was designed for a 3-3-3).  It was very uncomfortable.  The English version of the announcements was unintelligible.  The entertainment selection was lame and the wi-fi was spotty.  I guess you can tell that I miss being able to take direct Air Canada flights to Tel-Aviv on the 787 Dreamliners but, as I said, these are not the world's worst problems.

For my next trip back, I have booked a connection through Vienna using Air Canada and Austrian.  I was planning to come back on a direct Air Canada flight - but these have been postponed until late August at the earliest.  It seems like Air Canada is not likely to restart its flights to Tel-Aviv until the war is over.  And that does not look like it is going to be anytime soon.

April/May Holidays and Commemorations

We have completed observances of Pesach, Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut. I have written about these days in earlier blogs.

Yom Haatzmaut was the strangest national observance. The official government sponsored event was taped without an audience and broadcast on the evening of Yom Haatzmaut. It is usually held as a live event. The minister responsible, Miri Regev, one of Netanyahu's most reliable "yes people" announced that this was due to "security concerns.". Mainly that seems to mean the risk of Netanyahu getting booed at the ceremony.

In my view, however, there was one highlight. Israeli superstar Omer Adam, sang the song "One connected Human Tapestry" (my preferred translation). "If one of us dies, a part of all of us dies. And if one of us dies, that person takes a part of us with them." I have included the link - hopefully it works.  It begins with an interpretive dance, commemorating the October 7, 2023 massacres.  Midway through the song, families of victims of the Hamas massacres joined Omer Adam and sang with him. It was chilling, emotional and one of the most intense things I have seen in quite a while. The song was originally recorded by Chava Alberstein (one of my personal favourites) who included a version of the song on a commemorative album after the assassination of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Omer Adam's rendition was outstanding, though tear evoking for sure.

We also watched the annual event hosted by Eidan Raichel, which I have written about previously. Raichel travels around the country to army bases to pick 10 soldiers to sing with him on Yom Haatzmaut. The soldiers or their friends have submitted demo tapes in advance. Raichel surprises then at their bases and invites them to sing at the main event. He also invites their friends and family members to attend. At the end of the evening, he picks one winner to record a song with him. He introduces each soldier, shows a video clip about them and speaks to them in a way that exudes empathy and genuine appreciation. One of my favourite events of the year.

The Situation (in Hebrew "Hamatzav")

Israel remains at war on several fronts. I don't see any near term resolution to any of this.

The Gaza front remains the focus of attention. Israel is fighting to defeat the Hamas regime - and eliminate Hamas' military threat (by capturing or killing the Hamas leadership) while releasing as many living hostages as possible.

Hamas continues to hold 128 hostages (though some may no longer be alive). It also continues to fire rockets at Israel and has vowed to carry out more attacks like the October 7 massacres.

Israel simply cannot allow this to continue and cannot agree to a cease fire deal that does not ensure that this won't happen again. There is heavy fighting now in the last major Hamas stronghold of Rafah (Rafiah in Hebrew/Arabic). Deaths of Israeli soldiers are being reported every day - and there are also many Hamas casualties. There are also Palestinian civilian casualties.

I have no idea, quite frankly, whether a ,"victory" is actually achievable - and if so, what the cost will be - in terms of the number of Israeli soldiers, civilians, Hamas fighters and Palestinian civilians. Israel likens this to the fight to rid Germany of the Nazis. The idea is that total victory is the only option when dealing with a genocidal, dictatorial regime.

Perhaps this is a proper analogy if the Palestinians can be left with a new leadership committed to resolving things peacefully with Israel coupled with a rebuilding and education plan. But so far, there is no such emerging Palestinian leadership option. And, the current Israeli government does not seem to be Interested in backing or bolstering such a government.

Contrary to the South African allegations, bolstered by Ireland, Norway, Turkey and some other countries, there is no genocide. Israel is not massacring civilians. (If you want to discuss genocide - check out what is going on currently in Sudan).

Moreover, Israel did not start this war (unlike Russia which launched an unprovoked invasion of the Ukraine).

It was Hamas that attacked Israel - murdering, raping, and torturing civilians on Oct 7, 2023. No country in the world would allow this to occur without taking every possible action in response to ensure that it does not happen again. (Hamas spokespeople have vowed that they will do the same thing over and over again).

Gaza is not an enormous area though it is a very densely populated place. I do not think this can continue indefinitely. I would imagine that Israel will soon conquer the area and take control or reach some kind of brokered agreement. But this may still take several months. And there needs to be some kind of plan for what happens next.

Who will actually govern Gaza? Who will rebuild it? Who will fund it? Who will ensure that it is demilitarized? Clearly it can't be Hamas. And it can't be UNRWA, which is essentially Hamas. At this point, I really have no idea.  

Waiting in the wings, Israel is on the precipice of a massive war with Hezbollah, Lebanon, Syria and perhaps Iran. There is a very active war taking place right now, as we speak.  Northern Israel has been evacuated and many of the border towns (like Kiryat Shemona) are ghost towns, filled only with army personnel.  Hezbollah continues to attack Israel with drones, rpgs, rockets, and all sorts of other weaponry.  Israel continues to fight back. But Hezbollah has not yet started using its medium and long range missiles - and Israel has not launched an all out attack against Hezbollah.  Most Israeli commentators seem to feel that this war is inevitable.  The only way out is some sort of agreement whereby Hezbollah agrees to move its forces well back from the Israeli border (which was part of a previous cease fire agreement).  But so far Hezbollah has shown no inclination to do so.

The latest "front" is the growing publicity and public opinion front being fought by Israel against an increasingly large number of countries.  The latest salvo as you know, came from Ireland, Norway and Spain, which decided to unilaterally recognize a Palestinian State.  I really don't think that this decision is likely to assist anyone.  It will bolster supporters of Hamas and and other violent Palestinian groups - who will view this decision as a "win" emanating from the Hamas massacres. That will obviously encourage more violence.  It will also antagonize Israel and diminish the credibility of these countries as partners in any negotiation.  I saw one commentary that suggested that Israel should recognize the Catalan Independence movement or the Basque separatist movement in response to Spain's decision.  

This new front that Israel is facing - worldwide pressure - is in the arenas of political, economic and public opinion.  Backers of Hamas have used social media to circulate fake videos, disinformation, TikTok clips and all means of other trickery to distort the events that took place on October 7, 2023 and that have taken place since then.

You may have read one of the most recent examples - that some people - as a joke - put up a post that the Iranian leader was killed by an Israeli Mossad agent named "Eli Copter."  Apparently, this spun out of control and Israel was being accused on all sorts of channels (including some mainstream news media) of having assassinated the Iranian leader.  Yes, the crash was caused by "Eli Copter" - or in English, Helicopter - as in a Helicopter failure.  But there is nothing to suggest the Mossad was in any way involved - and I doubt there is an Israeli agent named "Eli Copter" - though there are probably lots of "Elis".  

Although the current Israeli leadership is not helping the situation, there is a clear worldwide current of outrageous and ridiculous anti-Israel activity.  The proposed criminal charges against Israeli leaders are a massive overreach - and seem to create a new standard of allegedly criminal activity - just for Israel and its leaders - even while there are so many worse conflicts taking place throughout the world - and many in situations in which civilians are being actively targeted and murdered. (That is clearly not happening in Gaza). 

There have also been waves of anti-Semitic incidents throughout the world including firebombs thrown at synagogues, physical attacks against Jews, and of course, anti-Israel (and often, quite clearly, anti-Jewish) encampments with Nazi symbolism and rhetoric calling for Jews to be murdered.  It's a crazy world out there for sure.  For those who might attack Israel and say that Zionism is a racist ideology or that Zionism (and the Jewish State) is unnecessary - that the Jewish people do not need a homeland - the events since October 7, 2023, throughout the world, have demonstrated that Israel is, right now, one of the only places that is really willing to defend its Jewish population.  

At the same time, to ensure its long-term survival, Israel will need to resolve many outstanding issues.  It will need to come up with some kind of long-term peaceful solution with the Palestinians.  It will need to resolve its own internal issues, that were raging before the war and continue to simmer on a back-burner even while the war continues on.  How to reconcile being a "Jewish State" and a "Democratic State."  How to ensure equality for all of its citizens. Whether to finally put a constitution in place.  How the powers of the Israeli Supreme Court should be delineated - and what the boundaries of the Court's jurisdiction should be.  How to manage anticipated demographic changes.  These are all incredibly complex challenges facing the country - but they are also challenges that the country will only be able to address once this war has ended.

Sports and other Competitions

To end on a positive note, I wanted to mention that a high school team from Binyamina, Israel, recently won an international robotics competition in Houston, Texas.  This was Israel's first win in that particular competition in 20 years.  

Israel also recently won a gold medal in its division in ice hockey at the international ice hockey Federation's U20 World Championship - division III group A.  Israel will now move up to Division II, Group B for next year's tournament.

Israel's Eden Golan finished in 5th place in the Eurovision signing competition.  She was able to do so by winning a massive share of the audience vote - even while the anti-Israel judging panel gave Golan miserably low scores.  This all came after the judging panel insisted that Israel change the lyrics and title of its song from "October Rain" to "Hurricane" to make the song "less political."  And of course, the Eurovision committee held its ground and refused to give in to public pressure from Ireland and other anti-Israel countries to oust Israel from the competition because of the war in Gaza. The Irish performer at the actual competition performed some kind of dark simulated satanic ritual on stage marked with violence, nastiness and, in my view, horrible "music."  It was comforting to see that the worldwide audiences weren't buying it and heavily supported Israel over Ireland.

My last sports note is that the Israeli men's soccer team is scheduled to participate in this year's Paris Olympics.   Israel last participated in this tournament in 1976.  Israel will be in Group D with games against Japan, Paraguay and Mali with the first matches schedule for July 25, 2024.  I have to say that I am quite looking forward to watching these games.  Of course some countries are lobbying FIFA to kick Israel out of the tournament.  Hopefully, they will not succeed.  Although one of my close family members routinely complains that watching soccer is about as exciting as "watching paint dry" - I actually quite enjoy international football (soccer) tournaments.  Granted these games are not as exciting as the Stanley Cup playoffs (which the Toronto Maple Leaf exited so unceremoniously) but seeing Israel compete in the Olympic soccer tournament on the world stage will be fun.  Hopefully the French security will be up to the challenge to provide proper protection for the athletes.

Until that starts, I'll be cheering for the Edmonton Oilers, the last standing Canadian hockey team in the final four - hoping that a Canadian team can finally win the Cup and bring it back to Canada. In Israel those games start at about 4 a.m. and run until around 7 a.m. (without overtime).  But here in Canada for a bit, I will get to watch some games at reasonable times.






Monday, May 13, 2024

Yom Hazikaron - Israel Remembrance Day - 2024

The Jewish /Israeli calendar has several difficult days.  We have fast days, days of mourning and days of remembrance.  On Yom Kippur, we fast for 26 hours, without even water, while contemplating how we will improve our lives in the coming year and what lies in store for us and those near to us.  On Tisha B'Av, another long fast day, in the middle of the summer, we commemorate the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem and all those who lost their lives more than 2000 years ago.  On Yom Hashoah v'Hagvurah, Holocaust and Bravery Remembrance Day, we remember the 6 million victims of the Holocaust and all those who fought bravely against the Nazi regime.  Yom Hashoah v'Hagvurah was commemorated last week.

But perhaps the most difficult day of all is Yom Hazikaron - Remembrance Day for Israeli soldiers, security personnel and victims of terror.  Especially this year, while Israel is still in the midst of  a war on several fronts. 

I think there are several reasons why the day is even more difficult than other days.  For one thing, the Israeli Army is very much a people's army. With mandatory conscription, the vast majority of Israelis serve in the army in some capacity.  This means that almost everyone we know in Israel has either served in the army or has one or more family members who have served.  We have four in our immediate family and too many to count in our extended family.

It also means that when there is a war or a military operation, people that we know are putting themselves at risk.  Family members, friends, neighbours, classmates, fellow soldiers.  Since the army is universal, this can also include Israeli celebrities - popular singers, accomplished athletes, politicians and so many other categories.  And unfortunately, people from among all of these groups are included in those who have lost their lives fighting for the country.

Another reason is the immediacy and contemporaneousness of the losses.  On Tisha B'Av, we mourn events that took place more than 2000 years ago.  On Yom Hashoah, we mourn the victims of the Holocaust that ended almost 80 years ago.  But on Yom Hazikaron, we may be remembering people who died over the past few months, over the past few weeks - or this year, at yesterday's ceremony, we spoke about one soldier who was killed on Saturday, just one day before Erev Yom Hazikaron.

A third reason, which is particularly poignant this year, is that the losses continue.  Israel continues to be engaged in a multi-front war.  Soldiers are being killed.  Rockets are being fired at civilian targets and civilians are being killed, especially  in the North of Israel and in the areas surrounding Gaza. And there is a great deal of uncertainty over how and when this war might end, whether the more than 130 hostages will return home - and what condition they will be in, and what will happen here in the long term. Right now, there are no easy answers.  

Ra'anana Commemoration

We walked over to the main Ra'anana ceremony at Yad L'Banim, the city centre, where all of the city's ceremonies and commemorations take place.  The event  was scheduled for 8 p.m., with thousands of seats set up, many reserved for bereaved families.  We decided to go early and we got there for 7:15 p.m.  Too late.  All of the seats were already full.  There were thousands more behind the seating, standing.  There were multiple screens set up to the sides of and behind the main stage.

We found a place to sit on the grass way off to the side.  During the ceremony this year, there was a focus on the stories of the 24 Ra'anana residents who have died since the October 7 attacks by Hamas.  Some were killed at the Nova Music festival massacre, where Hamas terrorists killed everyone in sight.  Several concert goers hid in a bomb shelter.  The Hamas terrorists opened the door and threw grenades inside.  One brave off duty soldier picked up the grenades and threw them back outside.  He managed to throw 9 grenades back out of the shelter.  The 10th  one blew up killing him and several others in the shelter. The other Ra'anana residents included soldiers and security personnel, many of whom fought bravely on October 7, 2024 against the thousands of terrorists that had entered Israel.  The list also included other civilians.

In between the stories of the fallen, there were musical performances.  These were moving, mournful, expressive performances.  The thousands and thousands of people at the ceremony were silent and there were few dry eyes. During the ceremony, they also read out the names of the more than 200 Ra'anana residents who have been killed since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 - while showing on screen information about each person, the date the person died and their age at the time of death.  They divide this reading into two parts since there are so many names to read.

After the ceremony concluded with the "El Male Rachamim" prayer and a very powerful singing of Hatikvah (Israel's national anthem) by the entire audience, we walked back home in a sea of white shirt wearing Ra'anana residents.  Stores and restaurants were all closed, the roads were closed off to traffic in major parts of the city and it seemed like the whole city had come to this commemoration.

The evening of Yom Hazikaron is also one of the most compelling evenings of TV.  There is a national ceremony that is broadcast, though that is at the same time as the ceremonies across the country.  After that, there is a musical event called "Songs in the Square."  This event was broadcast live from the Sultan's Pool in Jerusalem, a huge amphitheatre outside the walls of the Old City.  A massive stage was set up with enough room for the full Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra.  A who's who of the Israeli music scene took turns taking the stage and singing sorrowful songs.  In between the musical performances, there were stories about different soldiers, their lives, their families and what happened.  Many of these performances were simply amazing.  We heard Tamir Greenberg, Keren Peles, Shiri Maimon, Hanan Ben Ari and many others.  Unlike other musical performances on other days, the audience was silent.  No clapping or other noise.  Just silence and tears.  

The event ended at around midnight.  After that Israeli stations continued to broadcast music, documentaries, movies, interviews and other Yom Hazikaron appropriate programming.

This morning, we went to the nearby military cemetery in Ra'anana - which is only a few blocks away.  There  were so many people that we could not get anywhere near the cemetery - we had to watch and listen from across the street.  This was a much shorter commemoration.  

At 11 a.m., there is a one minute siren all across the country.  Everyone stops what they are doing and stands silently for the full minute.  The ceremony also included a number of speeches, the laying of wreaths, a gun salute, prayers and another  moving rendition of Hatikvah sung by many people trying to manage unfathomable grief.

As you might know, Israel's Independence Day is celebrated the very next day after Yom Hazikaron.  Many places, including our Synagogue in K'far Saba hold commemorative events to mark the closing of Yom Hazikaron and the transition to the joy of Yom Haatzmaut.  It its always incredible difficult to make that transition - but there is a sense that it is extremely important to do so - to celebrate all of the achievements of the State of Israel - even after remembering so many terrible losses.

This year, I sense a much more subdued attitude.  How can people truly celebrate while there are so many soldiers still in harm's way?  And so many hostages still being held and brutalized by Hamas.  And no clear idea for how and when this war might end.  

Some young soldiers we spoke to - urged people to celebrate.  They said that they fight to defend the country so that people in Israel can have a life -and can embrace the festive occasions.  For them, that is what makes it all worthwhile.   I appreciate that perspective.  But it is so hard with so many losses in such a small country.

We have been invited to barbecues, there are people still planning to go to parks and nature reserves across the country and there are many major events planned across the country to mark Israel's 76th birthday.   I'm still not sure what will do.  There is also a great deal to watch on TV including Idan Raichel's annual program (Raichel is one of Israel's most popular recording artists)  - where he  selects 10 soldiers from across the country to sing for a national audience - and then picks one of them to record a special duet with him.  It is an incredible evening.  He surprises each solder that he has selected by showing up at their base (after arranging it in advance with their commander) and tells them in front of their fellow soldiers that they have been selected.  They then have the chance to rehearse with Raichel and his band before the big day.

And has you might know, it is also a family member's birthday today - though we will move that celebration until after these two days of commemoration and celebration.

I have more to write about several topics - Eurovision, President Biden's decision to halt certain arms shipments to Israel (and his apparent walkback of at least some  of that), the ongoing negotiations with Hamas, the disheartening events at university campuses across the United States and Canada and other topics, but I felt that I should limit my discussion today to these two powerful days on our calendar.

On this Yom Hazikaron, we have no alternative but to hope and pray for an end to the wars that we are fighting, that no more soldiers or civilians will lose their lives, that our hostages being held by Hamas will all be returned safely, that we will come up with some kind of long term plan to bring peace and stability to the region and that our neighbours will all want  to live in peace with us and repair their own societies and rid themselves of oppressive, extremist dictatorships.  We hope for all of this so that we can have a truly meaningful  and complete celebration of Israel's Independence Day.  These are dreams for sure, and perhaps they are elusive, but hopefully, one day, they will come true.  

Monday, May 6, 2024

Yom Hashoah v'Hagvurah 2024 - Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day and other comments

On this day of Yom Hashoah v'Hagvurah (Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day), there are many things to write about.  I was planning to limit this blog to a focus on the Holocaust.  But in light of all of the events taking place in Israel, I had to add some additional comments and discussion. 

Possible Ceasefire Deal?

A few minutes ago, the Israeli press began reporting that Hamas has advised negotiators that it has "accepted" the latest Qatari-Egyptian-U.S. proposal for a three-staged cease fire.  It is unclear whether this will actually go ahead.  But here are, among other things, a few events that took place today.  First of all, Hamas announced earlier that it was leaving negotiations and that it could not trust the Egyptians to broker a deal.  Israel announced that it was asking 100,000-200,000 civilians in Rafiah, Gaza to leave the area so that it could conduct operations in that area (the last remaining stronghold for Hamas military divisions).  

It is noteworthy that Israel did not announce a major call up of its reserves in preparation for this telegraphed incursion.  Nevertheless, hours later, Hamas announced "officially" that it was accepting the cease fire terms.

I do not have the detailed document here - but among other things - this is what is apparently included:

1. 33 kidnapped live Israelis would be returned over a period of 40 days - mainly including women, the elderly and some injured captives. In exchange, Israel would release approximately 100 convicted Hamas murderers and 600 other Hamas prisoners.

2. After the 40 days, Hamas would release additional hostages including soldiers and other civilians in exchange for further releases of Hamas prisoners from Israeli jails.  

3.  There is a third stage of agreeing to the rehabilitation of Gaza, the full exchange of other prisoners and remains of dead civilians and soldiers and an extended five year period of non-hostilities.

Reports are that Israel has not agreed to the third stage and that it has only agreed to the second stage conditionally.  Israel has maintained that it has the right to resume operations until its war aims are met.  However, Hamas has announced that it is accepting the deal on the basis of U.S. guarantees that steps 2 and 3 will take place - even without formal Israeli acquiescence.   

This "deal" will create quite a bit of division in Israel.  The deal will leave Hamas in power and in place to rebuild and try to carry out another similar attack.  It will allow Hamas and its leader Yehia Sinwar to claim a form of victory (or stalemate at least).  And it will not bolster any hopes for having a non-Hamas - peace oriented Palestinian leadership in control of Gaza.  In other words, the people of Gaza will continue to be stuck under  the thumb of a brutal Hamas military dictatorship - even if many of them actually chose or supported that type of rule in Gaza.

On the other hand, if Israel does not find a way to release as many hostages as possible immediately, it will be risking the lives of all of these people - and failing in its most basic obligation to its citizenry to protect Israelis and to redeem them when they are taken hostage or held captive somewhere.

I have listened to many different sides of this debate from an Israeli perspective. I am torn.  I am very concerned that we will continue to face the same ongoing cycle of violence from Hamas - and this deal will risk the lives of many Israelis in the future - who will face attacks from a large number of released murderers.

But, on balance, I believe that we must release anyone who is still alive at this point.  If Israel refuses and proceeds with an invasion of Rafiah - that will involve the potential loss of hundreds of our soldiers.  We may not get any of the hostages back.  We are unlikely to be able to fully destroy Hamas.  We will wind up with thousands of Palestinian casualties, many  of whom will be innocent civilians.  And perhaps, most significantly, we will face massive world pressure, especially from the U.S., the EU  and other places - which may have a devastating cost for Israel in terms of world support, economic pressure and general isolation.

It is quite clear to me that Prime Minister Netanyahu does not want a deal now - and certainly not this one.  If the deal goes ahead, his government may well face a day of reckoning.  Israel may wind up with an election sooner than anticipated.  However, even though Netanyahu himself may not survive an election, the Israeli public could shift even further to the right as a result of all of the events since October 7th, 2023.  

It is also worth noting that there is no deal with Hezbollah in the north yet - and tens of thousands of Israelis who have been evacuated from their homes are still waiting to return.  Many Israeli commentators have indicated that this will only take place after a major war with Hezbollah and Lebanon on Israel's northern border.  I am hopeful that if there is a deal with Hamas, Hezbollah will also agree to some sort of deal - but so far, that is unclear.

As a postscript - while I write this blog - some Israeli officials are saying that Hamas has accepted a "new deal" put together by Qatar and Egypt that Israel has not yet even seen.  Other announcements are that it was the same deal that Israel approved but the U.S. added additional assurances to Hamas that the war would not continue after the 40 days.  I can't really tell you at this point what will happen - and there seems to be quite a mix of opinion from Israeli newscasters and commentators - some of whom think there will be a deal - and many who do not.  At least not at this time.

Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day

Yom  Hashoah v'Hagvurah is one of the most poignant and difficult days on the Israeli calendar.  Israelis attend at remembrance ceremonies across the country on the evening before.  All restaurants and stores are closed from about 6 p.m.  All Israeli television stations and radio stations are dedicated to Holocaust programming.  There are documentaries, interviews, movies and other programs on all night.  

We attended the ceremony in Ra'anana, which focused on the Jews of Kovel, Ukraine this year. Kovel was a town that had 20,000 Jews before World War II, the vast majority of whom were murdered by the Nazis between August and October 1941.  Many were held in the city's large synagogue while knowing that they were about to be murdered.  Some of them wrote their personal stories and prayers on the walls of the synagogue in their own blood, hours before being murdered.  This was obviously a gut wrenching and difficult ceremony to attend.

Afterwards, we watched different Holocaust programming on TV including the National  Remembrance Ceremony from Jerusalem and some other programs featuring the testimony of survivors along with interviews with their children and grandchildren.

One of the most  moving pieces that I watched was an interview with former Israeli Chief Justice Aharon Barak.  Barak is now 87. When he was 5 years old, he miraculously escaped the Ghetto by being hidden in a basket of soldiers' uniforms, along with his mother.  He was hidden by a nearby Lithuanian farmer and his family for a short period of time - and then had to leave.  Another farmer family, Jonas Mozuraitis and his wife Ona, took him and his mother (as well as a few others) and kept them all hidden for almost three years.  The farmer built a double wall with a four foot space in between.  Barak, his mother and the others, were hidden between the walls for entire days and allowed to come out only at night - where they would then spend time with the farmer's family including his children.  Barak eventually came to Israel, studied law, became the Dean at the Hebrew University Law School and eventually the Chief Justice of the Israeli Supreme Court.  The story is nothing short of incredible.

Years later, Barak was asked to meet with Lithuanian officials to provide advice on putting together a constitution - he accepted the invitation on condition that he could meet with the family that had hid him.  Only the farmer's children were still alive.  Barak had a question for them.  "Why did you save us and risk your  lives? he asked.  "If the Nazis had discovered us they would have killed you."  One of the children responded to Barak.  "I don't understand your question.  For us it wasn't a question.  We were religious Catholics.  We believe in our obligation to our fellow human beings, especially those in need.  We saw people who needed help and we knew we had to help  We believe you would do the same."  Barak said the answer has kept him awake every night.  "Would I have the courage and the moral clarity to do the same thing?" He has asked himself repeatedly.  One of  Barak's family members said - the answer is "absolutely."  But Barak was crying while giving this explanation.

Barak, as you might recall, is the Israeli representative on the International Criminal Court which has been hearing the case brought by South Africa alleging that Israel has been carrying out a genocide.  The case is simply outrageous and Barak spoke a bit about it (to the extent that he was able to do so).  Israeli soldiers have been fighting back against  Hamas in a war that Hamas declared on October 7th.  While there have been a large number of civilian Palestinian casualties, the Israeli army has taken extraordinary steps to minimize those casualties.  Israel is fighting an enemy that has set up bases in hospitals, mosques and dense residential areas.  Hamas has transported its fighters in UNRWA vehicles and red cross ambulances.  Sometimes they wear press badges.  Hamas has fired missiles and then hidden underground in tunnels while exposing the civilian population to Israeli responses to the missile fire in those very same areas.

On the other hand, the October 7, 2023 attacks by Hamas were deliberate attacks involving  massacres of civilians - including torture, burning victims alive, rape and all kinds of other atrocities.  The notion that Israel would be charged with genocide for attacking Hamas in response to these crimes against humanity is ludicrous.

All of this context was explored this year during Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day by a wide range of speakers - who also sounded warning bells about the massive worldwide increase in antisemitisms and anti-Semitic attacks.  A special focus has been on U.S. university campuses and some of the completely unacceptable responses by these universities to the targeting of Jewish students on campuses.  Columbia University has, of course, been singled out as one of the worst offenders though the situation across the U.S. is quite grim, especially as viewed through the eyes of Jewish Israelis.  

Of course Canada is not much better.  The University of Toronto is continuing to allow a pro-Hamas encampment on its property - which is actively trying to prevent Jews from entering the area.  Is this 2024?  

Anti-Jewish attacks, rallies and other public antisemitic acts and comments, can all remind us, anytime, but especially on Holocaust Remembrance Day, how things that start like this can quickly descend into much much worse scenarios.

Lighter Note

On a lighter note (compared to everything that is going on here), I stayed up on Saturday night to watch the Maple Leafs blow yet another 7 game series and bow out of the playoffs in the  first round - even with a team loaded with highly paid superstars.  Once again, a tremendous, yet perhaps predictable  disappointment for a Toronto Maple Leafs hockey fan.  At least I saved some money on playoff tickets - though I was looking forward to being back in Toronto for Round 3 or Round 4 - even at an insane cost of $750 per ticket for my lowly purple seats if the Leafs had made it to the finals.  

Here in Israel, the Yes Cable system was showing Leafs' playoff games on Sports 5+ - channel 59 - at 3 a.m.  But wouldn't you know it - they showed games 1 to 6 but not game 7. So I had to stream the CBC using a VPN.  That wound up working out fine.  Unfortunately, no one wanted to stay up and watch with me - so I had to keep from falling asleep on my own.  With overtime, I think the game ended around 6 a.m. on Sunday morning.

My other light note - is that Israel is getting a few days of  unseasonal rain.  The weather forecaster called it the "return of winter" - even though the temperature has not dipped much below 20C.  Some winter...(says the Canadian...)

I will try to write more in the coming days as we have Yom Hazikaron (Israel Remembrance Day for  Soldiers and Victims of Terror), Yom Haatzmaut (Israel Independence Day), the Eurovision Festival, and the pending invasion of Rafiah, Gaza or a possible cease fire deal.  Lots to discuss.

I wish everyone the best of health - and  peace.






 





Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Israel Wrap Up Update 2023

Fallen Soldiers

Captain Shaul Greenglick z"l was killed this week in northern Gaza.  He was 26 years old.  He was an officer in the Nahal brigades, unit 931.  He was from Ra'anana.  Just a few weeks ago, he participated, in uniform, in Israel's reality singing contest "Kochav Nolad" ("A Star is Born") and passed into the next round. He impressed the panel of four judges with his rendition of a Hanan Ben Ari song, "Blind Bat."  After performing, he returned to Gaza to fight with his unit.  He was killed along with 26 year old Captain Shay Shamriz. In total, six soldiers were killed on Monday.  The IDF has just announced three more names of soldiers killed yesterday, including Eliezer Chitiz z"l, who was also from Ra'anana.   In total, 164 Israeli soldiers have been killed since the start of the ground operation in Gaza and a total of 498 soldiers have been killed since the start of the war on October 7, 2023.

Captain Greenglick's funeral was today in Ra'anana.  We joined thousands of Ra'anana residents to line the streets and wave Israeli flags as the military hearse drove by, escorted by several security vehicles.  I would think the same scene will take place again tomorrow in Ra'anana for the funeral of Eliezer Chitiz, who will also be laid to rest in the military cemetery in Ra'anana, which is two blocks away from our home.

Military Situation - State of the War

Israel is in a very dangerous phase of the war now.  The country's military forces are fighting actively (to different degrees) on seven different fronts.  One area of heavy fighting is in Gaza, where thousands of Israeli troops are fighting Hamas guerillas in many different locations.  The Israeli army has gone into the tunnel network in various locations and has been fighting in many different areas in northern and southern areas of Gaza.  Since the temporary cease fire deal ended, the casualty rate for Israeli soldiers has spiked dramatically.  I have not heard any reports to suggest that the fighting is close to a conclusion.

In the north, Israel is fighting on two fronts.  On the Lebanon border, from Israel's west coast to the point where Lebanon, Syria and Israel all meet, Israel is fighting a very active and very difficult war against Hezbollah.  Hezbollah is stationed right at Israel's border and has been launching anti-tank missiles against civilian and military targets, unmanned suicide drone attacks, weaponized, controlled drone attacks and other military and terrorist campaigns.  Israel has been defending against these attacks and launching its own counter-offensive measures on an ongoing basis.  Many Israeli soldiers have fallen in these northern battles.

In the northeast, Israel is fighting against Syria and Iraq, with Hezbollah and other Iranian backed military groups launching attacks from Syrian territory.  Israeli has responded to these attacks in many different ways, some  of which have been reported in the media - reaching as far as the Damascus area.

Israel is also fighting against Hamas-backed groups of terrorists in areas of Judea and Samaria (the "West Bank").  Some areas have seen particularly heavy fighting including Jenin and the Tulkarem area.

In the south, Israel has had to deal with proxy attacks from the Houthi rebels, an Iranian-sponsored military organization situated in Yemen that has vowed to attack any and all ships travelling through the Red Sea Strait en route to or from Israel.  The Houthis have fired several long-range, Iranian-supplied missiles at Eilat and other places in Israel.  To date, these missiles have been shot down by U.S. or Israeli defence forces using anti-missile systems.

The big "mastermind" behind all of this - and the main enemy is, of course, the Republic of Iran, which has armed, trained, sponsored and, largely, controlled all of these forces.  Iran is using Hezbollah, Hamas, the Houthis, and other groups as proxies to attack Israeli while, to date, avoiding any direct attacks on Israel.  As recently as yesterday, Iran threatened to begin direct attacks against Israel soon. Iran has, for several years, called for the destruction of Israel and is certainly the most hostile country in the region towards the State of  Israel.  Iran has also been the sponsor of virulent anti-Semitic propaganda including Holocaust denial and other poisonous forms of anti-Jewish bigotry.

To get to seven fronts, you can separate the Syrian forces from the Iraqi forces - though attacks and activity from these two groups are largely originating from the same place.

Now with that all in mind, calling for an "unconditional cease fire" is tantamount to calling for Israel to surrender to these various enemies, which Israel certainly will not do.  The Hamas leadership, in interviews since October 7, 2023, has stated that they plan to carry out the same types of attacks "over and over again" until "Israel is destroyed."  Iran has made similar threats. Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah started this war and they have not offered any proposals or concessions that would form the basis for a short or long term cease fire.

For now, the prospects of all of this ending any time soon seem bleak.  At this point, it seems unfathomable that Israel will conclude the war in Gaza without destroying the Hamas leadership or coming to a deal whereby the Hamas leadership leaves Gaza (like the Lebanon war deal in the 1980s in which Arafat and the PLO left Beirut and went to Tunisia).  Israel will also need to insist on a deal whereby Hezbollah moves back, several kilometres, from the Israeli-Lebanon border and the Israeli-Syrian border.  If there is no deal with Hezbollah, there may will be a full-blown war with Lebanon, that could start any time now.

As for Iran, I don't believe that Israel is about to launch a major attack on Iran, though there are certainly scenarios in which Iran could draw the U.S. into the conflict and provoke U.S. operations against Iran.  This does not seem too likely as of now, but the Middle East is quite unpredictable.

Israeli Appreciation towards Soldiers

One of our family members was home for a break from reserve duty in Gaza.  We went to grab breakfast before he had to return.  He was in uniform.  As we were sitting in the cafe, some Ra'anana residents came over to talk to him.  They thanked him for his service and insisted on paying for whatever he wanted to order (as well as anything his friend and fellow soldier ordered).  Of course we would have been happy to pay the bill but this was such a nice gesture.  It is something that happens all  over Israel wherever civilians see soldiers in uniform, especially these days.

Hostages

According to current reports, there are still about 133 hostages being held by Hamas who were taken into captivity on October 7, 2023.  Some were soldiers, some were residents of the various Kibbutzim and communities near Gaza that were attacked and some were concert-goers attending the Nova music festival. Some very young children are still in captivity, assuming they are alive.  No list has been provided by Hamas or the International Red Cross - or anyone else.  We really don't know how many of  these hostages are still alive, what condition they are in or where they are being held.  

Based on information we have received from released hostages, we know that the hostages were being held in very difficult conditions with very little food  and water provided each day.  Some of the women were separated out and kept in different areas.  There are reports (from the released hostages and others) about widespread sexual abuse.  Some of the other hostages were quite elderly, in their 80s, with various medical conditions.  

Israelis have been demonstrating in support of the families of these hostages and demanding that the government take all appropriate steps to return the hostages home.  But so far, there is no available deal on the table that would bring this about.  There are rumours of different negotiations taking place, brokered by Egypt, Qatar or others - but I have not heard any reports that a deal is close.

Civilian Deaths

Israel is obviously facing a difficult situation trying to extricate Hamas from Gaza while they have embedded their fighters in civilian populations and launched attacks from schools, mosques, hospitals and other crowded areas.  Even the Hamas leadership is apparently now using groups of hostages as human shields to avoid being killed or captured.

The Hamas Health Ministry has been reporting more than 20,000 Gazans as having been killed.  But there are a few things to remember.

First of all, the numbers are not verified and Hamas has notoriously exaggerated or fabricated numbers of casualties (remember the hospital incident early this year).  

Secondly, Hamas does not announce the numbers of fighters who are killed.  By Israel estimates, the numbers of Hamas fighters killed are 1/2 to 2/3 of the total number killed.  In other words - the actual Hamas numbers of total casualties my be anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 - we just don't know.

Of those, the number of Hamas fighters killed is between 8,000 and 12,000, according to different Israeli sources.

Suffice it to say that the civilian casualty numbers are therefore much lower than the numbers that are simply accepted and printed by publications and news media around the world.

This is not to say that anyone in Israel is happy to see high numbers of civilian casualties in Gaza.

But at the same time - we are dealing with an enemy that is trying to kill as many of us as possible- civilians and military personnel.  In that circumstance - Israelis feel that we are better off killing our enemies than being killed ourselves.  This is the same type of reaction that the Allies had when dealing with Germany - or Japan in World War II - or that any nation has when confronted with an armed conflict started by an enemy.

The Israeli army would rather protect the lives of as many Israelis (soldiers and civilians) as possible, even if that means that there are civilian casualties while fighting Hamas. That's unfortunate but it is a by-product of war.  Certainly the civilian casualties in Gaza or far lower than the casualty numbers in conflicts involving Russia, Syria or even the United States (see Afghanistan, Iraq or other places).

To call the Israeli war against Hamas a "genocide" is  nothing less than a morally vacuous blood libel.  Yet that is the language coming from Turkey, Iran, Hamas-sponsored university groups across the United States and Canada and other places.

Volunteers and Visitors

Amidst all of this, people are still visiting Israel, as difficult as it might be to get here (with El Al and Emirates being the only airlines that are currently flying to Israel).  One of our friends arrived last week and is volunteering with "Sar-El" a group that stations volunteers for two-week periods at army bases around Israel to help pack supplies, equipment, food and assist in other ways.  Another friend has been visiting and volunteering to pick fruit and vegetables at various sites around the country.  Israel normally relies on labour from Thailand, Judea and Samaria, some Gazans and other foreign workers for much of the seasonal agricultural work.  Very few workers from any of these places are available.  Farmers around the country have been begging Israelis and others to come help  out - sometimes on a paid basis and sometimes as volunteers.  Israelis and people from all over the world have been answering the call.

Many synagogues from across  North America and other places have been bringing "missions" to Israel.  A group from the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York came earlier this month.  In mid-January, a group will be visiting Israel from Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Toronto.  Just today, some friends told us that they will be arriving in mid-January for a 10 day trip - including some time volunteering in different places.

In short, there are lots of volunteer opportunities and I think Israelis are very grateful for the help - both from non-Israelis - who have shown up to volunteer - and from Israelis - many of whom are volunteering in different ways.

Of course, many other tours have been cancelled - including the various birthright groups. Some friends who were planning to come cancelled - and others postponed their trips. I think the short term future of tourism to Israel is very much up in the air - like so many other things for Israelis now including academic programs, social events, work and so many other parts of a normal routine. So many of our young people are cancelling all of these events to serve in life and death missions in Gaza, Israel's north, or wherever else they might be stationed.

Getting Here

As I mentioned above, only El Al and Emirates (as well as the Emirates subsidiary "Fly Dubai") are flying to Tel-Aviv now.  El Al is flying to several cities in the U.S. - so if you are flying from New York, Boston, Chicago, Miami or some other cities - and don't mind flying El Al - there are still available flights.

In my case, as I have written in different articles in the past, I tend to stick with Star Alliance airlines,  flying  Air Canada as often as I can.  So I have been joining Air Canada flights with El Al flights.  They don't have a baggage sharing arrangement - so I have had to collect my bags, go through immigration and then re-check-in to drop off my bag.  It is very cumbersome.  If you are doing this, you need to allow about four hours for a transfer.

For my flight back to Toronto, I flew through Amsterdam without a checked bag.  This was much better than flying with a bag since I did not have to go through immigration, security or anything else.  I was just able to make my way over to the Air Canada gate with lots of time to spare and even managed to spend time in the lounge in Amsterdam (which was nothing exciting).

On my way back to Israel, I flew Air Canada to London.  That part of the flight was fine.  I then had to collect my bags and walk quite a long distance to the subway system to take a train to terminal 4.  This took quite a while and was a bit of a pain since I had a suitcase with me - along with a carry on bag and a knapsack.  There were lots of escalators, moving walkways, corridors and other parts to this journey - which took close to an hour in total.

Once I arrived at terminal 4 - things were fine - though the El Al gate was not even open yet.  So I wound up sitting around in a coffee bar waiting for the El Al desk to open.

Overall, it was certainly better than Amsterdam but it was not fun. At least the immigration line was efficient.

I haven't found the ideal arrangement yet though I will have to go back to Toronto in mid-January.  My current plan is to travel again through Rome.  (El Al to Rome and then Air Canada to Toronto).

Although some airlines have announced a resumption of service to Israel, scheduled for mid-January, I don't believe that these flights will begin again until there is a cease fire of some sort. I guess we will have to see.

Entertainment

Throughout all of this, Israeli TV has continued to broadcast episodes of "Eretz Nehederet" ("It's a Wonderful Country") which is the closest thing Israel has to Saturday Night Live. The show is replete with satirical sketches involving impersonators of many of Israel's political leaders and other public figures.  Eretz Nehederet has aired some sketches in English poking fun at the BBC's coverage of the war, the U.S. college campus situation and other world events.  Much of the humour is very dark - but they are trying to bring a bit of levity to a very difficult situation.  The skits are hit or miss.  Some are extremely funny, some not so much.  Isn't that the case with any satirical show?

Last week's show included an impersonation of Tzvi Yehezkeli - an Israeli commentator who is fluent in Arabic and has been on Israeli TV continuously, providing interpretations of Arabic news releases and statements.  The Eretz Nehederet version was quite spot-on, making fun of Yehezkeli's  explanation of Arabic phrases and idioms.  At one point - the impersonator provided a sentence in Arabic - and then offered the translation - "The world is like a cucumber....one day you are holding it in your hand - and the next day it is stuck up your butt."  I'm not here to interpret these things - I am just passing on what I heard (and laughed at, I have to say).

Last  night, Eretz Nehederet aired a very serious sketch involving a traumatized soldier showing up to watch his family arguing about politics as usual. This one was tear-inducing and difficult to watch. The skit was done with an overlay of the song "Kama Tov She'bata Habayta" - ("How great it is that you have come home") - sung originally in 1971 by the late Israeli singer Arik Einstein. The song was originally written as a group effort by Yankele Rotblitt, Shalom Hanoch and Itzkhak Klapter.  The original version was written welcoming someone back after returning from a long trip abroad. Eretz Nehederet changed the words somewhat. Not sure if there is a translation available yet - but if your Hebrew is up to it - and the link works wherever you are - you can use the link above to watch it. Even without the Hebrew translation, you can probably get the mood from the sombre tone and the scene itself.

The other Israeli show that has been airing twice a week is "Zehu Zeh"  ("That's that") which is also a satirical show but a very different format. I think I have written about it in the past. They have also been airing skits making fun of the Houthis - implying that they are launching rockets at Israel from Yemen because they are bored. Zehu Zeh usually features two songs each episode, one with a guest singer.  Over the past few weeks - many different guests have appeared including Eidan Reichel, Chava Alberstein, and others.  The music has generally been excellent.  The comedy sketches - hit or miss.

Israeli singers have continued to travel the country performing for soldiers all over - whether in bases near Gaza, Gaza itself - or in different places in the north.  Some stand-up comedians have also been entertaining soldiers.  As you might have seen, Jerry Seinfeld showed up in Israel last week as a gesture of support - though I am not sure that he entertained troops anywhere.

December Holidays in Israeli

As you might know, Christmas is largely a non-event in Israel, outside of pockets of Christian communities.  It is a regular workday, everything is open.  It is quite something to see - for someone who is used to being bombarded with Christmas music in restaurants, shopping malls and everywhere else for two months before the holiday in Canada.

I have nothing against people celebrating Christmas - I wish all of my friends the very best in enjoying their celebrations. And if I am in Toronto and invited to a party or a dinner, I am certainly happy to join them.

At the same time, it is a season where, when I am in Toronto, I am constantly reminded how I differ from everyone else - how I stick out as a minority - and how I don't belong.  

Even though Israel is a majority Jewish state, the malls are not generally decorated with any particular holiday's decorations - and there is no time of the year where Jewish holiday-themed music is on the radio 24/7.  On the actual holidays, everything is closed. But it seems to me it would be a lot less "in your face" than the way Christmas is celebrated in North America - even though Canada is not supposed to be a "religious" country by definition.

In Toronto this year, the local Second Cup starting playing Christmas music right after Canadian Thanksgiving ended (in October). I would have thought that even people who celebrate Christmas would be happy with two to three weeks of Christmas music at most.  But maybe I'm wrong.

Anti-Semitism Around the World

One of the major effects of this war has been a massive ramp up in anti-Semitism around the world.  The U.S. Ivy League schools (many of which receive huge donations from Qatar) have been at the forefront of anti-Israel demonstrations - many of which have blended into anti-Jewish hatefests.  

In Canada, the universities have not been much better.  Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson) has been the source of some of the most vitriolic anti-Israel - and anti-Jewish hate speech.  York University has not been far behind. University of Toronto's "Varsity" publication has been spewing repugnant disinformation. CUPE (the Canadian Union of Public Employees) has a leader who "rejoiced" the day after the October 7th massacres and has engaged in an outrageous smear campaign against Israel.

Through all of this, Canada's Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, was the proud recipient of thank you video put out by one of the Hamas leaders - obviously an ignominious and dubious honour.  I think that Australia and New Zealand also received this fine mention from Hamas - and perhaps Ireland as well.

There have also been demonstrations across Europe and around the world, chanting "from the River to the Sea..." which is a call for the destruction of Israel. As a result, there is quite a feeling of isolation here right now. Israel seems to have very few real friends - the United States, Germany - and some days Britain  Maybe a handful of others.

Interestingly, there was a poll published last week in Israel - in which Israelis were asked "who is a better friend of Israel - Trump or Biden?" Far more Israelis went with Biden - which was a new phenomenon for Israelis, many of whom had viewed Trump as one of the best U.S. Presidents that Israel ever had as a friend in the White House.

But really - aside from all of this - for those European Countries that are wavering, and others, the situation is not that complicated.  You have on the one hand an axis of Russia, Hamas, Turkey, Qatar, Hezbollah, Iran and a handful of others. On the other hand - Israel, the U.S., Germany, Great Britain and some others.  I don't even think one needs to say more than that. For the countries supporting the Hamas-Qatar-Iran group - unfortunately, they will probably wind up next on the list soon enough.  And frankly, this is probably a very real warning to Trudeau and his government who want to bring hundreds of thousands of Hamas sympathizers to Canada. All I can do here is quote President Biden - "Don't!....just don't!..."

And I think that is about it for now.  I wish everyone a happy and healthy 2024 and hope that it will be a much more peaceful year.  Best regards from Israel.






Friday, December 1, 2023

Fighting Renewed In Israel After 7 Day Pause

After a 7 day "pause,"  Israel's war with Hamas has resumed this morning.  Over the course of the 7 day pause, 110 hostages were released by Hamas including some young children, many senior citizens and several foreign workers (mostly Thai) who were working in Israel.  In exchange Israel released more than 300 prisoners from its jails.  To correct my previous post, some of these Palestinian prisoners were being held under "administrative detention" and my not have actually been convicted in a proper court process.  However, the vast majority were involved in an actual or attempted attack on Israeli civilians or soldiers.  They were released by Israel for civilians who were kidnapped from their homes or from the Nova music festival on October 7, 2023.

According to press reports, Israel was willing to continue the current pause for at least three more days since Hamas had claimed that it still had about 30 senior citizens, women and children that it was willing to release in exchange for 3 prisoners each.  Hamas was required to provide a list of at least 10 hostages that it would be releasing by midnight to ensure another day of pause.  But last night, instead of providing a list of hostages, Hamas sent some missiles.  The Israeli army responded by indicating that operations against Gaza had resumed.

It is very difficult to predict how this war is likely to develop and how or when it might end.  

On the one hand, various countries are making extensive efforts to negotiate further pauses in the fighting to allow for additional prisoner/hostage exchanges and discuss possible conditions for a longer term cease fire.  From my understanding, Israel would be prepared to make extensive concessions to obtain the release of the remaining hostages - approximately 139 of them - according to Ynet News.  In exchange for Israeli soldiers - and other remaining hostages, Israel is apparently prepared to release some of the most hardened terrorists that it is holding - which creates its own moral dilemmas.

On the other hand, after the massacre of October 7, 2023 and the accompanying declaration of war by Hamas, the Israeli government determined that its war objectives included defeating Hamas and eliminating it as the governing power in Gaza.  As well, its objectives included destroying as much of Hamas' underground tunnel network as possible.  If Israel does not make significant progress towards these goals, the war will be seen as a major victory for Hamas.  This would keep all  Israeli border settlements in a state of continued ongoing risk, would create regional deterrence problems for Israel in the region and would leave Israel simply waiting for another attack.  Those outcomes are unacceptable and dangerous.

From reports I have seen on the various Israeli channels, Israel has degraded approximately 20-25% of the Hamas forces, primarily in northern Gaza.  Most of the remaining forces, including two of Hamas' "elite units" are in Jabaliya and Khan Yunis.  I don't expect this war to end without significant fighting in those areas.  This war may take a while.

A Word about Civilians

Before the pause, the "Hamas Health Ministry" claimed that more than 20,000 Palestinians had been killed and alleged that the majority were civilians.  As of now, the same "Ministry" is claiming that just over 14,000 were killed.  That is still a very large number, no doubt.  However, there is simply no reason to accept anything that Hamas says as having even a kernel of truth to it.  As we know from the hospital incident early on, Hamas claimed that Israel had killed some 500 civilians.  It later turned out that it was an "own goal" - a missile fired by the Islamic Jihad - and less than 50 Palestinians had been killed.

More importantly, Hamas has not indicated how many of the alleged 14,000 alleged deaths have been Hamas fighters.  Contrary to what one might read or hear in some western media - including  places like the BBC, the Toronto Star and other illustrious media outlets, Israel is primarily fighting Hamas militants and is not randomly killing civilians.   If Israel were trying to kill civilians deliberately, the death toll would be hundreds of thousands (like what Assad did in Syria).   Instead, Israel urged civilians to leave the north before attacking, which probably allowed thousands of  Hamas fighters to leave along with the civilians.   Based on reports in the Israeli media, it is almost certain that a very  high percentage of the Palestinians who have been killed are Hamas fighters.  

That is not to say that civilians in Gaza are not suffering.  They are and many have been killed.  But it is their government that launched a war and there is a very high level of support for this Hamas war among Gazan Palestinians.  They were cheering and distributing candies when they heard news of the October 7 massacre and now they are reckoning with the consequences of supporting that regime.  People around the world are calling for a ceasefire - which is like people who may have called for a ceasefire during WWII instead of a victory by the allies.  People who really care about the Palestinians should be calling for a Hamas surrender now not a ceasefire. 

Some of the released hostages have been providing information about who was holding them in captivity.  One prisoner was being held in the attic of the house of a senior UNRWA official (UNRWA being a UN funded  organization devoted to continuing Palestinian refugee status perpetually).  Another returned hostage was being held in the house of a Palestinian doctor. There are many similar stories.  In other words, many of the hostages were distributed to and being held by "civilians."

I have spoken to some soldiers who were in northern Gaza going house to house looking for Hamas fighters. They found hidden weapons caches in the vast majority of homes they entered.  In some cases, rocket launchers and rockets. In other cases, Kalashnikovs, grenades and other weapons. Sometimes these were in children's bedrooms, in plain sight or in closets or under beds. Other times, in basements, attics or under trap doors. I saw videos from several of these houses. The soldiers told me that from what they saw (and their video evidence), they entered very few homes of "innocent civilians" who were uninvolved.

Despite all of this, it is clear that a growing proportion of world leaders are beginning to pressure Israel to end this war, using the concern about civilians as the main basis for taking these positions. President Biden and Secretary of State Blinken seem to be moving down this path. But at this point, it seems to me that Israel will have to resist these calls for now - until it is at least able to accomplish some of its primary war objectives.

There is also a question of "what happens next."  On this, I haven't yet heard any sensible and workable proposal from Israel, the U.S., or anyone else. Essentially, Gaza needs some sort of outcome that is comparable to the Allies' defeat in WWII. A complete victory by Israel or a surrender by Hamas.  Followed by a plan to rebuild Gaza, focusing on education, health care and economy - while keeping the area demilitarized.  

One precondition is that Hamas has to be defeated or has to surrender. This could take weeks, months or even longer. But I don't see how Israel can accept anything less than one of these two outcomes.

A second precondition is that the Palestinians  have to be prepared to  live under this type of arrangement. Again, I have no idea how to implement that, who would police it and keep it demilitarized and whether it could even work. But a Hamas government on Israel's border, after the  massacre and all of the other wars is just not feasible.

So for  now, while we may soon see another pause or two - and some additional hostage deals, I expect that we are in for an extensive period of fighting, especially in southern Gaza. The landscape will have to change significantly before a long term arrangement can be reached.

Stories of Captivity

There are so many stories being circulated from the various Israeli  hostages who were  released - and they are available  on many  different sites and publications.

A few items caught my attention  in particular.

The hostages were almost all underfed and undernourished. Not visited by the Red Cross or anyone else.  No one really knew if they were dead or alive. Some released Thai workers said in an interview that they were so hungry they resorted to eating toilet paper.

One hostage, Rony Kriboy, age 25, a dual Russian-Israeli citizen, was taken hostage at the Nova music festival.  Somehow he managed to escape from captivity.  But he had nothing with him.  No food, no money, no phone, no water.  He spent four days trying to get out of Gaza, while  scrounging for food.  Eventually, he was caught by Palestinian civilians and turned over to Hamas again. Miraculously, they didn't kill him. He was released with the reported intervention of Putin as part of one of the exchanges.  

Another released hostage, Mia Schem, had a severe arm injury. Hamas brought a veterinarian to operate on her arm. She is now undergoing treatment in an Israeli hospital. She had been forced to make a video while in Hamas captivity claiming that she was being treated well.

Eitan Yahalomi, age 12, was forced to watch videos of the Hamas massacres over and over while in captivity. He was held by Hamas for more than 50 days.  He was threatened with weapons repeatedly.

9 year old Emily hand was released this week. She returned to her father to learn that her mother had been killed on October 7. She will only speak in whispers now after having been traumatized by Hamas for more than 7 weeks.

Some 139 hostages are still being held by Hamas. Even though it was part of the "pause" deal that the International Red Cross would be able to visit the prisoners, Hamas did not honour the deal and did not allow any visits. We still do not know how many hostages are alive, what condition they are in or how they are being held.  

Israel is still hoping to reach some type of deal to release as many as possible if not all of them. But so far, it has not been able to reach a deal with Hamas through the bargaining agents - Qatar, Egypt and the U.S.

Conditions in Israel

During the brief 7-day pause, many things came back to life in many parts of Israel. Restaurants were full, bars and pubs in Tel-Aviv and other places were bustling - and many soldiers were able to get a bit of a much needed break. We were able to host 7 of them for big dinner earlier this week. Some soldiers had not been home for 30 days or more and had been living and sleeping "in the field."

Of course thousands of Israelis are living in uncertain temporary arrangements since whole communities were destroyed on Oct 7.  Others have been temporarily evacuated from their homes in the north due to the ongoing threat from Hezbollah. Some are staying in hotels. Some are staying with friends and relatives. But there is an enormous amount of work to do to return all of these people to any semblance of normalcy.

We had a few days of very heavy rain but the sun returned and the past few days have been like late August days in Toronto - sunny and beautiful - and during a "pause" - even calm in parts of the country.

But yesterday was anything but calm. Three Israelis were killed and several others injured in a shooting attack in Jerusalem. Hamas took responsibility and that was during the "pause."  

The day before, terrorists had opened fire and killed two soldiers and wounded others.

Even so, people were waiting with anticipation yesterday to see what would happen and whether the pause would be extended. Instead, we woke up to news that the fighting would continue intensely and no other hostages would be released. And we are back to a situation of uncertainty, concern and worry.  As they say in Yiddish - on shpilkes.

We were planning to host some close friends in early January. They have had to cancel their trip.  Understandably.  Cloudy with a chance of missiles is not the best forecast for a vacation. Another friend is planning to come and volunteer in late December. So far, that is still going ahead. And one other friend, with family members living here, arrived for a visit earlier this week. People are still flying to and from  Israel, mostly on El Al.  So our "hotel" is open and you are welcome to visit - even during a war. We have an on-premises safe room (with extra thick concrete walls, designed to withstand a direct missile hit) though we hope that will never have to find out if it actually works.

I have to travel to Toronto again for a short visit. Once again, I will have to mix and match some crazy flight schedules. I have a trip through Amsterdam coming up - with El Al to Amsterdam and then Air Canada to Toronto. I am not looking forward to it after the nasty experience I had on the way to Israel. But I couldn't change it - other than to move the Air Canada leg to a later time to allow more time.

Coming back, I am still looking at options. Considering a change in London, Frankfurt or some other places. I am trying to stick with the Star Alliance as much possible since I get such a great benefit from flying on Air Canada or other partners. But no Star Alliance airline is currently flying to Tel Aviv. So anyone flying to Israel via a Star Alliance flight must switch over to El Al.  

If you don't care about which airline you are taking - the easiest way to  get to and from Israel now from Toronto is clearly El Al from New York with a connecting flight on Delta or American.  One friend of ours recently completed a fairly last minute booking for less than $2,000 (Canadian) (about $1,100 USD) - using El Al and Delta.

Chanukah is fast approaching.  For Israelis, that means eating doughnuts - or Sofganyot, as they are called.  The big fat jelly-filled, icing-sugar-coated calorie bombs.  Personally, they have  never done anything for me.  I always  associated Chanukah with  potato latkes - whether  they were being made by my mother, one of my two dear late grandmothers - or anyone  else.  I still love latkes.  But somehow, in Israel, Chanukah is much more likely to be associated with sofganyot.  Of course, I do my part to swim against the tide.  I certainly plan on making a bunch of latkes - using whatever I learned from watching my two bubbies and my mom.  Not that much healthier than the doughnuts, I suppose, but once or twice a year - I really enjoy having a few....(or more than a few).  

That's about it for now.  It will probably be two to three weeks before I put together  another blog, unless I manage to find the time to put together another one sooner.  For now, I wish everyone a Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanukah.  We continue to hope  and pray for the safe return of all of the remaining hostages, for the safety of all of our soldiers, security personnel and all of the residents of Israel, across the country.   I probably have to add that we also hope and pray for the safety of Jews everywhere, throughout the diaspora, as we have seen some really crazy threats and attacks on Jews around the world.   Finally, I hope that we will see an end  to the war soon with Israel achieving a significant proportion of its war aims so that we can try to usher in a new period of hope, relative peace, stability and security.  Perhaps that is only a dream - but we have to hope -  and try.




Saturday, November 25, 2023

Israel-Hamas War - and Hostage Update - 7 weeks of War

I arrived back in Israel earlier this week in time for a temporary cease-fire which went into effect yesterday morning at 7 a.m.  Certainly, from the Israeli side, there are no plans to turn this "pause" into a permanent cease fire unless something changes dramatically.  First of all, Hamas is still holding more  than 165 Israeli hostages, along with approximately 30 foreigners.  There will definitely not be any kind of long lasting cease fire until all of these hostages are returned.

But the much larger issue is the ongoing threat to Israel from Hamas. It has been an Israeli war aim to end Hamas' reign over Gaza (and, specifically, its ability to launch attacks against Israel). In my view, Israel will either need to reach that goal or accept a Hamas surrender of some sort. It seems very unlikely that Israel will agree to a cease fire that would simply allow Hamas to launch the same type of attacks weeks, months or years from now.

The third issue is that steps will need to be taken to ensure that Hezbollah stops attacking Israel from the north. If there is a negotiated agreement that moves Hezbollah back from the border as per the existing U.N. resolution, an all out war with Hezbollah / Lebanon may be averted.  But if Hezbollah remains on the border, that may be the next all-out war that Israel is forced to fight.  

Hostage Deal

Tonight is the second day of  the temporary cease-fire deal between Israel and Hamas, negotiated by the U.S., Qatar and Egypt.  According to the deal, Hamas is supposed to provide a list of 10-15 hostages to be released by 10 p.m. each day.  Israel then provides a list of 3 convicted prisoners for each hostage to be released.  In addition, Israel has apparently agreed to allow 200 trucks of aid and fuel into Gaza and  to one full day of a "pause" in fighting.  The hostages are supposed to be released by 4 p.m. each day.  

Yesterday, the first day, Hamas delayed release of the hostages by approximately 2 hours. Today, Hamas announced that the deal would be delayed "indefinitely."  Qatar, Egypt, Israel and Hamas were involved in urgent talks with Israel apparently telling Hamas that if the deal was not honoured by midnight, Israel would end the pause and restart attacks. Eventually, Hamas gave in by about 1030 p.m. As I am writing this, today's hostages have been released, 13 Israelis including 8 children, one of them - a three year old.  Three children from one family were released - but the mother was killed on October 7th and the father is still being held hostage by Hamas.  Apparently, 14 were on the  list to be released but  one was inexplicably not released - the mother of some of the released hostages.

Note that more than 30 of the hostages being held by Hamas are young kids, including babies.   Many of them lost one or both of their parents in the October 7th massacre.  Israel is trading convicted criminals for these hostages.  The Israeli held prisoners are not "political prisoners."  They are convicted terrorists who have carried out attacks or attempted attacks against Israeli civilians, police or army forces and are being held in Israeli jails.  

A clip has been circulating from Sky News where the interviewer suggested that Israel valued Palestinian lives at a "lower value" than Israeli lives - since it was trading one Israeli hostage for 3 terrorists.  The logic is shocking.  Obviously, Israel would be happy to trade one Palestinian criminal for all of the Israeli hostages that Hamas is holding.  Interestingly, Hamas was insisting on 1000 prisoners for each hostage early on - then several hundred as the war went on.  Only because of the ground invasion of Gaza, the number has gone down to 3 criminals for one hostage.  Here is the clip in case you are interested.  

The hostage deal is causing a great deal of debate in Israel.  Many political and  military personnel are concerned that the deal will endanger Israeli soldiers in the long run and will give Hamas time to rearm, restock and regroup for the upcoming  battles in Khan Yunis, Jabaliya and other  areas of Gaza.  There is also concern that these types of deals give Hamas further incentive to try and kidnap other Israelis.  Weighed against that, it is a primary value for the State of Israel to try and return any and all captives, including civilians and soldiers. The Israeli government had a heated debate over this issue. Ultimately, only the "National Zionist Party" - led by Itamar Ben Gvir opposed the deal.  The deal was supported overwhelmingly by the current Israeli government.

Other Items

The war has been going on for more than 50 days since Hamas declared war on Israel on October 7th and massacred more than 1200 Israelis.  Hundreds of thousands of Israeli reservists were called up to the army (including several of our family and extended family members).  Israelis of  all ages, men and women, reported to bases across the country, and were stationed in and around Gaza, in the north near Lebanon or Syria,  in the east, in or around the West Bank or near Jordan.  Some  were sent to the south to protect Eilat.  We have one friend who is 51 years old  who insisted on reporting for duty - even after being rejected initially.

I saw a program here discussing the large number of Israelis who made immediate arrangements on October 7, 8 or 9th to fly to Israel from Canada - from Vancouver, Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary - and to report to duty.  These were people who have been living in Canada for anywhere from 1 to 15 years but felt the obligation to report.  When the Israeli  military issued calls for reserve soldiers to report to duty - the response rate was more than 130% - which means that a very large number of reservists reported to duty who had not even  been called up yet.

Israelis who are not in the army have been volunteering in so many different ways.  Many are volunteering for an organization called "Sar-El" which determines where volunteers are needed and sends them to different places.  Some might be helping to pack or sort equipment or pack meals for army bases.  Others have gone to farms to help farmers pick fruit and vegetables.  Others are finding ways to help the displaced families - bringing food, entertaining kids, fundraising or in other ways.

A few women in Ra'anana decided to start baking personal challahs for soldiers to deliver them on Fridays before Shabbat. At first, there were 3 or 4 women - and they made between 150 and 200 challahs.  This week, we helped to collect and deliver some of the challahs to the "central" location in Ra'anana for distribution.  For this week, they had a much larger list of women helping out and distributed more than 1500 challahs to soldiers in the field.  One of our family members was quite happy to receive one  - along with other members of the unit.  They used them in conducting a Kabbalat Shabbat service with  kiddush and challah - in Gaza yesterday.  They hope to be up to  3,000 challahs delivered by next Friday.  

I watched an amazing and incredibly moving clip on the Israeli show "Zehu Zeh" this week.  Singer Idan Raichel appeared on the show.  He brought a guest.  The guest was a teenage survivor of the massacre from Kibbutz Be'eri.  This brave boy had lost several family members.  He is a percussionist.  He wrote to Raichel and asked him if he could accompany him to  visit and sing for soldiers around the country.  Raichel met with him and quickly agreed.  And then brought him to perform on TV.  Raichel could not keep from crying when introducing him.  

Travel

As you might know, Air Canada is not currently flying to Israel and El Al stopped flying direct more than a  year ago (or so).  So travelling back and forth has been a bit tricky. 

If you are thinking of going to Israel (or flying from Israel to North America), the easiest thing to do is to take El Al with a transfer (from Canada) on American, Delta or Porter.  These flights can be booked through El Al and baggage can be sent through seamlessly.  They might be a bit  costly - but I guess convenience can be  expensive.

Since I am trying to maximize my Air Canada Aeroplan miles - I decided do something a bit more circuitous.  On the way to Toronto (for an in-person hearing that I had to attend), I flew El Al to Rome and then Air Canada from Rome to Toronto.  This was a bit cumbersome but quite frankly, it wasn't that bad.  I arrived in Rome and went through a reasonably quick and efficient immigration line. They have a fast line for certain passport holders - which includes Canada, Israel and the U.S. After that, I had to go pick up my suitcase and then head over to the Air Canada check-in counter.  Air Canada was efficient and quick - and directed me to a priority security line. I had to go through exit immigration but it was fairly quick and efficient. I finished everything in about an hour and 15 minutes and still had plenty of time to enjoy a great cappuccino and some fresh fruit in the lounge. Overall, I am happy to recommend Rome if you need to change somewhere in Europe and are not on an El Al flight all the way through.

On the way back to Israel, I went through Amsterdam.  That was a disaster. After we landed, it took 40 minutes until we pulled up to a gate. Then I had to go through an insane and inefficient immigration line up.  No special treatment for Canadian/U.S./Israeli passports. The line up said "expect a 45 minute to 1 hour wait." There were only two or three electronic picture taking machines - and two officials.  Some of the machines were out of service.  It was even worse than Newark airport.  Sorry to offend any New Jersey readers.

After that, I had to go find my luggage.  Then it was off to a frighteningly long line up at the El Al check-in counter, where my bag was deemed to be overweight...No excuses accepted - I would have to pay.  Of course the security was thorough, which was fine.  But now it was back to personal security and then, an equally brutal immigration line up (for exiting the country). By the time I finished everything - I was able to get to the El Al gate about 10 minutes before boarding. No time for a lounge in Amsterdam - or a visit to the famed whisky shop.  I had left a four-hour window in between flights and it was still a close call. So unless you are flying KLM or something else that is seamless through Amsterdam, I would definitely not recommend blending Air Canada and El Al - under any circumstances through Amsterdam.  Unless you don't mind wasting four  or five hours at the airport in line-ups.

Final Comments

Israeli news is reporting on all kinds of anti-Semitic incidents from all around the world since the October 7th massacres.  As you know, some of these have been in Toronto and  Montreal - and others from cities across Europe. Israelis are starting to think that despite the war, they are safer than Jews in many other places.

There has been some very lopsided press coverage - which is probably very different from what the coverage would have looked like if it had been Canada, the U.S., Great Britain etc., that was attacked.  One of the big issues is civilian casualties.  Although Hamas has reported numbers in the 15,000-20,000 range, there is no way to verify those numbers.  But more importantly, by Israeli accounts, a very large percentage of the Palestinian casualties are Hamas fighters.  Civilians have also been killed, mainly those who have been used as  human shields.  Yet the press simply throws out whatever number Hamas gives them - leading to crazy outbursts, like the one by Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau who declared that Israel "had to stop killing Palestinian children."  He must have known better but was probably trying to score some political points with some of his voters. Unfortunately, this type of disinformation by a western leader foments attacks on the Canadian Jewish community.  The same can be said about French President Macron.

I note, for example, that there was a great deal of concern about the Shifa hospital.  One BBC report stated that Israel was arresting doctors and killing patients.  BBC later corrected the report and indicated that Israel had brought doctors with their units to help the patients. BBC apologized for "falling short of our standards."  But ultimately, Israel found, as expected, large supplies of weapons at the hospital, and tunnels under the hospital - with rooms, washrooms, weapons storage facilities, electricity, water and gas hookups. Israel also found video footage at the hospital showing Israeli hostages being brought into the hospital - through the main doors.  There was more than ample evidence showing that the hospital was  being used a Hamas centre during the war.   

Israel is facing a difficult situation - trying to fight Hamas while minimizing civilian casualties.  But Hamas is fighting from residential areas, hospitals, mosques and schools.  In several cases, Israeli forces found arms caches in school classrooms - or through doors adjoining the classrooms.  One Israeli unit uncovered a large underground tunnel in a mosque with a huge room full of all kinds of weapons.

It is unclear how things will develop but as of now, it certainly looks like this war will continue for some time, likely at least several months.

Continuing to hope and pray for the safe return of all of our kidnapped hostages, the safety of our soldiers and - yes - a minimum number of civilian casualties in Gaza - but the destruction  of the Hamas forces and the replacement of Hamas with some type of stable governing body that will prefer to rebuild Gaza and focus on health care, education, employment, and infrastructure rather than military conflict.

I am not sure that this is likely or possible at this time but the status quo from pre-Oct 7  simply cannot and will not be allowed to continue.