Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, center, bicycling with retired cycling champions Ivan Basso and Alberto Contador in Jerusalem. Photo courtesy of the Giro.

Israel gears up to host prestigious Italian cycling race

Stressing the chance to show off Israel to the world, Israeli officials joined with their Italian counterparts in announcing Monday that three stages of the prestigious Giro d’Italia cycling race will be held in the country, starting in Jerusalem.

It will mark the first time that any leg of cycling’s Grand Tour races — the Giro, the Tour de France and the Spanish Vuelta — will take place outside of Europe, and just the 12th time the Giro had gone outside of Italy in its 101-year history.

Israeli officials said the race will be the biggest sporting event ever held in their country and touted it as an opportunity to showcase the Jewish state — and its capital — to the world.

“Hundreds of millions of viewers around the globe will watch as the world’s best cyclists ride alongside the walls of Jerusalem’s ancient Old City and our other historic sites,” Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said at the hotel gathering. “Our message to the world is clear: Jerusalem is open to all.”

The race will bring more than 175 of the world’s best cyclists to Israel along with tens of thousands of tourists and cycling enthusiasts.

Culture Minister Miri Regev called on “everyone who loves the Giro to come here to Israel.”

“This bike race across the Holy Land will be a fascinating journey through time covering thousands of years,” she said. “I’m sure it will be a thrilling experience for everyone.”

Israel will host the first three stages of the Giro, or “the Big Start,” on consecutive days from May 4 to 6. Stage 1 will be a 6.3-mile individual time trial in Jerusalem, passing the Knesset and ending near the walls of the Old City. Stage 2, in the North, will start in Haifa with riders pedaling 103.8 miles down the Mediterranean coast to the Tel Aviv beach. Stage 3, in the South, will cover 140.4 miles through the arid Negev from Beersheba to Eilat on the Red Sea.

Italian officials told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz earlier this month that they were being careful to avoid crossing into politically sensitive areas, like the West Bank or eastern Jerusalem, which they feared could spark protests. An official map of the Stage 1 route shows it approaching but not entering the Old City, which is located in eastern Jerusalem — where much of the world, but not the Israeli government, envisions a future Palestinian capital.

According to the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, the route will pass the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial as part of a tribute to Gino Bartali, an Italian cycling champion credited with saving hundreds of Jews during the Holocaust. While ostensibly training in the Italian countryside, Bartali, who won the Giro four times and the Tour de France twice, would carry forged papers in the frame and handlebars of his bicycle to Jews hiding in houses and convents. He also hid a Jewish family in his cellar.

In 2013, years after his death in 2000, he was recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations by Israel’s Holocaust authority, Yad Vashem.

Alberto Contador, left, and Ivan Basso, right, former winners of the Giro d’Italia, with race and Israeli officials including Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, fourth from right. (Courtesy of the Giro)

Italian Sports Minister Luca Lotti said Monday that the race would celebrate Bartali’s memory. In addition to being a great sports champion, he said, Bartali “was also an extraordinary champion of life, and a man of heroic virtues, and this needs to be commemorated, and shared, especially with the young generations — never to be forgotten.”

Retired Giro champions Alberto Contador of Italy and Ivan Basso of Spain, both two-time winners, also were on hand for the Jerusalem announcement.

Sylvan Adams, a Canadian real estate magnate and philanthropist who recently immigrated to Israel, helped bring the Giro to Israel and will serve as its honorary president. Adams said he was motivated by love of cycling and a desire to help his adopted country.

“I would call this the antidote to BDS,” he told JTA, referring to the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel. “The media sometimes portrays our country in a negative way, and this is a way to bypass the media and go straight into the living rooms of 800 million people. They’ll see our country exactly as it is, and my experience is people almost universally have positive experiences when they encounter Israel.”

The Giro is just part of Adams’ larger plan to make Israel a cycling powerhouse. A co-owner of the Israel Cycling Academy, Israel’s first professional cycling team founded in 2014, he is building the first velodrome in the Middle East in Tel Aviv to be finished in time for the race.

“My plan is to bring Israeli athletes to the highest level of the sport,” he said.

Ran Margaliot, an Israeli former professional cyclist and the general manager of the Israel Cycling Academy, said the team has applied to compete in the Giro and will find out if it qualified in December. It is among 32 second division teams jockeying for a wild card spot, but he is hopeful.

“I certainly think we deserve an invitation,” Margaliot told JTA. “No one can tell me we’re not good enough, and we work as hard as the Europeans, even harder.”

Margaliot said that while he failed to achieve his ambition of becoming the first Israeli to race in a Grand Tour, the next best thing would be for an Israeli member of his international team to do it.

“You can imagine what it would mean for an Israeli rider to be racing in his own country, passing near his home and friends and family,” he said before catching himself. “But we have a lot of work to do to get ready.”

SodaStream hires hundreds of new employees in southern Israel

SodaStream has hired 300 new employees for its production plant in southern Israel.

The company, which had come under fire when it was based in the West Bank, now has 1,400 employees in the Idan Hanegev industrial park near Rahat, one-third of them Bedouin Arabs from the surrounding area, the Israeli business daily Globes reported.

One of the largest employers in the Negev Desert, Soda Stream will hire another 70 employees in the coming weeks, according to the report published Wednesday.

Demand for SodaStream products has risen sharply since May 2015, mainly in the Israeli market, but also in other markets, according to Globes.

In October 2014, SodaStream announced it would close its West Bank factory in Maale Adumim and move to southern Israel in the face of international pressure from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, or BDS, which seeks to hurt Israel’s economy over its policies toward the Palestinians. The movement claimed that SodaStream discriminated against Palestinian workers and paid some less than Israeli workers.

Some 500 Palestinian employees lost their jobs at that time. Israel gave the remaining 74 employees permission to enter the country and continue to work for SodaStream until the end of February.

Makhtesh Ramon crater a school of rock in Israeli desert

David Ben-Gurion once said the Negev is the future of Israel, as 60 percent of the country’s land is in the desert.

Things did not pan out the way the first prime minister of Israel planned, but one thing the Negev does have is a fascinating window into the nation’s past: Makhtesh Ramon (Hebrew for “Ramon Crater”), a massive geological phenomenon that is 26 miles long and 7 miles wide.

Located in the remote southern community Mitzpe Ramon, the crater is home to 70 percent of the rock types found in the world, including sandstone, limestone, basalt, flint and more. During a trip last summer, arranged by the Israel Ministry of Tourism, my group’s guide for the day, Oded Schickler of Ramon Desert Tours, described the crater as “the geological window of the universe.”

But it’s no ordinary crater for other reasons, too. As explained by an interactive exhibition at the Mitzpe Ramon Visitor Center, the formation of the crater dates back to water erosion that occurred more than 200 million years ago. Despite rumors that an asteroid collision created the crater, the movement of oceans and rivers actually resulted in the formation of the site, according to

A video presentation describes the wildlife in the crater. Birds in the area include the griffon vulture, which has become a symbol for distrust between Israel and its neighbors. Earlier this year, one of the endangered birds flew to Lebanon and the locals there mistook the tracking device it was wearing for espionage gear. 

There’s also a memorial and exhibit honoring the late Ilan Ramon. The astronaut, who died during the fatal Columbia space shuttle mission in 2003, changed his name from Wolferman upon joining the military “thanks to his love for this part of the Negev Desert of Israel,” according to

The crater, as experienced today, is a vast desert unfolding inside of high mountainous walls. Black rocks, shrubbery and the occasional electrical tower dot the brown, barren terrain. 

A popular way to explore the crater is by a Jeep tour. Hold on as your vehicle off-roads across the bumpy landscape, stopping every so often to provide your guide with a chance to talk about rocks, wildlife and more while you take pictures and experience the region on foot. 

One of our guides demonstrated how to make soap from natural materials found in the crater, mixing crushed leaves that contain certain oils with water before rubbing them together in his palms. For those looking for something more extreme than making soap, Ramon Desert Tours also leads rock rappelling at the crater. Mountain biking and camping are also options for visitors to the crater.

For those looking for a fun but mellow night out, HabereH pub, a neighborhood Mitzpe Ramon bar, is a place for young locals to mix and mingle over brews in an ambience with classic rock decor adorning the walls. Angelenos can imagine it as a much tinier Barney’s Beanery, located within walking distance of the Isrotel Ramon Inn. 

The nine-mile drive from the hotel to the crater is its own experience, with winding rugged roads at one point passing by the Beresheet Hotel, one of a variety of hotel options in the area. If you’re lucky, you might spot a Nubian ibex, a desert goat, along the drive. Look closely to see tags on their bodies, which keep track of the size of the population via transmitters. 

The climate, as one might expect, is hot and dry and difficult: Mitzpe Ramon receives only 2 inches of rain annually, which is liable to cause flash floods. The nearby Route 90, which many use to travel to Eilat, is often flooded. 

“If we have one hour of rain, we pop Champagne,” Schickler said. 

The population of the area is a mere 4,600 people. “No other civilized place in the country is so isolated,” said Ohad Rahilovich, founder of Ramon Desert Tours. 

Israeli Ministry of Tourism guide Eli Gertler explained that people began moving to the area after 1956, five years after Mitzpe Ramon’s founding, with “more and more people coming here, day after day,” he said. “It’s not a town. It’s like a big village.” 

Tourism to the area began in the mid-’80s and saw the development of hotels, Jeep companies, electric lines and electric towers, Gertler said. Tourism was down 25 percent in 2015 from 2014, Gertler told me during my July visit to the site, due to violence that engulfed Israel in the summer of 2014.

Too bad, given the beauty of the unique region — a perfect place for exploration, meditation and more.

Umm al-Hiran, racism and the confounding of Zionism

The Israeli government is set to destroy Umm al-Hiran, a Bedouin village in the Negev, to build a Jewish town in its place, which will be called Hiran. No matter what anyone tells you about unrecognized Bedouin villages, no matter what Israel’s Supreme Court or Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked say, this is the expression of a racist policy.

I grew up marching for Israel every year. In response to the U.N.’s infamous 1975 “Zionism Is Racism” resolution, we marched under the banner “Zionism is not racism” — and I still believe in that. What do we say then about a government that seizes land through twisted legal reasoning, and what do we say about tearing down this village of Israeli citizens? 

Interestingly, Hiran means nothing particular in Hebrew. The name of this new town will forever be a reminder that it was first the home of Arab residents. The Jews who will live there can remember that forever. That’s better than what happened to the land the Bedouins living in Umm al-Hiran were forced off of in the 1950s. That land became Kibbutz Shoval; the memory of their past was erased for all but the most tenacious students of history — except for the Bedouin clan of Abu Alkian, who still remember that it was once their land.

The land present-day Umm al-Hiran sits on was granted to the Abu Alkian tribe more than six decades ago by Israel’s government — granted but not deeded. The plan to destroy Umm al-Hiran has been around since 2003. In 2007, I started a campaign called Save the Negev. The goal was to stop the Jewish National Fund (JNF) from pouring its money into building Jewish Hiran and dispossessing the Bedouins, and instead ask the JNF to make a significant investment in Bedouin communities. Although the JNF eventually shifted its resources, that didn’t stop the Israeli government in its long pursuit of the opposite of peace. But only in May did the supreme court rule that this demolition was completely legal, giving its blessing for the permanent conversion of Bedouin Umm al-Hiran to Jewish Hiran. As a fig leaf, the court required Jewish Hiran not to bar Arabs from applying to live there.

Meanwhile, the group Garin Hiran, the work of T’nuat Or — the so-called “Movement of Light” that deems itself the “new Zionism” — lives in nearby caravans, ready to take over the land after the village is razed. How can it be that these human beings who call themselves Jews will not be ashamed to live in this place called Hiran built over the crushed remains of Umm al-Hiran? Who are these people who see themselves as the real Zionists, who belie everything we were once (naively) taught Zionism stood for?

The Negev is a big place — big enough for an Arabic Bedouin town called Umm al-Hiran and a Jewish town — let’s imagine it as a sister city — called Hiran. Big enough that the one does not need to be utterly destroyed in order to give birth to the other. Even if that were not the case, even if there were room for only one Hiran, it would still be a kind of racist fratricide to tear down Umm al-Hiran.

But there is room, which only makes it crystal clear, painfully, ruinously clear, that this is a policy of racism, or what people actually call, without shame, a plan to “Judaize” the Negev. 

The difference between Umm al-Hiran and Hiran — I mean the names themselves — is that the word “mother,” Umm, has been erased. The land, our real mother, is also being erased, its face defaced, by the violent actions of the state.

Hiran is an Arabic word that has other echoes. Hiran can mean confounding, confusion, perplexity. For those of us who once were taught about the beauty of Zionism, this indeed should be a watershed moment of perplexity.

The supreme court has given its final word on this long-standing, confusing conflict. Umm al-Hiran must die so that Jewish Hiran will live. Let the new Hiran become a monument and memorial to what we all should feel — perplexed and confounded about what Zionism has become. 

Last week’s Torah portion read: “Do not twist judgment! … Justice, pursue justice — so that you will live to inherit the land …” (Deuteronomy 16:19-20). Isn’t the whole contradiction of Zionism all bound up in these two verses? But the Torah is clear: If you want to live, justice comes first, before possession.

What could save us now? Maybe Kibbutz Shoval, in a gesture of moral grandeur and spiritual audacity, could invite the dispossessed Bedouin families to come back to their land, to dwell together as brothers and sisters, or at least as cousins. Short of such extraordinary measures, however, we are left with nothing but audacity, the audacity of a brand of Zionism shot through with racism, running amok.

Rabbi David Seidenberg is the creator and director of and author of “Kabbalah and Ecology: God’s Image in the More-Than-Human World” (Cambridge University Press, 2015). He lives in western Massachusetts, where he runs the Prayground Minyan

Illegal migrants released from detention barred from Tel Aviv, Eilat

Some 1,200 illegal migrants who will be released from a Negev detention facility will not be allowed to settle in Tel Aviv or Eilat.

The migrants, mostly asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan, will receive a temporary residence permit when they leave the Holot center that will prevent them from entering the two cities, where the majority of illegal migrants from Africa are living.

Public Security Minister Silvan Shalom proposed the plan, which the courts reportedly have approved.

The migrants are due to be released on Tuesday and Wednesday, according to reports. The releases come two weeks after Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that the provision in the current “anti-infiltration law” allowing the migrants to be held for up to 20 months at the Holot center is “disproportionate.” The court ordered that they can only be detained for up to 12 months while the law is revised.

The Knesset has six months to revise the law, which passed its final readings in December.

More than 40,000 Eritreans and Sudanese are in Israel, most illegally.

Israel’s Supreme Court limits illegal migrants’ detention to 12 months

Israel’s Supreme Court has ruled that illegal migrants can only be held in a Negev detention facility for 12 months while a law is revised.

The provision in the current “anti-infiltration law” allowing the migrants to be held for up to 20 months at the Holot detention center is “disproportionate,” the court said.

The Knesset has six months to revise the law, which passed its final readings in December.

Several Israeli nongovernmental organizations have petitioned against the law.

Under the measure, an amendment to an existing infiltration law, illegal migrants can be held in closed detention centers for three months and then kept at the Holot open detention center in the Negev for up to 20 months, where they will be required to be present at a head count once a day rather than three times.

In September, the Supreme Court ordered the state to close the Holot center and struck down the section of the amendment that allows the illegal migrants to be held in closed detention for one year.

Had the new law not been passed before the Knesset dissolved, the court would have required the freeing of all 2,500 migrants being held at in Holot.

More than 40,000 Eritreans and Sudanese are in Israel, most illegally.

Prior to the court’s announcement of its decision, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said that invalidating the existing legislation would be a “declaration that south Tel Aviv is the official facility for accommodating infiltrators.”

Following the decision, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement that the court “has accepted in principle the state’s position, according to which the illegal influx of labor migrants is unacceptable and that they may be held in order to achieve the necessary deterrence. The ruling will be studied and the state will act to implement it.”

Bus carrying Israeli Muslims from prayer crashes, eight dead

A collision involving a truck and a bus carrying Israeli Muslims returning from prayer at Jerusalem's al Aqsa mosque killed eight people on Tuesday, police and local officials said.

At least 24 people were injured in the crash at a junction in southern Israel near several Bedouin Arab towns, medical officials said. Most of the casualties were women, they said.

Israel's Channel Two TV cited witnesses as saying that a tractor being ferried by the truck came loose and toppled into the bus.

The mayor of the nearby town of Rahat, Talal al-Kariani, told the station that the bus passengers were mostly elderly, local Muslims, who go to pray at the al Aqsa mosque in daily organized or weekly trips.

The al Aqsa mosque is the third holiest site in Islam.

Israeli group aims to help Arabs — and contain them

He says he’s a leader of a “Zionist settlement” movement, but Raz Sofer’s home is no West Bank outpost.

Sofer, 25, is the manager of a 100-member student village in this mixed Jewish-Arab city in central Israel. The village, comprised of several apartment complexes, offers students cheap rent in exchange for volunteer work with Lod’s poor residents, many of them Arab-Israelis.

Sofer is fluent in Arabic and is proud of the students who volunteer in Arab kindergartens or run extracurricular activities for Arab youth. He loves when local Arabs come to the nonprofit bar he and other students founded on the ground floor of their apartment building.

But he also believes that despite their shared Israeli citizenship, “the conflict is not over.”

“They don’t see themselves as Israeli,” Sofer said. “If they see themselves in a certain way, and that conflicts unequivocally with the values I have, we have a conflict.”

The Lod village is the largest of 13 such communities across Israel, all of them located in the economically depressed areas that Israelis refer to as the “periphery.” They are run by Ayalim, an organization with a dual mission whose components might appear to be incompatible.

In exchange for reduced rent, students volunteer at least two hours each week in their communities, often serving their Arab neighbors. But their presence there is inspired by a belief that Arab-Israelis represent a demographic threat to the Jewish state — a threat that can be countered by bringing Jews to settle areas in which Arabs constitute a majority.

Ayalim’s founders acknowledge the tension inherent in that mission, but say it’s not a problem as long as Arabs accept the idea of being a minority in a Jewish state.

“There’s tension, and maybe you can live with it,” said Ayalim co-founder Effy Rubin. “Our state contains many conflicts, but the Zionist movement is very young. We want Jewish industriousness in the land of Israel, and we also know how to embrace the minorities who are here.”

Ayalim’s founders employ the language of Israel’s West Bank settlement movement, insisting that a physical Jewish presence — what settlers often call “facts on the ground” — is the best bulwark against threats to Jewish sovereignty. But the threats they are countering are not from West Bank Palestinians clamoring for statehood but Arab citizens of Israel.

Rubin says that if the state neglects to ensure a Jewish majority in the South, it could create a power vacuum that will lead to Arab-Israelis insisting on independence from Israel.

“In the place where we won’t be a majority, it won’t be ours,” Rubin said.

But Rubin also says he is a defender of Arab-Israeli rights and faults the government for giving them scant resources. Though he deems them a threat, Rubin believes his work is crucial to their welfare.

“Even though we’re super Zionist, we’re really not anti-Arab, anti-Bedouin,” Rubin said. “They have no less of a right to this land. They need to be here and have total equal rights.”

Activists say Ayalim can’t have it both ways. Improving the lot of Israel’s Arab communities should be done by direct investment, not treating them as a fifth column.

“Essentially they’re relating to a part of the population in Israel as a threat and not as citizens,” said Haia Noach, executive director of the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality. “It doesn’t bother me that Jews come to the Negev, just like it doesn’t bother me that Arabs live in the Negev. It’s strange that a state decides it has to be scared of its citizens.”

Such criticism hasn’t stunted Ayalim’s growth. Founded in 2002 by two Israeli students living in a trailer in the southern town of Ashalim, the group now houses more than 1,000 students in its 13 villages. A new village in the embattled southern border town of Sderot will house an additional 300 students next year.

The group has received funding from several mainstream Jewish and Israeli organizations, including the American federation system and the Jewish Agency for Israel. Most of its 2015 budget is coming directly from the Israeli government, which has made assisting the South a priority.

Nor does the demographic mission deter Arab-Israeli members from joining. Students appreciate the cheap rent — Sofer pays less than $150 a month for a room in a comfortable, renovated apartment — and they say the villages foster a sense of community and do important work with underserved populations.

“I like the organization’s activism,” said Habeeb Hajaj, an Arab resident of the Lod village who says he doesn’t enjoy the occasional group lectures on Zionism but values his volunteer work with Arab youth. “In general it does good because it gives so many solutions and responses to people around it, and it starts with the students.”

Ayalim doesn’t expect to turn Arab-Israelis into Zionists, but the group does hope to demonstrate to them that Israel is here to stay. Eventually Ayalim hopes to grow into a larger movement for settlement in the periphery and is building 120 residential units for young people across the North and South. The entire effort, Rubin says, aims to resurrect the pioneering spirit of the early Zionists.

“We have young people who come in concentrated groups, go to faraway places for an ideology and make the desert bloom,” Rubin said. “Aside from the demographic problem, the significance of Ayalim is that we created a national movement of young people.”


What a dying business in Sderot looks like, even during cease-fire

In a narrow alleyway just next to Begin Square in the center of this Israeli city, shops, cafes and bakeries are so tightly packed together that with every few steps brings a new business.

These merchants have, for years, been accustomed to the inhospitable reality of life in Sderot. By virtue of its proximity to Gaza (Begin Square is two miles from the border), normal daily activities are routinely interrupted by a screeching siren that gives residents a 10 to 15 second warning to shelter themselves from a rocket that was fired seconds earlier from within the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

Those interruptions, which have made life here grim, have made doing business here nearly impossible for many shopkeepers. On Thursday, even as the city was enjoying its fourth day of calm—with a new cease fire possibly ensuring an additional five—the sight of gray metal shutters in front of nearly every shop in this alleyway was a stark reminder that this city’s store owners know better than to think that temporary quiet will soon bring customers back.

“I can’t continue like this. It’s hard,” said Moshe Yifrach, 21, who helps manage his family’s image and photography store, “Agfa Image Center.” He was one of the few shopkeepers who decided to remain open into the mid-afternoon and was the only person in the store. But, with little or no business up to that point on Thursday, his decision to keep the lights on may not have particularly mattered.

The Yifrachs produce photographs, create albums and assist with images for passports, weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs. Behind the counter on shelves sat rows of albums and frames in varying colors

Moshe Yifrach helps his father run the family's Sderot store. He said sales have dropped 70 percent this summer.

When life in Sderot is relatively normal, Yifrach said that his family serves between 50 to 70 customers and earns about 3,000 to 4,000 thousand Shekels per day. This summer, though, during Israel’s most recent battle with Hamas, in which nearly 3,000 rockets have fallen in and around Israeli cities, he said sales have dropped by about 70 percent and customers have come in at a trickling pace.

Some residents here left amidst the chaos for some respite in towns further north and many simply no longer feel confident in venturing into the city. Tourism, meanwhile, has plummeted, with most visitors coming from abroad on solidarity missions, not nearly enough to compensate for the many Israelis who no longer travel south for a few pleasurable days in the country’s southern desert region.

The family has two other stores, in Jerusalem and Kiryat Gat, so Yifrach said he, his parents and 11 siblings could get by without their Sderot store.

“We have other places, so we have it easier than others,” Yifrach said. “But the ones that have only here and nowhere else, it’s very hard.”

Even during the height of the war in July and early August, Yifrach’s father kept the store open. When a red alert siren blared, whoever was in the shop would shelter in the doorway or underneath the awning that encloses the alley outside—the nearest shelter is more than 15 seconds from the store, not enough time for him or any customers to safely reach before the Qassam makes impact.

While a cease-fire that produces calm for an extended period would likely improve business for the Yifrachs if residents and tourists begin to return, he sees no long-term relief for his family’s business.

Agfa Image Center

Yifrach, like so many Israelis, particularly in the south, wants the government to order the military to destroy Hamas and end the rocket attacks. That step appears increasingly unlikely, though, following the complete removal of ground troops on Aug. 5 and the moderate progress of truce negotiations in Cairo.

“There’s no solution,” Yifrach said. “If you want to have a cease fire, so for a year it will be fine and everything will be good. [But] slowly, slowly [Hamas] will advance.” He predicts that the terrorist group will use the calm to improve its rocket arsenal to create Sderot-like situations as far north as Tel Aviv and Haifa.

That, Yifrach said, is one reason he sees no point in moving further north. “I don’t think that in the north it’s much better because there too you have Hezbollah,” he said. The quasi-governmental Lebanese terrorist organization has tens of thousands of missiles and rockets and has the capability to reach Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city. In Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah, approximately 15 Haifa residents were killed in missile and rocket attacks.

“I will stay in the south. This is my house and here I’m going to stay,” Yifrach said briskly.

Asked, though, how much longer his family’s store can survive in Sderot under current conditions, he responded, “Half a year, no more.”

The Bedouin, human rights, and ‘legitimacy’: A final word to Gerald Steinberg

Gerald Steinberg has asked that I respond to the specific charges he levies against human rights organizations, my colleague Rabbi John Rosove, and me regarding our involvement in protecting the rights of some 30-40,000 Bedouin to avoid forced expulsion from their homes. At the risk of prolonging our back-and-forth, I will reply one last time before returning to the more pressing work of engaging T’ruah’s 1800 rabbis and their communities in human rights.

In his response to Rabbi Rosove and me, Steinberg perpetuates the myth that the Bedouin settled in their current homes illegally, and without regard for zoning or environmental regulations. On Twitter, representatives of his organization have even used the word “squatting.”

This accusation against the Bedouin is a cruel one. As I indicated in my initial response, the Bedouin are living where the Israeli government moved them in the 1950s. Following the War of Independence, the new Israeli government used martial law to move the Bedouin who remained in the Negev into an area known as the Siyyag (fence), comprising a pocket of land between Beersheva, Arad, Dimona, and Yeruham. Bedouin property outside of this area was confiscated as state land.

This situation might have been sustainable if master zoning plans in the 1960s had not failed to acknowledge the presence of the Bedouin towns in the Siyyag. The villages disappeared from official maps, and all land within the Siyyag became zoned for industrial, military, or Jewish agricultural purposes. Thus, the Bedouin found themselves in a catch-22, forced to live in a place where they could not build legally, and where they were demonized as squatters. Furthermore, without official status, the “unrecognized” villages could not receive health services, schools, or other basic governmental services. No wonder that these are some of the poorest areas in Israel. Imagine what might have happened if the Israeli government had invested in building schools for Bedouin children, teaching sustainable agriculture, and providing medical services.

Tragically, the absence of the Bedouin towns from official maps allowed Israel to build a hazardous waste facility and chemical plants right next to the village of Wadi Na’am. Blaming residents of this village for“squatting in a toxic waste dump,” as one article NGO Monitor tweeted at me did is simply cruel.

Toward the end of the 1960s, Israel set up seven Bedouin townships and relocated approximately half the Bedouin populations there. By all accounts, these towns have been a failure. Separated from their traditional ways of life and their communal structures, most Bedouin have not thrived in these townships. This should be no surprise to any of us Americans who have seen what happens when low-income populations find themselves in cramped urban areas with subpar educational opportunities and few job prospects. Moving tens of thousands more Bedouin into these townships against their will promises to exacerbate the problem.

Are there problems within Bedouin communities? Yes, of course. I won’t excuse crime, mistreatment of women, or any of the other issues that those purporting to help the Bedouin often highlight. But this is not a zero sum game. Despite what Steinberg and often the Israeli government suggest, the choices are not either to allow the Bedouin to languish in their poverty or to move them against their will into townships. The most reasonable option is to build schools, health centers, and other social services in Bedouin villages, and to give these populations the tools they need to flourish. In some cases, as with Wadi Na’am, residents are willing to move, but want to have a say in where they move, rather than being shoved against their will into urban areas. It’s simply not fair to refuse social services to a population, and then argue that the population must move because they have no social services.

Nor is the question of building Jewish communities in the Negev versus sustaining Bedouin communities a zero sum game. The Bedouin claim only five percent of the Negev. There is plenty of room for new Jewish communities to flourish.

Steinberg argues that campaigns to support the Bedouin “erase 4000 years of Jewish history in the Negev (from the arrival of Abraham in Beersheva).” May I remind him that Abraham himself understood the need to share land, as he did with his nephew Lot. Each took land for his own family, lest there be squabbling among them. Furthermore, the Bedouin see themselves as descendants of Abraham and Hagar, and therefore also lay claim to a long history in the region. If we are to demand that others take seriously our own stories about ourselves, we must also pay respect to the stories of other peoples.

As for Steinberg’s claim that we or our Bedouin partners wish to delegitimize Israel, nothing could be further from the truth. What’s missing from his discussion is that the Bedouin are Israeli citizens, who are not trying to give up their citizenship, to question the right of Jews to live in the Negev, or otherwise to delegitimize the state. In fact, the Bedouin are claiming the rights of citizens within a sovereign western state to avoid forced displacement.

Finally, a word about rhetoric. In order to accuse me of a “harsh attack,” Steinberg puts words in my mouth, and then attacks these words. For example, he writes that I claim “that the issues I raised were nothing more than an effort ‘to defame lovers of Israel who dare to believe that the Jewish state can and should live up to the moral values of our tradition.’ Nothing more? Surely, the head of an organization that proclaims Jewish moral values and promotes tolerance might avoid such dismissive and immoral language.”

Actually, “nothing more” are Steinberg’s words, and do not appear in my piece. He further suggests that I do not respond at all to the specifics on the Bedouin dispute, without acknowledging that my piece does, in fact, include a condensed version of what appears above.

As for Steinberg’s accusation of “the soft-power warfare led by NGOs that exploit the language of human rights. (See the latest round of discriminatory academic boycotts.).” He fails here to distinguish between the demand that Israel live up to internationally-accepted human rights standards, which include protection from forced displacement, and specific tactics that some organizations choose to pursue. Neither I nor the organization I represent supports boycotting Israel as a tactic for holding Israel accountable to its human rights obligations. But the fact that some others do use this tactic does not render the human rights complaint itself any less legitimate. I will not attempt here to speak on behalf of other organizations that have not appointed me as their spokesperson.

This whole conversation leaves my wondering: What is Steinberg so afraid of? The question of the future of the Negev Bedouin is a complex, but not intractable problem. It is not an issue of national security, borders, or international diplomacy. There is a happy ending available—one in which the Israeli government does right by its Bedouin citizens, and in which these citizens build a sustainable life in the Negev, alongside their Jewish neighbors. Surely, the right and the left can come together to build this dream.


Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, which mobilizes 1800 rabbis and cantors and their communities to protect human rights in North America, Israel, and the occupied territories.

Opposing Bedouin resettlement

They can’t agree on the project’s goal. They can’t agree on who supports it. They can’t even agree on its name.

But when it comes to the Israeli government’s plan to relocate 30,000 Negev Bedouin, representatives and allies of the Bedouin community agree with the right wing on one thing: The Prawer Plan must be stopped.

At a meeting this week, leaders of an alliance between Negev Bedouin and several left-wing groups adopted a proposal to join with “right-wing opponents” of a bill that would relocate tens of thousands of Bedouin from their homes in unrecognized villages in southern Israel. The plan calls for moving the Bedouin into recognized towns nearby with modern services and amenities while providing them with partial compensation for their property.

“You need to have an elementary school, kindergarten and health care at the center of the modern community,” said Doron Almog, director of the Headquarters for Economic and Community Development of the Negev Bedouin in the Prime Minister’s Office. “We’d like to replace poverty with modernity.”

The plan is alternatively referred to as Begin-Prawer or Prawer after its two authors — former Knesset member Benny Begin and Ehud Prawer, the director of planning in the Prime Minister’s Office. It would recognize some of the unrecognized villages while moving the inhabitants of others.

The government says the plan is a comprehensive land reform measure aimed at providing infrastructure, education and employment opportunities to the historically underserved Bedouin population in the South. But critics of the proposal point to the 30,000-40,000 Bedouin that would be uprooted in what they claim is just the latest move by the government to strip them of their land to create space for Jewish settlement.

“We want rights like everyone else,” said Attia Alasam, head of the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages. “The state doesn’t see that the Bedouin have problems. They see the Bedouin as the problem. The state can’t put people on trucks and spill them into towns.”

The fight over the plan has been contentious. Protests across Israel have left several Israeli police officers injured and led to dozens of arrests. Several human rights groups have blasted the plan. Last week, Arab lawmakers appealed to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, asking him to block what they allege amounts to “ethnic cleansing” of the Bedouin.

It’s far from certain that the partnership proposal will come to fruition, but the effort represents a rare attempt at pragmatic compromise in a debate that has been dominated by dueling perceptions of reality.

At the meeting — representatives of the Arab-Jewish political party Hadash, the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages and the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civic Equality attended — Alasam and others sounded optimistic that they could find common ground with right-wing activists even though their ultimate objectives are almost certainly incompatible.

Alasam wants the government to allow the Bedouin to stay in the unrecognized villages. Right-wing activists believe the Bedouin have no right to stay where they are.

Moshe Feiglin, the head of the Jewish Leadership faction of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, voted against the plan because it “hands the Negev over to the Arabs.” Zvulun Kalfa of the Jewish Home Party opposes the bill because it’s too vague.

Knesset member Miri Regev, who heads the committee debating the bill, criticized Almog for not presenting her committee with a proposed map of Negev towns.

“I think the time has come to organize Bedouin settlement,” Regev wrote on Facebook last week. “It’s unlikely that the Bedouin are taking over the Negev’s lands, and given that, the solution needs to be formulated deliberatively and in a way that’s transparent to all sides.” 

Israeli government shelves controversial Bedouin resettlement plan

The Israeli government is shelving a proposal to resettle tens of thousands of Bedouin residents of the Negev that had drawn fierce criticism.

One of the proposal’s main architects, Benny Begin, told reporters on Thursday that the so-called Prawer-Begin Plan would be revised. He said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had approved delaying presentation of the plan to the Knesset.

The plan was billed as an effort to address the plight of Bedouin living in unrecognized villages without access to infrastructure and state services by resettling many of them in Bedouin towns. But it drew protests from many Bedouin and activists on the left who criticized it as an effort to grab Bedouin lands. The plan was criticized as well by some on the right who felt it gave too much to the Bedouin.

Begin said that action was still needed to improve the situation of the Bedouin.

“Since the bill reached the Knesset,” he said, “all sorts of interest groups have gotten involved trying to take advantage of the plight of the Negev Bedouin in order to achieve political gain.”

Guide dog helps champion blind golfer stay the course

Zohar Sharon can count on having the company of two others when he takes to the golf course — his caddy and his guide dog.

“She is always there for me,” he said of Venus, a yellow Labrador/golden retriever cross. “She comes with me to play golf every day. She’s simply great.”

That’s important because Sharon, 60, is the world’s reigning champion in blind golf.

A veteran of the Israel Defense Forces, Sharon lost his sight over time following an incident more than 30 years ago that occurred while he was protecting Israel’s nuclear reactor in the Negev. 

Today, Sharon holds four world championships, dating back to 2003, when he entered his first professional tournament, and is considered a celebrity in Israel. (He’s been asked for his autograph in the United States as well, but that was a case of mistaken identity. His “fans” thought he was singer Harry Belafonte; Sharon signed anyway.)

But things didn’t always look like they would end up this way. Sharon sustained more injuries fighting in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and was completely blind by the time he turned 28. He took up painting at one point, but the resident of Moshav Aviel, who has been married three times, said he owes his current career as a golfer to his second divorce. 

 “I went to meet with my ex-wife’s attorney. Her attorney and I became great buddies. He asked me if I’ve ever played golf. I told him I didn’t, and he took a shoe box and punched a hole in it, got a club and a ball and showed me how to golf right there,” Sharon recalled as he sat on the balcony of his Beverly Hilton Hotel room during a recent visit to Los Angeles. “Later, at home, I started practicing by placing an empty cup on the floor and a radio next to it, so I’d know which direction to hit the ball, and I got the hang of it.”

Still, he almost gave up golf altogether before he met Shimshon Levy, who became his loyal caddie and close friend. 

“With Shimshon, I have a special connection. We spend 16 hours a day together, 10 of them on the golf field,” Sharon said. “Two years after I started practicing with him, I took my first championship, in [2003].” 

Together, the two have traveled the world, going from one tournament to the next. His first win was at the World Invitational blind golf tournament in Scotland.

“We are like a married couple but without the sex,” joked Sharon, who is the father of three and grandfather of two. “Without him, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.”

Levy directs Sharon to the position of the ball and its distance from the hole; he also gives a sense of whether the ball needs to be hit strongly or softly, according to the specially designed golf club he selects.

Caddy Shimshon Levy, blind golfer Zohar Sharon and guide dog Venus hit the links.

The two arrived in Los Angeles in October for several events on behalf of the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind ( That’s where Sharon’s 5-year-old dog was trained. 

The center was founded in January 1991 to help blind people in Israel get a guide dog that would not only help them get around, but would also serve as their companion and connection to the world around them. 

“By having a dog with them, they are more approachable. People come over to them to pat their dog, instead of moving out of the way when they walk down the street with a stick,” said executive director Michael J. Leventhal of Warrington, Pa., who accompanied Sharon during his L.A. visit.

The center, which is located 20 minutes south of Tel Aviv, spends $40,000 on training and facilities for each of its guide dogs. It receives 8 percent of its funds from the Israeli government, but most of its funds come from donations, Leventhal said.

“Since 1991, we have partnered 468 dogs with blind people, both civilians and soldiers,” he said. “The blind don’t have to pay a dime. We train the dogs for two years; when [the dogs] are ready, the blind people move in with us at the center for three weeks, where we work with them and the dog. We continue working with them at their hometown for an additional week, teaching them how to go to the grocery store, get on the bus with their dog and so on.”

The dogs work with their blind partners for eight years, at which point they retire and are replaced by a new guide dog. 

After retiring, the guide dog can stay at the home as a pet, go to a family member of the blind person or go back to the original puppy raiser. Or a suitable home can be found by the center, which has a long list of potential adopters, Leventhal said.

Lisa Korbatov of Beverly Hills hosted a Shabbat dinner and meet-and-greet for Sharon during his October visit. She said that she came away impressed by the guide dog organization and the golfer.

“To live in darkness is a huge, huge trauma and burden to not only the blind person but the whole family,” she said. “Zohar was inspiring. When he talked about Venus, his whole face changed … huge smiles ear to ear.”

Sharon, who calls Venus his best friend, said it could have been easy for him to get depressed — or rather, stay depressed — about his disability. He still remembers the day when his then-6-year-old daughter came home crying about how her classmates were walking around like blind people, mocking her father.

“I decided right there and then that I’ll never give her any reason to be ashamed of me just because I’m blind. I’ll go to the extreme in anything I’ll do and be the best I can so she’ll be proud,” he said.

“I’m a fighter, and I never run away from anything. I don’t believe that God has to help me, but that I need to help God help me,” Sharon said. “I never give up. When people ask me what’s the secret of my success, that’s what I tell them — you can’t make excuses, nobody cares why you lost, why you were not able to accomplish something. The results speak for themselves. If you set your mind to do something, do it, without any excuses. It’s true for golf, and it’s true for anything else in life, whatever it may be.”

Rabbis against balance

You can abuse people, and you can also abuse values. Take two great Jewish values: self-criticism and caring for the stranger. How would one abuse such values? By lifting them up at the expense of other great Jewish values — such as fairness and balance.

A striking example can be seen in a Jewish activist video so one-sided that it makes Israel look like, well, an evil empire.

Produced by Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) and starring Theodore Bikel, the video compares Israel’s Prawer Plan to address Bedouin settlement in the Negev to the forced expulsion of Jews by the anti-Semitic tsarist regime in Russia. (See the video at the bottom of this page)

Just as the nasty Russians told the Jews in “Fiddler on the Roof,” “You have three days to leave,” Bikel suggests that Israel is inflicting the same injustice on 40,000 Bedouins. A melodramatic score, weeping Bedouins and shots of Israeli army helicopters punctuate the drama.

What makes the analogy to tsarist Russia even more problematic is how RHR tries to downplay the comparison with this fine-print disclaimer on its Web site:

“NOTE: For the avoidance of misunderstandings, this video clip, does not, God forbid, intend to claim that the Bedouin suffer from pogroms or to compare Israel to Czarist Russia. The comparison is between two types of policy: expulsion of Jewish villages and towns from vast areas of Russia to an area known as the Pale of Settlement, compared to the planned expulsion of Bedouin villages to an area called the Siyag region. We find significant similarity between these two policies, and would be happy to find out and admit that we were wrong if we are shown meaningful differences in fact. Thus far, no visitor has successfully done so.”

Besides the obvious problem that the great majority of viewers will never see this disclaimer (it’s neither on the video nor on YouTube), there’s another problem: It’s disingenuous. The fine print can claim that “God forbid we should ever compare Israel to Czarist Russia,” but that’s exactly what the video does. 

As Haviv Rettig Gur of the Times of Israel writes, “Theodore Bikel … explained to viewers that the Prawer Plan is morally identical to one of the great acts of ethnic cleansing in history, the forced expulsion of Jews to the Pale of Settlement by the Russian czar.”

What’s worse, Gur adds, is when Bikel asks in the video — in the name of the oppressed Jews of tsarist Russia who are his stand-ins for the Bedouins — what will happen if they refuse to leave.

“We know the consequences of refusal …” Bikel answers in an ominous tone.

Well, “In 19th-century Russia,” Gur reminds us, “the consequences were state-sanctioned incitement and widespread killing and rape. The film leaves unstated what the consequences might be in Israel.”

Clearly, the powers that be at RHR knew they were treading on very delicate ground with this analogy, which may be why they try to divert attention in their disclaimer to something more innocent, as in, “Really, we’re only comparing policies.” 

The sad result of the extreme and offensive rhetoric of the Bikel video is that it throws a bomb but doesn’t enlighten.

As Gur writes, for example, “One cannot discover from the Rabbis for Human Rights video that almost half of the Bedouin being moved — roughly 15,000 — actually asked to be moved, even appealing to courts to get the state to grant them a new planned town in a separate location because the site where they had encamped was too close to the chemical works of Ramat Hovav, Israel’s main hazardous waste disposal facility.”

Even sadder, the overwrought rhetoric draws attention away from some genuine concerns with the Prawer Plan, and there are plenty. Israel has neglected the problem for far too long and is now trying, however clumsily, to make the best of a tough situation. 

As Shlomi Eldar outlines in an oped (p. 10), Israel has undermined its case with its patronizing attitude toward its Bedouin citizens, which has only served to taint the atmosphere.

RHR could have brought up its concerns in a reasoned and balanced way. Instead, it chose the tactics of the extremists it often rails against: It threw a bomb and got plenty of attention.

A “reasoned and balanced” video would surely have lacked the drama of the tsarist comparison, but Israel shouldn’t pay the price for that. When the reputation of a country is at stake — a country already under attack by a mostly biased and hypocritical world — accuracy and balance should trump drama.

By oversimplifying a complex problem and making incendiary comparisons, a well-meaning Jewish activist group has fueled the anti-Israel fire and undermined its own credibility and its own good works.

If the hearts of the Rabbis for Human Rights are in the right place, and I have no doubt that they are, then their mouths need to catch up.

Yes, criticism and justice are great human rights and great Jewish values — but so are fairness and balance.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at

Israel should freeze Bedouin relocation bill

The writing was on the wall. The Prawer bill to regulate Bedouin settlement in the Negev will not go through quietly. Not because it is a really bad bill, and not because it fails to provide a critical and necessary solution for the regulation of unrecognized Bedouin localities, but mainly because of the attitude and approach taken by its authors and the Israeli establishment toward the Bedouin population.

The Israeli plan to relocate Bedouins cannot be properly discussed before a series of actions to mend the rift between them and Israeli authorities rebuild trust.

This past Saturday, Nov. 30, even before bulldozers fanned out to demolish unrecognized Bedouin localities and Israeli border and municipal police were called in to forcibly remove tens of thousands of Bedouin residents from their homes, the anger and fury had already erupted. 

In a series of demonstrations in various locations throughout Israel, dozens of police officers were injured in arresting scores of Bedouin protesters, who view Israel today as having set itself a goal of forcibly robbing their land.

In an interview I conducted for Al-Monitor on Nov. 26, Atia al-Asam, chairman of the Regional Council of Unrecognized Bedouin Villages, explained that the neglect and discrimination of the Bedouin population are preventing the Bedouins from accepting the principle of regulation put forward by the Prawer bill’s authors and planners. He maintains that the Bedouins have been methodically shunted to the sidelines of Israel, with no distinction made between their recognized and unrecognized localities.

But the rift between Israeli society and the Bedouins is not only the result of neglect and discrimination. Most of the Bedouin population in the Negev does not believe that Israel is truly seeking an appropriate settlement solution because of the daily war of attrition that has been taking place for years in their villages with members of the Green Patrol, Border Police and Israel Police, who arrive to demolish illegal homes. Thus, whole Bedouin clans, whose fathers served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in patrol units and were skilled military trackers, view the Israeli establishment as ungrateful for their service.

Those sent to demolish the illegal homes the Bedouins have built — because Israel for years has put off finding a proper solution, from their perspective — wore official uniforms. The demolitions are called “operations,” during which police and border police suddenly arrive on the scene to carry out their work and clash with local residents, who witness their homes being demolished before their very eyes. Bedouin children and youngsters watch from the sidelines, perceiving the enforcers of law, representatives of the Israeli establishment, as the enemy. They will not be enlisting in the IDF as their fathers or older brothers had. The friendship that had existed since the establishment of the state has turned into hostility. The rift has become a regrettable fact.

On the Israeli side, the dominant terminology is military, concerning the struggle over land. It was in this spirit that Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman posted the following on his Facebook page, on Nov. 30: “We are not dealing with a social problem or housing crisis,” the minister declared, “but a struggle over the land, as it was even back in the 19th century upon the establishment of the first [Jewish] communities. … We are fighting for the national lands of the Jewish people, and there are those who are working intently to rob us of them and take control of them by force.”

Lieberman is not alone. Israeli discourse on Bedouin lands in recent years has revolved around “occupation,” “overtaking” and “losing the Negev.” Without official settlement solutions, however, and given the natural growth of the Bedouin population, the Bedouins have been left with no other choice than to build illegally and significantly expand unrecognized settlements.

The unexplained deferral in finding settlement solutions for the Bedouins, who were left outside the seven municipalities built in the 1970s, has created a deep rift with that population as a whole. During the demonstrations last week, protesters shouted, “Settler state,” referring to the attitude shown by the Israeli establishment toward the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and consideration for natural population growth in them, contrasting sharply with its dismissiveness toward the natural growth of the Bedouin population in the southern region of the Negev over the past 20 years.

Thus, social anxiety, a desire to preserve culture and tradition and differences of opinion over compensation and ownership of land have slowly grown into a battle over land — a battle between Bedouin land and Jewish land. The tension and bad blood are turning any solution, no matter how fair, into yet another maneuver in the war of attrition being waged over territory. Given this sentiment, there is no chance that the Prawer bill will pass without incident. Suspicion and hostility have overshadowed all else.

Therefore, before blood is spilled and the rift between the Bedouins and Israeli society becomes a terrible tragedy, everything must be put on hold and reconsidered together with the representatives of the Bedouins. There is no reason to insist on promoting the bill no matter what.

The Prawer Plan is not a bad plan. It may be lacking, because it does not take into account that Bedouins living in unrecognized villages do not believe the government is proposing a plan based on a sincere desire to ease their anguish and improve their future. At the foundation of the plan’s outline, however, some unrecognized villages were supposed to become permanent, recognized settlements that will receive development and infrastructure resources.

To get to the point of voluntary, unforced settlement, the parties need to rebuild trust in one another. This can be done in several ways: freeze promotion of the bill in its second or third reading; stop talking in terms of war over the land and start speaking in terms of peace; include Bedouin representatives — the heads of the councils and villages — in the talks on the details of the law; rezone the land to allow construction of permanent localities; and build trust between the Bedouin population and the Israeli establishment and society as a whole.

The Bedouins’ representatives, without exception, agree that solutions must be found to regulate Bedouin settlement of the Negev and admit that the current situation needs to be changed and addressed. Much work needs to be done, however, even before maps are drawn and compensation payments are calculated.

Shlomi Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse (, where a version of this originally appeared. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for his work. Reprinted with permission.

Lockheed Martin opening branch in Israel

Lockheed Martin is opening a technology center in Israel to help build a new center for Israeli military intelligence in the Negev.

The U.S. aerospace defense giant established a joint venture with Israel’s Bynet Data Communications to build the Israeli Defense Forces’ center, known as Project 5/9. The contract is worth about $210 million, according to Israel’s Globes.

Lockheed’s job is to help with “migration,” adapting lines of code written decades ago to advanced computer systems. Its new Israeli center will provide support and maintenance, Globes reported.

“The intention is to establish a local branch of Lockheed Martin in Israel in the field of information systems,” said Lockheed’s vice president for global solutions, Robert Eastman, according to UPI.

Bynet’s CEO said the complexity of the project necessitated hiring Lockheed because no Israeli company knows how to do it.

In April, the state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries was hired to build the wings for Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Production is scheduled to being in 2015 under the 10-year contract, which could be worth up to $2.5 billion, UPI reported.

Israel Aerospace Industries already produces wings for the Lockheed-produced F-16 and the U.S. Air Force’s T-38 trainer aircraft.

Billions of locusts hatched in southern Israel

Billions of newly hatched locusts are spreading throughout Israel's South.

The young locusts identified in the Negev Desert area are the offspring of locust swarms that entered Israel from Egypt in March.

They are unable to fly and are not yet big enough to cause crop damage, according to reports. Once the young locusts begin to fly, in about a week's time, they could cause serious damage to southern Israeli fruit and vegetable crops.

Spraying of the locusts as they were laying eggs was not as effective as anticipated, according to reports.

A swarm of 30 million locusts first appeared near Cairo on March 2 and caused millions of dollars worth of crop damage in Egypt.

Knesset panel advances plan regulating Bedouin settlements

A Knesset committee advanced a plan that would require the resettlement of some 30,000 Bedouin.

The draft ratified Monday by the Ministerial Legislation Committee regulates Bedouin settlements in the Negev Desert. Along with requiring the resettlement of the Bedouin, the Law of Arrangement of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev — also known as the Prawer-Begin Plan — would resolve some 12,000 land claims, Army Radio reported.

In a news release criticizing the plan, The Association for Civil Rights in Israel said it would “cause the displacement and forced eviction of dozens of villages and tens of thousands of Bedouin residents, dispossessing them of their property and historical rights to their lands, destroying the social fabric of their communities, and sealing the fate of thousands of families into poverty and unemployment. All of this while the government simultaneously promotes the establishment of new Jewish communities, some of which are even planned to be built on the fresh ruins of Bedouin villages.”

Another swarm of locusts in Israel sparks new concerns

Another swarm of locusts entered Israel, spurring concerns that they will continue to infest the country for several weeks.

A new swarm was discovered in southern Israel on Saturday.

Locusts have been discovered mating and laying eggs throughout Israel's South, Globes reported, citing the Ministry of Agriculture.

The ministry said it will concentrate  on the new swarms and spray the other locations later, even after the eggs are hatched, since the newly hatched locusts cannot fly. New swarms could come from several directions.

According to the ministry, the locusts have not caused great damage to crops.

Canadian fertilizer corp. determined to buy Israeli chemical company

A Canadian fertilizer company is determined to buy a major Israeli chemical company despite opposition among lawmakers and employees of the Israeli company.

The Potash Corp of Saskatchewan is seeking to acquire a controlling stake in ICL, Israel Chemicals Ltd., Israel's second-largest corporation by market size.

Over twenty Israeli lawmakers met in Jerusalem Wednesday to discuss the issue, with some voicing strong opposition to the deal, according to Bloomberg.

“The sale of ICL to a foreign company would be abandoning residents of the Negev region and a slap in the face of every citizen of Israel,” Yesh Atid lawmaker Meir Cohen was quoted as saying.

Potash Corp is the largest producer of the potash crop nutrient and currently owns a 14 percent stake in ICL, which mines chemicals from the Dead Sea and is the world's sixth-largest producer of potash.

On Tuesday, Potash Corp Chief Financial Officer Wayne Brownlee said, “The opposition you're seeing now is fear of the unknown.” Brownlee, speaking at a conference in Florida, said Potash Corp would not cut production or layoff ICL employees.

But that hasn’t placated Israel Chemicals employees, who plan to stage protests in coming weeks to try and block the deal, according to Reuters.

Before discussions begin between the companies, Potash Corp must secure approval from the Israeli government and talks are currently suspended due to “political events,” Brownlee said Tuesday. Israel is currently in the process of forming a new government.

The removal of water from the Dead Water to mine lucrative chemical products like potash has been blamed for the shrinking of the popular natural attraction. The flow of water into the sea was 100 million cubic meters in 2008, down from 1.4 billion cubic meters in 1948 when Israel was founded.

Study: Sderot rocket attacks increased miscarriages

Rocket attacks on Sderot significantly increased the number of miscarriages that occurred in women from the southern Israeli city, according to a new study.

The number of miscarriages likely was increased because of the rise in stress, including the release of too much cortisol, a stress hormone, wrote Tamar Wainstock and Professor Ilana Shoham-Vardi of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev's Department of Epidemiology, Faculty of Health Sciences.

The study was published this month in the latest issue of Psychosomatic Medicine Journal of Bio-Behavioral Medicine.

It compared miscarriages, called spontaneous abortions, or SA in the report, in women from Sderot and Kiryat Gat, two southern cities, between April 2004 to Dec. 27, 2008, when Operation Cast Lead broke out. At that point, Kiryat Gat also came under rocket fire.

All but seven of the 1,132 women from Sderot included in the study had never experienced a siren during or six months prior to conception.

“The findings demonstrate a significantly increased risk of SA among women exposed to potentially life-threatening situations for a prolonged period, both before and during pregnancy, compared with women of similar demographic characteristics who were not exposed to missile-attack alarms or missile attacks,” according to the report.

Knesset approves plan to recognize Bedouin settlement

Israel's Cabinet approved a plan to formalize the status of Bedouin settlement in the Negev.

The plan recommended by outgoing Likud Minister Benny Begin would officially recognize most Bedouin settlements in southern Israel and offer compensation to those Bedouin required to move off state-owned land. Compensation will be given in full either in land or money, according to the Prime Minister's Office.

Bedouin being required to move have five years to accept the compensation.

As part of the plan, the government will invest some $322 million over the next five years to promote economic development and growth among Negev Bedouin, and to develop infrastructures in Bedouin communities.

“The goal of this historic decision is to put an end to the spread of illegal building by Negev Bedouin and lead to the better integration of the Bedouin into Israeli society,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement released by his office.

67 years later, Holocaust survivor reunites with rescuer

Even though 67 years had passed since they last saw each other, Wladyslawa Dudziak and Rozia Beiman reunited as if they hadn't missed a moment.

Dudziak, 85, was flown to New York last week from Poland to meet with Beiman, whom she had saved from the Nazis more than a half-century before.

Dudziak lived in Lublin during World War II and asked her family to look after Beiman when Beiman's parents went missing — presumably sent to the nearby Majdanek concentration camp. Although extremely poor, the family hid Beiman in its home and pretended she was a niece until the city was liberated in 1944.

“I still feel like she’s my sister, even though I haven’t seen her in so long,” Beiman told JTA. “I think about her all the time. I trusted their family wholeheartedly during the war. I knew they wouldn’t give me up because they loved my parents.”

On Nov. 21, at Kennedy Airport, Beiman greeted Dudziak and her daughter with flowers. Dudziak, who had never been on a plane before, cried when she saw Beiman.

The reunion was arranged by the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, a New York organization that provides financial support to hundreds of non-Jews who saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust.

Speaking in Polish, Dudziak said though she felt too old to travel, she wanted to see Beiman and give her one last hug. She said it was dangerous to hide Jews during the war, but that her mother insisted they keep Beiman safe.

In 1945, Beiman immigrated to Israel with a group of orphaned children and changed her name to Shoshana Golan after meeting her husband, Micha, in the army. The couple married in 1945 and live on Kibbutz Gal On, in the northern Negev.

“When we met in 1953, Shoshana never told me about her past, even though I knew she lost her whole family,” Micha Golan said. “But I remember she used to have nightmares, and only later did she tell me how a Polish family hid her. It’s hard to describe how grateful I am, but I want Wladyslawa to know that our family, our four children, would not be here if it weren’t for them.”

Beiman said that even though she was only 6 when she was hidden, she understood the dangers faced by the Dudziak family in keeping her alive. After she moved to Israel, she kept in contact with the family, sending them packages with basic foods such as coffee, sugar and fruit.

The easiest way to remember the Dudziak family during their time apart was to go to church, Beiman said, since the family taught her Catholic prayers and regularly attended services.

“My mother reminded me to never forget that I was Jewish, and it was difficult to live with that since I was pretending to be Catholic,” Beiman said. “I struggled with understanding God, and still do, but church was a comforting place for me at the time, and still is.”

Along with her husband and a son, Beiman will spend 10 days in the United States with Dudziak and her daughter before they again go their separate ways.

Three soldiers wounded in Gaza rocket attack

Three Israeli soldiers were lightly injured by a Palestinian rocket attack on the northern Negev.

The rockets landed on Friday afternoon, moderately wounding one soldier and causing minor injuries to the other two. All three were evacuated to Soroka hospital in Be´er Sheva, an Israel Defense Forces spokesperson said.

According to the IDF spokesperson, more than 500 rockets have been launched into Israel since the beginning of Pillar of Defense, the operation launched this week to counter rocket fire from the Gaza Strip.

Of those rockets, 26 hit populated areas and 110 were shot down by the Iron Dome missile defense system, according to the IDF. 

Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai has ordered municipal workers to open and prepare bomb shelters throughout the city after it was hit for a third time by a rocket from Gaza.

Iran has photos of Israeli restricted areas, lawmaker says

An Iranian lawmaker said that Iran has photos of Israeli military bases and other restricted areas.

Esmail Kowsari, chairman of the Iranian Parliament's defense committee, told the Iranian Arabic-language Al-Alam that a drone that breached Israeli airspace earlier this month transmitted photos of restricted Israeli military sites before it was shot down, Reuters reported, citing Iran's Mehr news agency.

Israeli troops shot down the unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, on Oct. 6 over the Negev Desert after it entered Israeli airspace near the Mediterranean Sea. The drone was launched from Lebanon in a cooperation between the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and the Lebanon-based terrorist group Hezbollah, the Sunday Times of London reported at the time, citing unnamed sources.

Israel must stop squatting Bedouin, lawmaker says

Israel must find a way to halt the illegal squatting of Israeli Bedouin, in order to help the Bedouin and to assert Israel's claim to the land, lawmaker Yuli Edelstein told a special forum.

The non-profit research institute Regavim conducted two events last week focusing on the sharp rise of squatting and illegal settling of vast tracts of land in the country’s Negev region.

Edelstein, minister of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs, was the keynote speaker for an emergency public forum, called “Which Way for the Negev?,” at Jerusalem’s Menachem Begin Heritage Center. Its panel of experts included Prof. Rafi Yisraeli and Dr. Seth Frantzman. The special presentation concentrated on spiraling illegal building by the Negev’s Bedouin inhabitants and challenges to Israeli rule of law as well as solutions to counter the mounting crisis.

“Regavim deals with very complicated issues of land rights, which have become increasingly urgent.  To reclaim the land and assert Israel’s sovereign control, the organization engages in ongoing research and legal action to succeed in this mission,” said Minister Edelstein. “We must break the merry-go-round cycle of lawful eviction of illegal settlements followed by the immediate return of illegal squatting if we truly care about ensuring Government plans for Israeli Bedouins, which will benefit the entire population of the Negev.”

The second part of the Regavim fact-finding event was a tour to the sites of illegal activities for over 150 participants in three full buses of English-speaking Israelis and tourists, each led by experts. One site visited was the village of Al-Zarnog which is built on private land and is currently the subject of a court case in which Regavim is assisting its legal landowners.

“Our intention is to conduct more of these events to educate the public about the true facts on the ground and to increase pressure on the government to effectively enforce Israel’s sovereignty in the country’s national lands, including the Negev,” said Briggs. “There has been much attention focused on settlements deemed ‘illegal’ in the West Bank, including forced evacuations. Far less in the public eye have been shocking illegal land grabs on this side of the Green Line, in the Negev.”

Israeli military downs drone over Negev

The Israeli Air Force shot down a drone that entered Israeli airspace.

The unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, was intercepted and shot down over the northern Negev on Saturday morning in an unpopulated area, according to the Israel Defense Forces. It had entered Israeli airspace from the Mediterranean.

IDF spokesman Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai said the aircraft was identified before entering Israeli airspace and was downed in accordance with a decision of the IDF's top leaders.

The drone flew over the Gaza Strip but did not originate from there, the IDF said. The Israeli media reported that it could have originated in Lebanon, which in previous years has sent drones into Israeli airspace.

The UAV reportedly was not carrying explosives and may have been a surveillance drone.

Israeli soldiers were searching for the debris in order to identify from where the drone originated.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday night praised the IDF.

Harvesting solar power in Negev Desert

Yosef Abramowitz is running out of time. 

With only minutes to go until he has to speak to a group of donors at the Jewish National Fund (JNF), Abramowitz looks like he just finished a workout. He’s wearing sneakers, shorts and a white T-shirt featuring an outline of David Ben-Gurion’s head superimposed on the picture of a sun. 

He excuses himself from the table at a Tel Aviv cafe and jogs to the bathroom to change into his “costume,” which includes slacks and a clean, ironed shirt. Immediately after the donor meeting, he flies to the United States for a few weeks to court more donors. 

Abramowitz, 48, is fundraising for the Arava Power Co. (APC), which aims ultimately to provide 10 percent of Israel’s energy needs through solar power. The company now has a 4.9-megawatt field up and running in the Negev Desert and is building a 40-megawatt field nearby. 

It’s an unlikely mission for the Boston-raised Abramowitz: His background is in human rights activism and journalism, not science and technology. 

“Isn’t that crazy? It’s the craziest thing,” he said. “It’s not like you wake up one day and say, ‘I’m going to move to Israel and do solar.’ “

But as he tells it, that’s more or less what happened.

After success as a college student in the 1980s fighting for imprisoned Soviet Jewry activists in Russia and against apartheid in South Africa, Abramowitz served in the Israel Defense Forces and earned a graduate degree from the Columbia University Journalism School. Abramowitz, whose activism has rankled the organized Jewish world for years, then spent the 1990s and early 2000s writing for a handful of Jewish publications. His journalism career included writing a 1996 series of articles that called into question JNF’s finances.

In 2006, looking for a quiet lifestyle, he and his wife moved with their children — they have five, including two adopted from Ethiopia — to Kibbutz Ketura, near Israel’s southern tip, where Abramowitz had volunteered following high school. The plan was to spend the year writing, but Abramowitz scrapped that almost immediately upon arriving at the kibbutz.

“We got there on Aug. 24 at the end of the day, and this hot rush of air just hits you, and you go,‘Oh my God,’ and the sun is setting and it’s burning my skin,” he said. “I thought, ‘I’m sure the whole place works on solar power.’ ”

It didn’t, because no commercial solar power existed in Israel. Hoping to change that, Abramowitz partnered with Ed Hofland, an investor who lived on the kibbutz, and David Rosenblatt, an investor based in New Jersey, to found the Arava company.

From left: Ed Hofland, David Rosenblatt and Yosef Abramowitz, co-founders of the Arava Power Co. Photo courtesy of Arava Power Co.

Since then, Abramowitz laments the “100 regulatory battles” he says he’s had to fight against the Israeli government to build the 4.9-megawatt field, which began running last year, and to launch several other solar energy projects.

Officials from the Public Utilities Authority, which administers Israel’s energy infrastructure, did not respond to several calls for comment. 

For Abramowitz, the process is grating. While he has launched ventures and organized campaigns before, and while he understands budgets and bills, he speaks the language of a social justice organizer, not a businessman. He calls his work “Zionist activism” and likens himself to Don Quixote “slaying dragons and tilting at windmills.” 

Abramowitz’s analogy for APC’s success is the story of the Soviet Jewry movement, not the achievements of other solar companies. 

“My point of view was, I can get a Prisoner of Zion out of solitary in the gulag and we can’t change the laws in our own country?” he said. “It was just clear as day that it was doable.”

To Abramowitz’s employees, his idealistic attitude is both an inspiration and, at times, a hindrance. Engineer Ram Duani calls Abramowitz the dream “of every engineer: He has the vision, he has the money, and he wants to invest in something new.”

Hannah Schafer, APC’s director of communications, notes that Abramowitz’s ambitions don’t always consider the company’s logistical limitations. 

“There are two opposite ends of the spectrum,” she said. “Yosef is the dreamer. Yosef likes to run off, and sometimes you have to pull him back in on a leash.”

Despite decades in the Jewish community’s public eye, and as much as he sees himself as a visionary, Abramowitz projects himself as a colorful character as well as an entrepreneur. After he left the Tel Aviv cafe to address the JNF donors, his publicist sent out two links at his request: One was to an article about Abramowitz’s near obsession with Madonna — he has traveled across continents to watch her perform. 

The other was to “Scissor Sheldon,” a video that urges billionaire Sheldon Adelson to donate his money to President Barack Obama in exchange for a sexual favor from comedian Sarah Silverman — whose sister, Susan, is Abramowitz’s wife.

While his daring personality has pushed him to dream beyond the company’s limits, it also has given him the confidence to start a solar company with no experience in the field. Schafer said that when launching APC, Abramowitz and his partners realized that all they needed to do was “look like we know what we’re talking about.”

So instead of spending years researching solar power, APC’s founders managed to install one solar panel at Ketura, which they would show investors as a model of their larger concept. 

If he is a dreamer, Abramowitz is relentlessly focused on one dream. APC’s official goal is to provide one-tenth of Israel’s power; Abramowitz dreams of a country run entirely on solar energy. He sees APC as one part social action, one part Zionism, one part Jewish values and one part business. 

Abramowitz, for example, decided that APC would donate the profits from the solar field’s corner panels to four nonprofits, in accordance with the Jewish commandment of pe’ah, which mandates that farmers leave the corners of their fields for the poor. 

He has a grandiose vision for his small company — one that is less about revenues and expenses than about values and ideals. Abramowitz sees solar energy as the key to lowering Israel’s high energy costs, cutting pollution and fulfilling Ben-Gurion’s vision of making Israel’s desert bloom. 

“I feel like we’re out of time,” he said. “That’s why I’m always on three hours’ sleep. I’m in a rush. The whole planet should be in a rush. The Jewish people should be in
a rush.”

One L.A. party raises $7 million for Israel Defense Forces

It could well be a happy new year for Israel’s military, as their friends on the West Coast just raised a bundle for Israeli soldiers through the organization Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF). At a Western Region summer party hosted by real estate entrepreneur Daniel Mani and his wife, Tsipi, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) came one step closer to realizing a longtime dream of constructing “a city of training bases” in the Negev. In February, the FIDF promised $45 million for the project, which is expected to serve 11,000 IDF soldiers and includes plans for multiple training bases, roads, hotels, a mall, a country club and movie theaters. One FIDF donor, who asked that her name not be used, pledged $3.5 million for a swimming pool facility for the Negev Education and Wellbeing Centers, one of 11 facilities the FIDF will help build. 

Media mogul Haim Saban and wife Cheryl matched the anonymous donor’s $3.5 million gift and promised an additional $100,000 to fund a Sports Court and Visitors Park for the Negev project, which, in 2006, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz estimated would cost the country more than $2 billion. The move is part of the country’s overall mission to move military bases out of central Israel and to promote the development of the Negev, the lifelong dream of former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion.

Israelis helping Syrian refugees in Jordan

Israelis from humanitarian groups are in Jordan are assisting Syrian refugees fleeing that country’s uprising.

Ayoob Kara, Israel’s deputy minister for the development of the Negev and Galilee, said Thursday that Israelis are assisting children and infants who have been injured in the Syrian military’s ongoing violent crackdown throughout Syria, The Jerusalem Post reported.

Kara said his bureau chief was working with representatives from Israeli humanitarian groups.

“They are in Jordan trying to help people who have been hurt in Syria,” he told The Jerusalem Post, confirming that the representatives he was referring to are Israeli citizens.

Kara told AFP that the Israeli government was wary of being seen to aid the opposition groups fighting to overthrow the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“If we are part of the conflict, it’s a danger for all the region, all the world,” he said.

He said Israeli volunteer groups had been working in Turkey and Jordan for the past two months, providing humanitarian aid.

Kara is a Druze member of the Likud Party.