Saturday, January 24, 2009

Small green shoot


As you can see from this shot of the wintry rooftop it's an usually foggy day in Tel Aviv. The weather matches the mood of many people in Israel (although not necessarily the majority) saddened by the Gaza war, especially by the huge toll it has taken in civilian casualties and material destruction.

Despite everything there a few positive results from the whole catastropohe might be emerging. From Israel's point of view, the world now realises that arms smuggling from Iran to Gaza via Egypt is a real problem that needs to be dealt with and might even take real action. Another is that there are hopeful signs that that the US administratioin will place us high on the agenda.

Meanwhile an article in Ha'aretz's wekeend magazine cast some light on the way that the international law department of the army accompanied and advised the military before and during the operation. "not crossing red lines but not stopping at grey ones" . The relatively free interpretation of international law provided by this unit, gave the commanders in the field enough room to manoevre in most cases to implement their main consideration - avoiding losses to their troops. The main root of the problem was of course the Hamas tactic of drawing the fighting into densely populated residential areas that they had booby-trapped. The IDF did take enormous pains to warn civilians that their area would come under attack, but as we know, that didn't always help them.




Now the same department is preparing legal defenses for cases where there might be claims of war crimes. Officers identities are being camouflaged to protect them from possible indictments and even politicians are seeking legal advice over whether they might be arrested abroad.




Finally, a small green shoot of humanity.Two young women living in Sderot area started an aid effort for their neighbours in Gaza that has snowballed all over the country. When asked how she felt about helping the poeople on the other side, one of them said, " I don't see our side or their side, I just see people on both sides."

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The day after

Appropriate street art in Florentin

With any luck, the government will declare a unilateral cease-fire this evening and the fighting (or at least the worst of it) will be over. Apparently Israel has enough guarantees, from the Egyptians, the Americans and others to be able to call it a day and declare a victory of sorts. If all goes according to plan, the residents of southern Israel can at last look forward to not being shelled for a while, while on the Egyptian side of the Gaza-Egypt border and even further afield, steps will be put in place to prevent the Hamas from re-arming.

If that indeed happens the Israeli public, which has overwhelmingly supported this war, will be satisfied (for a while) and the politicians can go back to running for the elections (set for Feb 10). Moreover, the prevalent Israeli notion that every once in a while the country has to "go crazy" and show the neighbours that we are just as barbaric as they, will have been validated yet again. Public opinion will move to the right andd despite not leading the country in war, Netanyahu has an excellent chance of becoming the next Prime Minister.


Israeli shells explode near the border. Officers admitted that the operation was "very violent".


But once the dust has settled on the shell-shocked, bloodied and miserable residents of Gaza and the extent of the damage casued by the army's no-holds-barred invasion is exposed for all to see (even in Israel), other consequences will come into play.

One is that (thanks to death and destruction already exposed) Israeli public opinion will be almost completely isolated and with Obama swearing in as Pres on Tuesday, international public opinion will be more bent than ever on finding a "solution" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We (and the Palestinians) can hopefully expect lots more pressure - and about time too.

Another, is that Israel did not topple the Hamas leadership. Hence, Hamas, however bruised and battered, will still be in power in Gaza. The surviving population has not gone away either. Operation Cast Lead might stop the rockets for as while but it's not going to stop the problem known as Gaza. If, until now Israel's approach has been to squeeze the Gazans dry in the hope that they will revolt against the Hamas leadership then the war has finally proved this to be a fallacy. Now, more than ever, the people of Gaza will hate Israel (and those, like the Palestinian Authority, perceived as helping Israel) more than they hate the Hamas.

In short, we still need to deal with Gaza and Gaza certainly needs to deal with us. If the armed threat is more or less removed, isn't it time for a radical rethink in which, at least, the civilian population is not held ransom for the sins of its leaders? If we decided not to topple Hamas by military means, there is clearly no way it can be done by economic ones. The war was caused at least partly by this seige and the time has come to stop it. The border crossings should be opened wide to allow the people of Gaza to slowly reconstruct their lives. And that could be the beginning of a new equation : an international ban on arms going into Gaza but international safeguards for ensuring that everything else gets in. Demonizing everyone in Gaza is not the way.

There are some who say that the war has also put an end to a two state solution. Gaza lies in ruins but has survived as an "independent" Hamas entity; the Palestinians are still internally divided; the Arab League is considering withdrawing its peace plan; Abu Mazen has been weakened in Ramallah while in Israel there will be less political will than ever to dismantle settlements. Obama would indeed have be the Obamessiah to turn all this into a more positive scenario.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Peaceman and Hopeman


One of the the interesting aspects of any war is how the media covers it and to what extent the government controls the flow of media to the population. In this one , the mainstream media, with the noteable exception of the doveish Ha'aretz, has been uniformly pro war while dissenting voices have hardly been heard.


Friends were at an anti-war demonstration organised by various peace groups last weekend and told me that thousands took part but I don't remember seeing any media coverage. Protests by Israeli Arabs have been continuing on an almost daily basis but since there has been no real violence and since their opposition to the war is to be expected, these have been relegated to the back pages.


According to a recent poll, 94% of Jewish Israelis support the operation, although it's not clear how many would like to halt it now. It's hard to escape the feeling that there's a guiding hand feeding this almost wall-to-wall support. For one thing we are not being shown the horrific images of the death and devastation in Gaza that are being flashed around the rest of the world, or at least we are being fed them in strictly limited doses.


What we are being fed is what the government and the mainstream media (either with official encouragement or simply because patriotism sells in wartime) want us to see. Hence, while foreign correspondents are still battling in the courts to be allowed into Gaza by the IDF, Israeli journalists were allowed in a few days ago to emerge with sterile images approved for publication by the Army Spokesman's Office like this one below which shows our boys picking their way carefully through a dangerous alley. Another much used shot is of soldiers blacking up before "going in". The approach is to heighten the sense of danger while not exposing the viewer to the results of the violence.




The tabloids - Yedioth, Ma'ariv and Yisrael Hayom, along with the three main Israeli TV channels - 1, 2 & 10, are all more or less following this line. Of course the lion's share of coverage goes to what is happening on the Israeli side: the kindergarten destroyed by a rocket; the householder who lost his house; the frightened mothers saying that the kids can't sleep but morale is high and that we're strong and should "finish the job"; the singers who volunteered to entertain people in the bomb shelters ; the mothers of fallen soldiers who tell the TV cameras that their son wouldn't have wanted the army to stop now . And if you're looking for a little action you can always check out the long shots of our planes blowing up tunnels on the HOT cable company's Video on Demand channel (no dead people guaranteed).


This is for domestic consumption only and it works very effectively. It both corresponds with and nourishes the Israeli instinct to close ranks in wartime and support the troops come what may. Interestingly the army spokesman's office that is the official channel for a lot of what we are seeing and hearing (and a lot of what we are not) does not have an English version of its website. One would have thought that the IDF would have wanted to show its side of the picture but either it doesn't care or there is some other reason.


In a democracy, there should be channels for dissenting voices and images, even in wartime and while it is natural and legitimate for the government to try to keep morale high, the role of a free and independent media role should be more complex. Of course the foreign media, trying to explain the conflict to their confused audiences back home are also sometimes guilty of superficial and inaccurate reporting but we'll leave that for another time.


Anyone looking for alternative voices and more complex descriptions of reality on the ground can find them on the internet at a site called Life must go on in Gaza and Sderot which is written by two friends. 'Peaceman' is a Palestinian post-graduate who lives in Sajaia refugee camp in Gaza and 'Hopeman' is an Israeli father of two who lives in Sderot. As they write "Our Blog is written by 2 real people living and communicating on both sides of the border."


Their persistence in keeping their joint blog alive in the face of shellings and electricity cuts deserves our respect
Peaceman's logo


Peace man's last post was dated Wednesday, January 7, and it ended like this:


We have said from the beginning that violence will bring more violence.I hope the world will understand that’s there people want to live safe with dignity and peace .I hope I will have the chance to write you again.






Friday, January 9, 2009

Get out and declare victory

Day 15 of the war. Saturday evening. Today we drove to the Jerusalem hills where we met old friends and took a look at the pretty Beit Jamal convent near Beit Shemesh. From there we drove to a restaurant on a moshav surrounded by greenery for a pleasant lunch . Next door at the excellent Flam boutique winery we bought a reasonably priced bottle of their Classico. We then drove home to the rooftop to hear that the death count in Gaza now exceeds 800.

illustration only

Yesterday the security cabinet rejected the United Nations Security Council resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire and decided to continue the military operation. By the look of the fighting however, it doesn't seemed to have given the green light to launch "stage three" of the operation. This would involve going into whole neighbourhoods that Hamas have turned into booby-trapped warrens in and around Gaza city and rooting out the Hamas gunmen among the civilians. The results would be devastating for everyone involved.

As is now becoming clear to all, the crux of the diplomatic wrangling that is, in effect, delaying a cease-fire ) is the question of arms smuggling along the Philadelphi Corridor on the Egypt-Gaza border. The rockets smuggled through the tunnels under this border are the ones that are now falling in Ashkelon and Ashdod and Beersheva Israel demands that it be effectively stopped and, is sending signals that it won't stop shooting and will even push harder until it's satisfied that it has received enough guarantees. The EU is reportedly proposing the stationing of French and Turkish troops along the Gaza border but here lies the rub. The Egyptians won't hear of foreign troops on their side of the border and the Hamas firmly rejects the idea on their side. Meanwhile the army is poised to launch stage 3 (but reportedly not enthusiastic about the idea)

There are plenty of people who think stage 3 would be one stage ((at least ) too many. As Ha'aretz's editorial put it, the situation is so dire that there's no time for Israel to dither about the best exit strategy. Instead it should just get out and let the diplomats find a solution. It indeed seems difficult to see what more can be gained by a bloodbath in Gaza city.

Unless, as at least one serious commentator has noted another possibility is on the agenda.
Olmert has not said so explicitly, but ministers who listened to him at the cabinet meeting the other day believe that he wishes to persist with the operation until Hamas is brought down, as per Haim Ramon's proposal. Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Olmert's cohorts in the security "troika," are sending the opposite message: They want to declare victory now and get out - Barak with an agreement, Livni via a unilateral move.

Let's hope that Olmert's wishes remain at the wish level. A regime change was never mentioned as an aim of this war and it's a bit late in the day to decide on it now. My guess (hope?) is that Israel will step back from the brink. Israel, with justification, wanted to change the rules of the game and I think that the desired effect has been achieved. If I'm wrong there's nothing stopping Israel from going in again.
Get out now and declare victory is good advice.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Enough

Enough. There's a point when even a justified military campaign turns into a bloodbath and this I think is the point we are at. With over 600 Palestinians killed (up to half of them civilians according to Palestinian sources), I think we've done enough damage.

Today at least 30 civilians were killed and scores wounded in a school in Gaza when the building was hit by Israeli mortars. The incident carried all the hallmarks of the fighting that is going on there. The school was closed because of the fighting but UNWRA opened it to provide shelter from Gazans who had fled the fighting in the south. Apparently, a Hamas mortar unit positioned in or near to the school (in the belief that the Israeli army wouldn't open fire on a school) opened fire on the army which, in line with the new policy of returning fire everywhere (after warning civilians when possible) returned fire.

Splits are beginning to appear in the Israeli leadership. Olmert wants a cease-fire soon with clear conditions; Livni wants a cease-fire with Israeli deterence renewed but US-Egyptian cooperation to halt the arms smuggling into Gaza through the tunnels from Egypt and Barak (who wanted a cease-fire days ago) is warning that if it isn't over in days, it could take months.

Meanwhile, the humanitarian aid that Israel is allowing through is being waylaid by Hamas and criminal gangs and is not getting to the people. The petrol tankers Israel let in can't reach the power station. Half of Gazans are without water, most without electricity, the hospitals are overflowing and if there were elections tomorrow Hamas would win. If the plan was to "sear" into the consciousness of the people of Gaza that Hamas would do them no good, then no good has been done to them but their consciousness still regards Israel as their enemy and always will. So there goes that theory.

This is a war that we knew from the outset was unwinnable because of the realities on the ground in Gaza where Hamas and other fighters operate out of one of the most densely populated areas in the world. If the plan was to destroy every symbol of Hamas rule and every capacity to exercise it that has been achieved. We were told that the plan was not to destroy every last missile launcher, so if that was never a goal then it doesn't have to be achieved . What's is left to achieve?

Yes, after the cease-fire, the Hamas leaders will emerge from their bunkers to proclaim victory and to boast about how they heroically repulsed the Zionist aggressors, but it will be a very hollow boast indeed. Gaza has been devastated. Israel and Egypt will still be firmly in control of the border crossings that lie at the heart of this round of fighting. The world has woken up to the problem but it takes time to work out a formula that Israel will be able to live with. That time should not be spent surrounding Gaza City because the consequences are not worth it. If Hamas breaks a truce, Israel can still respond harshly to rocket attacks against it.

Nothing, it seems to me, can be gained by turning a justifiable military campaign into a massacre. Enough.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Gaza-Sderot-Yaffo

The top part of this poster, designed by graphic arts students at the Sapir College near Sderot, says 'Sderot'. The bottom half which says 'Rothschild' (elegant Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, a symbol of the Tel Aviv 'bubble') shows capuccino-sipping Tel Avivians oblivious to the hostilities.


The 8th day of Operation Cast Lead finds Israel at a crucial juncture and facing difficult choice. Stop now and hope for a cease-fire that will create the "new security environment" that was the goal of the operation? Or send in the ground forces massed at the border and deliver Hamas another crippling blow that will guarantee the objective of halting the rocket fire into southern Israel?

With some 430 Palestinians killed in Gaza and over 2,000 injured in a week of aerial attacks, many think that enough is more than enough. The Hamas will have learned its lesson and a cease-fire should be called to allow the mediators to move in and find a diplomatic solution. According to the media, the cease-fire now approach is favoured by defense minister Barak who is meanwhile holding off the ground attack to see if Israel can live with an emerging diplomatic formula. He is concerned about massive casulaties to the army which would not justify any diplomatic gains.

As might be expected, the moderate Israeli peace organisation Peace Now, is also against continuing the war. Its website carries this:

"Peace Now is calling up the Israeli government to know when to stop, the message to Hamas has been received loud and clear - now is the time to end all hostilities. Now is the time, Hamas has discovered Israel's determination and military capabilities to respond to rocket attacksNow is the time, Hamas has discovered the depth of an Israeli response We must stop the war now and find a real solution - a political solution! "

Those against an immediate cease-fire argue that the Hamas leadership will now emerge from their safe bunkers to proclaim victory and to argue (like Hizbullah in 2006) that they succeeded in deterring the cowardly enemy from entering Gaza. Thus will Hamas gain an important victory. Soon its missiles will be flying into Israel again and we will all be back where we started. PM Olmert is much keener to send in the boots and go for broke. The IDF top brass also wants to go in on the ground. FM Livni too is apparently looking less for a clear diplomatic cease fire and more of a situation in which Hamas will simply be too scared to open fire.

Israel Arabs, many of whom have relatives in Gaza, have no doubt as to where they stand. They want the bombing to stop now. Their anger and frustration has not boiled over into the sort of rioting we saw in October 200 but was sufficient to bring tens of thousands of them out for a massive demonstration today in Sachnin (large Arab town in the Galilee)


The speakers accused the Isaeli leadership of war crimes and demanded an immediate end to the bombings.

Tel Aviv, or more accurately Tel Aviv -Yaffo, has not remained immune to the turbulence of the last week. Last Saturday (the day the bombing campaign started) a "three festivals day" (Xmas. Hanuka and Eid el Adha) in Yaffo, meant to underline the co-existence between the various groups in Yaffo, gradually turned into a political demonstration by the Moslem leadership as the news of the fatalities came in. After the demonstration a few dozen teenagers wearing masks and waving Hamas flags did some damage on Yefet Street. The next day the police questioned the Arab leadership of Yaffo under warning, upsetting the leadership. Meanwhile, there has a been a sharp drop Jewish shoppers entering Yaffo. There are now police units all over Yaffo to ensure that there's no outbreak oif violence. The same is true for communities all over the country where Arabs live. It seems however that both sides have learned some lessons. Police are keeping shows of force to a minimum and most of the Arab protests have been non-violent.


This fictitioius signpost underlines the harsh realities of living in Sderot. Hamas rockets are now reaching as far as Beersheba, almost 40 kilometres from the Gaza border. How much longer will it be before they reach Tel Aviv? And what's the best way of ensuring that they don't?


'Would you keep quiet for 6 years if even one qassam fell here?' (Azrielli Towers in Tel Aviv). It might not be too long before we find out.

If you're interested in getting to know the people of Sderot and of Gaza, I can recommend the Arte project of short films 'Gaza/Sderot - Life in spite of everything' . Many of the people you will see in it (on both sides) have now been forced to leave their homes