Monday, 19 November 2012

Open letter to Prime Minister David Cameron

Dear Mr Cameron,

As an expatriate British citizen now living in Israel, I feel the need to write to you to express my feelings about the on-going crisis between Israel and Hamas-controlled Gaza. 

Life in much of Israel is, in many ways, almost identical to life in Britain. People get up in the mornings, send their children to school, go to work, try to earn a living and give their families as comfortable a life as possible.  Much like your government, the Israeli leadership comes in for regular criticism on a whole barrage of issues, from the cost of cottage cheese to the number of hours a week forced on newly qualified doctors and the general state of healthcare provision. All this sounds familiar to you, I’m sure, although cottage cheese is probably not as high on the staple-diet list in England and Wales but you get the idea.

We even complain about the cost of fuel.

We have a society that is finding its feet socially and becoming more open and accepting of people from all walks of life. All religions are respected, there is a freedom to choose any religion or none and there are representatives thereof in every single walk of life, including the higher echelons of political power. This too, I’m sure, sounds familiar to you.

Equal rights for all, the backbone to an open, accepting and tolerant society, is the mainstay of Israeli society too. Colour, creed, gender and sexual orientation all comfortably find their place within our society, as they do in yours.

We are also both at war.

Britain is fighting a war against a shadowy enemy whose main goal is the destruction of the British way of life. Israel is fighting a similar war.

Britain is fighting to keep terror away from its shores and its people - so is Israel.

Britain is fighting a war thousands of miles from its own borders - Israel is not.

It is the one ‘luxury’, if one can ever describe any aspect of war as a luxury, which Israel does not possess. Our war is on our very own border; our enemy sits within spitting distance of our towns, villages and civilians and directly threatens not only our way of life but our very lives.

Israel is battling not only for its identity, but for its very survival. It is fighting to allow its citizens the ‘luxury’ to live their lives without having to spend time thinking how far away they are from the nearest bomb shelter;  not to have to worry about whether they will finish their important phone call before yet another air-raid siren shatters the air; not to have to keep the children at home for yet another day, as sending them to school is just too dangerous.

War is evil, at least in the eyes of any person who respects life more than he dreams of death. No right-thinking person wants to go to war. No normal society wants to go to war. Yet war has been thrust upon this tiny land time and time again over the past decades. Israel does not seek war – it seeks peace, however, just as in Britain, if war is forced upon us, then we must fight.

We must fight because our very existence depends upon it.  You and your government are doing the same.  The war in Afghanistan is a war which you claim is just, is defensive and is necessary to protect your way of life thousands of miles away.

Britain and her allies use aerial bombardment of enemy forces, inflicting casualties not only on the militants, or, if you prefer, terrorists, but also on civilians.  According to United Nations figures, over 3,000 civilians have been killed by coalition forces in Afghanistan and this, in a country where the enemy hides and is engaged in mountainous, sparsely populated areas.

Israel, while fighting a similar enemy with similar ideology, is fighting in a densely populated area where civilian casualties are almost totally unavoidable.  This is particularly true as it has been proven time and time again that Hamas and the other militant, or, again, if you prefer, terrorist organisations, specifically hide behind human shields in order to raise the tally of those killed and use them as ammunition in a propaganda war.

William Hague, your Foreign Secretary, issued a rare statement placing the blame for this latest escalation squarely on the shoulders of Hamas. That recognition is appreciated. It is proof that someone is hearing our voice for a change. However, as if to soften the blow to Hamas, an organisation that Britain, the United States and the European Union have all placed on a blacklist of terrorist groups, you have told Israel that not only do you not support a ground offensive, but that Israel in so doing would lose any worldwide support it currently, for want of a better word, enjoys.
What is it, Mr Cameron, that gives you the right to dictate military policy to Israel, to decide what is or isn’t acceptable to the rest of the world, whilst your troops are carrying out identical operations (and with far worse civilian casualties) in a land thousands of miles from your borders?

Why is it, Mr Cameron, that you feel that Israeli operations must come to a halt after days, whilst your troops are fighting a similar war for years?

How is it, Mr Cameron, that you feel you can allow for only a partial victory against terrorism in Gaza, whilst striving for complete success in Afghanistan?

It’s easy to call for Israel to sit down for talks with Hamas. It isn’t so easy to defend that position. There have never been calls for talks between Britain, the USA and Al Qaeda, neither have there been calls to show restraint towards them. There has never been condemnation from any part of the Western world for the assassination of Osama Bin-Laden. In all likelihood, there never will be such a call or condemnation. One cannot discuss peace arrangements with a foe whose entire dogma is based around the very destruction of one’s way of life or of life itself.

Mr Cameron, I can guarantee that Israelis do not want a ground offensive. We would rather know that there is no need to risk the lives of our soldiers as well as the lives of the innocent civilian population in Gaza but we have to end the risk that the terrorists pose to our very own people. If it can be done by agreement, then so be it. However, if a ground offensive is what is required to destroy that threat, then I’m afraid that not only will it go ahead but it will do so with the blessing (and no small amount of fear) of the vast majority of Israel’s population. It will happen despite your hypocritical threats of a loss of world support; support for following a course of action identical to the one in which you are yourself equally as guilty. 

Sunday, 18 November 2012

The Boxing Match

 The announcer, bow-tie clad, suited, booted and made up, stands in the middle of the ring, proudly introducing the audience to the two fighters. 

"In the red corner, at 95kg, with 15 wins, no losses and one tie, is Sam "UpAndAt'Em" Smith!"

Half the crowd cheers, half the crowd jeers. 

"And in the blue corner, at 93.5kg, with 21 wins, one loss and no ties, is John "IronFist" Thompson!"

The half of the crowd that cheered now jeers and vice versa. 

"Seconds Out! Round One! Ding Ding!"

The fighters dance a little, skip left and right, posture at each other, head for an embrace laced with rabbit punches. The fight goes on. Round after round, punch after punch, until after twelve rounds, the fight is called a tie. The judges agree that the tally of points, just like the fighters themselves, are evenly matched.

In Israel, the fight is never even. The playing field is notoriously uneven, both in the form of the enemy we face, as well as the international community and media. In a rare statement from William Hague, the UK Foreign Secretary holds Hamas responsible for the latest escalation. In almost every previous case, the UK has called on Israel to show the type of restraint that would not be expected of any other country. 

Some one quarter, if not more, of Israeli citizens are currently within range of the rockets coming in from Gaza. I can't see Britain showing restraint if rockets were being fired from Calais and could land anywhere from the south coast of England up to somewhere around Birmingham. I can't see the USA showing restraint if rockets were being fired from the Mexican border up to and including the line of Dallas, Texas. Israel, however, is once again held to a different standard. 

Then, there is this line of "disproportionate response." In a statement issued two days ago, the EU High Representative, Catherine Ashton, urged Israel to ensure that its response to Hamas terror is "proportionate." I'd love to ask her what she means. It has so many negative connotations. Does she mean that she hopes the numbers of those killed on each side are equal? A sick and frightening thought indeed. Nobody in Israel wants to see innocent deaths, on either side of the border. 

If, on the other hand, she means that we shouldn't use stronger force than Hamas, then we have another serious problem. Hamas and their cohorts are firing indiscriminately into civilian areas, hoping to cause as much death, injury and destruction as possible. On the other hand, Israel is firing with precision at specific terror targets, including rockets launchers, storage sites, specific terrorists themselves and tunnels used to transport the missiles. It is, unfortunately, inevitable that there will be civilian casualties in Gaza, particularly when those civilians are callously used as both human shields and media fodder. If Israel was to line up hundreds of unguided missiles and fire them at random into Gaza, as it would seem that Ms Ashton would be advocating, would that be more in line with her proportionate response requests? 

This is a war. In war, the sides are not matched as in a boxing match. There are no featherweight or heavyweight categories. This is a war that Israel must win. It must be allowed to protect its citizens and ensure that they are not only out of harms way, but that they can also live in the knowledge that the threat no longer exists. If that means using a disproportionate response, then so be it. 

The fact that there have been fewer deaths on the Israeli side of the fence is not because the Hamas missiles are any less deadly. It is because the Israelis value the lives of their citizens more than Hamas value life of any human, Israeli or otherwise. The fact that there have been civilian deaths on the Gazan side of the fence is not because Israel has no regard for the lives there. It is because Hamas put the lives of their civilians directly in the firing line, either by storing their weapons in residential homes, or firing their rockets from areas next to schools, hospitals, or children's play areas. 

I wonder how Ms Ashton would respond to that? Proportionately, of course. 

Friday, 16 November 2012

The View from Here

A facebook status by a friend and neighbour, posted yesterday, says so much about the situation as we see it from here - just far enough away - at least for now, from the missiles. I couldn't have said it better, so I won't. Here it is verbatim, reprinted with permission, from Sophie Vardi.

A perspective from Modiin

I felt the need to write something to say to friends throughout the world that despite the fact that we face extremely worrying days ahead, it should also be noted that life is continuing in some ways as normal. However, the background of war is very much in the forefront of our minds. We have been instructed by the IDF not to post status about where rockets have been fired so I won't be writing about those details of events today. You only have to look at the Jerusalem Post, Ynet or MFA websites and you will get the facts rather than read the bias seen on BBC, CNN or the likes. Rather, I want to write about the way we as individuals can respond to the situation. Life should, as long as it is safe, continue as normal. We should go about our normal lives and not spread panic and fear. That is what the likes of those in Gaza want. Disruption and fear on its highest level. We have to fight back.

I'm sure I can speak on behalf of many in Israel that few people could sleep last night and even less tonight as the tension heats up in the region. All day, people on facebook have been updating their status about their safe rooms and the general situation. On one hand it is informative and people here feel the need to be heard about what is actually happening here and show solidarity with those in the front line. I get that. I too have posted my status about how I support the people of south etc. However, what occurred to me so much as the day progressed and the intensity increased is that the facebook/twitter/social media updates also spreads panic and fear- exactly what terrorists want.

The panic is legitimate; people, including myself, are extremely worried when a barrage of rockets are targeting our fellow civilians in the south; are targeting are fellow Israelis in suburbs in central Israel and we all worry about whether they will reach our own city. Yet at the same time life is also continuing as normal, at least it is at the moment here. Less so in other parts of the country but we need it to continue as normal as possible, as long as it is safe to do so.

As individuals, we need to fight back in our own way against the men and woman who seek our destruction. Our children must go to gan and school and have their daily routine, despite the fact they were told about the situation by their teachers in a child appropriate way. Our children are aware that some ‘aba's’ have to spend some time over the next few days in the army and special tefillot were said to protect them. This is a reality of life in Israel. Our children learn young, as one day they will become the IDF of the future. We must continue as usual as we go about our daily lives, albeit that the radio plays songs that are thoughtful and poignant and the Israeli Russian cashier in the supermarket remarks about how worrying the situation is in Gaza. In her words, "Matzav lo tov" (situation's not good) and then we shared a moment of silence. Not exactly a deep analysis of the situation but somehow so direct and poignant. We are all getting on with our daily lives yet our minds and hearts are connected with those sitting in their safe rooms, unable to continue life as normal. We connect to our soldiers who are fighting for our safety and our right as civilians to live in peace, yet risking their own lives to safeguard ours.

This double situation of knowing that actually today on some levels was so very normal (I took my kids to gan (nursery), worked, went to the shops, picked them up, went to the park, made supper, played, did homework, read stories and finally got them to bed-my most difficult challenge of the day!) Yet the day was so very NOT normal.

It was a day that every few minutes I checked the headlines, worrying about the civilian loss and the potential escalation that could lead to IDF casualties if a ground operation into Gaza occurs, which could result in severe losses on our side. Each soldier is someone's son, brother, father. No one wants to see another Israeli soldier’s coffin draped in our flag. Yet the people of the south and now those in central Israel, cannot live in the very real fear that they are the constant target of rockets attacks from Hamas militants in Gaza.

It was a day that I felt so incredibly frustrated by the bias seen in the media. Why is the world so slow to react to this?

It was a day that I shared in the worrying of friends in other parts of the country, who are more directly affected by the situation. It was a day where I said a few extra prayers and hoped that a "Neis Gadol Haya Po"[1] will happen this Rosh Chodesh Kislev.

It was also a day that I felt so Israeli. Being here nearly a decade, it struck me how this really is so part of the backdrop of life. I have been in this situation before, the second intifada where suicide attacks were frequent in the early years of my aliya. I remember stocking up the safe room only weeks after arriving in Israel. We lived through the second Lebanon war again feeling so connected yet not directly affected. It was during this time I opened my home to people from the south and here we are again, people offering random strangers shabbat hospitality to make life a little more normal for those in the direct line of fire. That is part of being an Israeli. No stranger is a stranger, we are all connected ...our pain is shared for those who lost their lives today at the hands of Hamas militants. Our prayers join for those who were injured by shrapnel, including an infant. Our hearts go out to them.

It was also a day that I remembered an article entitled "Fighting Terrorism on the Basketball Court” written by my colleague, Dr Boaz Ganor,
the founder and the Executive Director of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism, Dr Ganor was interviewed after a suicide attack in 1997, orchestrated by Hamas, likely to have been planned by the same terrorist who was eliminated yesterday. In the article, he was asked what individual citizens do in the face of terrorism?
He answered, "accept your fear, assess your level of personal threat, and respond accordingly. Ganor was then asked
“What are you going to do about this right now?” he asked me.

“I’m going out to fight terrorism.”


“I’m going to play basketball.”

The journalist was astonished. “Look,” Ganor said, “I was pained by news of the attack, but I play basketball every Thursday, and today will be no exception. Believe me, I’m not in the mood to play basketball, but my personal message to the terrorists is: I am not changing my way of life because of you.”

It is my prayer, shared by many religious and secular alike, that we will ALL be able to continue life as normal in all parts of Israel. No one wants war, but Israel must defend itself and enable its citizens to live in quiet and play basketball!! (or whatever takes their fancy!)

May G-d protect all our brave soldiers and may calm return to our borders.

On final thing, when IDF soldier Nachshon Wachsman was kidnapped in October 1994, his mother requested all Jewish women to light an extra shabbat candle that Friday night. When Gilad Shalit was kidnapped in June1996, masterminded by Ahmed Jabari, many did the same. At times like this, when we as a nation are being targeted by those who seek our destruction, it seems fitting to add an extra candle as we bring in Shabbat, to add some extra light into the darkness of this world. I will light an extra candle, will you?

Shabbat shalom.
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[1] Reference to the story of Chanukah, which will be celebrated this month. It is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple (the Second Temple) in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd century BCE. The words "Neis Gadol Haya Sham" mean a Great miracle happened here”.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Israel Under Attack

To say that it's been a busy twenty-four hours or so, would be somewhat of an understatement. 

Nationally, Israel, facing an ever-growing threat of rockets to an ever-increasing number of its population, has decided that enough is enough and targeted the leader of the military wing of Hamas. Alongside the targeted hit, several other targets have been destroyed in Gaza by the Israeli Air Force. These targets housed missiles, long-range Fajr5 missiles, capable of hitting Tel Aviv from Gaza. Not wanting to name names or apportion blame on the innocent, but Fajr5 missiles are the product of our friends in Iran. 

The hit

Just as a point of reference, Ahmad Jaabari, the top level commander of the Hamas who was killed by Israel, has more than a short record of terror. Amongst many other lesser known crimes, he was instrumental in the capture and imprisonment of Gilad Shalit (whose human rights were ignored by the world for five years), as well as being responsible either directly or indirectly for the hundreds of missiles that have been fired into Israel over the past few years. 

The world wakes up

Internationally, Israel has faced reaction that has varied in scale, intensity and attitude. The UN, along with its leader Ban Ki-Moon, yes, the very same who expressed his relief that "justice had been done" when the USA hit Mr Bin Laden (of blessed and watery memory), was a little more reserved when it came to yesterday's news. No press release has been forthcoming and no sigh of relief heard or expressed, although an emergency meeting of the Security Council (UNSC) has been called to discuss "Israeli strikes against the Gaza Strip." It took one direct hit from Israel on a known arch-terrorist to kick the UNSC into gear. 150 missiles in four days into Israel from Gaza terrorists is clearly just not bad enough. 

The US State Department has finally issued a strong statement condemning rocket attacks on Israel and supporting Israel's right to defend itself. No other country in the world needs outside support for this right, but it's nice to hear nonetheless. 

The UK, my old stomping ground, is still stomping, calling for restraint from both sides on the Foreign Office's twitter feed. They seemed to keep fairly quiet in the days leading up to this escalation. The FCO does wax lyrical on the situation in Gaza, urging Israel to end restrictions. No such lyrics appear to ask Hamas to end the rocket attacks. 

The Arab world, those beautiful, peace-loving people who have done so little to help their slaughtered brethren in Syria, have suddenly woken up to the plight of their other brethren; but only because it suits their common cause - the hatred of the Zionist entity. Thousands upon thousands of innocent civilians have died in Syria. Many more are left homeless, refugees, scared, maimed, and tortured. Executions are a daily occurrence. No flotilla has been forthcoming. No international outcry of condemnation from the Arab League. No calls for the Security Council to meet. One dead arch-terrorist and pinpoint strikes on weapon caches later, and guess who's joined the party? It'd be funny if it wasn't so obviously tragic. 


Personally, I have seen that having discussions with open-minded people on what can be loosely termed the left-wing, is nigh on impossible. Twitter is a wonderful place for such exchanges. So far, I have been blocked by one leading anti-Israel gentleman, the infamous Ben White (@benabyad). My exchange with him ended when I asked him if he condones rocket attacks on Israeli civilians. It was a civilised exchange but came to an abrupt halt at this question. No answer was forthcoming and it took me a little while to realise that I could no longer see his tweets. Lucky I have two twitter accounts.

Another exchange was with a young lady in South Africa (@tehillahnis) who couldn't see the difference between celebrating death and demonstrating for peace. I can only presume she fell asleep mid-conversation, or got bored of making up facts that she couldn't corroborate. 

Elsewhere, multiple twitterers, many I can only presume to be part of the Arab world have called for anything ranging from the annihilation of Israel, to the return of gas chambers for Jews, to mass murder of Jews anywhere in the world. The word "genocide" has been bandied about by these same people who can't tell the difference between a direct hit Israel and a government-led massacre of its own people by Hamas or Syria. You choose. 

A game of numbers?

In the meantime, here are some numbers. The world loves using numbers to show the disproportional response undertaken by Israelis, claiming that only a few dead Israelis means we mustn't fight back. Few dead is thanks in no small way to several factors: The Iron Dome anti-missile defence system; Israelis following orders for a change and staying in or close to shelters; luck, or miracle, depending on your view of the world. As I write these lines, reports come in of three Israeli civilians killed in Kiryat Malachi, with four injured, including four children. I wonder how long before the BBC mentions the latter. 

Those numbers:

One million Israelis have spent the night in shelters. 

Those within 7km of Gaza have 15 seconds from the sound of a siren to find somewhere to hide. 

Those within 20km have 30 seconds. 

Those within 40km have 60 seconds. 

If the rockets reach this far, I'll have 90.

It's a sobering thought, but one that Israel, its Government and its Defense Forces, are finally trying to push out of our minds. It's going to be a tough few days ahead, particularly for those within range of the rockets, although, it seems, that even they are prepared to face up to it in the hope that this will bring some much sought-after peace and quiet.