Showing posts with label Israeli News Stories. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Israeli News Stories. Show all posts

Friday, November 2, 2012

Fireworks At Weddings in Israel? Call the Police!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 29, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Marvel and Warner Bros Sue Kippa Man in Jerusalem for Copyright Infringement

At the speed of light, he arrives just in time...(That's Spiderman we're talking about - and those are words from the theme song of the Spiderman television show that ran from 1967 to 1970 but was replayed on television repeatedly throughout the 70s and 80s).

Well - it looks like Kippa Man is going to need some help from a legal superhero to avoid an injunction or a large award of damages.

Kippa Man is a store on Ben-Yehuda Street in Jerusalem which sells all different types of Kippas (Yarmulkes or Skullcaps).  Some are crocheted in Israel or the Palestinian Territories, some are embroidered in China and some are printed in China.  You can get Kippas with logos of major sports franchises, cartoon characters and many other designs.

Apparently, a visiting Marvel Comics executive didn't like what he saw when he walked by Kippa Man in Jerusalem on July 30, 2012.  He bought himself a Spiderman kippa as "evidence."  On September 12, 2012, Marvel served Kippa Man and its owner Avi Binyamin with a 100,000 N.I.S. lawsuit (about $25,000) for copyright infringement.

News apparently travels fast in the superhero world, though it isn't clear whether Kippa Man had any Flash kippas.  Nevertheless, someone apparently called Commissioner Gordon.  Israeli newspaper Maariv reported today (September 19, 2012) that Warner Brothers has also filed a 100,000 N.I.S. lawsuit against Kippa Man and Binyamin alleging improper sale of Batman logoed Kippas (as well as unlicensed logos of other Warner Brothers' likenesses).

It appears that these companies have decided to use Kippa Man as the first example (a sort of test case) and have held off launching lawsuits against the many other purveyors of unlicensed kippas in this highly congested tourist area of Jerusalem, even though most of the other stores have continued to display and sell their Spiderman and Batman kippas.  For his part, Binyamin was quoted in Ma'ariv as explaining that he only buys the kippas from Chinese producers, like all of the other stores in the area. If they really wanted to stop the distribution of this unlicensed merchandise, he explained, they would go after the producers.

The Kippa Man story has emerged at a particularly reflective time.  Jews around the world are contemplating their various sins this week as Yom Kippur approaches.  We read, and ask forgiveness for, a whole list of sins on behalf of ourselves and our whole community.  Some of us may have to add "copyright infringement" to the list, particularly those of us who are at shul wearing an unlicensed Spiderman or Batman kippa.  

This may only be the beginning of the lawsuits.  Expect visits to Israel soon from NHL owners who have time on their hands (with the pending lockout and possible cancellation of the 2012-2013 season).  After all, the stores on Ben Yehuda also sell kippas with NHL logos (as well as team logos of other professional leagues).  Given the play over the past few years of the Toronto Maple Leafs, you don't tend to see very many Maple Leaf kippas and it may be difficult to find someone who has actuallly bought one.  But the NHL owners may still want to pile on this shot at protecting their intellectual property.

It wasn't yet clear whether Marvel Comics and Warner Brothers (and others) would try to get urgent injunction orders allowing them to confiscate kippas from synagogue attenders across Israel on Yom Kippur (next Wednesday, September 24, 2012).  But those who are worried about it may wish to stick to a plain white kippa and play it safe.

Monday, May 28, 2012

African Migrants in South-Tel-Aviv: Some Recent Issues

For Jewish people, Passover marks the beginning of a 50 day time period between two Jewish holidays. The holiday of Passover - Pesach - commemorates the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the eventual land of Israel. 50 days later, Jews celebrate the holiday of Shavuoth, which marks the receipt of the Torah. On Shavuoth, the Torah reading that is read out loud in synagogues across the world includes the Ten Commandments. The two holidays, Shavuoth and Pesach, are linked by the idea that with freedom comes responsibility; that it is the rule of law that brings order and justice to a community.

As Jews in Israel celebrated their freedom and independence this year, marking not only the holidays of Pesach and Shavuoth but other national holidays that fall within that same 50-day time period including Israeli Independence Day (Yom Haatzmauth) and Israel's Memorial Day (Yom Hazikaron), Israelis were also forced to wrestle with the issue of freedom for a different group of people - African migrants who have made their way to Israel from Sudan, South Sudan and Eritrea.

What are the legal and moral obligations of western democracies with respect to refugee claims? Are countries obligated to receive and provide shelter for all those who arrive from war-torn or famine-torn countries? If so, if that is something intended by the UN, does the U.N. and its constituent countries have any obligations to help settle, disperse or absorb these refugees and migrants? Or is it just a matter of requiring the nearest country to absorb whatever numbers arrive?

Over the past few years, Israel has seen a very large number of migrants from different African countries, particularly Sudan, South Sudan and Eritrea enter the country. (Eritrea borders Sudan and Ethiopia - see map). Many of these migrants walk through Egypt on a perilous journey to make it to Israel's border, where they cross illegally and enter Israel. Along they way, they are often aided by Bedouins, some of whom provide helpful support. But many are not as lucky and face all kinds of difficulties crossing through Egypt where they can wind up being jailed, attacked or even shot to death by Egyptians including Egyptian military officials or police.

Until recently, Israel's border with Egypt was not very secure. Migrant Africans have been crossing into Israel in all different ways, other than through the official border crossing stations. The Israeli government is now in the process of building a giant wall along the border to control immigration access, primarily as a reaction to this flood of illegal immigration.

Some monitoring groups have put the estimated number of African migrants reaching Israel at 1,500 to 2,000 per month, with estimates of a total of 60,000 now living in Israel, a country with a total population of approximately 7,800,000 of whom, close to 6 million are Jewish.

Many of the African migrants have congregated in the South Tel-Aviv neighbourhood of Hatikvah. According to Israeli law, the children of the migrants are able to attend school and many have been doing so. But since the parents are not legal immigrants, they are not given ID numbers and are therefore not entitled to work in Israel legally. They are not being treated as landed immigrants - though a few hundred have been treated as such. As a result, they are currently living in slum like conditions amidst a population that is very concerned about the threats to its public safety, security and its financial capacity to provide support to this growing number of newly arrived migrant Africans. As difficult as these conditions are for the African migrants who arrive, the migrants are also aware that Israel treats them much better than any of the surrounding Middle Eastern countries, though many would prefer to make it to Italy or France.

This issue has created a great deal of discussion and controversy recently in Israel, particularly after a few highly publicized incidents of criminal conduct involving migrant Africans and at least two brutal sexual assaults. The issue has occupied many of the news headlines, the airwaves on radio talk shows and political discussions, particularly, after some highly publicized crimes.

Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu got the ball rolling by noting that 60,000 could soon turn into 600,000 and that could "threaten our existence as a Jewish and Democratic State." A few days later, Likud MK (Member of Knesset - the Israeli Parliament) Miri Regev called the Sudanese migrants "a cancer in our body." The Israeli Minister of the Interior Eli Yishai called for the detention and expulsion of all asylum seekers. The Attorney General, Yehudah Weinstein has asked for a court order to permit large scale deportation. So far, his request has been rejected though Israeli courts are still hearing these petitions.

Not surprisingly, some of these provocative, racially laced statements fostered an environment in which a group of 1,000 Israeli protesters turned up in the Hatikvah neighbourhood on Wednesday night May 23, 2012 to demand that the Africans be expelled. Some Sudanese and Eritreans were beaten up by some of the protesters. 17 Israeli were arrested. Protesters held viciously worded banners directed at illegal African immigrants.

This violence and hatred was roundly condemned by Prime Minister Netanyahu. But the underlying issues are quite difficult. Israel cannot be expected to absorb hundreds of thousands of migrant Africans merely because they arrived at Israel's borders. At the same time, Israel is not about to send people back to places where they face a high risk of death because of political or military-civilian strife. Even if the main issue is starvation or disastrous economic conditions, rather than political fighting, civil war, or threatened genocide, there is still a compelling case to be made that a significant number of these migrants should be allowed to stay in Israel, even if only temporarily, until the African strife is resolved.

After all, many Israels know their history well and know that no country wanted to accept Jewish refugees who were trying to flee Europe in search of safety. Many Israelis feel that it is incumbent on Jewish people to demonstrate that they can address this type of issue more appropriately. Some other Israelis have responded by arguing that the current wave of migrant Africans are economic refugees who are seeking a better life - and that this is a very different category from people fleeing genocide. Moreover, they argue the UN and other international agencies, bodies and states must share this challenge and find a way to resettle these African migrants if they cannot be repatriated.

Israeli courts are hearing and adjudicating applications to deport or expel large numbers of these migrants. Some Knesset members have been calling for the full and immediate expulsion of all illegal migrants. But the source countries each present their own difficulties. Whether it is extremely dangerous conditions (as in the case of Eritrea) or countries that do not have diplomatic relationships with Israel (Sudan), it is simply not feasible to expect that Israel will
be able to carry out that type of mass repatriation (or expulsion).

Moreover, even if Israel could expel all of these migrants, there are a growing number of voices calling for Israel to find a way to absorb at least a significant number.

The additional goal with which Israel must contend is to ensure that Israel, as a Jewish state, continues to serve as a homeland, a haven and a place of refuge for Jewish people from around the world. Israel has absorbed Jewish refugees, in large numbers from Ethiopia, Yemen, the former Soviet Republic and other places. Israel has also absorbed and sheltered non-Jewish refugees from countries including Cambodia and others. But demographically, culturally and religiously, Israel is not in a position to grant hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish migrants landed immigrant status.

So how does Israeli reconcile the "freedom" for the people of Israel with the freedom sought by the African migrants? This has not yet been answered. There have been many different ideas thrown about, including the idea of running large refugee type camps in southern Israel or caravan housing communities until the problems in African blow over somewhat - but that could be generations and could require enormous financial contributions on Israel's part; or simply absorbing and dispersing a certain number of migrants throughout the country rather than see them concentrated in one area. The key challenge will be to absorb at least a certain number in a way that allows them to get decent education, housing and healthcare and to truly become Israelis, while cognizant of the "mission statement" of the country of Israel to serve as a homeland for the Jewish people. And even significant absorption would still means tens of thousands of African migrants who Israel will not be able to absorb. The other countries of the world will have to assist with creative solutions to help the fleeing people of Africa. Even though Israel is closer to Africa than most European countries, it is a very small country and cannot be expected to address a disproportionately large share of this challenging problem.

Hopefully, sooner rather than later, the world and the African countries will tackle the real problem and will find a way to improve the situation in Africa and reduce or eliminate the need for so many people to flee.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Ongoing War with Gaza and Implications for Israel-Iran

Since Friday March 9, 2012, more than 200 rockets have been fired from Gaza to various parts of Israel. These attacks have been aimed at Beer Sheva, Ashdod, Ashkelon and even the more northern city of Gedera. Israel has responded with a number of air raids on Gaza. Many Israelis have been injured in the rocket attacks. There are also estimates that more than 30 Palestinians have been killed in Israel's responding raids, some of whom were civilians.

The latest round of violence erupted after Israel assassinated Zuhair al-Qaissi, the secretary general of the Popular Resistance Committee. Al-Qaissi was linked by Israeli military officials to an August attack from the Sinai that resulted in the deaths of 8 Israelis and injuries to 40 others. Al-Qaissi was reportedly planning another similar attack.

Although the period leading up to this latest round of escalation has been described as a "period of calm," some 50 rockets have been fired at Israel from Gaza over the past two months, during this "truce." It's not very hard to imagine what the United States might do after receiving one or two rockets from Canada or Mexico, let alone 50.

Since the rocket attacks began last Friday, more than 200,000 children were forced to stay home as schools were closed across a large area of the Israeli south. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis missed work and there was significant property damage caused by the rockets.

The damage is generally viewed by Israelis as only a small fraction of what Israel might face if it were involved in an all-out war with Gaza, Lebanon (Hezbollah forces), Iran and potentially even Syria. Nevertheless, the psychological impact has been tremendous, particularly on those families living within range of these attacks. And despite these challenges, a solid majority of Israelis are apparently still supportive of Israeli preemptive action on Iran's nuclear facilities.

Israel has successfully deployed its Iron Dome anti-missile system to provide defence to these attacks from Gaza. The system has reportedly succeeded at intercepting a large number of rockets though the estimated success rate various widely. The Iron Dome is primarily intended to prevent rocket attacks on civilian areas and has had some success in that regard. Most of the rockets were allegedly fired by Islamic Jihad and some smaller offshoot organizations with public claims from Gaza that Hamas was not involved. One might be forgiven for being skeptical about these claims.

Although Egypt brokered a stated "truce" on Tuesday, rockets attacks have continued with at least 3 rockets fired at Beer Sheva earlier today (Thursday March 15, 2012). Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad have denied any responsibility, pointing to smaller "splinter" groups.

Israel's Iron Dome system is not an anti-ballistic missile system. Israel has been working on the Arrow ABM system, which is designed to intercept longer range missiles and rockets but it is not yet fully developed. The upshot is that Israel is likely to face very heavy rocket fire from a variety of geographic sources if hostilities break out with Iran. Such attacks will cause heavy structural and economic damage and may also result in a significant number of Israeli casualties.

The difficult calculation for Israel and its political leadership is weighing this heavy cost against the enormous costs of a potential nuclear attack from Iran. Given the very public statements made by Iranian leader Ahmadinejad calling for Israel's destruction, coupled with Iran's vigorous nuclear weapons program, it may well be too perilous for Israel (and for the rest of the world) to stand by and wait for this attack, even if by so doing, Israel can buy another few years of relative peace.

Israel's experiences in the second Lebanon War in 2006 and its various skirmishes with Gaza since than have suggested that any future war that Israel might face with its hostile neighbours will be markedly more damaging to Israel's civilian population than any of its previous wars. But the reality is that Israel is constantly facing an existential struggle which is only likely to dissipate when a real Arab spring arrives and brings with it widespread peace. Looking at what has been taking place in Syria, Iran, Gaza and even Egypt, the Middle East, unfortunately, is still stuck in the middle of a cold winter.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Blowing Winds in Israel - of Different Kinds

There are lots of different kinds of winds blowing these days in Israel and the rest of the Middle East.

At the most literal level, Israel is currently enjoying wind gusts of between 40 and 60 km per hour. Blowing winds in Ra'anana just a few moments ago were measured in the range of 50 km an hour. Coupled with on and off rain, it's quite the outdoor experience. Snow is expected to arrive today or tomorrow in Israel's northern-most regions.

Friendlier winds blew in from California just a couple of days ago. At the Academy Award ceremonies on Sunday night, the Israeli director and two of the stars of the film "Footnote," which had been nominated for an Oscar, met with the Iranian delegation, which was there on behalf of the Oscar winning film, "The Separation." Unfortunately, it is not that often these days that Iranian and Israeli delegations have the chance to meet anywhere under cordial conditions. For example, on July 25, 2011, an Iranian swimmer backed out of a swim meet rather than swim in a 100 metre breast stroke race in which an Israeli swimmer was competing. There are many other examples. Perhaps filmmakers see themselves as more independent than professional athletes. In any case, as reported in Haaretz, the Israeli filmmakers were quite happy to have had the opportunity to chat with their Iranian counterparts and the feeling seems to have been mutual.

Different types of winds are headed towards Washington next week as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu sets off to meet with President Obama to discuss Iran and its nuclear threats against Israel. On this issue, information of every kind is swirling around, ranging from rumours of an imminent Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities to alleged reports from Wikileaks that Israel was already involved in extensive covert operations to destroy Iranian facilities on the ground. These winds could soon develop into a much bigger storm though that remains to be seen.

There were some very foul smelling winds in Hebron over the weekend. Apparently a riot broke out while a funeral was taking place. Clashes occurred between Palestinians and Israelis, which resulted in the IDF using "the skunk" to disperse the crowd. "The skunk" is a non-lethal, foul smelling substance that Israeli forces have been using for a couple of years now to disperse demonstrators in certain situations. Given the variety of legal proceedings that some acting and former Israeli politicians have faced, the weapon may well have been developed accidentally by capturing the essence of some inappropriate Ministerial activity...but let's not go there.

Finally, the lethal and very hot winds of Syria have, fortunately, not reached Israel despite the close proximity between the two countries. While Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad continues to use deadly force against rebel forces (primarily Sunni Muslims, according to a recent article in the New York Times) and anyone else who might be in the way, the world continues to sit quietly, even in the face of the apparent killing of large numbers of civilians. While the U.S. has raised some concerns and that very credible world body, the UN Human Rights Council, has also thrown its voice into the mix, the world response to Assad to this point appears to be nothing but a puff of smoke. This too could turn into a much larger fire that could spread to Iraq and other neighbouring countries given the sectarian nature of much of the fighting. For now, Israel's public engagement in this matter has been very limited.

Overall, while there is usually quite a bit of hot air blowing around in the Middle East, it is not always accompanied by such of variety of winds. But I suppose that is what keeps life interesting.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Where's the Beef? Israel's Purloined Sirloin...

Where’s the beef? That’s what some cattle farmers in Israel are asking. More importantly, where’s the beef from? That’s what Israeli consumers should apparently be asking.

Earlier this week, Haaretz reported that a truck packed with 70 calves was hijacked at gunpoint on Tuesday February 7, 2012. The cattle, which had been imported to Israel from Australia, were being taken from Eilat to the Golan Heights to be fattened up. Instead, the driver was ordered to drive the cargo to Ramallah. Most of the cattle were apparently slaughtered in Ramallah and Nablus. Palestinian police recovered 17 of them and returned them to their Israeli owners. The remaining purloined sirloins were apparently not recovered. The driver was released by the thieves and the truck was located near Nablus.

Haaretz also reported that more than 2,400 sheep and cattle were stolen from Israeli ranches in 2011. Most of these animals were slaughtered in the Palestinian territories and the meat was then smuggled back into Israel and sold to butchers across the country at very low prices, according to the article. This incident and the many others over the past few years raise serious questions about the regulation and quality of beef in Israel. One would have thought that with such pervasive Kosher regulation of much of the meat industry in Israel, it would be very difficult to trade in uninspected tref beef.

It is worth noting that there are many non-Kosher purveyors of meat products across Israel. The supermarket chain Tiv Ta’am is the largest. With 32 locations across Israel, it is Israel’s largest producer and supplier of non-Kosher meat. I’m not suggesting that there is a link between these incidents and that particular chain although one might think it would be easier to sell uninspected beef to non-Kosher resellers. There are many other non-Kosher butcher shops across the country.

Even on the Kosher side of things, there is the oft-repeated joke that if you pay a mashgiach (a Kosher food inspector) enough, you can Kosher a pig. Although I’m not suggesting that this is what is occurring, there must be a compromised link somewhere along the chain if beef that was slaughtered in Ramallah and Nablus is regularly being sold in Israel, particularly if is labelled as Kosher.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Shalit Released - Emotional and Bittersweet Day in Israel

Gilad Shalit is back home and the first group of 477 Palestinian prisoners have been released. Some 550 more will be released over the coming months.

It has been a gripping and highly emotional day in Israel. News coverage began early in the morning and continued throughout the day. There was no other real news here in Israel. This historic exchange was one of those days – days that will stick out as historic – like the day of Kennedy’s assassination or the day the Twin Towers fell. A day about which people in Israel will ask each other for years – what were you doing on the day Shalit was released?

There was a thick cloud of apprehension throughout the morning. Would the deal go through? Would there be some kind of last minute hitch? Would Shalit really be alive and well? As the morning progressed, events unfolded as planned in the deal that had been reached on October 11, 2011. Convoys of Palestinian prisoners were driven from Israeli jails to various points for exchange. Israeli dignitaries and military helicopters were prepared. Worldwide press streamed to various sites.

As the morning unfolded, the events occurred as planned, mostly. The Palestinian prisoners, more than half of whom were serving life sentences for murder or other equally heinous crimes were released. Shalit was released to Egyptian authorities and was promptly interviewed in Egypt. It was almost surreal. Here was the Egyptian press asking Shalit if he would now commit to working to secure the release of the thousands of remaining Palestinian prisoners – trying to draw a moral equivalence between a captured soldier and thousands of convicted terrorists and murderers. He was quick enough on his feet to explain that he would like to see peace – and to see them released – if they agreed to end their armed struggle against Israel and to live in peace.

Shalit was handed over by the Egyptian authorities to the Israeli officials. He was given an Israeli army uniform and met with Israel’s Prime Minister before meeting his parents. He looked thin and pale. He had seen no sunlight for more than 5 years and was still suffering the effects of some shrapnel injuries that had never been properly treated. He seemed quite frail. There is much work ahead to bring him back to a state of good health.

At Shalit’s yishuv in Mitzpe Hila, in North Central Israel, there was palpable excitement. Many might have wondered whether they would have ever seen Gilad Shalit alive again. Shalit’s father called this the “happiest day of my life.” Residents of the Yishuv were in a celebratory mood.

But for many others throughout Israel, the mood was much more sombre. There was a sense of relief and thankfulness that Shalit was back home and free. But Israelis also had to watch scenes of hundreds of convicted criminals being released to wildly enthusiastic crowds in Gaza, calling on Hamas to kidnap “another Shalit” as soon as possible. It was not a day for celebration but a day on which an Israeli life was been saved – even at the cost of 1,027 freed prisoners, who had collectively been responsible for the deaths of thousands of Israelis.

Despite the calls by some for Hamas to try to capture new prisoners or commence a new wave of terrorist attacks, there was still a feeling that maybe this could be the first deal of a series. Maybe there are more negotiations to be conducted between Israel and Hamas, however indirectly. Maybe a deal can be reached that will bring stability and calm to the relationship between Israel and Gaza and bring hope to the idea that there really can be peace in the region one day – even if that day is still many years away.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Kidnapped Israeli Soldier Gilad Shalit is Coming Home

There is a decidedly bittersweet mood in Israel these days. The top story in the newspapers, on websites, television and the radio is the pending release of Gilad Shalit which is scheduled to take place on Tuesday October 18, 2011.

Shalit is an Israeli soldier who was kidnapped in June 2006 by Hamas terrorists who made their way through a crossing from the Gaza strip into an Israeli military area by boring through a tunnel. After more than 5 years of being held captive by Hamas, in Gaza, without access to the Red Cross, medical attention, any other visitors or the outside world, Shalit is being released in exchange for 1027 Palestinian prisoners currently being held by Israel.

Israeli society is very concerned about the welfare of Israel’s soldiers. Since there is almost universal conscription at the age of 18 (with certain exceptions), the army is made up of a significant number of conscripted civilians. While there are also many career army professionals, the Israeli army relies on its citizens to serve their terms and then to be available annually for one month of reserve duty. The army is very much a people’s army and many people in Israel have been touched by the death or injury to a loved one who suffered in the course of fulfilling military duty.

The kidnapping of Gilad Shalit, a conscripted soldier, and the fact that Hamas continued to hold him captive for so long brought many Israelis together in a push to have the Israeli government find a way to bring him home. Shalit’s parents were very active in finding ways to pressure the government. They set up a tent not too far from the Prime Minister’s residence and vowed to remain in the tent and not go home until Shalit was able to return to Israel. They and their increasingly numerous supporters spearheaded publicity campaigns which included bumper stickers on cars, world publicity campaigns, public rallies in Israel and a range of other efforts that brought Shalit to the forefront of the Israeli national conscience. Youth and school groups, university students and other organizations mobilized. Israelis across the political spectrum were united in the idea of finding a way for Shalit to return to Israeli.

However, Israelis were not necessarily united on the price that Israel should be prepared to pay. Over the five years, Hamas continued to demand that Israel release hundreds if not thousands of prisoners in exchange for Shalit. Many of these prisoners were convicted terrorists, having been found guilty of a range of atrocities including multiple murders. The Israeli government negotiated with Hamas through intermediaries but up until October 11, 2011 could not come to a deal.

On October 11, 2011, Israel reached a deal with Hamas, brokered by Egypt, to release 1,027 prisoners in exchange for Shalit. Some 280 of these prisoners to be exchanged have been tried and convicted to one or more life sentences. They include murderers of innocent civilians, planners and architects of terrorist attacks and others who were involved in grotesque, violent crimes. This is not a “P.O.W. exchange” or a “prisoner exchange” where each side gives back its captured soldiers from a war. This is the ransom of 1027 dangerous criminals in exchange for a kidnapped soldier.

Families of the victims of some of these terror incidents brought three separate petitions to Israeli’s Supreme Court today in efforts to stop the deal from proceeding. Two cabinet ministers from the Israeli Government including Avigdor Lieberman opposed the deal in a cabinet vote. Heated debates have taken place all over the country about the wisdom of agreeing to exchange such a large group of violent, unrepentant terrorists for one soldier.

Yet, ultimately, there appears to be majority support for this difficult decision taken by Prime Minister Netanyahu. The opportunity to save a life – to fulfill the deal that the State of Israel makes with its citizens – to spare no efforts to protect its soldiers and to leave no soldier behind – these ideas resonate with Israelis. They reinforce the value of life and give hope to Israelis that the government will take all necessary steps to protect themselves, their friends, family members and others they know who could somehow find themselves in a similar situations.

So, as Israelis are glued to their televisions tomorrow, hoping to catch a view of Gilad Shalit as he returns home, and praying that he does so in good health, they will be very mindful of the steep price that the Country has paid to redeem him from captivity. As Prime Minister Netanyahu has stated, this will not be a day for celebration. Israel will be comforted and even happy to see Shalit return. But it will be a very difficult sight indeed to see so many terrorists released. Some of these criminals will be returning to Gaza. Others will go back to the West Bank. Some will be expelled and will be taken in by Turkey or Syria. Many are likely to begin thinking about their next terrorist operation immediately upon their release. Preventing these attacks will certainly occupy the army and Israeli intelligence organizations for years to come.

Despite all of the negative aspects of this deal, Israelis are an optimistic people. They have to be to live in this neighbourhood. Perhaps there is, in the background, the thought that if the deal goes through, as negotiated – maybe, just maybe, there might be other deals to be made with Hamas. For all of its terrorist history, its avowed intention to destroy Israel and its brutal tactics within the areas it controls, perhaps Hamas will be willing to take other steps that lead to short, medium or even long term improvements in the area and can be viewed as steps towards peace. As na├»ve as this might sound and even if the odds are less than one in 1,027, many Israelis might still feel that the risk is worth taking.

For now, given that the deal has been signed and the petitions to stop the deal have been rejected by Israel’s Supreme Court, Israelis will hope that Gilad Shalit returns home as planned and that he is healthy and well.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Israeli Football Team to Join FIFA's Mideast Division

The Israeli national football (soccer) team could find itself playing 2014 World Cup qualifying matches in Saudi Arabia, Jordan or even Ramallah. FIFA President Joseph Blatter announced yesterday that FIFA was realigning its divisions to ensure geographic consistency. As part of that move, Israel will be moved officially from the European Division to the Asian Division.

At a press conference at FIFA headquarters in Zurich Switzerland, Mr. Blatter explained the rationale for the move. “We believe that International Football transcends politics. Over the past few years, we have seen a move towards improved political relations between countries in the Middle East. For example, it no longer makes sense to have Israel travel to Europe for qualifying matches when they could be playing against their neighbours in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Turkey, among other countries.”

At the news conference, Blatter cited the example of India playing Pakistan in World Cricket. If India can play Pakistan in world cricket – and if all of the world’s countries can play against each other in the Olympics – FIFA should “embrace that approach of putting sport above politics.”

Blatter explained that on a personal level, he was very optimistic about the changes sweeping Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and other Middle Eastern countries. He speculated that together with regime change or increased openness and press freedom, these countries are likely to reject the anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiments that have to date prevented this kind of move. He also suggested that he had spoken to American, EU and other world politicians, including Canadian officials, who were involved behind the scenes in pushing for this change.

Blatter acknowledged that scheduling matches between Israel and some of its neighbours such as Iran, Syria, Yemen, Palestine and even Iraq may require some creativity on the part of FIFA. “We are prepared to have these matches played in nearby neutral countries such as Cyprus – but FIFA members will have to rise above politics and play the assigned matches to avoid disqualification. At the same time, we will take all appropriate measures to ensure security together with sportsmanship.”

FIFA’s move is likely to greatly increase Israel’s chances of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. While Israel is currently ranked 58th in the world, it has faced very difficult qualifying conditions due to its placement in the European division. For the 2010 World Cup, Israel was in a pool with Switzerland, Greece and Latvia, all very strong sides. The Asian division includes some strong sides but also includes all of the other Middle Eastern countries, many of which are much weaker than Israel’s current national team.

Israel’s coach Luis Fernandez was quite enthusiastic about the announcement. “Israel is prepared to play against any country in the world – even Iran or Syria. We are football players, not politicians – and we just want to have a chance to compete against the best players in the world – on fair terms.” He went on to explain that they would, of course, rely on and work with the Israeli government to ensure that all appropriate security precautions are taken and that they are given the green light to travel to some of these countries.

Mokhtar Tlili, the Tunisian coach of the Palestinian national football team was hesitant to speak about FIFA’s latest announcement. However, he was willing to explain that if his Palestinian team had to travel to Ramat Gan (outside of Tel-Aviv) to play against Israel, he would then expect that the Israeli team would have to play matches in the Palestinian team’s upgraded stadium in Al-Ram, in the West Bank.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas gave mixed messages about the change in a television interview with Al-Jazeera. He regretted that this change might soften the political pressure on Israel to resolve the situation in the West Bank and Gaza. However, Abbas also explained that the process of “normalization” of attitudes between the various Arab countries and Israel was the only real way to bring about true peace. “Why not start with Football – a game that breaks down barriers and instils passion for sport in people across the world? If Israelis and Palestinians “humanize” each other, even if only on the Football pitch, that will be great step forward for everyone in our region.”

Besieged Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad could not be reached for comment.

The first qualifying matches under the new alignment are likely to take place in the fall of 2012.

Blog Entry written for April 1, 2011 – Happy AFD.

Monday, February 28, 2011

New Zealand Refuses Israeli Rescue Aid

According to an article in today's Hebrew language daily, Yedioth Ahronot, New Zealand authorities have refused to allow Israeli rescue units into New Zealand to help search for missing Israeli tourists. Shortly after last week's earthquake in Christchurch, Israel offered to provide a variety of assistance to New Zealand, including highly specialized, experienced search and rescue units that could help locate trapped or missing people. New Zealand turned down the offer.

The article notes that search and rescue units from other countries were permitted but not from Israel. It highlights the lack of any clear explanation for this refusal. The Israeli rescue teams had been provided with detailed informaton about the likely locations of a number of missing Israelis and felt that they had a chance to provide a last bit of hope for the families of those who were missing.

Later today, the online news site YNet reported that New Zealand had now agreed to accept Israeli assistance in the form of sanitation, water purification and portable facilities - reversing its earlier refusals of any Israeli aid. However, there was no suggestion that New Zealand had changed its position on allowing the search and rescue teams.

A number of Israelis who were known to be in the vicinity of the earthquake remain missing. It would be truly unfortunate if lives were lost as a result of an ill conceived political decision.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Ikea Store Destroyed

It's hard to imagine an entire IKEA store vanishing - but that is what happened in Israel early Saturday morning. A massive fire apparently started from the roof area at about 5:45 a.m. on Sat February 5, 2011. According to Israel's daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronot, 39 Israeli fire crews arrived at the blaze in an effort to save some of the premises - but the roof collapsed and the whole building was destroyed along with its contents. The damage is estimated at $150-$200 Million.

The store, located next to the coastal town of Netanya, about 15 minutes north of Ra'anana, was the first Ikea store to open in Israel in 2001 - and had traffic of some 7000 shoppers a day. It featured a fully kosher Ikea restaurant - serving things like Ikea's famous Swedesh meatballs and Swedish lox (smoked salmon). For the past few years, the store has been closed on Shabbat (Saturday). Since the fire occurred early Saturday morning - no one was inside the building and no injuries have been reported.

Fire marshalls are investigating the cause of the blaze. It seems amazing that a store of this size, containing such a tremendous amount of merchandise, would be so vulnerable and could be destroyed so quickly. One almost wonders if the building was simply put together like some Ikea shelves...

Store owners have indicated that they intend to have the premises rebuilt within six months - so tourists visiting Israel in the summer who are anxious to try some kosher Swedish meatballs will probably be okay. Likewise, the company intends to look after the hundreds of employees who will be out of work until the store reopens. As for Israelis who have ordered merchandise that is yet to be delivered...well...according to Yedioth, they are advised to make sure that they keep their receipts - just in case the orders have somehow gone missing...

Friday, December 31, 2010

President Katsav Convicted

A three panel Tel-Aviv Court yesterday convicted former Israeli President Moshe Katsav of numerous counts of sexual offences including sexual assault, sexual harassment and obstruction of justice - all involving former work colleagues and employees. The Court found that Katsav's testimony was "riddled with lies" and accepted, almost wholeheartedly, the evidence of the complainants.

The case took four years to make its way to the Courts - during which time - the former President had reached a plea bargain deal - which he then refused to conclude, opting to try his luck with a full defence instead.

The Court has not yet released a full written version of its reasons - but has released excerpts. The Court held that Katsav raped one woman twice - and then embarked on a course of harassment after she rebuked him. He was also found to have repeatedly and improperly hugged and groped two other employees of the President's residence, creating an inappropriate and highly uncomfortable workplace environment.

The Court went on to hold that Katsav repeatedly lied to the Court, obstructed justice and even forged a diary entry.

Although it is expected that Katsav will appeal the decision - many commentators believe that he is highly unlikely to succeed, particularly since the Court provided such detailed reasons for its decision. It methodically dissected the allegations and Katsav's responses - and came to its conclusions. Overturning such a factually driven decision in an appellate court is a very steep challenge.

In one respect - the decision is shocking and upsetting. To think that the President of Israel (a head of state position - largely ceremonial - like a Governor General position) would act in such obscene fashion - while holding office is unfathomable. It certainly tarnishes the image of the office and leaves many people wondering about the character of those who succeed politically (while the Israeli public is also thinking about Ehud Olmert, Arie Deri and others.

On the other hand, the conviction is a significant victory for democracy, the rule of law and for equality in Israel. It demonstrates, at least in this case, that even a President is not above the law. Despite putting tremendous resources into this fight and attempting to discredit the various complainants in every possible way, Katsav was still unable to defeat the judicial process.

The conviction is also a very strong message that victims of sexual harrassment, assault and other workplace impropriety can come forward and can have their voices heard - even if the process may take a while. Israeli Courts will take these matters seriously irrespective of the status of the accused. That is certainly a comforting signal for the enhancement of equality and the elimination of the scourge of these types of offences.

From a Canadian legal perspective, the criminal process here included elements that in Canada would have been considered criminal offences (sexual assault, obstruction of justice) and other elements that in Canada would have been considered civil matters - or the grounds for complaint under applicable Human Rights legislation. The idea of criminalizing sexual harassment - that is, making it a criminal offence to engage in quid pro quo and other forms of sexual intimidation - seems to make eminent sense.

It is expected that the Supreme Court appeal will likely take about 18 months. It is certain to be bitterly contested - as suggested from some of the comments released from the Katsav camp. Yet it may also be an opportunity for the Israeli Supreme Court to weigh in with its pronouncements on the standards for conviction in these circmstances - and the seriousness of these types of offences.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Forest Fire in Israel

This is a very serious situation. This major fire is spreading throughout Israel's north. No confirmed reports yet of what has caused it though there is a clear suspicion that it was arson based on the fact that it has spread from three different directions at the same time.

The fire continues to spread rapidly and has completely obliterated some Kibbutzim (communal settlements) and other areas in Israel' north.