Friday, September 05, 2014

Welcome to the New Middle East

Snapshot of the insanity of our region: Someone on the radio talking about their summer holiday in north-east Israel on the Golan Heights. The surrealism of eating a Friday lunch in the artists' village of Ani'Am, at the next table a group of UNDOF "peacekeeper" soldiers ordering masses of pasta and pizza. Touring the village of Ein Zivan, choosing between the boutique winery and the boutique chocolate factory, standing in line shoulder to shoulder with offduty West European UN soldiers.

In the distance the sounds of the savage fighting in Syria, right next to Israel's border just a couple of kilometres away.

Just over that border in the chaos of Syria dozens of Fijian UNDOF soldiers have been kidnapped by Jihadi rebels as their colleagues on the Israeli side enjoy the attractions of the pastoral Israeli Golan.

Welcome to the New Middle East.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

All in one summer (with apologies to Tennyson)



Rockets to the south of them,

Rockets to the north of them,

Volley'd and thunder'd,

Storm'd at with shot and shell,

Boldly they carried on

And well

Sheltered from the jaws of death

Hunted down the mouths of hell

And all in one summer


Flashed the rockets from their lair

Flashed the Iron Dome in air

Intercepting the missiles there

Charging the Hamas army, while

All the world wonder'd:

Plunged in the battery-smoke

Right thro' the line they broke;

Terrorist and Jihadi

Reel'd from the sabre stroke

Shatter'd and sunder'd.

Mortars to the right of them

Mortars to the left of them

As the reservists came home

To all that was left

Left of one summer

(with apologies to Tennyson and many other people)

Sunday, August 17, 2014

I was asked this week whether the wave of anti-Semitism in Western Europe and the UK in particular is just a phase whipped up by the summer's hostilities in Gaza. I cannot predict the future, but I do notice that over the last two decades there does seem to be a gradual creep of anti-Semitism throughout the Western world, a frenzied and fashionable hatred of all things Israeli which utilises age old libels and stereotypes used for centuries to demonise European Jewry.

The last twenty years have seen increasing demonisation of all things Israeli and Jewish, an ever widening campaign of delegitimisation of both Israel and any Jewish right to self-determination, growing calls for a one state solution (meaning the eradication of Israel) and the rise of the infamous BDS movement with its false accusations of apartheid.

I note that twenty years ago was the beginning of the Oslo peace process which led to a string of drastic Israeli concessions, including the creation of the Palestinian Authority, the ceding to Palestinian control of most Palestinian population centres, a huge surge in Israeli popular support for drastic concessions for peace and the entrenchment in the Israeli political centre mainstream of what had until then been left wing views on Palestinian statehood, final status borders and acceptance of the PLO as face to face negotiating partners. Never before had the Israeli public been prepared for such far ranging concessions on matters of principle and territory.

This huge surge in anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli sentiment didn't happen under the "hardline" governments of Begin or Shamir, but during the far more conciliatory governments of Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and most recently Binyamin Netanyahu, who though from the same party as Begin and Shamir, now espouses the sort of positions on Palestinian statehood that in their time would have been considered left wing.

Anyone with eyes in their head just needs to look at the worsening of attitudes towards Israel and the Jewish people in the years since the Oslo peace accords and wonder how it is that the more Israel has conceded, given up, restreated and agreed to Palestinian demands, the more Israel is hated, attacked and reviled by the other nations, and the more the Jewish people are demonised and bullied around the world as the source of all our planet's troubles.

As a friend recently said to me, looking around at the attitude of many in supposedly "polite society and among the intellectual classes to Jews today one has an inkling of the atmosphere in 1930s Europe.




Thursday, August 14, 2014

Ceasefire: That means you too Mr Hamas guy with a stash of rockets

Maybe the powers that be should just quit using the word ceasefire already? Or at least qualify it with something like "ceasefire - that means you too Mr Hamas guy with a stash of rockets" or "rocket launchers must be switched off and stowed for the duration of the ceasefire", you know, just to clarify what the whole ceasefirey thing is supposed to mean.

Or as my friend Elli put it: (in)c(r)easefire.


Nineveh

This week my oldest child and I were learning about the battle of Lakhish in around 700 BCE. The Assyrian forces of Sanheirib swept through the northern kingdom of Israel, moving on to the southern kingdom of Judah, laying siege to the heavily fortified town of Lakhish. Judean forces were defeated by the Assyrian army and Sanheirib was so taken by his victory that he decorated the walls of his palace in Ninveh with an ornate frieze telling the story of the battle in all its gory detail, including the impaling on stakes of the captured Judean commanding officers and the flaying alive of regional officials who dared rise up against Assyrian hegemony. 

In recent months Ninveh province has come under the rule of new tyrants, the so called "Islamic State" and its Jihadi fighters, with some reports from the region claiming ISIS has gone so far to destroy the ancient ruins at the site which predate Islam by centuries. How ironic that Sanheirib who laid waste to neighbouring kingdoms should himself find his great city destroyed by marauding invaders.

The view from Israel at the moment is certainly unsettling. Quite aside from our troubles with Hamas and Hamas' rockets and tunnels, it is horrifying watching the new Jihadis of ISIS sweep through Syria and Iraq, venture into Lebanon, reaching all the way to the Iraqi border with our neighbour Jordan. An already difficult neighbourhood seems to be getting more savage by the minute.

In all of the turmoil and terror that has swept the Middle East in recent years though there has been one beacon of hope - the Kurdish autonomous zone in northern Iraq. Alone among the various local groups they used US/UN intervention to create a stable, fair free, economically viable state in waiting. They too are mostly Sunni Muslims, just as the Jihadis purport to be. What a different vision for their homeland the Kurds have though. 

Watching the Peshmerga strive to defend their region from ISIS I am convinced more than ever that they should be rewarded for their responsible approach by receiving international support to help them resist the expansion of ISIS and to assist them in aiding refugees from the "Islamic State".

I should clarify that I am wary when it comes to Western involvement in the Middle East. I didn't think the US intervention in Iraq was a good idea in the first place, I thought the US leadership lacked (and still lack) a decent understanding of the complexities of the region and of how Western actions would be perceived. 

That said I had strong reservations about the arrangements for the US withdrawal and the ability of the new Iraq to achieve stable government. In a country so lacking in national cohesion and with a government setting itself up along sectarian lines it seemed highly likely that a withdrawal of the US and their allies would lead to a resumption or even escalation in the Sunni-Shia civil war, and quite likely also provide fertile ground for al-Qaeda like movements and militias, possibly even an Islamist takeover of the failing Iraqi state.

Sadly both concerns have been realised, further fuelled by the war in Syria. 

I can understand people in the West arguing that the US and allies gave Iraq their best shot, did what they could to free her people from a brutal dictator and now the rest is up to them, if they want to use that new freedom to ravage their own country, then so be it.

The thing is this is not simply a regional problem that the West, especially the US and its allies who went in to Iraq in the first place, can was their hands of and say it's all some regional conflict that doesn't concern them. The Western powers have been directly involved in creating 21st century Iraq from the time Saddam Hussein set this whole chain of events in motion with his invasion of Kuwait and the West stepped in to save the day.

The creation of the Kurdish autonomous region and no-fly zone have been a positive result of that intervention, creating an island of relative freedom and stability in northern Iraq.

The supplying of so much US weaponry and aid to the corrupt and sectarian government of a deeply divided Iraq, weaponry that has fallen into the hands of the butchers of ISIS, and thus threatens the pro-Western Kurds, that already makes it an issue the Western powers are in part responsible for. The potential global threat of ISIS makes fighting them a Western interest, but the West also has a moral obligation to help the Kurds who are now being attacked with those same weapons the US supplied to the floundering Iraqi military.

There are those in the West, quite possibly some in the Obama administration among them who believe that ISIS and its ilk are the shape of things to come in the Middle East, and therefore it is in their interest to stay "on the right side" of the nascent "Islamic State". My understanding of this latest and most brutal Jihadi movement is that there is no accommodation to be reached with them, their level of savagery is off the scale even by the standards of the blood-soaked Middle East. To use an old fashioned term, I believe that the unimaginable cruelty and the cult of death worshipped by the so called Jihadis of ISIS makes them evil, I can think of no other word for what they are perpetrating.

The West must find a way to support the Kurds, not just with words but with materials to both alleviate the suffering of the Yazaidi, Christian and other refugees and to help the Kurds defend themselves from the savagery of the "Islamic State".

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Wake up world, these are the folks intent on genocide

Wake up world, these ISIS folks are intent on genocide in the Middle East, they are wiping out ancient historic communities wherever they find them, Christians, Yezaidis and Shias from the very heartland of Shia Islam. These are the people destroying ancient archaeological sites and holy shrines of anyone who isn't them, these are the people unleashing horrors on the people of the Middle East to rival even the atrocities of Saddam Hussein or the Assads. They are now making incursions into Lebanon and into central Iraq, threatening some of the largest Shia communities in the world. When will Iran and Hizballah realise that all the energy they expend against Israel they should dedicate to defending themselves from the radical Salafists who actually want to do them harm?

A strange city without soldiers (II)

I think I only really grasped how crazy our lives in Israel have been of late when I took the kids for a planned visit to overseas relatives this week. The first thing my 4.5 year-old asked as our relative met us at the airport was why there were no signs for shelters. My boy can't read yet, but he knows how to recognise the shelter sign words.

At a relatives house he again asked where the secure room was, and when I explained that in England people don't have shelters and secure rooms he looked concerned "But what will they do if the bad men come?" I don't really have much of an answer for that.

On our first morning abroad a loud emergency vehicle goes by, its siren wail eerily reminiscent of our air raid sirens back in Israel. I'm busy helping my daughter with something, my boys are in the next room, and I hear a clatter of feet and the slamming of a bathroom door.

I go to check on them and find my 4 year-old holding the two year-old's hand and sitting with him leaning against the bathroom wall. I ask what's going on and my four year-old explains that he heard a siren, he knew that there are no shelters here so he grabbed his little brother and ran to an inside room without windows, just like he learnt we should do if we find ourselves in a place without a secure room during a siren. I don't know whether to cry or be proud of my little boy. My heart aches that he should be so matter of fact about it all.

The next day we go to a big local park. As we're walking home two aircraft streak across the sky at high altitude leaving distinct contrails in the clear sky. My four year-old asks: "Are those good guy rockets or bad guys rockets? Do we need to get down on the ground?"

Walking in the street one day my four year old asks me why there aren't any soldiers or police around "Who protects these people and keeps them safe?" I say they have police, we just haven't seen any. "It don't feel safe Ima" he continues "there are no hayalim (soldiers) to look after us if the bad rocket men come."

Shabbat morning there are police mounted on motorcycles outside the synagogue we attend. My boys are thrilled by the big snazzy looking motorbikes. The police look back at them unsmiling. My son turns to me and asks why the only police we've seen are outside the synagogue.

We're invited to friends. There are a lot of other guests. We also meet some random Jewish neighbours who live on my relative's street. Everyone coos sympathetically when they find out that we're from Israel, politely asking what it's like there and how we're doing, but their eyes start to glaze a few seconds in to our genuine responses. Asking about Israel is mostly a courtesy like a how are you. We don't bring up the subject at all unless asked, but even so, it's like people don't really want to know, maybe they've had enough of hearing about the Middle East, maybe it's just too unpleasant, maybe they don't want their kids to hear, whatever the reason, we learn just to say it's been hard on the kids and leave it at that. It almost feels impolite to say that much.

We don't mention that we feel terrible about leaving Israel in wartime, like we're being disloyal, though we make it clear that this trip was planned. We aren't running from home, it's just the school holidays and our only convenient time for a visit with overseas family.

Playing in the garden my kids meet the kids next door who also happen to be Jewish. The father makes small talk with us, asks if we've had a lot of rockets, if we're trying to "get away from the bombs for a bit." I give the usual pained smile, explain we haven't had too many sirens in our sleepy town and that this visit was planned before the war. He seems satisfied, but his 8 year-old son wants to know if we spent a lot of time in the shelter, what it was like and so on. His father looks awkward and steers the conversation to a different topic, but my son volunteers that he slept many nights in the shelter, that he once had to jump into thistles because of a siren and that he knows he was safe because of Kipat Barzel (Hebrew for Iron Dome).

My kids love aircraft so we go to a local aviation museum. The whole thing feels different in the context of our new war experience. As we enter the main hall my son straight away zooms in on a Cruise missile hanging from the ceiling. "Ima, is that a good guy rocket or a bad guy rocket?" I try to draw his attention to the actual amazing historical aircraft on the museum floor, like the cool Bleriot flier or the early jets. By the time we reach the Second World War exhibit I realise it's futile. My son zeroes in on the V1 and V2 rockets and my daughter enthusiastically explains to him that these are the rockets the Nazi bad guys used to shoot at grandma when she was a little girl, she's heard the stories from her great-uncle. Try as I might this is the kind of thing my kids are currently interested in, we are all looking at things differently now, it can't just be a museum about aircraft and rockets.

The next room features models of wartime London with mannequins dressed in period clothes. The kids are of course most fascinated by the replica corrugated iron shelter, "just like the one grandma had in her parents' garden" my oldest explains. As we're standing there looking at it and comparing grandma's family shelter with the one in our home the audio explanation kicks in, complete with a recording of a siren. My four year old looks panicked for a moment until I remind him that it's just a recording in the museum and they don't have real sirens here anyway.

A museum employee comes over and asks if we'd like to go over to the next room where there's going to be an audio-visual presentation about the Blitz. I say I think the kids don't need realistic sounding explosions and sirens, and she starts to assure me that there are no actual scenes of destruction, then sees my two young boys and says "oh, you've got little ones, yeah, I guess they're too young to learn about all that anyway."