Sunday, December 31, 2006

Bye Bye Saddam

Can't let the execution of Saddam Hussein go by without a mention. The wisdom and timing of it aside, here in Israel we have good enough reason to see him permanently disappear.

I remember the first day that the Tel Aviv area was bombarded by his Scud missiles in the first Gulf War in the winter of 1991. The whole country was terrified that the Scuds would be carrying chemical and even biological weapons. The Scuds turned out to be duds, causing some damage to property but not much more. However on that first night we didn't know what to expect. When the air raid sirens went off we scrambled, hearts beating, to get the kids inside the "safe" room which was "protected" from the theoretical killer gas by the plastic sheeting we had been told to tape to the windows. Even the door was blocked by a wet rag to keep the gas out.

We were finally inside, clinging to each other in fright, gazing incredulously at each others gas masks, when we heard a whimper and realised that we'd left the dog outside. I admit that the question of whether to sacrifice the rest of the family for the sake of the pooch flashed through my mind but it exited quickly enough for me to toss aside the wet rag and drag the dog into the room with the rest of us.

As the days wore on this ritual continued nightly until one of the kids asked innocently enough "If Sadam is throwing rockets at us in Tel Aviv, why are we staying here?"

The next day we drove up to the Galilee where we sat out a few more days with friends but the the rockets starting falling up there too so we said what the hell and moved back to Tel Aviv.

For several weeks Saddam Hussein made nervous wrecks of us all. Who could say for sure that the next rocket wouldn't carry poison gas? Maybe he was saving the worst 'till last?

One of the many weird phenomena of that time was the introduction of a radio channel that played silence. This was interrupted only when the air raid sirens went off, which meant the "listeners" could get as much sleep as possible. As time went by without us sufffering a direct hit, we became sloppy and indifferent about the security precautions and even started to sleep through the air raids.

The timing of Saddam's execution, on the eve of Eid el Adha, was interesting. Did the Americans think they were sending a festival gift to the Arab world or was it just plain old insensitivity and ignorance?

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Setting the scene

Since this blog is going to dwell, at least partly, on developments in Israel and the region. it makes sense to set the scene as of now. And today's date, on the cusp of 2007 , is a neat time to do so. It will be interesting to look back on this in a year's time and see where we got to.

So let's stand on my rooftop and take a 360 degree tour of the regional neighbourhood.

To the south, inside Israel, on the border with the Gaza Strip, is Sderot which, despite the cease-fire that has ostensibly been in force for several weeks is still suffering from daily bombardments of qassam missiles by the Islamic Jihad which refuses to abide by the cease-fire. A few days ago two 15 year old boys were caught outside after the air raid alarm went off and were seriously injured. The government came under a lot pressure from the army and from public opinion to do something and eventually decided to re-institute "pinpoint" targeted killings against qassam launchers but only when they are in the act of firing.

Further south is the Gaza Strip itself, now returning to partial "normalcy" after a nasty spate of internecine fighting between Fatah and Hamas forces. The Hamas government headed by Ismail Haniya is under economic and political siege by Israel and the international community but is managing to survive by smuggling large amounts of cash donated by Iran and other supporters. Israel is thinking of ways to put a stop to this smuggling. Meanwhile Hamas is building up its military base and preparing for the next showdown both with Fatah and with Israel where there are always voices asserting that only a massive military strike can put an end to the qassams being fired on Sderot.

Fatah (led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and Hamas are at each other's throats. In Gaza, Hamas has superior fire power and public support. However the effects of the economic boycott combined with Hamas' preference for more guns over food and medicine for the people, means that humanitarian situation there goes from bad to worse.
A useful place to see facts and figures on the humanitarian situation in the West Bank and Gaza as well as a record of events on the ground is the website of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)

To the east, we will first encounter Jerusalem where Ehud Olmert's government is gingerly testing the Palestinian waters to see if some sort of a deal can be struck with Abu Mazen while harbouring deep suspicions that, whatever he proposes, he is unable to deliver. For the official site of the Israeli foreign ministry

A 20 minute ride northwards from Jerusalem and we are in Ramallah where Abu Mazen has apparently just negotiated, with Israel's blessing the receipt of 2,000 assault rifles from Arab countries to arm his beleaguered forces in the Gaza Strip. Israeli National Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer told Army Radio yesterday that,

"the weapons that are being sent there are meant to give Abu Mazen [Abbas] the
ability to counter those organizations that are trying to destroy every good
thing. If this helps Abu Mazen to get stronger, I am in favor."

Abu Mazen has threatened new elections but without setting date. According to the polls Fatah would win the majority of seats in parliament but Abu Mazen, branded an Israeli accomplice by his opponents, is hardly more popular than Haniyeh. For the Palestinian news agency WAFA

Further to the east, in Jordan, King Abdullah already shaken by the vicissitudes of the war in Iraq to his east and wants Israel to consult with him on anything that might threaten his hold on power. The creation of a Palestinian state on the West Bank of the Jordan River for example.
To keep up with the news in Jordan (in English)
East of Iraq (another story altogether) allow me to present Iran, furiously badgering away at its nuclear programme which, once achieved, could be the tool to implement Ahmadinejad's vision of wiping us (and them) off the face of the earth. I prefer to think that even the Iranian ayyatolas are not that insane. To see the world through Iranian glasses

Turning north east we have Syria where President Bashar el Assad is, awkwardly, busy making peace overtures which have succeeded in setting off a debate in Israel as to their credibility. Reportedly, the Mossad thinks Assad is much more interested in buying time than in making peace while Military Intelligence places more store in his sincerity. Olmert, finally making his first diplomatic moves the Palestinian track at first resisted the idea of talking to the Syrians, explaining that since our great white friend George Bush was against the idea, doing anything other than supporting the US position would be impolite. Over the last few days though his opposition to the idea has been sounding fainter.

Due north we are in Lebanon, which on this eve of New Year's Eve has a very worried Christian population. According to today's Daily Star : "Due to Lebanon's volatile situation, many are staying home for New Year's Eve and some wonder how the "I Love Life" celebration in Downtown Beirut will ensure security considering the large crowds the event will draw." Especially since nearby thousands of Hizbullah supporters are still camped out demanding the resignation of PM Sinyora. The Lebanese, like the Palestinians, are poised on the edge of a civil war after being at the main receiving end of the war with Israel over the summer. Still looking back over the past year , moderate Lebanese commentator Rami Khouri has something to reminisce over, namely:

"...Hizbullah's ability to fight Israel for 34 days this summer, and on the
34th day to keep firing hundreds of rockets into Israeli territory. Morality and
political consequences aside, this reflected a truly historic combination of
political will, technical military proficiency, and a capacity to remain
shielded from Israeli, Western and Arab spies and infiltrators. No Arab party
had ever crossed this threshold in the century-long conflict with Zionism and
Israel. "

On this jubilant note we end our scene- setting tour of the region. With such a scene, what chances for a happy 2007? Still, must stay positive, right? So, a Happy Gregorian New Year to friends and enemies alike throughout Israel and the Middle East : Christians (including Catholics, Protestants and Greek and Syrian orthodox), Moslems (both Shiites and Sunnis) Jews (from reform to haredi), Druse and all.
Since I don't have one of my own photos from any of the countries I've mentioned, I've posted a pic from the pyramids.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

I wanted some shots from Yaffo here but Blogger is giving me some beginner's problems

Starting Out

An optimistic day on which to experiment posting my first blog, a bright, chilly winter's day and also the day after which Ehud Olmert met Abu Mazen for the first time. About bloody time too. What was achieved? Maybe some money for the Palestinians, maybe a real channel of communication and maybe just some time bought for two weak leaders. Only time will tell.

Both having the day off, we took ourselves to nearby Jaffa (Yaffo) to wander around the flea market and have lunch at Pua's - a funky, eclectic restaurant where everything is bought from the flea market and therefore nothing matches.

On our way there we saw a group of men were sitting on the pavement with little white prayer books... praying. Not seen that before. It was too late for the morning shacharit service and too early for the later ma'ariv. Maybe someone had died and they were saying prayers to speed on his soul.

Eventually we bought (what else) a brass pot.

For coffee we stopped off at the romantic Nina's on Shabazi St returning home to open a blog.

But how do you upload pictures?