Sunday, August 21, 2011

Hoping for some southern comfort

This morning I had a call from the mother of a friend of my daughter's. She wanted to reschedule our proposed playdate this week. Nothing so unusual about that except for the reason. Their kibbutz isn't too far from Ashdod and since Thursday evening that part of the country has come under massive rocket fire from Gaza, including several direct hits on homes, schools and synagogues. My daughter's friend and her family have spent the weekend in or close to shelters listening out for sirens.

Plan had been that after her day at the kibbutz, we'd collect J and take her to the beach in Ashdod, followed by dinner at the nearby nice little kosher Indian restaurant. That was before a grad rocket injured several people outside an Ashdod yeshiva, while another grad lodged unexploded in the roof of an Ashdod synagogue.

I know this must sound terribly selfish, I'm thinking about my daughter's fun plans for the week while people are sitting in shelters and getting shot at. In a way that is precisely my point. Overseas there is this image of "warzones" places where people's lives are suspended permenantly among ruined buildings as they wait for the next rocket to fall or the next bomb to explode.

These places become divorced from normal life in the eyes of the foreign news (though of course this weekend's rocket attacks have gone largely unreported overseas). Yet this division of the world into neat "warzones" and "normal" just doesn't compute.

The cities and towns and villages of southern Israel are "normal" places, places where people just like you and me live and go to work or school or lounge about during the summer seeking relief from the heat by the beach or in the mall. People go jogging and walk their dogs and go to the movies or take a walk in the relative cool of early morning. There are run down tenements in dodgy neighbourhoods and luxury villas in comfortable suburbs, grim 50s apartment blocks and state of the art modern condo developments. There are farms and beaches and yeshivas and factories and hospitals and UNESCO World Heritage Sites and beautiful nature reserves. Just as elsewhere in Israel late summer is a time for music festivals, weddings and cooling off in waterparks.  People try to keep their children busy in the final few weeks of the summer holidays.

And suddenly all that is semi-frozen in the twilight zone uncertainty of a rain of rockets and sirens and government orders to cancel all large public gatherings, sporting events and concerts and for residents to stay close to their shelters or windowless interior rooms.

One friend was caught out by a siren while jogging one evening, spending the next half hour face down in the dirt and shaking from having felt and heard the impact of a rocket closeby. Another described the terror of having just left her cousins' house in Beer Sheva to return home to Jerusalem when the siren went, leaving her with a carload of children on an open road unsure whether to seek cover on the verge or to just keep driving.

In Tel Aviv the "social justice" protesters are still sitting in their tents protesting the rising price of housing and the cost of living. Down south sitting in a tent right now would be plain reckless.

Some would say going south right now was plain reckless but other friends of ours don't have that choice. For them the grievances of the protesters and the recent escalation of attacks from Gaza have come together alarmingly this week. Priced out of the centre of the country they found more affordable housing in Beer Sheva and are scheduled to move this week. School will be starting soon (God Willing in the south too) and they need to get settled in to their new home, rockets or no rockets.

Meanwhile another friend's sister and brother-in-law are in the process of signing on a nice apartment near the sea in Ashkelon. They too would have preferred something more central, closer to Tel Aviv, but Ashkelon is so much more affordable, and with its new housing projects, spruced up seafront promenade, marina and attractive beaches, seemed to offer a pleasant quality of life at a much cheaper price.

I asked whether they weren't concerned about Ashkelon's proximity to Gaza and the continued rocket fire. My friend's response? Once upon a time we were shocked that Gaza rockets could reach as far as Sderot. Then we couldn't believe Ashkelon was being hit. Then we were surprised at Grad strikes as far away as Beer Sheva and Ashdod. Then Yavne and Gadera. How long do I really think it wil be before they can reach Rehovot, Rishon Letzion, Modi'in and even Tel Aviv?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Red black mountains' majesties

I can understand why people would opt to drive down to Eilat along the scenic and remote Route 12, scene of Thursday's fatal terror attacks, rather than the more popular Arava route, with its many heavy trucks, heavy traffic and just far less evocative views.

Route 12 is the highway we like to take when driving by day. Just a few minutes after leaving the urban sprawl of Eilat and you are out in the untamed wilderness with views into Sinai, dramatic rugged red, black and orange mountains punctuated with dramatic wadis, the occasional ibex wild goats and dashing black and white wheatear perched on every other roadsign. In migration season you can see large numbers of majestic raptors from mountainside overlooks along the route.

By night the highway is positively spooky, shadowy dark mountains looming over the road like giant monsters and black wadis in the gaps between become bottomless voids waiting to swallow hapless motorists. Yet night has its beauty too - endless clear desert skies sparkling like a field of diamonds, the Milky Way a bright shimmering swathe across the heavens, maybe a desert fox or even hyena crossing your path, caught for a brief moment in a cone of headlights.

While this section of the road is usually considered safe for civilian motorists, it has always had its dangers. Bedouin smugglers use this long wild border to bring in illicit firearms, drugs, people and domestic animals. There are military checkpoints along the highway and often very visible military traffic and patrols. We've certainly been stopped along this route often enough and asked for ID. It's certainly always been my impression that the IDF takes the security of this vital road and adjacent border very seriously.

And now it's another dot on the map of terror.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Camp David revisted II

Time seemed to slide backwards today as Israelis heard the news of today's attacks down south. 

For roughly four decades now Israelis have been able to rely on a cold but seemingly durable peace treaty with Egypt to keep the south of the country mostly quiet and safe. Yes, there were occasional attacks here and there, but by and large Egypt had an interest in maintaining the treaty with Israel, and that meant keeping the peace along the border. There was no love lost between Mubarak's regime and the assorted Islamist groups seeking to destabilise Egypt through terror both within its borders and occasionally beyond them. 

There was enough mutual mistrust between Mubarak and the Bedouin of Sinai that he didn't mind ruling them with an iron hand while they in turn were often happy to support Mubarak's enemies, including Al-Qaida and affiliated groups seeking to use Sinai as a springboard for attacks on Israel. Most of these were thwarted, mostly because it was in Egypt's interest to do so - attacks on tourists in Sinai harmed one of Egypt's vital cash cows, while the peace treaty with Israel brought in much needed American aid and investment, including a substantial re-arming of the Egyptian military, as well as lucrative gas sales to Israel.

The Arab Spring seems to have turned much of this on its head. No one knows yet quite how the dust will settle, but for now enough is up in the air that Sinai appears to be reverting to a quasi-autonomous lawlessness. Some Bedouin there, never considering themselves to be fully Egyptian, are once again colluding with Islamist terror cells, either out of conviction, monetary gain or simply because it's another way of opposing Cairo. In recent months the gas pipeline to Israel has been sabotaged over and over again, while today's attacks appear to be bear out the repeated terror alerts in Sinai and warnings of increased terrorist activity in the area.

For years now there have been calls for a security fence along Israel's long porous border with the Sinai desert. Smuggling between Bedouin tribes on both sides of the border is rife including human trafficking of women for the sex trade, African migrants and refugees, drugs, arms, vehicles and domestic animals. While Egypt and Israel have tried to clamp down on this trade in recent years, the open vast stretches of open desert are difficult to seal and today's attacks are bringing renewed calls for the completion of solid barrier along the entire length of Israel's southern border.

For younger Israelis today's shootings have brought back memories of the Oslo intifada which began almost eleven years ago featuring many grisly sniping attacks on the roads of Judea and Samaria, as well as near the border with Lebanon. In their minds Eilat was meant to be immue to such things, a sort of safe haven, an escape from dark days in the centre of the country.

More than anything though the shootings today recall the early years of the state when the isolated, poorly defended wild south of the country was the frequent target of Fedayeen terrorists infiltrating from Egypt and Jordan. One of the most infamous of these attacks was the 1954 ambush at Ma'aleh Akrabim of an Egged bus travelling between Eilat and Tel Aviv. Eleven people were killed, including the driver. 

With the bus now a stationary target the gunmen boarded it to confirm that everyone had been killed, shooting the wounded and anyone who had thus far escaped. In a recent interview in the Israeli Makor Rishon newspaper survivor Miri Firstenburg described how she had been a 5 year-old girl riding that bus with her family. Both her parents were murdered, her brother so severely brain injured that he never recovered, spending the rest of his life in hospital until his death at age 40. She alone survived the attack physically unharmed. Today she campaigns for the rights of those orphaned by terror attacks, drawing on her own terrible experiences in the early years of the state.

Today terror once again came to the vital roads linking Eilat to central Israel. At the time of writing the media here are reporting on 5-7 Israelis killed and 25-31 injured. Had it not been for the actions of the bus driver, Benny Belevsky, who pressed down on the accelerator when the shooting started, today's attack could have been even worse. Thank God he was able to drive the bus to safety and avoid the fate of that other Egged bus in March of 1954.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Between protest tents and nargillah pipes

Watching the colourful Ramadan lights in neighbouring villages as we drive by DH mused, wouldn't it be nice if we could just drop by all neighbourly like with a plate of cookies and wish them Ramadan Kareem? They're so close by. Deceptively close.

And maybe it would be OK, we certainly meet enough decent Palestinians from the area working in nearby shops. Or maybe we'd be taking our lives in our hands. Hard to know since some of our neighbours started baying for our blood with chants of "itbah el yahud" (slaughter the Jews) over the mosque loudspeakers during the 2000-2003 intifada. Before that Jews went into our neighbouring Palestinian villages. No more though, not since a few of those Israelis didn't make it out alive.

We're driving home from breaking our Tisha b'Av fast with family in Jerusalem. The previous night, Tisha B'Av eve, we'd gone on the traditional walk around the walls of the Old City, especially interesting this year as Ramadan coincides with the Jewish fast this year, so as Jews were beginning their fast at sunset the city's Muslims were breaking theirs. This evening however, we are all breaking our fast. As DH notes, tonight is iftar (the fast breaking meal each night of Ramadan) for everyone.

The Muslim areas of the Old City and adjoining Arab neighbourhoods are festooned with holiday lights, neon stars and crescents and illuminated "Allah" signs bedeck homes and public buildings. All along the streets young men lounge with nargillah pipes and little boys feast on holiday sweets and corn on the cob purchased from the many festive food vendors. The Damascus Gate is especially busy with stalls and shoppers and just lots of men hanging around relaxing on this Ramadan night.

There don't seem to be many women out, just a few in drab jilbabs and hijabs out with their families. We get a lot of stares, mostly curious, some hostile, telegraphing "what the hell are the Jews doing here tonight?" I figure as it's a custom to walk around the walls of the Old City every Tisha B'Av night, some of them must realise it's Tisha B'Av, but I guess a lot of them just wonder why we're there on Ramadan. I wave and call out "Ramadan Kareem" and get quite a few shocked and bemused stares - and one smile. The kids Junior and I wave to giggle and wave back.

J keeps me very busy. First she asks me for the story of Tisha B'Av. I ask her which one and she says, both, the Babylonians and the Romans. I ask her to tell me what she remembers and she tells me the story of the Babylonian attack on the Kingdom of Judah, the siege of Jerusalem, the capture and forced exile of the Judean king to Babylon along with the Judean aristocracy and upper classes, the rebellion of the Babylonian installed new king, despite the warnings of the prophet Jeremiah not to rebel, and the final destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple. I am impressed. She reminds me that she spend most of the of the public reading of Lamentations reading Yaffa Ganz's well written children's book on the subject. Just as well, the book of Lamentations is far from being a kid friendly read. I get to tell the story of the Roman occupation of Judea and the Jewish revolt which culminated in the destruction of the Second Temple. I try to be concise, but this is a kid who wants all the details.

We study the huge historic stone walls, in places mounted above steep cliffs of bedrock, making them particularly daunting to potential attackers. J tells me that the narrow slits are for the defenders of the city to fight the attackers with arrows, throwing spears and hot liquids. That's why the sieges lasted so long she explains.

She's curious about the Mount of Olives, sad to know that some was built over and destroyed during the Jordanian occupation (didn't they know about all the important history and the hakhamim (sages) and neviim (prophets) buried there?), fascinated by the ornate Russian orthodox church with its golden onion domes and the colourful fresco adorning the Catholic Church of all Nations.

Looking down into the valley she asks about the ornate tombs which stand out from among the more traditional headstones. She doesn't remember who Zakhariah is but enthusiastically regales me with the sad story of Absalom. "It's a tragic tale Ima, so it's OK to talk about it on Tisha B'Av night".

Soon we're passing the City of David, the original site of David's capital, nestled near the base of Mount Moriah, where David's son Solomon would build the Temple. I see a lightbulb go on in J's mind. It may be midnight but she remains alert and curious. "So that's why we talk about going up to the Temple Mount!" She exclaims. "The people lived down here".

Looking down into Silwan she notes all the colourful lights and asks me to tell her the story of Ramadan. I explain to her that Muslims believe that this is when their prophet Mohammed received the Quran. "Oh, so it's their version of Shavu'ot? Why to they celebrate it like Yom Kippur then?" I explain that it's kind of like Yom Kippur and Shavu'ot rolled into one.

J has a book about the gates of Jerusalem and she's very excited to try and spot them all. "That's the Lion's Gate!" She yells at one point "that's where the Israeli soldiers entered to liberate Jerusalem in the Six Day War, it's not too far from the Kotel, Ima, we're almost there!" Well, still a a midnight slog uphill, but yes, we're close to our destination.

I ask her if we could have done this walk in 1966. "Of course not Ima! But I know we could have on Tisha B'Av 1967, Uncle told me he did it then".

It is past midnight but the area around the Kotel is teeming with people, huge family groups, tourists, religious and secular. There are local tour groups for curious secular Israelis to show them what religious Jews do on Tisha B'Av night and foreign guides explaining the strange Jewish practice of mourning for a city and Temple destroyed two millenia ago. Some people have settled in to spend the whole night reciting Kinot lamentations by the Kotel.

In the Davidson Archaeological Park by the Temple Mount some of the original huge scorchmarked stone blocks sit where they fell during the Roman destruction of the city. It makes me shudder ever time we visit the site.

Our car is parked near Independence Park so we pass the this summer's "economic revolution" protest tents pitched there as make our way home. There are far fewer tents than I'd expected judging from the media hype, quite uniform, as though someone distributed the same tent to everyone. Earlier in the evening we'd seen people sitting out in discussion circles on the grass, honouring the solemnity of this most tragic night of the Jewish year. All is quiet now, it is afterall well past midnight.

Breaking the fast with relatives in Jerusalem the next evening our meal is disrupted by a noisy, but quite small, demonstration in the street below, mostly against the rise in electricity prices it seems, "Tzu el hamirpeset, hamedinah koreset" (step out onto your balconies, the state is collapsing) is the cry we hear as we peek curiously outside.

The crowd look mostly like studenty types, a few clean cut in neat jeans and khakis others of the long haired crusty rasta variety, a few kids in Scouts uniforms and a few folks with rather prominent red flags adorned with the hammer and sickle. I wonder if the young people carrying them understand the message and memories these symbols convey to many in Israel. They sound like many more people then they actually are. The couple of large dogs are very quiet and docile.

Communist paraphenalia aside, they do have a point about electricity prices. Somehow though I don't think they're calling for the market to be opened up to more competition though.

Our host tells us that this has been going on almost nightly for weeks, sometimes into the wee hours. Normally the 23:00 cut-off for noisy events is meticulously enfored. At the moment though the police and municipality seem reluctant to clamp down on the noise of the protests. She's had many sleepless nights as a result. It's amazing how much noise a few dozen people can make.

All in all a very curious few days. Keep praying for the peace of Jerusalem.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Never had it so good?

A wave of rebellion and despair is sweeping across Israel. Tented protest camps in every city and town proclaim that this country is impossible to live in, that Israelis are oppressed by a horrendous economy, brutal capitalism and a tiny wealthy elite robbing the very shirts off the backs of the ordinary middle and working classes. Demostrations bemoan the prohibitive cost of living, sky high housing prices, food and petrol that have risen so much they have become luxuries for ordinary people.

The protests wouldn't be out of place in many parts of Europe, and to see them you would assume that Israel's economy must be suffering the sort of disasterous financial woes afflicting Greece, Italy and Spain. Looking at the protest camps and the angry demonstrations in Israeli cities you would assume that Israel is facing double digit unemployment, failing industries and catastrophic debt.

You would be wrong.

The Israeli economy is actually currently one of the strongest in the world, reporting high levels of growth and a strong Shekel. Unemployment is at its lowest level ever, about 5.8%. Many shops and businesses display help wanted ads but seem unable to fill all the vacant positions.

Israelis are travelling abroad in record numbers. Glitzy new towers are popping up in Tel Aviv and elsewhere along with swank new restaurants and spas and luxury boutique hotels. Unprecedented numbers of A list international performers are gracing Israel's shores with tickets priced in the hundreds of Shekels, up to a thousand or more for the best seats. SUVs are being purchased in record numbers.

It seems hard to believe that these fruits of the boom are being enjoyed only by the tiny wealthy elite, yet many middle class Israelis seem to be struggling to finish the month on two average salaries.

Some among the protesters charge that the rich here are only getting richer by pushing the rest of the country into poverty. It would seem more accurate that many Israelis are being squeezed between Israel's comparitively low salaries and high taxes which includes 16% VAT and a top income tax rate of 57% (including national insurance payments) which kicks in at a relatively low level of pay.

One of the key grievances is the high price of housing in Israel today. Many people have been priced out of the centre of the country where many of the jobs are to be found. Young couples find themselves moving in with parents because rents have shot up to unprecedented levels.

Yet high housing prices are hardly the sign of a poor economy. Yes, the current property market looks unsustainable, a bubble waiting to burst. On the other hand this is a country with a young and growing population and a culture of property ownership, even when the cost of doing so is near bankruptcy. Traditionally it's quite common, even expected, that parents at least partially fund or even buy in advance apartments for their children.

Housing in Israel's densely populated central cities  has never been cheap though, why would anyone expect affordable housing in the middle of desirable locations such as north Tel Aviv or central Jerusalem?

In recent years real estate in many of Israel's big cities, in particular the capital, Jerusalem, has also been inflated by foreign buyers. New luxury developments in Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Netanya, Jerusalem, Ashdod, Ashkelon and elsewhere are attractive as holiday homes to diaspora Jews, further fueling spiralling housing prices and leaving many Israelis priced out of major cities while these holiday homes sit vacant for most of the year. Entire Jerusalem apartment buildings and even neighbourhoods are virtual ghost towns outside of the popular vacation seasons.

One of the factors keeping prices so high is the insane bureaucratic hoops one has to jump through in order to get a building project off the ground. Prices are rising, demand is high, but in recent years building starts have if anything declined. The system is simply not flexible enough to be able respond quickly to market forces.

The Netanyahu government was trying to push through land reforms that would make it easier to open up land for construction but many of those currently protesting rising housing costs are those opposed to land reform.

It is one of the conundrums of the recent demonstrations is that many of the same groups protesting the lack of cheap housing are those who campaigned against new building starts on the grounds of protecting the environment. Protecting Israel's rich archaeology and beautiful nature is important, but a growing population also needs somewhere to live. Something has to give.

At the moment there seem to be few people trying to come up with creative solutions to all these problems, prefering instead to go head to head with "evil" developers seeking to make a profit, while accusing them of destroying Israel's ecology and not providing affordable housing.

While housing prices eat up greater percentages of an average family's income, the day to day cost of living  has shot up too. Global prices rises in basic commodities such as fuel, grains and cotton have of course affected Israel. Electricity prices are set to rise by 20% this month, with a 17% increase retroactively charged for the first half of 2011. Government taxes and levies have only compounded these increases. High taxes on petrol, cars and many imported goods keeps their cost artificially high.

Israel aims for self-sufficiency in many things but it is still a small country in a region where politics allows little to no trade with our immediate neighbours, Israel must import from further afield, in particular from Europe, another reason why the hike in global fuels costs has hit hard.

Years of drought and a national water authority and government which have been slow to implement plans to conserve water and construct desalinisation plants has resulted in huge rises in water tarriffs in Israel, greatly increasing the average family's water bill as well as the cost of produce.

Yet the malls are full, cafes and restaurants do good business, hotels are booked. Yes, many Israelis are doing so on overdrafts and deferrred payments, but many are not.

The Israeli economy has never had it so good, and yet, many feel that they've never had it so bad.

And this does seem to be the key uniting issue among the disparate protestors - what don't we feel? We don't feel good! From the genuinely poor protesting the backsliding ineffeciency of the Amidar public housing offices to the comfortable middle class students griping that they can't afford to live in affluent north Tel Aviv, close to the university campus, a general feeling of discontent is sweeping the country.

In the tented protest camps and demonstrations people are calling for a return to socialism, an expansion of the welfare state, more public housing, free government sponsored childcare, pay increases for public sector workers, free college tuition, a rise in the top income tax bracket, more taxes on the wealthy and cheaper food.

Meanwhile possible solutions, such as opening the country's protectionist dairy market to increased foreign imports to lower prices, are met with protests at the damage such a move could cause to Israeli farmers, who are already facing losses from the decrease in cottage cheese prices brought on by the recent cheese boycott.

It seems that Israelis want to have it all. Higher incomes with lower taxes but increased state spending and a generous welfare state. Looking across the Mediterranean to the ailing debt ridden economies of our neighbours in Greece, Italy and Spain should give us pause for thought, as should this week's down grading of US credit-ratings. Solutions need to be found to Israel's pressing housing problem and rising food costs, but doing so at the expense of destroying our economy will only lead in the long run to even greater financial woes in Israel. So far we've managed to ride out the worst of the global financial crisis. I pray that our government and parliament will have the wisdom to continue to do so.