Israel’s Burning Man festival gets go-ahead


Beersheba police must allow the Israeli version of the Burning Man festival to take place, an Israeli court ruled.

The Beersheba Magistrate’s Court on Monday ordered police to provide a permit for Midburn, as the event in the Negev Desert is known, but laid out rules about indecent exposure. Police and festival organizers had been haggling over the permit for four months, according to reports.

Some 6,500 people are expected to attend Midburn, which is scheduled to take place May 20-24 in southern Israel.

The court ordered the festival to adhere to a number of police demands, including that nudity be allowed only in closed-off areas where minors are not permitted and closed-circuit TV cameras may not film inside tents and private areas, according to The Jerusalem Post.

Modeled after the annual weeklong event held in Black Rock Desert, Nevada, the festival sets up a temporary city “creating a platform which will allow a communal life style, creativity, art and radical self-expression,” according to the Midburn website.

On Sunday, the Beersheba court imposed a stop work order on the festival at the request of police, bringing to a halt work on more than 70 art installations and dozens of theme camps, according to the Times of Israel.

This will be the second Midburn event following two years of smaller-scale, unofficial events.

At summer camps and trauma centers, Beersheba students facing rockets with locals


During Israel’s conflict with Hamas in 2009, Eli Nachmani, already using a wheelchair, injured his leg when a rocket hit this southern Israeli city.

In the last clash in 2012, Nachmani sustained a head injury when the blast from a rocket knocked him out of his wheelchair.

The nearest bomb shelter is 50 yards from his house, and he can’t cover the distance on his own in the seconds between the sounding of the air-raid siren and the impact of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip.

Calls to Israel’s Welfare Ministry and the Beersheba municipality have gone unanswered. His only help is Noa Pney-Gil, a 24-year-old education major from the nearby Ben-Gurion University.

“I thank her, thank her, thank her from the bottom of my heart,” Nachmani said. “We should have many more like her.”

Fortunately, there are.

After Israel’s latest round of fighting with Hamas in Gaza broke out last week, Pney-Gil joined hundreds of Ben-Gurion University student volunteers who stayed in the conflict zone past the end of the school year to assist city residents in need.

The volunteers have helped out in hospitals, delivered supplies to the homebound elderly and disabled, and assisted with post-trauma care.

“When you go home, you understand people need help here and are waiting,” said Pney-Gil, a Tel Aviv native who considers herself a Beersheba-ite. “I want to be connected to the place I live. I won’t escape to Tel Aviv every time there’s a problem. I’ll deal with the problem here.”

The size of the volunteer corps is a testament to the success of university efforts to inculcate a culture of community involvement and serve as a catalyst for the city’s improvement. Some scholarships are tied to the number of hours students volunteer with underprivileged residents. The university provides discounted housing to students willing to live in Beersheba’s rundown city center.

Tami Ivgi Hadad, 32, a doctoral student researching nonprofits, began volunteering as an undergraduate in exchange for a scholarship. Over time she came to realize she really enjoyed it.

Today, Ivgi Hadad coordinates city volunteers during emergencies in addition to her studies. In a municipal building near the university earlier this week, she alternated between phone calls and typing on her laptop. Of her 250 volunteers Sunday, 200 were Ben-Gurion students.

“During routine times, you see a lot of adults volunteering, and young people don’t find free time,” she said. “But when there aren’t work or classes, they come out. They have this kind of adrenaline. Adults have gone through things in life. They don’t come out quickly under fire.”

Missiles overhead Sunday morning didn’t faze Dafna Kandelman, a first-year medical student volunteering as a counselor at an impromptu day camp for children of the local hospital’s staff.

Israeli law compels hospital workers to stay on the job in times of emergency, but it poses a child care dilemma for employees since many day camps have been canceled because of the missile threat. So medical students set up and run a camp for some 250 children of hospital workers.

At 10:45 a.m., the kids were having a late breakfast in the bomb shelter when a missile siren blared. Kandelman and other volunteers rushed to gather campers playing outside, only to find that many of them already were filing into the shelter.

Growing up in southern Israel, a major target for rocket attacks from Gaza, the kids knew the protocol. Kandelman found it harder to adapt.

“You can’t get used to it,” she said. “You [say], ‘OK, there’s a siren, let’s go to a stairwell, let’s go to a reinforced room.’ Most of the day it’s OK. Then you let your guard down and it comes out of nowhere. It catches you off guard every time. That’s the hard thing.”

While Israel suffered its first death in the conflict on Tuesday, some Beersheba residents have been treated for shock from missile strikes. At a temporary treatment center for trauma victims, student volunteers handle administration and engage the patients in preliminary conversation before professional social workers and psychologists treat them. Students are responsible as well for helping to move patients to a shelter when a siren goes off.

“They can run and hit a wall, fall down the stairs,” said Moshe Levy, 27, a physiology student volunteering at the trauma center. “They’re already in a sensitive situation, so any alarm puts them off balance.”

Helping out during the conflict comes naturally to medical students because the medical school’s students’ association places a high priority on volunteering all year round, said Nadav Zillcha, the association’s chairman.

Zillcha, 30, with graying hair and a firm expression, was skipping one day of a rotation at another hospital to organize volunteers. He said helping out during the conflict prepares medical students for the gravity of saving people’s lives.

“There’s a need here,” Zillcha said, adding, “We need to realize that now.”

 

Police investigating Israeli organ-trafficking ring


The Israeli man believed to be behind an organ-trafficking ring has evaded capture, according to a monthlong police investigation.

The main suspect is from Beersheva and is in his 40s, police in southern Israel said.

A gag order on the organ-trafficking case was lifted on Tuesday.

Young women reportedly were convinced to travel to Turkey to provide organs for transplant into older, wealthier women. They were promised thousands of dollars for the service.

Turkish police also are investigating the case, according to Haaretz.

Police were made aware of the scheme last month, when an 18-year-old who had flown to Turkey to have her kidney removed returned to Israel after changing her mind about the surgery. Her parents filed a complaint with Beersheva police.

The young women were introduced to the would-be recipients to form an emotional bond and thus ensure their cooperation, Ynet reported. Many of the women interviewed for the investigation said they did not receive money for their act, though police believe they did receive payment in cash.

Exploiting Israel’s Negev Bedouin


While many believe that a successful peace process will end demonization of Israel based on incendiary terms such as “apartheid” and “racism,” and in accompanying boycott campaigns, the evidence suggests that this hatred goes far deeper. Indeed, the organizations that lead these campaigns are not focused on the post-1967 “occupation”, but rather target all of 1948 Israel, from Kiryat Shemona, along the border with Lebanon (and Hezbollah), to Eilat at the southern tip. For these groups, any form of Jewish self-determination and sovereignty equality, is, in their language, a form of racism, ethnic cleansing and apartheid. And Israeli Jews who live in the Negev or Tel Aviv are “settlers”.

For example, a number of political non-governmental organizations (NGOs) recently launched campaigns that exploit the complex issues surrounding land claims on behalf of Israel's Negev Bedouin population. The Negev, with the city of Beersheva, Ben Gurion University, and Soroka hospital, constitutes over half of the country's territory. As the Israeli Bedouin population grew significantly in recent decades, partly due to the practice of polygamy and very high birthrates, illegal building, without planning or environmental considerations, has expanded widely. As is true for any other competent government, the Israeli leadership has sought to change course, in form of assisting the Bedouin by creating new towns, with schools, clinics and other necessary facilities.

[Read a response to Gerald M. Steinberg]

In response, anti-Israel NGOs that cynically use the cover of human rights hit the road with global tours, including in the United States and Europe, attacking the plan, repeating labels such as “ethnic cleansing”, “racial discrimination,” and “human rights violations”. In slick publications, videos, and presentations before the UN and European parliamentary groups, NGOs have falsely referred to the Negev Bedouin as “Palestinian victims”, and Israeli Jewish residents in the Negev as “settlers”. The campaign erases 4000 years of Jewish history in the Negev (from the arrival of Abraham in Beersheva), thereby delegitimizing Israeli sovereignty. Noted Israeli columnist Ben-Dror Yemini reviewed a slick propaganda video produced by Rabbis for Human Rights, portraying Israel “as the cruel anti-Semitic ruler, expelling and disinheriting and destroying and robbing…” (Funding for this video and for other campaigns of radical NGOs that exploit Bedouin issue is provided by groups such as the US-based New Israel Fund.)

Similarly, a radical organization calling itself “Jewish Voices for Peace”, which supports BDS (boycotts, divestment and sanctions) has suddenly discovered the Bedouin Negev issue. Little is know about JVP’s membership or its sources of funding (over $1 million dollars annually), but its primary agenda is to promote anti-Israel and anti-Zionist propaganda, in order to “drive a wedge” over support for Israel in the American Jewish community. In particular, JVP targeted participants in the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) Biennial conference, taking place in San Diego.

With little knowledge of the details, “progressive Jews” are deemed as likely to accept and sympathize with the campaign to “help the Negev Bedouin” stand up to the “powerful Israeli state which seeks to deprive them of their land”.

In contrast, American Jews are unlikely to hear the Bedouins themselves, unfiltered by officials of political NGOs, because their leaders lack the resources for these global tours and press campaigns. For example, Abed Tarabin, leader of one of central clans in the Negev, recently noted that “The opposition to the plan comes from belligerent politicians, making noise for their own purposes. It doesn’t come from real Bedouin leaders who are concerned with their people. There is plenty of room in the Negev for everybody, and it is good that the government is working to improve things and is investing money in us”.

These views rarely make it into many journalists writing about Israel simply repeat the unsupported NGO allegations, and exclude the Bedouins themselves. In a major article based on NGO claims, and accompanied by emotionally moving photos, the New York Times correspondent greatly exaggerated the number of individuals that would be affected by the Israeli plan. She also quoted radicals who again referred to “insidious racism, ethnic cleansing or even apartheid”, as well as “a land grab that ignores their culture and traditions.”

The prevalence of such campaigns regarding the Negev, within Israel’s 1948 “Green Line”, suggests that a peace agreement with the Palestinians will not end the demonization and boycotts. For Israelis and American Jews who support a two-state solution, the need to oppose such misleading and hate-based campaigns should be a major priority.


Prof. Gerald M. Steinberg is the president of NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institute and recipient of the 2013 Menachem Begin Prize.

Beersheva bank attack spurs gun reforms in Israel


Israel would require security guards to leave their weapons at work under gun reforms unveiled in the aftermath of a Beersheva bank attack that killed four.

Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch announced the planned reforms on Tuesday, the day after a former Border Police captain’s rampage at a Bank Hapoalim branch.

Along with the requirement for security guards, the reforms would limit to one the number of guns that civilians could possess at one time. Also, gun owners renewing a license would have to prove their need for the weapon.

Aharonovitch said his ministry would establish a committee to perform medical tests for gun-license applicants, the Times of Israel reported.

Nearly 170,000 Israelis are licensed to carry a gun, including 40,000 security guards for schools, supermarkets and malls. Most other gun licenses are issued to those who work or live in what are characterized as high-risk areas, including the West Bank and communities on the border with the West Bank.

“Limiting gun ownership is at the top of our agenda, and I intend to hold a weekly follow-up meeting on the subject,” Aharonovitch said.

Studying abroad in a war zone, Americans in Israel are shaken but undeterred


When the first two sirens went off, Shoshana Leshaw ran from her second-floor bedroom down to the bomb shelter in the basement. By the time the third and fourth sirens wailed, she went no farther than the stairwell.

“It’s almost like you’re sick of the sirens interrupting your sleep,” Leshaw said. “You just want to get it over with and go back to what you’re doing.”

Fifteen air-raid sirens in total rang out in the southern Israeli city of Beersheva on the night of Nov. 14, the first night of Israel's Operation Pillar of Defense aimed at bringing an end to Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza. The sirens repeatedly woke Leshaw, a junior at Queens College in New York, and most of the 25 other study-abroad students at Ben-Gurion University.

They were among the thousands of young Americans who come to Israel each year to study or work, but found themselves instead scurrying for cover last week as Hamas rained missiles on Israel.

Students said they never feared for their physical safety; they had been trained on how to react in the event of a missile strike. But many said that living in cities targeted by missiles gave them a new appreciation of the realities of life in Israel, and some found themselves quickly copying the casual approach to war that Israelis have cultivated over decades of living under military threat from their neighbors.

In Tel Aviv with Oranim-Israel Way, an internship program, Stephen Fox was surprised to find his Israeli co-workers joking about the missiles. After a while, though, he found himself thinking of the sirens as a fire drill. A few days after last week's bus bombing in Tel Aviv, Fox, 23, boarded his bus to work without a second thought.

“Halfway through it I was like, ‘Should I be taking the bus?’ ” he said. “It didn’t even occur to me. The restaurants and bars were still going, people were out shopping. It was like normal.”

Oranim, which has a division in the southern city of Ashdod, brought all of its participants to Tel Aviv after fighting broke out. One participant left the program and four others returned home for two weeks with plans to come back. Michal Ben-Ari, Oranim’s Tel Aviv coordinator, said one of the week’s biggest challenges was reassuring parents that their children were safe.

“Parents told us, ‘I don’t see anything on the news, so I’m imagining the worst,’ ” Ben-Ari said.” As soon as we gave them information on what was going on in Tel Aviv, they felt a lot better.”

Other programs with students in southern Israel also took measures to remove them from the path of incoming rockets. The day after Pillar of Defense began, Ben-Gurion’s study-abroad program took students on a trip to Masada, then relocated them to Sde Boker, another Ben-Gurion campus out of rocket range. Program staff quickly arranged for students to continue coursework there — if necessary for the rest of the semester.

“You’re not just bored, but you feel like you can’t change things,” said Abby Worthen, a University of Pennsylvania student taking her junior year abroad. “We felt like there was nothing we could do, and that was hard.”

Worthen, like other students, was shaken the first time she heard a siren — a feeling she said separated the study-abroad students from their Israeli classmates, many of whom were reservists called to serve in the Israeli army.

“I’m almost jealous of Israelis,” Worthen said. “They have this way about them that’s calm and rational, and I don’t. On some level it’s a lot more intense for them because they have a stake in it, [but] it wasn’t as meaningful to them because this is sort of run of the mill.”

Even programs considered safely out of range were impacted by the fighting. Nativ, a Conservative post-high school program in Jerusalem, prohibited participants from traveling to Israel’s South or metropolitan Tel Aviv, both areas targeted by rockets. Oranim asked its participants to notify staff whenever they left Tel Aviv. Often stuck at home, the Americans turned to talking politics — too much, according to Fox.

“I definitely learned a lot more about Israel and the Gaza conflict, but talking about it 24-7, there wasn’t that much news that could sustain conversation,” he said. “So we found ourselves rehashing the same conversations, so it got a little exhausting.”

The intense focus on the fighting, though, reminded Worthen of the physical and emotional distance between Israel and the United States.

“It’s so hard listening when there are real things going on in the world, that Hostess is going out of business,” she said, referring to news last week of the snack maker's demise. “I had to remember that there are other things in the world.”

Rockets pound Israel for seventh day


More than 80 rockets were fired at southern Israel in the seventh day since the beginning of Operation Pillar of Defense, including two aimed at Jerusalem.

An air raid siren sounded in Jerusalem on Tuesday afternoon; two rockets fell in the Gush Etzion area south of Jerusalem. Hamas claimed responsibility for the rockets aimed at Jerusalem.

Shortly before the alarm, a rocket struck a building in the Eshkol Regional Council, reportedly injuring several people. Rockets also hit a home in Netivot and damaged homes in Sderot and Beersheva.

An Israeli reserve soldier was injured by a rocket that fell in the Eshkol Regional Council.

A volley of 16 rockets was fired Tuesday toward Beersheva. One hit the road in front of a bus, damaging the bus, which the passengers had exited due to the air raid siren. A second rocket hit a house and a third hit a parked care. Nine of the 16 rockets were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system.

The Israel Defense Forces said in a statement that on Tuesday, it targeted 11 terrorist squads involved in firing rockets toward Israel and planting explosive devices at the border. The IDF also bombed 30 underground rocket launchers and a hiding place for senior terror operatives that was used to store weapons and ammunition, the IDF spokesman said. Overnight, the IDF said it targeted 100 terror sites in Gaza, including underground rocket launchers, terror tunnels and ammunition storage facilities.

“The sites that were targeted were positively identified by precise intelligence over the course of several months,” the IDF statement said.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reportedly will land in Israel on Tuesday to encourage a cease-fire. She also will meet with Palestinian Authority leaders, but no one from Hamas, Haaretz reported. United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki-moon also arrived in Israel on Tuesday to meet with Israeli leaders.

As it pummels Gaza, Israel faces a Hamas with stronger missiles and closer allies


In some ways, Israel’s latest confrontation with Hamas looks like past conflicts in the Gaza Strip. Operation Pillar of Defense has left some key Hamas leaders dead, depleted weapons supplies and hit more than 1,000 targets in Gaza.

“We are exacting a heavy price from Hamas and the terrorist organizations” in Gaza, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at his Sunday Cabinet meeting.

But there are also some important — and more worrisome — differences that Israel is seeing in Hamas this time around. The terrorist organization that rules Gaza is using more powerful missiles, with a range that can reach the Israeli heartland, and Hamas has closer and stronger allies at its side.

In the past, Hamas rockets threatened only Israel’s South. At their farthest, the projectiles could reach the desert metropolis of Beersheva and the southern coastal cities of Ashkelon and Ashdod.

This time, however, the rockets have flown nearly 50 miles, reaching the densely populated center of the country: Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, making Hamas’ rockets no longer just a problem for Israel’s “periphery.” Taken together with Hezbollah’s increasing firepower from Lebanon, terrorist missiles can reach virtually all of Israel.

Israel's Iron Dome anti-rocket system, which shoots incoming missiles out of the air, has helped limit the damage from Hamas' rocket attacks. The system is deployed to eliminate missiles headed for Israeli population centers, and Israeli officials say the interception rate is near 90 percent. As of Monday, Iron Dome shot down 350 of 1,000 missiles overall aimed at Israel; most landed in unpopulated areas and were not targeted by Iron Dome.

Complicating matters further for Israel, Hamas has a steadfast ally in Egypt’s new Muslim Brotherhood-led government. Last week, Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil visited Gaza and voiced support for Hamas. Egypt also recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv after the assassination of Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari, which marked the beginning of the Israel Defense Forces’ Operation Pillar of Defense.

On Saturday, Hamas hosted Tunisia’s foreign minister, Rafik Abdessalem, who during his visit to the Gaza Strip condemned “blatant Israeli aggression.”

Cairo’s sympathies make the conflict especially complicated for Israel, which hopes to safeguard its treaty with Egypt even as it attempts to subdue Hamas. So far, the government of Egypt is playing the role of mediator between Israel and Hamas as the two sides discuss a possible cease-fire.

By Monday, the conflict had claimed three Israeli fatalities — from a missile strike on an apartment building in the town of Kiryat Malachi — and dozens of injuries. In Gaza, about 100 Palestinians were reported dead and more than 600 injured.

Even as cease-fire negotiations took place, some 75,000 Israeli reserve troops were activated, and military personnel and equipment arrived at the Gaza frontier in preparation for a possible ground invasion. On Saturday night, rows of military jeeps and armored cars sat parked at a gas station near the border while dozens of young soldiers in full uniform — some with helmets and others with vests — stood in groups or clustered with middle-aged officers around tables. For many, the immediate concern was about where to find some food.

“There’s nothing open,” one soldier complained as he watched a nearby restaurant shutter its doors.

Chaim, a soldier who did not give his last name due to IDF restrictions on speaking to the media, told JTA that Israel should act forcefully.

“Everyone wants to go in,” he said of a ground invasion. “We’ve waited too long. I’m calm. We have a father in heaven.

“We need to keep going,” he said, until the terrorists “don’t exist.”

Yossi, a soldier from Ashkelon, a frequent target of Gaza’s missiles, said he’s excited to serve.

“I take it,” he said of the rocket fire, “and I also defend.”

Polls show Israelis are strongly supportive of the operation in Gaza, and Netanyahu’s political opponents have lined up behind him, notwithstanding the elections in January.

“Israel is united in the war against terror,” Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich, a Netanyahu rival, wrote last week on her Facebook page. She called Jabari an “arch-terrorist,” writing, “His assassination is right and just.”

The Obama administration also supported the Israeli operation.

“There’s no country in the world that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders,” President Obama said at a news conference Sunday. “We are fully supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself from missiles landing on people’s homes and workplaces, and potentially killing civilians.”