Friday, September 26, 2014

About budgets and growling bellies

The saying ”Prussia is not a country that has an army, Prussia is an army that has a country” is attributed to Count Mirabeau, a leader of the French Revolution. Quite a few of the Prussians of that time and the Germans of later  agreed to this assessment.

This week, the Tanin - new submarine of the Israeli Navy - arrived at the port of Haifa, and at the solemn welcoming ceremony Prime Minister Netanyahu declared it to be “A High Holydays gift to the People of Israel." The German government had built the submarine for the State of Israel, as part of the historical guilt that still affects many of Germany's relations with Israel, as well as a way of a guaranteeing jobs in the shipyards of Kiel. In modern Hebrew “Tanin” is simply the word for "Crocodile" in a foreign language, but in its  Biblical origin the Tanin was a far greater creature. The Bible often refers to the Tanin as a fearsome sea monster, which once fought a big war against God Himself. That is probably the true implication of bestowing the Tanin name on a submarine, which (according to foreign sources) carries nuclear-tipped  rockets and which, if ever given the order, could all by itself totally eradicate Tehran - or any other city in the Middle East.

For the time being, at the solemn ceremony in the Port of Haifa and the Cabinet meeting held on the same day, the military boasted an achievement of somewhat smaller proportions – the killing of  Marwan Kawasmeh and Amir Abu Eisha in Hebron. "ACCOUNT CLOSED: Israel killed the murderers of the three boys" declared banner headlines, followed by endless rhetoric from various politicians and public figures: "We embrace the soldiers who found the killers and risked their lives to restore  Israeli deterrence. Thank God for helping our soldiers perform this deed. Privileged they were to close with these bastards, these murderers, and do Justice unto them just before the  Day of Judgement. Murderers should not be alive. Let every enemy who rises against us know that, as the Psalmist said, “I pursued my enemies and overtook them, I did not turn back till they were destroyed”. A circle of evil had been closed at the beginning of the Jewish New Year, let it be a sweet good year to all the people of Israel”. Western newspapers are supposed to abide by the rule that a suspect is considered innocent until proven guilty in court - but not in the Israeli press and in this case. Anyway, the case of Marwan Kawasmeh and Amir Abu Eisha would now never come before any court.

Still another Israeli military achievement got into the headlines - the shooting down of a Syrian aircraft which penetrated into the airspace of the State of Israel (to be exact, into the airspace of  the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in 1967 and unilaterally annexed in 1982). True, the Syrian plane  penetrated only some 800 meters across the Israeli border, it turned back after a few seconds, and according to Israeli military sources the penetration was accidental while bombing the positions of rebels opposing the Assad regime who recently took control of the border area with Israel. Was it the best-advised action to bring down one of President Assad’s  planes on the same day that  the United States became Assad’s de facto ally in the fight against the ISIL beheaders? But maybe there is no need to look here for far-reaching political implications and motivations. Months ago, the directive was given to shoot down Syrian planes which would penetrate across the border. The plane did cross the border, there was an officer in charge who had to take a decision within one minute, he did make ??a decision and brought it down. Anyway,  Yediot  Aharonot gathered all three achievements of the Israeli Defense Forces – the submarine in Haifa, the liquidation in Hebron and the plane in Golan Heights – into a single impressive headline: "By Land, Sea and Air”.

But there can be no doubt that the biggest victory won this week by the State of Israel’s armed forces was in the battle against the Ministry of Finance of the same. The headlines announced it: "A compromise between Netanyahu and Lapid: 14 billion to Defence." Just hours before the New Jewish Year  holiday started, the Prime Minister's Office announced an agreements on the budget between Benjamin Netanyahu the Finance Minister Yair Lapid, agreeing that the Defense Ministry will receive another six billions to supplement its basic  budget in 2015, plus seven or eight billions to cover expenses incurred during Operation Protective Edge, so that the defense budget for the year 2015 will amount to 57 billions.

So, is this the end of the titanic struggle over the defense budget? Not precisely. "A senior defense official told Walla News: the approved budget is definitely not enough. That is unequivocal. This amount would force us to stop the army in its tracks already in the first months of the year, It would be very damaging in terms of acquiring and strengthening our equipment, including Iron Dome anti-missile missiles, and there will be no training of soldiers. It is clear to Treasury as well as to us that Defence will need - and will get – supplementary budgets in the course of next year, so why play these games?”

Will the army get this additional funding during the coming year? Certainly they will. The Army's hunger for additional budgets is unlimited, and so it its ability to sate that hunger. But who will not get any extras? The soldiers who serve in this army. A week ago, the topic suddenly burst into the media in big headlines: "Soldiers below the poverty line – they fought in Gaza, and have no money for food." “They risked their lives during the war in Gaza, but at the end of the operation, just before the High Holidays, many of them find it difficult to cope with fighting on another front: bank overdraft, debts and a growling belly.

Defense Minister Ya'alon shaking the hand of an Israeli Navy cadet.
In ten years this young man might have his finger on the nuclear trigger - 
but what will he eat in the meantime? (Photo: 

Shahar  (not his real name) is a Combat Engineering conscript and a lone soldier. His mother died, his father went abroad  and cut off all connections, and he has no family assistance. To support himself, his superiors allowed him to work occasionally. But in the past two months, during the fighting in the South, his overdraft in the bank has risen and reached a total of 15 thousand Shekels . As soon as Shahar returned from Gaza, he discovered dozens of angry warning messages on financial obligations and was informed that  attachment orders were issued against his meager possessions. "I don’t know what I'm going to eat. I am totally lost and don’t know where I will celebrate the New Year, "he said in a conversation with the Channel 2 TV news. The army is giving me 700 Shekels (appr. US$190) per month, this is beyond contempt. I have nowhere to turn to, the commanding officer told me there is nothing to be done. The banks don’t care that I fought in Gaza
And Shahar is not the only one. Idan (a pseudonym) serves at an Iron Dome battery and has a completely handicapped father and a mother who is frequently hospitalized at mental health institutions. He is due to end his term of compulsory service in a few months. "I used to work nights at a gas station and then delivered newspapers in the morning. I would return to the army after a night of hard work, nearly sleepwalking, but at least I had money, I would earn some 6000-7000 Shekels per month. But this stopped when the operation started. The officers said it is now war and I can’t go anywhere, nothing to be done about it. They told I had to be a full time soldier and not go to work outside. The war went on and my debts accrued interest, and now I'm in trouble. This is how it is to be a soldier in this country – they use you and throw you to the garbage. All the defense budgets go to the salaries of the senior officers, nobody cares about us. I am being discharged in a few months, I will go out into civilian life with huge debts. Others have parents who pay for their studies, I can’t dream of that.

Shifra Shahar, who heads the "Warm Home for Every Soldier" association which helps soldiers in distress, says that since " Protective Edge" the number of soldiers’ appeals for financial aid rose from dozens to hundreds per day. "Conscript soldiers do not get salaries, they just pocket money which is barely enough for cigarettes. They can’t subsist on that. Soldiers who manage to carry on are those whose parents support them., For more than 40% of the IDF soldiers this is not an option, and they are in a very bad situation”.

In 133 BC, the People’s Tiberius Gracchus came out into the Forum in the  city of Rome and
delivered a speech which went into history: “The beasts of the field have their caves to retire to, but the brave men who spill their blood in our country’s cause have nothing left but air and light. Without houses, without settled habitations, they wander from place to place. Their generals but mock them when, at the head of their armies, they exhort their men to fight for their sepulchers and the gods of their hearths, for among these numerous soldiers  there is hardly one Roman who has an altar that has belonged to his ancestors or a sepulcher in which their ashes rest. The private soldiers fight and die to advance the wealth and luxury of the great. They who are called Masters of the World have not  a single clod of earth to call their own.”

In Ancient Rome, this speech precipitated ??a huge political storm, opening decades of revolutionary social unrest. In the State of Israel of 2014, the soldiers who returned from Gaza into poverty made interesting topic for three or four days before the media turned to other issues. Indifference, not only to the fate of Palestinians.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Tsunami management

A few days after the ceasefire several dozen people gathered at Sderot, near the Gaza border - Israelis who have not lost the hope for peace and the determination to struggle for it. There were members of “The Other Voice” who live in the Gaza border area and maintain this struggle under difficult physical and social conditions, together with activists from elsewhere in the country invited by the Peace NGO’s Forum.

As described by Dr. Dan Jacobson, a longtime peace activist whom I've known for more than thirty years, "In discussion groups, participants spoke frankly for hours, seeking to shake free of fixed views. Residents of the Gaza border area showed themselves to be fed up and exhausted with the intolerable conditions they have had to experience in the past fourteen years. Some had severe doubts about their individual and collective future in the Western Negev; others stressed that this region was their one and only home. There were also quite a few expressions of empathy for the suffering of the civilian population in Gaza, accompanied by disgust at the extrajudicial executions in the Gaza city square. The attitude to Hamas ranged from utter disgust to an understanding that, like it or not, this is an organization representing a significant component of Palestinian society and which therefore must be engaged in dialogue, either directly or indirectly via the Government of Reconciliation led by President Abbas. A lot was told of ongoing personal relationships with neighbors across the border fence, maintained even at during the worst of the fighting.

Actually, the perceived draw with which a conflict ended between a regional power armed to the teeth, and a determined insurgent terrorist organization led to the development of a partial consensus on mobilizing and campaigning for a non-aggressive alternative. Despite all, said some of the participants, perhaps unlike previous rounds of fighting, an opening was created for something different, a kind of temporary constellation of forces in which outdated concepts would be discarded and the way opened to a new reality.

The peace initiative of the Arab League has come back from the tunnels and obscurity into which it had been relegated, its initiators holding out their hand to Israel – provided only that it ends the occupation; Israel discovers a common interest with the moderate Middle East countries which feel threatened by Islamic radicalism; the Israeli public, at least in part, starts understanding the limitations of military force and the inability to decide the conflict with tanks and technology, however sophisticated; the price of continued occupation and of the unbridled use of force is becoming unacceptable in terms of casualties, of the economic and social cost and of the erosion of the legitimacy of Israel’s very existence in the eyes of the Western world. In addition there is the increasing tendency towards emigration by young people, who see Israel embarked on a course where its democratic character and its very future seem in increasing doubt. For the moment, residents of the South and of the Gaza Border perimeter enjoy a kind of privileged position in the public opinion, due to the price they paid. They have a kind of immunity from criticism which might enable them to take in the coming weeks a leading position in a campaign of civil grassroots pressure on the government of Israel, to take “a bold political initiative”.

Would this potential be realized? For the time being, it must be noted, there are no signs of serious pressure in this direction among the Israeli public. According to polls, the immediate result of the war - and of the unrest in the region around us – is an increased support for right-wing parties whose programs advocate eternal conflict with the Palestinians.

Last week, PM Netanyahu dropped a few vague few hints about seeking "a political horizon" - which immediately prompted a wave of speculation and unreasonable predictions, even by seasoned commentators who should have known better. At least, unlike the days of the 2009 "Bar-Ilan Speech", when commentators continued to hang their hopes on Netanyahu for a year or more, this time Netanyahu was quick to dispel the illusions and clarify his intentions by means of a large-scale, very conspicuous land expropriation on the West Bank.

On Sunday morning, the Palestinian residents of five villages in the Bethlehem Area woke to find that 4,000 dunams of their land were declared by Israel to be "State Lands” and designated for creation of a large Israeli settler city to be known as as "Gva’ot" ("Hills"). From now on, the Palestinian villagers are no longer considered as the owners of these lands. Attempted entry into them might be considered as “trespassing”, and Israeli soldiers were stationed to guard the new State Lands against such trespassers. During the war in Gaza, Israeli soldiers had become increasingly trigger-happy. No less than twenty West Bank Palestinians were killed by IDF gunfire during this war, and almost unnoticed because of the far greater carnage in Gaza. Netanyahu certainly knew in advance that expropriation of land on this scale would precipitate a wave of strong reactions and international condemnation - but it seems that as long as condemnations remain verbal he considers it an acceptable price.

Judea and Samaria Civil Adminstration, Office of Government Properties – State Land, No Trespassing!

Over the past decade – in fact, ever since Ehud Barak succeeded, after the Camp David fiasco of 2000 to convince the Israeli public that “there is no partner "- the idea of "Conflict Management" became the leitmotif of Israeli public discourse. "We can’t resolve the conflict, we can only manage it." Is this still a viable option, after the fifty days of devastating war and with the upheavals going on all around us? From the commentaries in the weekend papers, it seems Netanyahu and his Defense Minister Ya'alon intend to continue in exactly this way. "The lesson from Gaza is that the Army and Security Service must maintain a freedom of action, a freedom of entry to any location, a freedom of prevention, throughout the entire area west of the Jordan River. Otherwise there will develop a threat of mortars and rockets" said Ya'alon at a cabinet meeting convened to sum up the war.

Nahum Barnea wrote in the same vein in the weekend Yediot Aharonot: "To forestall any potential Palestinian diplomatic move, Netanyahu announced this week that he would not release any more prisoners. The Government of Israel just does not play this game. Netanyahu has no intention to go into negotiations with Abu Mazen. His speech on the Political Horizon was no more than lip service, beads to the Indians. The fighting ends and Israel returns to its position on the eve of the operation: in favor of Hamas rule in Gaza, provided that it is weak and suffocating; in favor of Fatah rule on the West Bank, on condition that it is weak and collaborative.”

But is it really possible to continue to "manage the conflict"? Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), who will be eighty soon, seems unwilling to continue playing that game. Public opinion polls among Palestinians this week presented a mirror image of Israeli polls. Hamas is more popular than ever, while Abbas’ ratings are at the lowest ebb of his career. More and more Palestinians believe that “Israelis understand only force", less and less think that something can be achieved by political means. Hamas's determination to fight on against an overwhelmingly superior force aroused quite a bit of admiration among Palestinians - despite the heavy toll exacted on the Gaza Strip. On the other hand, it would be difficult to find any Palestinian enthusiastic about the nine months of futile negotiations which Abbas conducted under the auspices of Secretary of State Kerry and which produced expected zero results. If Abbas is still to salvage some prestige among his people he must take bold steps, a diplomatic counterpart to the military daring of Hamas.

According to information leaking out Ramallah, such seems indeed to be Abbas's intention. First, he would call for resumption of negotiations, with emphasis placed on determining the borders between Israel and Palestine, and conditional upon a settlement freeze during negotiations – with Abbas knowing in advance that Netanyahu would reject any such proposal out of hand. Next, there would be an appeal to the UN Security Council to define a time-table for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders. And should the United States veto such a proposal, Abbas would launch a war crimes lawsuit at the International Court in The Hague against Israeli military and civilian leaders implicated in the killing of 2100 Gazans, of whom five hundred were children.

Would the United States indeed impose a veto on a Palestinian Security Council bid to set a timetable for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders? There was a time when an American veto would have been taken for granted and no one would doubt that it would come (most especially, two months ahead of the Congressional midterm elections, when the power of AIPAC is at its peak). The very fact that at this moment there is considerable apprehension at Netanyahu's bureau, and that the American veto is far from being counted on, is indicative of the thorough deterioration which the PM’s relationship with the White House had undergone.

In the meantime, the EU opened a new front. The European Union Department of Public Health sent a letter to the Chief Veterinary Officer in the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture, which stated that all animal products exported to the European market - poultry, eggs and milk – must have a veterinary certificate, and that the Israeli Veterinary Services can provide such certification only to products originating in Israel. The European countries do not recognize an Israeli veterinary approval given to products originating at settlements in Occupied Territories which are not part of Israel, and the entry of such products into the European Market is effectively blocked. Moreover, on July 28 the Europeans announced that the Israeli authorities must ensure that the Veterinary Service will not issue any certification for products originating in settlements. Furthermore, Israel must establish a mechanism to create an absolute distinction between settlement products and those originating within Israel’s legitimate, pre-1967 territory - and provide the Europeans with a convincing proof that such a mechanism exists.

Ma'ariv quoted anonymous senior officials on both sides of the debate. Diplomats at the EU Commission in Brussels: "If we are not satisfactorily convinced that there an effective method of separation, we would be forced to completely ban all imports of animal products from Israel. It must be stressed, however, that there is no boycott of Israel. This is nothing more than a technical procedure”. Diplomats at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem: "The problem of the Europeans is not a veterinarian problem. There is no issue of poultry diseases here. Their problem is political in nature. They are using the veterinarian argument in order to promote their strategy, which does not recognize Israel's control of the Territories.”

Commentator Ben Kaspit added: "An EU decision to completely halt all imports of dairy and animal products from Israel as a whole would be a catastrophic scenario, one which nobody in the Jerusalem corridors of power expected so quickly. It seems to me that the chances it will happen are close to zero, as yet. The Europeans have put this elephant in the middle of the room so they can take it out and leave there a goat – a goat whose presence is quite acute in itself. The goat is the boycott of products originating in the Territories. This is bad news – it will be the first time that a European significant embargo is announced against a product coming from or any way connected or infected with a relationship to all that is beyond the Green Line , including Jerusalem, including the Golan Heights.“

Caspit continues: “The political tsunami is already here. It disguises itself with bureaucratic and veterinary and technical and logistical reasoning, but it lives there, and it is kicking us in the head. One thing should be clear: all this business is planned. It's not just the Europeans. Behind them are hiding the Americans. Ahead of Obama's second term, which the Prime Minister tried to prevent, the US Administration and the European Union decided on a new method of acting action against the Netanyahu Government, should it continue to be obdurate. The United States cannot impose real sanctions on Israel. Congress will not allow it. Since the White House knows the balance of power, the role of imposing sanctions falls on the Europeans. The Americans sting Netanyahu in other ways – cutting off the supply of ammunition during the war, for example, or reducing the umbrella of international diplomatic support hitherto provided to Israel. Things like that. The Europeans accepted.. the job of doing the dirty work, now we see it beginning to happen”.

This week, a soldier sat beside me on the bus. He had a large black cloth bag bearing his unit badge and the words: "Hoping for the best, expecting the very worst." Did the unit equip its soldiers with these cases before the recent war in Gaza or afterwards?

Meanwhile, yesterday at noon protesters climbed to the top of the hill overlooking Military Prison 6, and unfurled banners reading “Occupation leads to war crimes” which were big enough to be visible and readable from the prison courtyard. It is also possible to hear inside the prison the slogans chanted on the mountain, provided that wind conditions are favorable. The demonstration was held in order to express solidarity and support for two conscientious objectors held there - Uriel Ferera and Udi Segal. They are both 19, both were born long after the tradition of demonstrations at Prison 6 began. The first such demonstration in support of imprisoned refuseniks took place at the beginning of the First Lebanon War in 1982.

Uriel Ferera, born in Argentine to an Orthodox religious family and a resident of Be'er Sheva, is already for six months behind bars. A few days before the date set for his call-up order he explained the reasons for his act: "I refuse to enlist in the IDF because I am opposed to the occupation. Even if I would be sent to a back echelon unit, I would still contribute indirectly to the occupation and to what it causes. I think of the young Palestinians, of my own age, all that they know is the situation of occupation. Soldiers who enter their home late at night, even when there is no reason, who separate men from women, who strip people, humiliate them, all in order to prove who is the boss.

What do you expect? Do you expect them to love us after this? What is to be expected of a Palestinian boy who was arrested by soldiers? That he would admire Israel? My conscience will not let me be a part of this. We have created the Palestinian problem. Instead of allowing the Palestinians to live their lives, we, we have created enemies with our own hands. And what is behind this is that government of Israel's desire to hide the real problems of the society. It is not the Palestinians who are the problem. Poverty is the problem. So the government creates an enemy, in order not take care of the real problems. That is their easiest solution”.

Ferera told the same to the recruiting officers, and was sent on the spot to a month in jail. At the end of the month he was released, got once again an order to let himself be enlisted, and again refused and was again sent to prison, and so on again and again. Now it is already for the seventh time. On many previous occasions, the military authorities had by that stage given up the effort to make a soldier of somebody who had so many times demonstrated his determination, but it seems that this time they are especially persistent in trying to break him.

At the middle of the war in Gaza, Ferrara was joined behind bars by another objector, Uri Segal of Kibbutz Tuval: "I think that now, more than ever, it is important. Important, not only to refuse but also to undertake any act against the occupation. Precisely now, when every day we can see the disastrous consequences with our own eyes on TV, especially now when the government and all the media are trying to silence any voice diverging from the combative Israeli mainstream.”

Seventy-five protesters accompanied Segal on his way to the recruiting office in Haifa. One of them had prepared a sign reading "Eight hundred people killed in Gaza – that is not security." Until the protest actually took place on the day fixed for Segal’s call-up, the number of deaths in Gaza already approached a thousand. The Cease-fire and the final death toll estimated at 2100 was already in the middle of Udi Segal’s second month in prison. There are many months ahead for him, and demonstrators will several times more need to call his name from the mountaintop. 

 Uriel Ferera, Born to be Free
(Dove drawing by Dudu Palma)