Andrea Sonnenberg, co-founder and CEO of Wise Readers to Leaders, is joined by her husband, Glenn Sonnenberg, as she sits among kids taking part in the program, one of the beneficiaries of eight $250,000 grants awarded by the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles. Photo by Max Gerber Photography

$2 million in grants awarded to 8 L.A. groups


Dr. Lawrence D. Platt knows how hard it is to have a child in the military halfway around the world. Just ask him about his son Ari’s experience as a lone soldier, a member of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) serving without the nearby support of immediate families.

“My son, a combat officer, served as a lone soldier from 2009 to 2011 and is on reserve if something comes up,” Platt said. “When he was called back to Israel to serve during Operation Protective Edge, my wife and I had a firsthand experience of what families go through when a family member is in harm’s way.”

That experience led Platt to found and co-chair Families of Lone Soldiers Los Angeles (FLS), an organization now seeking to create a local center that would provide social, mental health, educational and financial support to families in similar circumstances.

The organization’s efforts recently received a major boost when it received a $250,000, three-year Cutting Edge Grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles. It was one of eight groups to receive such grants, a total of $2 million, which were announced on Aug. 17.

FLS plans to use the funds to help subsidize programming and fundraising efforts as it operates, for now, as a center without walls at various locations around Los Angeles.

“Uniting these families together who share common interests and issues will certainly prevent the feeling of isolation from the broader Jewish community,” Platt said.

Stuart Steinberg, whose son, Sgt. Max Steinberg, was a lone soldier killed in action in Gaza in July 2014 during Operation Protective Edge, said the grant provides an important opportunity for the FLS program.

“My family’s involvement continues to be a great source of healing for us and an opportunity to help turn our tragedy into something positive,” Steinberg said. “I am excited about the grant because as we promote greater awareness of our work to the Jewish community, we also help establish Max’s legacy within the fabric of our organization and the way he committed to and sacrificed for both the U.S. and Israel.”

Other 2017 recipients of the $250,000 Cutting Edge Grants, each distributed over three or four years, were:

• The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Family Camp Pilot program connecting Jewish camps to Jewish early childhood centers.

• Federation’s Y&S Nazarian Foundation Iranian Young Adult Outreach and Engagement Initiative.

• The Volunteer Engagement Project of the Karsh Family Social Service Center, an auxiliary of Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

• OneTable, for the Los Angeles launch of its online platform that helps out-of-college millennials anywhere in the U.S. find a Shabbat dinner.

• StandWithUs, an Israel advocacy organization, to create its J.D. Fellowship for Jewish law students in L.A.

• UpStart LA to help Jewish organizations be innovative and increase their impact.

Wise Readers to Leaders for its Tikkun Olam Corps summer literacy and enrichment program

The grant recipients “demonstrate a capacity and leadership to implement an initiative that is unique, sustainable and offers long-term positive impact on our local Jewish community,” said Elana Wien, vice president at the Foundation’s Center for Designed Philanthropy.

“Through this year’s recipient programs,” Wien added, “[the Foundation] is providing significant financial support to efforts that foster engagement and participation in local Jewish life; provide critical human services and assistance to those in need; and serve diverse segments of our community from youth to seniors.”

The Tikkun Olam Corps connects Jewish teens with underserved elementary school students in Los Angeles who come mostly from Latino communities. Andrea Sonnenberg, co-founder and CEO of Wise Readers to Leaders, said the grant will help expand educational opportunities for the teens and their students throughout the year.

Sonnenberg said the Cutting Edge Grant, distributed over four years, will help accelerate the program’s growth and impact. While 300 school children were served in the summer of 2017, Sonnenberg projects more than 500 students and 150 Jewish teens will be served each year by 2020. 

Under the supervision of education, religious, social work and management professionals, Jewish college students serve as teachers in classrooms at several campuses throughout Los Angeles, with Jewish high school students from 10th grade and up acting as assistant teachers.

“We intend to use some of this money to step up our outreach to Jewish teens by setting up booths at high school fairs, have more recruiting sessions before summer and build more campuses across the city,” Sonnenberg said. “The program is not just for those considering teaching careers. It also provides them experience in social work, psychology and other careers involving children. Even if they don’t pursue any of these careers, the Jewish values learned here will serve them throughout their lives.”

The Wise Readers’ Tikkun Olam Corps Program and Families of Lone Soldiers’ Los Angeles center exemplify what the Foundation seeks in in the grant applicants, Wien said.

“Both harness the power of community to meet the needs of underserved populations,” she said. “Collectively, all our Cutting Edge Grants recipients offer transformative ideas for reimagining local Jewish life and touching the broadest possible segments of our community.”

Photo by Reuters

And what if it were your son?


In recent years, the Israeli public has again been forced to confront the issue of the price a country should pay to bring home its captive soldiers, including those who have been declared dead. The debate has become particularly heated because of the claims made by the families of Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, of blessed memory, that the state is not doing enough to recover the bodies of their sons, killed during Operation Protective Edge (launched July 8, 2014), and bring them home for burial.

The questions raised by this issue are many and complex. All of them press on the soft underbelly of Israeli society, whose attitude towards its soldiers, including the price it is willing to pay to bring them home, dead or alive, is nothing short of astonishing. Yet precisely on this account, and precisely because the heart tears whenever we hear a father plead for a grave at which he can mourn his son, or we witness a young man cry out to bring back his twin brother, it is important to address the question from a dispassionate perspective.

One of the claims frequently advanced as part of the discussion on the country’s obligation to citizens who have been taken prisoner is phrased as a question: “And what if it were your son?” The appeal to parental feelings is manifested in campaigns that feature slogans such as “Gilad Shalit—Everyone’s Child.” But it finds its way into the public discourse almost every time one of our soldiers’ fate dangles by a thread, as well as in theoretical debates, such as the obligation to endanger soldiers’ lives to avoid harming enemy civilians. In that instance, too, we frequently encounter the question, “And what if it were your son? Would you be willing to put him in danger?”

We might dismiss the question as cheap populism. But it is preferable to hold a candid discussion of this assertion of national parenthood and point out the danger inherent in society’s collective adoption of every man and woman in uniform.

First, we need to repeat what goes without saying: were all of us the parents of POWs, we would all be paralyzed when it came to making decisions about negotiations for their release. Likewise, were we all the parents of a soldier facing a court-martial, we would be paralyzed and left unable to issue a verdict in the case. Magistrates do not sit in judgment on their own children, and spouses may not be called on to testify against their partner. The absence of preferential treatment is one of the most important aspects required in such situations.

As such, decision makers must address the complex issues on their agenda based on their responsibility for the wellbeing of the collective—not as the parents of children who have grown up to be soldiers. Mothers and fathers will free as many terrorists as required for the chance to embrace their children again. The question of the possible repercussions of setting them free may penetrate their thoughts, but they will stifle them and continue to see only their children’s welfare in front of them. That is human nature, that is how parents behave—and perhaps how they should behave.

But do we want that to be the perspective of our decision makers? Do we want the considerations that guide them to be the same as those that guide parents, whose sole concern is the welfare of their children? Do we really want a judge to rule on a case as if it were his own son sitting on trial?

Let’s be frank: soldiers have a duty to defend civilians, not the other way around. Even if tens of thousands of civilians turn out for a demonstration in favor of having soldiers returned home, no matter the price, it does not mean that the decision makers should opt for a deal that would threaten those very same civilians. Social solidarity and sympathy for the families are worthy sentiments; the nation’s love for its soldiers is not illegitimate and is in fact quite moving. But we must not allow ourselves to be confused. Even when the tragedy is immense, the ways to resolve it must be considered in an intelligent and responsible manner and must not be motivated by parental emotion that is blind to anything that stands in its way.

So, the answer to the question “What would you say if it were your son?” may be unpleasant, but must be stated clearly all the same: Were it my son, it would be better for people not to ask me what the country should do to bring him home.


Dr. Idit Shafran Gittleman is a researcher in the Israel Democracy Institute’s Center for Security and Democracy.

Israel's State Comptroller Yosef Shapira

When people don’t trust their leaders to run a war, they turn to comptrollers


Israel’s State Comptroller is about to release his report on the 2014 Operation Protective Edge, and Israel is getting ready for it – or at least pretending to getting ready for it. Most of what the State Comptroller is about to say is already known: the cabinet did not function properly, decision makers were late to understand the threat of the tunnels from Gaza, the goals of the operation were vague. The report is, of course, a political football. The Prime Minister, whose cabinet and function is criticized in the report, is in deflection mode. Some ministers, such as Habait Hayehudi’s Naftali Bennet, see an opportunity. Bennet was the most vocal minister among his peers when it comes to issuing warnings concerning the tunnels.

The report will be released tomorrow, but it is already clear that the release will contribute to a sense among Israelis that Protective Edge was not a resounding success. Hamas is still in Gaza. The tunnels are still a problem. The rockets are still a threat. The bottom line: soldiers – and many Palestinians – died, and the situation was not transformed. Israel may have gotten a few years of calm, but the next round of battle is only a matter of time.

A State Comptroller’s report might put Israelis under the impression that this operation was a missed opportunity because of procedural reasons. They might get the impression that more cabinet meetings, or briefings, or sharing of information, or following of bureaucratic rules – that all these would have made Operation Protective Edge more successful.

And, of course, that’s possible. These procedures could have made Operation Protective Edge more successful. They also could have made it less successful. That is, assuming it was not successful – and even this is a matter of debate. One could argue that, under the circumstances, Protective Edge was successful enough, satisfactory enough.

The belief in a procedural conduct of war that is supposedly more proper than other ways of conducting wars is a sign of the times. When people do not have trust in their leaders – rightly or wrongly – they cling to procedures. When they aren’t sure if their prime minister, their defense minister, their chief of staff, have the necessary qualities for running a war – they turn to governmental bureaucratic structures in the hope that these will compensate for the lack of direction, or lack of quality, their leaders suffer from.

This is, of course, an illusion. Bureaucratic structures are necessary for every government, and could be helpful when a government is running a war. Then again, a war is never run by a committee. It is run by a leader, and a few close advisers. Ideally, it is run by people who do not really concern themselves with the aftermath report of a comptroller.

Try the following thought exercise: an imaginary war erupts between Israel and one of its enemies. The war lasts for six days, and ends with the enemy defeated. Two years later, a comptroller’s report finds serious deficiencies in the way the war was run. Apparently, the cabinet was not updated at proper intervals, the ministers did not understand the graveness of some of the enemy’s tactics, the Prime Minister did not heed calls for more briefings and relied on a small cadre of advisors.

Would we care?

Now try the following thought exercise: the 2014 Operation Protective Edge ended reasonably well. The objectives – a few years of calm – were met. Hamas learned a lesson. And yes, a few procedural rules were not properly followed. The cabinet was not always in the loop. The graveness of the threat from tunnels did not sink in as soon as it should have.

Now – do you care?

Do you care to the point of being outraged?

 

Making a home for lone soldiers fighting for Israel


A sign on a kitchen cabinet at the Beit Shemesh Home for Lone Soldiers explains color designations for meat, dairy and pareve dishes. Near the cabinet, empty beer bottles and handles of alcohol line up like trophies on a shelf above the kitchen sink. A stack of magazines, including a Rolling Stone featuring a cover story about Leonardo DiCaprio, sits at the end of a bench next to a dining room table, within reach of a rifle with a scope latched to the top of the weapon.

The gun belongs to Levi. Eyes red, cheeks flushed, Levi (who, for security reasons, asked his last name not be included in the story) enters the Beit Shemesh house wearing his green Israel Defense Forces (IDF) uniform on a recent Sunday afternoon. The 19-year-old from Pico-Robertson is a member of Tzanhanim, a paratroopers unit, and he now lives in this house; he’s been in Israel since the summer of 2015, when he arrived in the country on a Birthright trip and never left. 

Levi immediately makes himself coffee and reflects on why he joined the Israeli army instead of the American military.

[Want to join the IDF? Three paths to service]

“I don’t think the [American] cause is as important as the Israeli cause. In America, we’re good, but in Israel, we’re fighting for our existence here,” he says. “I love the U.S. military, but they definitely need us more here.” 

Levi is one of 12 male soldiers living in the Beit Shemesh Home, and one of more than 6,000 lone soldiers currently serving in the Israeli army.

Levi, a lone soldier from Los Angeles, stands at a bus stop across the street from the Beit Shemesh Home for Lone Soldiers. Photos by Ryan Torok

Wendy Serlin, 59, and Gayle Shimoff, 49, two olim (immigrants to Israel), established the house in November 2015, in response to the 2014 deaths of Max Steinberg, a lone soldier from Woodland Hills, and Sean Carmeli, from Texas, during Operation Protective Edge. The 2014 conflict between Israel and Hamas exposed the world to the phenomenon of lone soldiers, members of the Israeli army who are serving without the nearby support of their immediate families. 

“[The deaths of] Max Steinberg and Sean Carmeli — that sort of alerted the Jewish people to the fact of lone soldiers, that there are a lot of them and they are alone. We came up with all these ideas, invited people in the Beit Shemesh community, decided we would rent a home, get together a board and have guys live here,” Serlin, who is originally from Cleveland, said.

“This is their home away from home, during their 1 1/2 to three years of army service,” she said.

Levi falls into one of three categories of lone soldiers, an official classification for soldiers that determines the number of leave days and amount of money they earn during their service. Lone soldiers can be Diaspora Jews who join the Israeli army and don’t have any family in Israel to support them; some are Israeli orphans in the military, while the third group consists of soldiers from Charedi and religious families who join against the wishes of their parents.

“If a religious boy was disowned by his parents who don’t want to speak with him, he is considered a lone soldier,” said Eli Fitlovitz, co-founder and co-chair of Families of Lone Soldiers.

From left: Lone soldiers Adam and Yoseph; Avigail and Elidor, machrichim (counselors) of the Beit Shemesh Home for Lone Soldiers; and lone soldiers Gavriel and Avi.

How and through what means the soldiers enlist in the army also often determines their housing situations. This reporter, for example, traveled to Israel on an Aug. 17 flight chartered by Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization that helps Jews immigrating to Israel (known as making aliyah); that flight carried more than 70 lone soldiers who, through the organization Tzofim Garin Tzabar, would be living on kibbutzim around the country during their first year of service, and afterward they will have the option to remain on the kibbutz or to live in their own housing. 

Because the residents of the Beit Shemesh home did not come to Israel via any organized group  — each soldier joined the army on his own — they were required to find their own housing. They each applied to live in the Beit Shemesh house, which is run under the aegis of the Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin, an Israel-based organization that provides a variety of services to lone soldiers. To qualify, they had to undergo interviews with the house’s volunteer committee, whose members, like the soldiers, are olim. 

The goal of the house’s leadership was to find soldiers who would mesh well together.

Two soldiers share each of the bedrooms in the Beit Shemesh home, which mixes frat-boy like décor with kosher observance and the realities of military life. A pingpong table rests against a wall in the house’s courtyard, where Gavriel, a resident from South Africa who also asked his real name not be included here, has planted a tea garden. Tiny bits of hair were scattered on the patio next to the garden when this reporter visited, as several of the guys had just had their heads shaved by Elidor, who, along with his wife, Avigail, live in an attached unit and are the madrichim (counselors) of the house. Gavriel normally wears his hair long, so at this moment he was a bit self-conscious about his new haircut.

Two Californians live in the house. In addition to Levi, there’s Efraim, of San Diego, who was not at the house at the time of the Journal’s visit — it is rare that all 12 are there at the same time because, though they are all combat soldiers, with two of them serving in special forces, they belong to different units, and each unit runs on a unique schedule. Others are from Philadelphia, New Jersey, New York and Manchester, England.

The house is located in the Givat Sharett neighborhood of Beit Shemesh, “midway between Ramat Beit Shemesh and the original neighborhoods of ‘old’ Beit Shemesh,” according to press materials. It is a short train ride from Tel Aviv, an easy bus ride from Jerusalem. The bus stop is located across the street from the house, and the train station is a short drive away. A large shopping center is located at the train station. 

Beit Shemesh, divided between the newer neighborhoods of Ramat and old Beit Shemesh, is a quiet, predominately religious city filled with English-speaking olim who came for its affordability and abundance of schools and synagogues; the population now numbers approximately 100,000. The fact that the city is filled with olim creates a synergy between the residents of the city and the residents of the lone soldiers home.

“The majority of our friends in the neighborhood are English-speaking, and we understand where they [the soldiers] come from,” Serlin said.

On Shabbat, the city closes down. Walking around, it feels a lot like walking around Pico-Robertson.

The house is on a sloped block. A storage room is the first area one passes when walking onto the property. Inside, multiple laundry machines whirl with the dirty clothing of the soldiers.

“On Friday, the machines are always going,” Serlin said, leading this reporter into the house a few hours before Shabbat. 

An outdoor staircase leads to a patio area. Plants grow in pots and toilet bowls. A large piece of white paper with handwritten messages welcoming people to the house is taped to the wall at the entrance to the house. Inside is a mundane environment, with a kitchen, dining room area and a living room. The Netflix series “Black Mirror” is on pause on a television set. An acoustic guitar stands in the corner. 

Bedrooms are located on the first, second and fourth floors. The third floor has another lounge area, with a video game system hooked up to a television. The fourth floor is an attic that was recently converted into two additional bedrooms. When the house was launched, it housed only eight residents. 

Though the religious level of each of the residents differs, residents of the lone soldiers home are required to observe Shabbat and spend Friday night dinner in the neighborhood with a host family. On Saturday, they are left alone and eat meals that have been cooked for them by people in the community. 

Community support for the house is evident everywhere one looks, from the artwork created by children of the Beit Shemesh community — kids in the neighborhood recently had a bake sale raising $2,000 for the home — to the bins of donated socks, toothbrushes and other supplies that have filled their linen closet. Serlin handed Adam, 22, of Rockaway, N.J., his mail after giving this reporter a tour of the house.

“It’s my banking statement — I don’t need it. I have an app for that,” Adam said.

This is one of two homes for lone soldiers overseen by the Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin. The other is in Jerusalem. Both are currently full, but there are hopes to accommodate more. Brian Lurie, president of the recently launched U.S. Supporters of the Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin, the organization’s American fundraising and awareness-raising arm, said the organization is considering creating an additional apartment complex for lone soldiers in Jerusalem.

“The goal is to do something really big,” he said.

Lone soldiers have been part of Israel’s military since the days of the Jewish state’s founding. Realizing Israel was short on experienced fighters before Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, David Ben-Gurion, then the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the future first prime minister, worked with the Haganah — the precursor to the Israel Defense Forces — to recruit soldiers from abroad, many of them World War II veterans. These soldiers were known as Machal, a Hebrew acronym for “Volunteers From Abroad.”

The Machal continue to be an important part of the lone soldier phenomenon. Soldiers from abroad interested in serving in the IDF without becoming Israeli citizens do so through the Machal programs. They serve side by side with all of the other soldiers in the IDF; Levi enlisted through Machal. 

Operation Protective Edge (in Hebrew referred to as “Miv’tza Tzuk Eitan,” or “Operation Strong Cliff”), also known as the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict, was an important moment for many current olim. Hamas’ kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens led to Israel’s crackdown on the Gaza Strip, which led to the fighting that claimed Steinberg and Carmeli’s lives. The conflict also intensified Levi’s support for Israel. When pro-Palestinian groups demonstrated outside the Israeli consulate in West Los Angeles, Levi participated in counter demonstrations across the street on Wilshire Boulevard.

“I became more interested in Israeli politics and aware of lone soldiers,” he said. “I knew I wanted to [enlist] but had never been to Israel.”

Levi’s Birthright Israel trip was his ticket to Israel. After the 10-day excursion ended, he contacted the office of Machal. After four or five attempts to reach out to them, he succeeded in enlisting. He went through a couple of living situations that did not work out well before contacting the Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin, which arranged for him to live at the home in Beit Shemesh during his service. Like all of the residents, he will remain in the house until a couple of months after he completes his 18-month service. If he decides to become a citizen of Israel, his service would potentially be extended. 

Levi, for now, said he does not know whether he will make aliyah after he finishes his service, but said he is happy he found the lone soldiers home.

“I get the privacy I need and the social interactions I want and the support,” Levi said. “So, this is the best house for me.”

Beit Shemesh Home for Lone Soldiers co-founders Gayle Shimoff (left) and Wendy Serlin. Photo by Ryan Torok

Serlin and Shimoff understand what it’s like to uproot one’s life and move to an unfamiliar country. Serlin, who has a master’s degree in social work, made aliyah more than 22 years ago and is now the mother of five kids, including a son who recently completed his three years of army service, as well as another child currently serving. 

“There wasn’t Nefesh when we made aliyah. It was hard. You had to want to be here. There were no perks, no fun flights, it was really hard. You had to stand in line for hours; there was bureaucracy, it wasn’t like how it is today,” Serlin said.

Shimoff, a learning disabilities specialist who made aliyah 21 years ago and is studying for a master’s degree in nonprofit management and leadership at Hebrew University, has a son who recently completed army service and another currently serving in the IDF.

The two met while living at an absorption center in Ra’anana shortly after making aliyah.

They work with a committee of volunteers in overseeing the house. The house cost $60,000 to set up and has an annual operating budget of $60,000. They are also trying to raise $800,000 to purchase and renovate the home, which is for sale. Soldiers’ salaries from the army help cover costs. 

Serlin and Shimoff are confident the lone soldiers home fulfills an essential need for its residents, though they have not always received the gratitude from the parents of the soldiers that they expected they would.

“We thought we’d get responses from all the parents, ‘Wow, Gayle and Wendy, that is wonderful, thank you so much for taking care of our kids,’ and I think all of these boys — some of them are running away, some of them are running to, some of them aren’t interested in their families, some have great relationships with their families, but I wouldn’t say all 12 boys have amazing relationships [with their families, or that] all their parents are sending us chocolates and flowers every week,” Serlin said.

Take Levi, for example: “It took his parents a long time to accept him being here,” Serlin said.

Nevertheless, many people, including Serlin and Shimoff, at the Michael Levin Lone Soldier Center and volunteers from the community, are working together to help these young men navigate the unusual experience of serving without their families nearby. 

“They’re 12 guys, and they have all different stories,” Shimoff said. 

“Some of them are positive stories; some of them are not positive stories; some of them are running away, some of them want to be heroes, some of them are trying to find themselves either religiously or emotionally, and by us providing this environment … [we’re] giving them independence and space … security and people they can trust.”

For information about how to support the lone soldiers home in Beit Shemesh, visit lonesoldiercenter.com/homebeits. For information about the Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin, visit lonesoldiercenter.com.

Israel’s best kept secret (weapon) is a tour guide


Our group’s infatuation with Michael Bauer began in a small conference room at Tel Aviv's Carlton Hotel, where he stood at the front of the room armed with a set of maps and taught the history of Israel — from Abraham to Operation Protective Edge, the most recent Gaza war — in 45 minutes.

It deepened in the Golan Heights, when he stood atop a bombed-out Syrian bunker captured by Israel in 1967 and explained the modern history of Syria — from Assad I to the rise of political Islam and ISIS — as the distant thrum of explosions rocked our consciences for 17 heavy minutes.

On a Jerusalem promenade overlooking the Western Wall, the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Church of Holy Sepulchre, Bauer offered Bible passages and Koranic stories to illustrate why the magical city sparkling beneath us has remained for thousands of years the most ardently loved and hotly contested real estate in the world.

Each time he finished, our group would erupt in cheers.

“I’m a bit like a performer,” Bauer, 43, admitted when I met with him separately one evening in Tel Aviv. “I enjoy the drama.”

For us, members of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation’s “Reality Storytellers” trip last month, Bauer, our tour guide, was a highlight among highlights. What began as a light infatuation eventually morphed into something resembling rock-star obsession, as our group frequently chanted his name and compared him to the fictional Jack Bauer from “24.” (Ever the on-guard Israeli, Bauer sometimes carried a gun.)

In case you’re thinking we were easily impressed, allow me to disavow you of that notion. We were about 50 people familiar with excellence – among us were prominent political speechwriters, screenwriters, actors, entrepreneurs, executives and foundation directors; some who call the Obamas and Clintons their bosses, others who work for prominent media companies including the New York Times and Facebook. Part of why Bauer was so effective at telling Israel’s story is because he spoke to all of us — Jews and non-Jews; Israel veterans and Israel first-timers; those already highly educated about the country and the conflict and those just beginning to understand how Israel ended up with the West Bank and Gaza to begin with. Bauer refused to oversimplify; rather than present “two sides,” he’d instead offer multiple competing perspectives that sometimes contradicted each other. “Teaching these topics is so complex, and if you do not understand the complexity, you miss the whole thing,” he told me.

Bauer has spent more than 20 years guiding groups through Israel, Jordan, the Sinai and Turkey, as well as Poland and Germany, via his company, Bauer Trails. His expertise in minority relations, religion, history and the Arab-Israeli conflict has attracted an international clientele that includes foreign diplomats – including members of the Clinton and Bush administrations, as well as a former Prime Minister of Canada – in addition to Hollywood celebrities like Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Bauer’s reputation for presenting facts unalloyed to politics, and his theatrical gift for storytelling has also won him repeat business from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and Columbia University’s Middle East Institute. It’s safe to say he’s probably Israel’s top tour guide, but that would not encapsulate the additional work he does teaching at Israeli colleges or within the intelligence unit of the Israel Defense Forces.  

Only once did Bauer reveal his emotional side. At Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum, Bauer surprised the group when he abruptly paused his tour in the Warsaw Ghetto section to share a personal reflection. As light streamed down from the sole window in the museum’s interior, Bauer said, “I can’t tell you how huge this event is in the Israeli psyche. This is the part of the Holocaust Israelis study the most – the Jewish uprising.”   

In person, Bauer looks more like the combat commander he once was than the educator he is now — shaved head, intense blue eyes and a face lined by desert sun. Though his formal education was standard, Bauer has been reading books, he said, “all my life.”

“I’ve loved history since I was kid, and Israel is a haven for history,” he told me. “I was also always curious. Even in the military, I was always trying to understand why are we doing what we’re doing.”

Photo by Neta Cones

Bauer grew up in a middle class, center-left neighborhood in an agricultural village outside Tel Aviv. Today he lives on a Kibbutz southwest of Jerusalem with his wife and five young children. When I asked him what it’s like raising children a few miles from the Green Line, where there are occasional violent skirmishes, he said, “I could live anywhere in the world; I live here out of choice. And I believe that my [kibbutz] is the best place to raise kids.”

Even though Bauer’s tours are exceptionally fair-minded and apolitical, his passion for where he lives pulsates through his prose. “I love my country,” he said, when someone in our group asked about his personal politics. Looking down as he answered, he nestled his feet in the gravel. “I love the rocks.”

There is something almost mystical about Bauer’s teaching, beyond the obvious spiritual subject matter. It shows in the way he marries history, religion and archaeology, or the way he lights up when reading passages from Torah or the New Testament that he can prove actually happened. This quality is part of why our group felt so in awe of him; teaching the history of the world, he somehow made the world make sense. In seven days, Bauer transcended the role of tour guide and simply became our Rav, our teacher.  

Not that he sees himself that way: “For me, I’m not a spiritual person,” he insisted. “The Bible is an unbelievable text and book, and I do believe in many things that are written in it, especially when I can prove it academically. And what I cannot prove, I am full of appreciation for, because I cannot argue with a text that has influenced so many people. I have respect for the Bible — beyond.”

When I pointed out that “beyond” is a spiritual word, Bauer laughed.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about him isn’t his lack of spirituality, but his lack of ego and material ambition. He was mostly unfazed by all the adulation and attention he received. “I’m not a big deal,” he insisted. And later, when I asked him what he dreamed of, he said: “My true mission is to be able to raise my family and support my kids.”

Since he values family so deeply, I asked how a secular Israeli might express his gratitude.

“I say, ‘Thank God,’” he replied automatically. Then he cracked a smile.

“I do say ‘Thank God.’”

Danielle Berrin: Why were you drawn to the study of Arab-Israeli relations?

Michael Bauer: It’s something that shapes our life over here. I live on the green line, so I see Arabs, fences, borders every single day. And I see Israeli-Arab relations as the future; whether it’s negative or positive, it’s a crucial part of our life.

DB: As an Israeli, can you teach the conflict objectively?

MB: It’s not that I don’t have a political view, I do; but I don’t have an agenda. My agenda, if there is one, is that at the end of a program of mine, I’d like you to appreciate Israel and respect Israel, with its complexity.

DB: What do you hope someone who has no prior experience of Israel will learn from your tour?

MB: The importance of size and location. Location in the context of the Middle East [matters], but location is not only geographic. It’s always political. Understand that we are now sitting in Tel Aviv, and two days ago, there were missiles an hour away from here. [My first night home from our tour last week,] I was drinking wine and telling my wife about the group, and I could hear ‘BOOM’ and see the lights.

It’s also very important to understand the history, including [the religious texts]. There’s a deep connection of people to the ground over here.

DB: What do you hope someone who already knows a great deal about Israel learns from you?

MB: For people that know all the facts, the next thing they need to learn is the [role of the] psyche. There’s a gap sometimes between the facts and what people think and believe. Christians believe Jesus was resurrected from the Church of Holy Sepulchre, and Jews and Muslims think not. The Muslims think that Mohammad rose up to heaven on a night journey from Al-Aqsa, and the Christians and Jews think not. Therefore, it doesn’t matter what really happened; it’s only what people think and what they’re willing to do about it. Same with discrimination in Israel: If I tell you there’s discrimination, you can tell me there isn’t discrimination, and then we can argue about it. But if I tell you Arabs feel discriminated against, that you cannot argue. That is a fact. If the Palestinians feel there is an occupation, it doesn’t really matter what is happening on the ground – I mean, it matters — but it matters more what they feel when they get up in the morning. If Jews wake up in the morning and they’re afraid, you can’t tell them they shouldn’t be afraid because they have an F-16. That’s irrelevant. People need to consider feelings as given facts.

DB: So how do you teach the deep, psycho-spiritual connection people have to this land?

MB: If people really want to know, they need to go back to Abraham and then all the way to yesterday.

DB: What do you wish the world knew about settlements that isn’t  considered in media coverage?

MB: Someone that tells me “I am in favor of the settlements” or “I am against the settlements,” for me, that’s very shallow. It actually means they don’t know much. There are different settlements and different settlers. You have smaller, isolated settlements that are religiously ideological; you have settlements along the valley that are more agricultural, very strategic, less religiously ideological. You’ve got big settlement blocs of 30,000-40,000 people, which are Ariel, Maale Adumim and Gush Etzion. Then you have a few you need to argue [about]; then you have a few that are near the Green Line. And then you have East Jerusalem — the Jewish quarter, Gilo, French Hill and so on. All of that is different.

If you were to go to French Hill tomorrow and make elections, you would realize that a majority of them are voting for Meretz, which is an anti-settlement party. Which means, they don’t see themselves at all as settlers. Are we allowed to build in the Jewish quarter in Jerusalem? Most Israelis will say ‘Yes.’ Most Israelis are not aware that they’re actually on the other side of the Green Line. They’ll say “I’m against settlements.” And you’ll say, “What about Gilo?” “Oh, that doesn’t count.” So if you don’t know the nuances of settlements, don’t hold an opinion.

DB: How do you talk to people about the occupation? Do you even use that word?

MB: When someone says “occupation,” I need to understand what is it exactly that they’re talking about. Because when Hamas says “occupation,” we are right now in Tel Aviv, sitting in “occupied” land. So what is occupation?

It’s true that Israel, in 1967, occupied territory. That’s a fact. But the moment I start using the word “occupation,” it becomes politicized.

If you ask me, “What do you think about the occupation?” I’ll ask you: “Which occupation?” Right away. And then you will tell me about the West Bank, and I’ll say, “OK, you’re asking about the policies of Israel in the West Bank.”

The fact is that tomorrow Palestinians will wake up in the morning and they will feel occupied. There’s not one soldier in Gaza, but they feel occupied. Why? Because they are encircled by Israel and also Egypt, which is hostile to them as well. And because Palestinians, most of them, see all of Israel as occupied. That’s also fact. Who is responsible for the occupation? That’s a political argument. Now the question is, what is the solution?

DB: How do you reconcile feeling rightfully rooted in this land with Israeli policies that have caused suffering to others who also feel rightfully rooted in this land?

MB: I do not want to belong to an occupying force, and I do not want to rule other people as an Israeli. But given the fact that an agreement that I believe was fair was offered and rejected by the Palestinians in 2000 — and then came the disengagement in 2005 — [those] for me, as an Israeli, were crucial for feeling well when I look in my mirror.

DB: How do you talk to your young children about where they live?

MB: I believe that we have to be honest no matter what. Usually we’re not honest with our kids because we want to protect them. I am always honest. During [Operation] Protective Edge, when there were missiles falling on our kibbutz, I told them “There are missiles.” They knew it came from Arab people in Gaza strip that are led by an organization called Hamas. At the end of the day, you don’t want them to be terrified and hate Arabs, so it’s a complicated balance. Many times, they see me armed, and they’ll ask me suddenly, “Why are you armed?” So how do I tell them I am taking a gun, but they are safe so they should not be afraid?

Photo by Rick Sorkin

MB: As a secular Israeli, how do you think about the fact that the Bible and the history of this land intersect?

For me the Bible is a book of history, literature and philosophy. And I fully accept the fact that for a lot of other people, it’s a spiritual book, which requires a little faith. I’m not a spiritual person, but I do work with people of Jewish faith, Christian faith, atheists, Buddhists. Everything. And I need to make it relevant for everyone.

When I can take that book and prove that a lot of it happened, that it was written here, and I can connect the geography, the culture, the people and the land, I do get excited by the fact that I belong to this people, and they are my ancestors in those texts.

And when I prove to Christians who are not devout that [a lot of] what’s written in the New Testament makes sense — I can actually prove it to them — I love it. I’m a Jew, and I’m strengthening Christian identity! It’s very funny because I’m not spiritual, but strengthening people’s spirituality makes me very happy.

MB: Where is your favorite place in Israel?

I like to go to the Negev or Judean desert, because I love the wilderness. All religions were born in the desert, so that’s where I like going more than any other place.


Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

Israeli army closes 13 investigations of alleged misconduct during ’14 Gaza war


The Israel Defense Forces has closed 13 criminal investigations of alleged misconduct during Israel’s 2014 war in Gaza “without undertaking any criminal or disciplinary proceedings.”

Among the cases closed by the IDF’s Military Advocate General noted in an update released Wednesday was an investigation of a widely condemned strike near a Rafah school, which the MAG determined had been carried out in compliance with proper procedures. Others included allegations of looting and of soldiers firing at civilian buildings and cars, intentionally damaging property or harming civilians in violation of IDF’s operational instructions.

The update said the Military Advocate General has opened 24 criminal investigations since 2014 stemming from Operation Protective Edge, leading to indictments against three soldiers accused of looting and of aiding and abetting looting — no judgment has been rendered in the cases. The remaining investigations, it said, are “still ongoing” or awaiting review.

Ongoing investigations include an incident in which a civilian allegedly was abused and robbed by Israeli soldiers.

The update said the MAG has received complaints and reports concerning 220 alleged incidents, of which 80 were closed after preliminary examination because “the actions of the IDF forces involved did not give rise to reasonable grounds for suspicion of criminal behavior.”

“However, in relation to some of these incidents, the MAG recommended reviewing operational methods in order to assess whether any changes should be made. In certain cases that were closed, the MAG found that no involvement of IDF forces could be identified in regard to the incident.”

Moving and shaking: Lev Chayal, Salute to Hollywood gala and more


Gal Malachi and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers under his command were stationed in a United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Gaza when the building suddenly collapsed: It had been booby-trapped by Hamas. Three soldiers died and another 22 were injured, including Malachi. 

On June 28, Malachi spoke at a gala in Pico-Robertson honoring Israeli soldiers wounded during Operation Protective Edge in 2014. He is one of 10 soldiers brought to Los Angeles for a 10-day vacation by the recently formed local organization Lev Chayal, which translates to “heart of a soldier.”

“We’re very honored that this whole event is for us,” Malachi said at the reception, held at The Mark event space. “It makes us feel so special and so loved.”

Brocha Yemini, 23, co-founded the organization in January with her childhood friend Chaya Israily, 24. Their aim in starting the group was to engage the local Jewish community, particularly young people, in supporting those who “sacrificed their bodies for the Jewish people,” Yemini said. They hope to provide this trip annually.

The trip included visits to Universal Studios, Knott’s Berry Farm and Dodger Stadium, where Dodgers president and part-owner Stan Kasten brought them onto the field during a game.

“We basically brought them here to uplift their spirits,” Yemini said.

Marvin Markowitz, a real estate developer who owns The Mark, was one of a number of donors who helped fund the trip. 

“I love their energy,” he said of Yemini and Israily. “They really, really care about the work they’re doing.”

—Eitan Arom, Staff Writer


The third annual benefit gala for Yad Vashem, co-hosted by the American Society for Yad Vashem and Jewish Life Foundation, took place June 6 at the Beverly Wilshire hotel. More than 350 people attended the “Salute to Hollywood” evening, which honored Holocaust survivors and raised more than $600,000. 

From left: Hollywood executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, Holocaust survivor Max Stodel and actor Edward James Olmos attended the American Society for Yad Vashem benefit gala, “A Salute to Hollywood.” Photo courtesy of American Society for Yad Vashem

Actor, director and producer Tony Goldwyn presented the Legacy Award to Meyer Gottlieb, film producer and former president of Samuel Goldwyn Films, and to Branko Lustig, Oscar-winning producer of “Schindler’s List.” Jeffrey Katzenberg presented the Vanguard Award to The Hollywood Reporter Entertainment Group President/COO Janice Min and The Hollywood Reporter Entertainment Group EVP/Group Publisher Lynne Segall. Real estate developer and philanthropist David Wiener was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award. 

“The inspiration for this year’s gala came straight from the pages of The Hollywood Reporter,” Ron Meier, American Society for Yad Vashem executive director, said at the event. “Their groundbreaking story ‘The Last Survivors’ appeared in December 2015 [and] … chronicled the stories of the 11 Holocaust survivors alive today who had each forged a prominent place in the entertainment industry. Two of those featured, Meyer Gottlieb and Branko Lustig, are among our honorees this year. It is through their stories and those of all Holocaust survivors that the history and significance of the Holocaust is imparted to our future generations.” 

“I don’t call these individuals ‘survivors,’ ” Katzenberg told the crowd. “I call them ‘triumphers’ as they have done more than survive; they have triumphed.”

— Lexi Freund, Contributing Writer 


Four hundred fifty attendees gathered at Chabad of the Valley in Tarzana to honor the late Rabbi Joshua B. Gordon at the organization’s 2016 banquet gala on June 16. Gordon and his wife, Deborah, founded Chabad of the Valley in 1973. 

Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky speaks at Chabad of the Valley’s 2016 gala dinner. Photo courtesy of Chabad of the Valley

Since that time, the Chabad community in the Valley has grown to include more than 26 houses. Gordon was a pioneer in creating daily online classes on Chumash, Tanya and Rambam for Chabad.org’s Jewish.tv network. 

Keynote speaker Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of the educational wing of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, spoke about Gordon, who was a close friend of his from their days in yeshiva.

“There is not one person here who was not touched by him and did not feel his warmth and love,” Kotlarsky said.

Jewish musician Mordechai Ben David, aka “The King of Jewish Music,” performed alongside 12-year-old singer Moshe Azulai. The evening featured a brief documentary that recounted Gordon’s works through statements from leaders such as Dennis Prager, nationally syndicated radio host and Jewish Journal columnist; Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal center; and former Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), among others. 

Gordon “related to people — Reform, Conservative, secular, students. … I think the both of us believed you don’t give up on any Jew,” Hier said in the video.  

— Hannah Jannol, Contributing Writer


Rabbi Joshua Kalev was appointed to lead Congregation Tikvat Jacob (CTJ), effective July 1. Rabbi Mark Hyman, who has served the Conservative congregation in Manhattan Beach since 1986, will be transitioning to emeritus status. 

New Congregation Tikvat Jacob Rabbi Joshua Kalev. Photo courtesy of Congregation Tikvat Jacob

A Northern California native, Kalev taught at CTJ while attending American Jewish University, where he received bachelor’s and master’s degrees as well as his rabbinic ordination. After ordination, he led Temple Beth Shalom in Mahopac, N.Y., while also serving as chaplain for the Putnam County Fire Department. In 2008, he became rabbi at Tiferet Bet Israel in Blue Bell, Pa. 

Hyman, who was involved in the choice of his successor, first became a member of the congregation in 1979, when it consisted of only 13 families, he told the Journal in an interview. 

He will continue to lead CTJ group trips to Israel and serve as a substitute rabbi.

CTJ is an egalitarian synagogue which, according to its website, welcomes all Jews and interfaith families “regardless of ability, background, sexual orientation and gender identity.” 

—Isaac Engelberg, Contributing Writer

Moving and Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email ryant@jewishjournal.com.

8 Hamas members missing in Gaza tunnel collapse


Eight members of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas have not been accounted for since an underground tunnel collapsed in Gaza.

Rain and flooding caused the collapse of the tunnel, located near Jabaliya in northern Gaza, on Wednesday, various media outlets reported.

“The resistance tunnel collapsed last night due to the weather and flooding,” an unidentified Palestinian “security source” told Agence France Presse.

“There were 11 resistance men inside,” the source continued. “Three of them escaped in the first hour after the accident, but the security operation … continues to search for the eight others.”

Hamas’ vast network of tunnels, many leading into Israel, was a major issue during Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s war with Hamas in the summer of 2014. During the war Israel destroyed more than 30 tunnels, which were used to smuggle weapons, as well as stage terrorist attacks and kidnappings inside Israel.

According to Haaretz, the Israel Defense Forces believes Hamas, which governs Gaza, is building new tunnels leading into Israel and is rebuilding its arsenal of rockets. Haaretz said it “is reasonable to assume that the number of tunnels crossing under the border is close to that on the eve of Protective Edge.”

Numerous tunnels in Gaza have collapsed recently.

One in central Gaza collapsed on Saturday, killing a 30-year-old man, AFP reported, citing Hamas officials. In December, 14 Palestinians were trapped for hours in another tunnel, near the Gaza-Egypt border, after it flooded.

Is Israel being judged too harshly?


This article first appeared on The Media Line.

[Jerusalem] A year later, memories of the 51-day conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip are still fresh. During the fighting, 2,200 Palestinians and 71 Israelis lost their lives. With the number of Gazans killed more than thirty times higher than the number of casualties in Israel, accusations of disregard for civilian lives and a lack of a proportionality in the use of force were leveled at the Israeli military.

Under international law – defined as the treaties and the normative behaviors through which states interact – there are two principles which governments must apply to their use of military force, Pnina Sharvit Baruch, a retired colonel and former head of the Israeli army’s International Law Department, told The Media Line. First a military must apply distinction, meaning it must differentiate between military and civilian targets. Secondly, it must apply proportionality. This means that the expected military advantage from an attack must outweigh any civilian casualties that are likely to occur as a result, she explained.

This does not mean that a military is forbidden from causing civilian casualties, but instead that it must balance the risk of causing a disproportionately high number of civilian fatalities each time it tries to kill an enemy combatant.

“There is no formula… the standards of a reasonable military commander is what is used to make such judgements” Sharvit Baruch said. During Operation Protective Edge the Israeli army believes it killed around 1 civilian for every enemy combatant slain, but this is within the norms of modern combat the retired colonel said, adding, “In most campaigns when you look at the numbers the ratio is worse than one to one.”

Recently the non-governmental organization (NGO) Airwars published statistics of the number of people killed as a result of airstrikes by the coalition of Western and Arab militaries which have come together to attack the Islamic State (ISIS). Figures published by the NGO reported that an estimated 15,000 ISIS fighters had been killed in airstrikes alongside between nearly 500 and 1,200 civilians. Such figures highlight the difficulties modern high-tech militaries continue to face when trying to avoid civilian casualties.

There is a narrative pushed by militaries and believed by western populations that modern conflicts, using precision bombs and loitering surveillance drones, can almost eliminate civilian casualties. It is the role of journalists to question such beliefs, Chris Woods, director of Airwars, told The Media Line. “(It is) not tenable that civilians are not being killed,” Woods said, explaining that with 6,000 airstrikes against ISIS in the first year some civilian casualties would be inevitable. Such fatalities seem to be an unfortunate reality of all current conflicts. This is even more true in fighting in urban environments, like the majority of locations occupied by ISIS, Woods said.

A direct comparison of Israeli actions during confrontations with Hamas cannot be directly made to coalition operations in Iraq and Syria, Sharvit Baruch said. No western democracy is facing a direct threat to its population and none has since World War II, she argued, adding that countries like Russia, Sri Lanka or Columbia were more comparable in regards to security issues. But these states have far less respect for international standards of proportionality, making much less effort to avoid civilian casualties, and despite this do not suffer the same degree of international criticism as the Jewish state, Sharvit Baruch said.

If Western states were to be attacked from densely populated urban areas then, “they would have exactly the same dilemmas and would act the same way as Israel,” Sharvit Baruch opined, adding that they might even be expected to act worse as these countries are not under the same level of international pressure as Israel.

But a number of international organizations have argued that such pressure is directed at Israel deservedly. In a report published at the start of the year B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights NGO, accused Israel of breaching the law of armed conflict with regards to its policy of targeting homes belonging to Hamas fighters. Such attacks breached the principle of distinction as the buildings were civilian in nature, despite Israeli assertions that they represented “terrorist infrastructure,” B’Tselem argued. The principle of proportionality was also ignored as Israel caused a number of civilian casualties without demonstrating any military gain, the report continued, adding that Israeli commanders talked a lot about proportionality but failed to demonstrate it.

In effect, Israel followed international law “in name only,” Sarit Michaeli, spokesperson for B’Tselem, told The Media Line, adding that the military, “stretched international law in terms of proportionality and distinction.”

This misses the point and does not reflect the character of the Israeli military argued Captain D, an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) operator with the Israeli military who served in Operation Protective Edge in Gaza last summer. “Our whole being (is based around) three main goals: protecting Israeli civilians; protecting our troops (on the ground); and thirdly and not least, protecting (Palestinian) civilians,” the Captain said.

A number of mechanisms existed within the Israeli army to prevent civilians being killed. For example many air strikes which could have struck enemy combatants were aborted for this reason, Captain D said. But despite slowing down the targeting cycle – the time between identifying a possible target and striking it – such mechanisms were not seen as a constraint, he said, explaining that pilots and drone operators trained to expect the presence of civilians at all times. Five years ago, you might expect people congregating around a rocket launch site to be enemy and therefore legitimate targets, but now this is no longer true, he said.

Concerns over civilian casualties can at times even endanger lives Michael Knights, of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Media Line. In regards to coalition attacks against ISIS, Knights said, “We often don't strike a convoy because it may have “non-combatants” in it, often adolescent boys with guns, and then the convoy takes over a town and massacres a bunch of civilians. Did we do the right thing?”

Lessons of Gaza: 10 years later


Anniversaries always present us with an opportunity to reflect on the past and to try to learn from history.

British military thinker and historian B.H. Liddell Hart wote a book titled “Why Don’t We Learn From History?” In that book, Liddell Hart teaches us that “those who read history tend to look for what proves them right and confirms their personal opinions.” Armed with this wise caution, let’s look at some of the anniversaries commemorated recently and try to draw some lessons.

Waterloo immediately comes to mind, the battle in 1815 that brought Napoleon’s empire to its end. Never mind the fact that in a ludicrous re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo recently, Frenchmen dressed as Napoleonic soldiers “defeated” their English enemy. And dismiss the fact that in popular memory, Napoleon is the hero and the man who defeated him, Wellington, is almost unknown.

The truth is that Waterloo symbolizes the victory of reason and stability, which Europe yearned for after so much bloodshed, over the megalomaniac ambitions of Napoleon. Hitler should have learned the same lesson, but he didn’t. So, in May, we celebrated the 70th anniversary of his fall.

Next, Vietnam comes to mind. Forty years after the hasty withdrawal from Saigon, and with more than 58,000 names engraved on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, one wonders what kind of lesson can be learned. Having Liddell Hart’s caveat in mind, then, those who opposed the war at the time will undoubtedly argue that they were right, and that it was a terrible waste of human lives and national resources. Those who have supported the war (and perhaps still support the use of American military power as a means of diplomacy) will probably say that it was the weakness of the politicians that betrayed the heroic soldiers.

A more balanced reflection might put the Vietnam War in the broader context of the Cold War, a war between capitalism and communism. Capitalism eventually won the war, and one wonders whether the American resilience in Vietnam didn’t have something to do with it. History moved on, and then, 20 years ago, the United States and Vietnam normalized relations. Today, they are promoting bilateral trade and — believe it or not — forging strategic cooperation, which involves keeping a watchful eye on the South China Sea, where China, once Vietnam’s staunch supporter, has ambitions.

Which brings me closer to home. Two anniversaries brought Gaza back to the Israeli discourse recently: This year marks 10 years since the Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip and a year since Operation Protective Edge. 

In Israel, the uprooting of Israeli settlements from Gaza, the brainchild of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, is called in Hebrew “hitnatkut” — cutting off, or severance. The idea was that pulling the Israelis out of there and closing the gate behind us was supposed to rid us once and for all of Gaza and its troubles. 


The third lesson is that Gaza will not go away. Whether we like it or not, it will always dwell on our doorstep, and, like a bad neighbor, will keep bothering us.

Needless to say, nothing of the sort ever happened. In pulling our brothers and sisters out of there, we didn’t cut ourselves off from Gaza. On the contrary, Gaza chased us into Israel proper. The launching of rockets at our cities coerced us into pounding Gaza in three operations: Cast Lead (2008-09), Pillar of Defense (2012) and last year’s Protective Edge. Furthermore, having to fight Hamas terrorism in a densely populated area produced wrenching scenes that have turned us into a pariah in world media and public opinion.

So, what is the first lesson we can draw from the hitnatkut? That it was a huge mistake, and that whenever Israel makes concessions, it is rewarded not only with more security problems, but also with ingratitude and even scorn?

Gershon Hacohen thinks so. Looking back, the retired Israel Defense Forces general, who commanded the hitnatkut a decade ago, wrote this week in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot that, contrary to the common wisdom of that time — that pulling out would improve Israel’s strategic position — he believes there were military advantages to keeping Israeli settlements inside the Gaza Strip. Hacohen equated the settlements to the first kibbutzim, which, in the 1930s, helped carve out the borders of the future Jewish state. On another level, Hacohen wrote, Israelis should never give away pieces of their beloved land.

I beg to differ. While I share Hacohen’s love for our Promised Land, I look at the people who populate it, and I wonder how we can keep all the land without ending up in a terrible dilemma: With millions of Palestinians among us, either we lose the Jewish character of Israel or its democracy. These scenarios are worse than any security threats, which — painful as they may be — we can handle.

The second lesson is that the way in which we carried out the hitnatkut was wrong. Sharon, who hated the Palestinians and would do no business with them, preferred to carry out the pullout unilaterally, rather than deliver Gaza into the hands of Mahmoud Abbas in a negotiated settlement. I don’t know whether Gaza would have fallen into the hands of Hamas anyway, but the unilateral hitnatkut definitely weakened Abbas, while making Hamas, in the eyes of the Palestinians, the hero capable of extracting land from Israel by force. 

The third lesson is that Gaza will not go away. Whether we like it or not, it will always dwell on our doorstep, and, like a bad neighbor, it will keep bothering us. The ideas voiced in Israel during and after Operation Protective Edge, namely that we should have “finished the job,” meaning toppling Hamas, are unrealistic. They remind me of the ill-advised Israeli plot in 1982 (by the same Ariel Sharon, by the way) to make the minority Maronite Christians kings of predominantly Shiite Lebanon. 

Giving up such futile presumptions of engineering the Middle East doesn’t mean that Israel should sit idly by vis-à-vis the Gaza problem. Together with other regional forces, which are deeply concerned at the prospect of a nuclear Iran on the one hand and the advent of radical Islam on the other, Israel should initiate a plan not only to rehabilitate Gaza, but also to open new horizons for the younger generation of Gazans. 

Top Israeli military officials told the government recently that Hamas, badly beaten last summer, is looking for a truce with Israel. They advised the government to remove some restrictions on the movement of Gazans, and even to allow the building of a port, which will open Gaza to the world. 

This is the fourth lesson, maybe the most important of them all. For too long we have used the stick on the people of Gaza and gained little in return. We should always be carrying the stick, but it’s time to give the carrot a chance. 

A version of this article appeared in the Miami Herald.

Hamas negotiator on Israeli detainees was released in Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange


This article first appeared on

Honoring Max Steinberg


Family, friends and supporters of fallen Israeli soldier and Woodland Hills native Max Steinberg gathered on June 28 at the Luxe Sunset Boulevard Hotel to commemorate a Torah in his honor.

Families of Lone Soldiers (FOLS), an organization committed to supporting the loved ones of people who leave their home countries to fight for the Israeli military, sponsored the event where guests had the opportunity to write a letter in the Torah, which will be sent to Israel and used by soldiers. A campaign on the crowdfunding site Jewcer raised more than $50,000 for the project from more than 250 donors. 

Steinberg served as a sharpshooter in the Golani Brigade’s 13th battalion. His death during Operation Protective Edge last year when his unit was ambushed in Gaza touched lives across the world; 30,000 people attended his funeral. 

The Steinberg family and the Torah, with help from FOLS, were scheduled to travel to Israel to commemorate Max’s yahrzeit on July 9 at Mount Herzl. On July 12, plans call for the Torah to be ceremoniously completed with the help of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and Golani soldiers alongside whom Max fought. 

FOLS co-founder Larry Platt hosted the recent local event and presented several community leaders who honored Steinberg’s memory and his service. He spoke on the strength of the late soldier’s parents, Stuart and Evie Steinberg.

“Their hearts, their emotions, their trials and tribulations, their dedication to family, their dedication to each other, and their commitment to Israel honors Max,” Platt said. “His life will go on in the memory of what he has done, what we have seen and what his parents have shared with us.”

The Steinbergs also addressed loved ones and supporters, many of whom were lone soldiers, like their son. Both spoke emotionally about the loss of their son and the importance of supporting lone soldiers.

“It is still hard for me to grasp that Max is no longer with us in body,” Evie Steinberg said through tears. “Max was and always will be my hero.”

The Steinberg family showed video from Max’s bar mitzvah ceremony, which took place at the Luxe in 2005 and which he shared with his brother, Jake. The video included footage of Max’s bar mitzvah speech, in which he talked about his Torah portion and the importance of the rite of passage. He also spoke about the legacy of generations and overcoming hardships. 

“When the Israelites left Egypt, every obstacle that they faced was a sign of discouragement,” a teenage Max said. “They could only see the obstacles, not the opportunity to move forward, to live in freedom. Having faith in ourselves and in God is really important, but so is our attitude of how we handle what happens to us in life.”

The idea for a Torah-writing ceremony and dedication in Max’s honor was first proposed by Rabbi Shlomo Bistritzky of Chabad of the Conejo. The Steinberg family approached FOLS to organize the project and the ceremony. Max’s father credited FOLS with showing the compassion and dedication necessary for helping the unique situations of families of lone soldiers.

“Our biggest disappointment was that we were not there to celebrate Max’s accomplishments as he went through training,” Stuart Steinberg said. “When [FOLS co-founders Platt and Eli Fitlovitz] came to our home, we shared that disappointment with them. They told us what FOLS was about, and we knew that FOLS was a cause we wanted to put our arms around.” 

Lines, color and war: Painting as a form of healing


In the summer of 2014, images of war filled our television and computer screens as Israel bombed the Gaza Strip and Hamas launched rockets into Israel. Palestinian casualties heavily outnumbered Israeli deaths (more than 2,100 Palestinians compared with fewer than 100 Israelis, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs). As tempers flared and fingers were pointed, media reports of the war’s toll in Gaza were criticized as anti-Israel propaganda.

Los Angeles artist Jaime Scholnick watched the bloody images with horror and helplessness. Not knowing what else to do, she printed out copies of the photographs that filled her Facebook feed, and began drawing over them with a metallic pen and acrylic paint.

Fifty of those images are on display in an exhibition titled “Gaza: Mowing the Lawn,” at the CB1 Gallery in downtown L.A. through July 18. The exhibition’s name comes from a term the Israeli military uses to explain the occasional bombing of Palestinian residents. The number of images corresponds to the 50 days of Israel’s systematic bombardment of Gaza in July and August last year.

“I could have looked away,” Scholnick said in an interview at the gallery. “That’s my problem, I guess. I keep wondering, ‘Are you a masochist? Do you like feeling pain?’ I don’t know.”

The images are abstract, with lines of red, yellow, black, white and blue obscuring the details of the photographs. Yet the emotional impact is felt just as strongly. If anything, the comic-book-like illustrations heighten the drama of the suffering victims. Crying fathers holding their children’s bodies; a group of women in chadors huddled together; clouds of smoke and flame set amid a mosque’s minarets — these images are powerful, regardless of the viewer’s political views.

One work includes a boy holding a large stuffed animal, the big, yellow toy in sharp contrast with the gray rubble of a bombed-out neighborhood. Another is of a boy leaning in to kiss a baby’s corpse, adorned with flowers.

“It’s such a poignant picture. It’s like, these are just children. They’re looking at this little infant. He’s dead,” Scholnick said. “They’re so young to see death.”

Scholnick was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her family moved to Southern California when she was in third grade, and she grew up in Tustin. She studied art at CSU Sacramento and later at Claremont Graduate University. She decided to move to Japan after attending a 1990 show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art titled “A Primal Spirit: Ten Contemporary Japanese Sculptors.” She went to the show four times, calling it “life-changing.” She lived in Japan for five years, teaching English and studying papermaking. She said her painting style draws from Japanese design aesthetics.

“I’m really interested in material and paper,” she said. “I’m kind of into minimalism. I’m very conscious of color and line, and I think that’s a very Japanese thing.”

Scholnick is Jewish, though she’s not religious and bristles at the idea of Jews as God’s “chosen people.” She’s never been to Israel and has conflicted feelings about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She said she has received some criticism for her subject matter, including from other artists, which left her feeling wounded.

“I’ve had more disapproving looks from artists who are Jewish,” she said. “I’ve had more comments, and I’m like, ‘You guys, as artists, it’s your job to be above all this.’ ”

Scholnick said she began these drawings because she didn’t know how to look at the images. Covering them up felt natural, because that’s what we do with things that make us uncomfortable. But while photographs can be easy to ignore, she said, art is harder to avoid.

The photographs invite empathy, and yet, seen through Scholnick’s colorful lines, they take on an emotional distance. Seeing the horrors of war behind the paint brings to mind our own screens of perception, which filter such images through a system of rationalization. While a photograph of war suggests an objective reality, a painting represents one person’s perspective. Scholnick’s work shows that we all approach photographs with our own biases. 

“The photographed images of suffering … [do] not necessarily strengthen conscience and the ability to be compassionate. It can also corrupt them,” Susan Sontag wrote in her landmark collection of essays “On Photography.” “Once one has seen such images, one has started down the road of seeing more — and more. Images transfix. Images anesthetize.” 

The piece that has probably received the most negative attention in the exhibition is of a crowd of Israelis at an outdoor gathering, watching the bombings and devastation in Gaza. News outlets had reported the phenomenon: Israeli friends and families sitting on couches and chairs on hillsides, looking through binoculars and watching the bombs drop.

“They set up these lawn chairs and kegs and they go out and watch them blow up the settlements, and they cheer,” Scholnick said, her voice full of disgust and anger. 

Despite receiving criticism for her paintings, Scholnick said she’s concerned with honoring the dead, not trying to push an agenda. She wants viewers to see a deeper story, and was inspired, she said, by Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica,” Francisco Goya’s “The Disasters of War,” Pieter Bruegel’s “The Triumph of Death” and Andy Warhol’s “Electric Chair.”

“It’s almost like they’re universal themes of life and death,” she said. “I don’t want it to be just about this conflict.”

Jaime Scholnick’s exhibit “Gaza: Mowing the Lawn” runs through July 18 at CB1 Gallery, 1923 S. Santa Fe Ave., Los Angeles. More information is at

U.N. inquiry finds Israel fired on its schools, Hamas hid weapons in its buildings


Israel fired on seven United Nations schools and Hamas hid weapons in at least three empty U.N. buildings during Israel’s operation in Gaza in 2014, according to an inquiry.

Some 44 Palestinians sheltering in the U.N. schools bombed by the Israelis were killed and Hamas also fired at Israel from United Nations buildings, the U.N. inquiry found, according to a summary released Monday.

More than 200 pages, the full report on the incidents during last summer’s 50-day operation, dubbed Protective Edge, is considered top secret and will not be released.

Israel has investigated all seven incidents in which it was cited in the report and cooperated in the investigation, Haaretz reported. The Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it would study the report’s findings and work with the United Nations to improve the security of U.N. buildings in Gaza.

The inquiry led by Patrick Cammaert, a retired Dutch general and former force commander of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, looked at 10 incidents involving U.N. property. The investigation was ordered in November by the world body’s secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon.

“United Nations premises are inviolable and should be places of safety, particularly in a situation of armed conflict,” Ban wrote in a cover letter accompanying the summary, according to reports. “I will work with all concerned and spare no effort to ensure that such incidents will never be repeated.”

The inquiry’s recommendations will be explored, he said.

Report: Iran helping Hamas rebuild terror tunnels


Iran has sent tens of millions of dollars to Hamas to help rebuild the Gaza tunnels destroyed by Israel during last summer’s conflict, the Telegraph reported.

Iran also is funding new missiles to replenish the supply used to attack Israel before and during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, the London-based newspaper reported Sunday, citing unnamed intelligence sources.

Iran has sponsored Hamas’ military operations for years, according to the newspaper.

Hamas used the tunnels to bring in supplies and rockets for use against Israel, and to send terrorists to infiltrate inside Israel to carry out attacks.

Israel’s military destroyed some three dozen tunnels in Gaza during the summer’s conflict.

Hamas and other Gaza-based terror groups shot thousands of rockets at Israel last summer.

Hamas has not denied that it is rebuilding its tunnels, and residents of Israel’s South have said that they hear subterranean noises and believe that it is the sound of the tunnels under construction.

Amnesty Int’l: Gaza rocket attacks by Palestinians are war crimes


Several rocket attacks launched at Israel from inside the Gaza Strip amount to war crimes, Amnesty International said.

In a report released Wednesday, the human rights group also found that Palestinian rocket fire during the Hamas-Israel conflict last summer killed more civilians inside the Gaza Strip than inside Israel due to the use of unguided projectiles that cannot be accurately aimed at specific targets. In many cases, the rockets landed inside Gaza rather than the intended targets in Israel.

Using unguided weapons is prohibited under international law and their use constitutes a war crime.

“Palestinian armed groups, including the armed wing of Hamas, repeatedly launched unlawful attacks during the conflict killing and injuring civilians,” said Philip Luther, director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International, in a statement. “In launching these attacks, they displayed a flagrant disregard for international humanitarian law and for the consequences of their violations on civilians in both Israel and the Gaza Strip.”

Six Israeli civilians were killed in the conflict last summer.

“Palestinian armed groups must end all direct attacks on civilians and indiscriminate attacks,” Luther said. “They must also take all feasible precautions to protect civilians in the Gaza Strip from the effects of such attacks. This includes taking all possible measures to avoid locating fighters and arms within or near densely populated areas.”

At least 1,585 Palestinian civilians, including more than 530 children, were killed in Gaza, according to Amnesty, and at least 16,245 homes were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable by Israeli attacks during the conflict. Amnesty says some of these attacks also amounted to war crimes.

“The devastating impact of Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians during the conflict is undeniable, but violations by one side in a conflict can never justify violations by their opponents,” Luther said.

He called on both sides to cooperate with investigations by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry and the International Criminal Court to end what he called “a cycle of violations in which civilians on both sides have paid a heavy price.”

Two previous Amnesty reports on Israel’s Operation Protective Edge were critical of Israel’s military.

Report praises Israel’s effort to prevent civilian casualties in Gaza


Israel’s military went far beyond its legal obligation last summer during its Gaza operation to prevent civilian casualties, according to report by a panel of former senior U.S. military officials and legal experts.

The Gaza Conflict Task Force report, which was released Wednesday, was commissioned by the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, or JINSA.

The task force called the conflict “Hybrid Warfare: where non-state actors equipped with advanced weapons operate in densely populated urban areas, disregarding the safety of civilians and capitalizing on its enemy’s efforts to comply with the law.”

The report praised the Israel Defense Forces for its effort to limit civilian casualties, such as alerting residents in a targeted area through phone calls, leaflets and low impact explosives, but also emphasized that the United States and Israel should study the conflict in order to find a balance between mitigating civilian casualties and achieving mission objectives.

Michael Makovsky, JINSA’s chief executive officer, said the task force compiled the report after making a fact-finding mission to Israel, where they met with Israeli, United Nations and Palestinians officials, as well as analyzing primary and secondary research.

JINSA, a Washington-based nonprofit group, advocates for a strong U.S. military relationship with Israel.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have accused Israel of committing war crimes and violations of the laws of war during its Operation Protective Edge against Hamas in Gaza.

IDF completes demolition of terror tunnel from Gaza


The Israeli military completed the demolition of a Gaza terror tunnel discovered during its operation last summer in Gaza.

The tunnel stretched from Gaza City to the southern Israeli community of Nahal Oz. Israel has been in control of the tunnel since Operation Protective Edge.

On Monday, the Israel Defense Forces said the tunnel was destroyed recently on Israeli territory near the border with Gaza. The IDF said it discovered weapons and ammunition there.

The part of the tunnel that led into Gaza had been destroyed during the summer conflict, Ynet reported, citing the IDF.

Hamas reportedly is rebuilding terror tunnels leading from Gaza to Israel.

The folly of partition: ICC ruling seals fate of Gaza residents


The International Criminal Court's (ICC) announcement that it would pursue a war crimes probe against Israel over the summer war in Gaza is but the latest twist in the quixotic quest to end the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Israel’s 2005 de-facto partition via unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip set the spark that lit the flame that led to Operation Protective Edge, for which the government of Israel is to be investigated for by the ICC. 

One can make the argument that the presence of 8,000 Jewish men, women and children who lived in Gaza until the 2005 withdrawal did not contribute to a peaceful resolution between Israel and her neighbors. However, during the occupation no rockets were hurled from Jewish kindergartens at Arab homes; no tunnels were dug with the intention of executing acts of mass murder and no Jewish men, women or children were kept in Gaza against their will.

Since the partition, meant to facilitate Arab self-government, Hamas has created a terrorist caliphate that rules at the expense of 1.7 million Arabs in Gaza.

Hamas-ruled Gaza is defined by corruption, stagnant economic growth, rampant poverty, high unemployment, high illiteracy rates, high mortality rates, suppression of the press, as well as discriminatory policies against women, gays and other minorities.  

Moreover, billions of dollars in foreign aid meant to build infrastructure for Gaza residents (roads, power grids, schools, sewage, transit, etc.) have been siphoned off by local oligarchs to build villas, pad foreign bank accounts and transform the Strip into one giant forward base of operations for an ongoing war of extermination against Israel.

The ICC may want to take account in building its case against Israel that the country it intends to prosecute for war crimes created the overwhelming majority of existing infrastructure in Gaza.

The International Criminal Court's decision effectively rejects a century of Jewish reconciliation efforts: acceptance of partition, failure to annex and populate the West Bank and the recognition of a new independent Arab entity in areas known until very recently as Judea and Samaria.

Tragically, partition has served the interests of neither Israelis nor Gazans. Quite the contrary, it has both condemned nearly two million people to a fate worse than death on one side and placed nearly eight million people within range of rocket fire on the other.

Israel, a vibrant, thriving – if wildly imperfect – exercise in Middle East democracy, will weather the tempest in a teapot being kicked up by a pack of lawyers in The Hague.

However, this is a dark day for those forsaken men, women and children living under Hamas's jackboot of hate and terror.

The ICC, by delegitimizing one sovereign nation's right to defend itself, has granted the Islamist Jihadists cover to commit acts of exceptional barbarity inside the Gaza Strip – and unleash another wave of violence against Israel and its allies in the near future.

Israel tried to limit civilian casualties in Gaza: U.S. military chief


The highest-ranking U.S. military officer said on Thursday that Israel went to “extraordinary lengths” to limit civilian casualties in the recent war in Gaza and that the Pentagon had sent a team to see what lessons could be learned from the operation.

Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged recent reports criticizing civilian deaths during the 50-day Gaza war this year but told an audience in New York he thought the Israel Defense Forces “did what they could” to avoid civilian casualties.

Israel was criticized for civilian deaths during the conflict, including by the White House. More than 2,100 Palestinians were killed during the fighting, most of them civilians and many of them children, according to U.N. and Palestinian figures.

A Human Rights Watch report in September accused Israel of committing war crimes by attacking three U.N.-run schools in the enclave, while Amnesty International said in a report released on Wednesday that Israel showed “callous indifference” to the carnage caused by attacks on civilian targets.

Dempsey was asked about the ethical implications of Israel's handling of the Gaza war, during an appearance in New York at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

“I actually do think that Israel went to extraordinary lengths to limit collateral damage and civilian casualties,” Dempsey told the group.

“In this kind of conflict, where you are held to a standard that your enemy is not held to, you're going to be criticized for civilian casualties,” he added.

Dempsey said Hamas had turned Gaza into “very nearly a subterranean society” with tunneling throughout the coastal enclave.

“That caused the IDF some significant challenges. But they did some extraordinary things to try and limit civilian casualties, to include … making it known that they were going to destroy a particular structure,” Dempsey said.

He said the IDF, in addition to dropping warning leaflets, developed a technique called “roof-knocking” to advise residents to leave sites they planned to strike.

Rights groups have criticized the technique, which involves dropping a low-yield explosive or non-explosive device on a rooftop, saying it did not constitute an effective warning and could kill residents too.

Dempsey said the Pentagon three months ago sent a “lessons-learned team” of senior officers and non-commissioned officers to work with the IDF to see what could be learned from the Gaza operation, “to include the measures they took to prevent civilian casualties and what they did with tunneling.”

The general said civilian casualties during the conflict were “tragic, but I think the IDF did what they could” to avoid them.

He said he thought his Israeli counterpart would look at lessons learned from the conflict to see what more could be done to avoid civilian deaths in future operations.

“The IDF is not interested in creating civilian casualties. They're interested in stopping the shooting of rockets and missiles out of the Gaza Strip and into Israel,” Dempsey said.

U.S. denies it prevented FBI from aiding search for Israeli soldier


A U.S. official denied a report published by Israel Hayom that the U.S. prevented the FBI from aiding Israel in the search for IDF soldier Oron Shaul, who was initially feared kidnapped during Operation Protective Edge. Shaul was later deemed to be killed in battle.

“There was significant cooperation between the U.S. government and the government of Israel in developing information in support of the search for Corporal Shaul,” the official said. “The FBI did immediately pass useful intelligence information to Israeli authorities related to Corporal Shaul’s social media account which answered the initial Israeli request. The FBI further undertook other investigative efforts pursuant to legal authority as a result of follow on Israeli requests in an attempt to assist our allies in the search for their missing soldier.

Steven Emerson, the report’s author and director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism, said in response, “My source said this explanation lacks any credibility. He reiterated the fact that ‘law enforcement officials directly involved’ were specifically told in writing that permission was withdrawn from the FBI to obtain a court order to present to Facebook to get server information on Shaul’s Facebook page. The FBI was told to ‘stand down’ after previously having been given the green light.”

“Moreover, Israeli officials never got the Facebook information on Oron’s Facebook account from the FBI when they requested it,” Emerson added.

Yaalon: IDF took out 80 percent of Gaza rockets during offensive


Israel destroyed some 80 percent of Palestinian rockets and mortars in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said.

About 2,000 rockets still remain in Hamas’ possession in Gaza, Yaalon said Monday in an address to a conference titled “Military and Political Lessons of Operation Protective Edge” at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan. The conference was hosted by the university’s BESA Center.

Yaalon said the Israel Defense Forces killed 40 “senior Hamas officials” and 10 senior Islamic Jihad officials.

He also acknowledged that the 50-day Gaza offensive this summer took longer than military officials expected, and that the ground war was initiated only once it was clear that there was no other way to destroy the hidden terror tunnels from Gaza to Israel.

“The question of Operation Protective Edge’s achievements will be judged by the test of time,” Yaalon said. “We’ll also have to see how we prevent Hamas and other organizations from rearming — the potential for doing so exists.

“I hope the future will prove that this operation achieved a long period of quiet and deterrence not only in the Gaza Strip but in the entire region.”

How Israeli tech survived the war


“I know that for some of you, coming to Israel after a very challenging summer might cause hesitation,” Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai told a crowd of hundreds of techies wearing neon-pink wristbands and ID necklaces. They sat in an old, restored British train station along the coast of Tel Aviv on Sept. 16, having flown in for the DLD (Digital-Life-Design) Tel Aviv Digital Conference — a two-day event in its fourth year, modeled after a similar one in Germany. It has since become the largest of its kind in Israel.

“So I’m happy that you did not hesitate, and I’m happy you have come,” the mayor said. “I see it as a sign of confidence and friendship. Thank you all.” 

The DLD event, one of three tech-related conferences going on in Israel simultaneously, began a tight three weeks after the final blow of Operation Protective Edge, a bloody 50-day war between Israel and Gaza. Homemade rockets launched into Israel by the military wing of Hamas, Gaza’s government, set off daily air-raid sirens in Tel Aviv. One night, a piece of rocket landed on a major Tel Aviv highway, narrowly missing traffic. Gaza health officials estimate that Israel killed more than 2,100 Palestinians, mostly civilians, during the war; 66 Israeli soldiers and six Israeli civilians died in the fighting.

[More: ” target=”_blank”>took a gut punch from Operation Protective Edge. Hotels and tour companies, which had been on track to have their best year ever, reported dips in business during the war as low as 30 percent to 50 percent. Combine that with the plunge in domestic spending and slowdown in local manufacturing, and analysts are putting Israel’s lost gross domestic product (GDP) between $1 billion and $2 billion.

But its high-tech industry apparently emerged unscathed — preserved by what has become known as the Tel Aviv bubble.

Experts say it’s too early to tell whether the war left any real bruises on Israeli high-tech. The second financial quarter of 2014, which ended right as the war began, saw Israeli tech companies raise record capital — a total of $930 million. Results for the third quarter, encompassing the war, won’t be out until October.

However, judging by two massive initial public offerings (IPOs) that dropped during the operation, Israeli tech was operating on its own economic plane.

Just a couple of weeks into the war, Mobileye, an Israeli company whose car security systems help drivers avoid collisions, went public in what was the largest U.S. IPO of an Israeli company in history — raising an initial $890 million. And two weeks after that, ReWalk, which creates exoskeletons for paraplegics, became the best-performing IPO of the year when initial investors made as much as a 230 percent profit in the company’s first few days on the stock market.

At least five other major Israeli companies reportedly went public within the same time frame. The Tel Aviv Stock Exchange continued to rise during the conflict, and had hit an all-time high by mid-September.

“I don’t see the impact” of the war, said Jonathan Medved, CEO of OurCrowd, an American-Israeli crowd-funding venture that discovered ReWalk early on. “The last month, I’ve been traveling all around the U.S. and Canada, and I haven’t seen the impact at all. People ask how you’re doing, and then they start writing checks.”

Medved noted: “These tech investors are investing in a risky business in the first place. You learn to work with risk and accept risk — and with Israel, geopolitical risk is just another part of the equation.”

A young Israel Defense Forces soldier checks out the SkyStar surveillance drone at the Unmanned Vehicles Israel Defense conference.

Yaacov Lifshitz, former director general of the Israel Ministry of Finance, argued that “high-tech is not so much connected to specific geographic area.  It’s more about ideas, software — things that are not so tied to the ground.”

A few Israeli startups at DLD said that because a few of their staffers had to report to the Gaza border for reserve Israeli military duty, the quality of their services suffered some — but not enough to affect profits in the long run.

“I suffer more from Google than from Hamas,” said the founder of an online advertising startup, who attended DLD but wished to remain nameless, referring to a recent algorithm change in the search engine that caused some of his clients to “suddenly disappear from Google.”

The ad entrepreneur said the war’s domestic blows didn’t affect him because most of his clients are abroad. “Even my Israeli clients have clients abroad,” he said.

Israeli social-media marketing company Wivo experienced a curious twist: Although profit from three of their largest Israeli clients dipped, a fourth — a T-shirt company with pro-Israel slogans — tripled its exports, more than making up for their loss.

Wivo executives also learned which ad language caused potential customers to emote the most in wartime. “You should always put ‘Hamas’ in the same ‘support Israel’ sentence,” said Johnny Brin, the company’s vice president of marketing, while making rounds at a DLD night mixer.

During the week of events surrounding the two-day DLD conference, techies schmoozed and partied across the city, clustering along central Rothschild Boulevard. Colored orbs hung from Rothschild’s trees and startup booths lined its sidewalks; any open spots were packed with hoola-hoopers and street musicians.

“When we’ve traveled, we’ve found that Israel high-tech is very well-respected — especially Tel Aviv,” said Gil Margulis, CEO and co-founder of QuikBreak, a startup that specializes in targeted mobile advertising. “There’s the two ideas: Israel is like conflict zone, but Tel Aviv is like beach, tech, fun, innovation. It kind of has a different position in your mind.”

But the war — which because of Palestinian civilian casualties drew unprecedented global criticism of Israel — was an inevitable topic of conversation at a DLD mixer in the backyard of a nameless bar along Rothschild, its awnings draped in vines and twinkling lights. A 21-year-old British tech prodigy who co-founded three startups said he had been trying to ignore friends on Facebook arguing Israel versus Palestine, a conflict he barely understood. “I just told them to chill,” he said.

Over drinks, an editor at a U.K. tech magazine was surprised to learn that the scientist featured in his magazine for inventing a twerking robot was furious at a different U.K. newspaper editor for his pro-Palestinian coverage of the war. Later on, the same scientist was surprised to learn from another journalist that most Gazans have no way to leave Gaza.

Two startup teams from Gaza, in fact, were denied entry to the conference, according to Abdul Malik Al Jaber, a DLD speaker and leading Palestinian businessman who runs startup accelerators across the Arab world.

“The timing is difficult. But the fact that someone like me is coming here shows the interest is there,” Al Jaber said, adding that “economic partnerships between Israelis and Palestinians is the only way to move forward” in the conflict.

Former Israeli President Shimon Peres, fourth to the podium at the DLD conference, was similarly optimistic. “I think the gate to peace is the new age of science and technology,” he said.

Peres warned, however, “In every technology, there has to be a moral point. Without fair human judgment, it can cut heads.”

Peres’ reference to war was one of just a handful throughout two days of conference speakers celebrating Tel Aviv as the world’s most vibrant startup scene after California’s Silicon Valley.

But half an hour east, near Ben Gurion International Airport — where there was no sea breeze to cut the heat — another conference in a Vegas-style hotel convention center used Operation Protective Edge as a key selling point. At that event, called the Unmanned Vehicles Israel Defense (UVID) conference, the steelier end of Israeli high-tech — weapons and security companies — was showing off technologies recently tested in Gaza.

Specifically, they unveiled the unmanned spy and attack drones used to assist soldiers on the battlefield and bomb enemy targets. Companies also put large focus on repurposing technology used in Operation Protective Edge for other countries’ wars, and for civilian uses abroad.

“We’re here to tell you the future is here,” Ran Krauss, creator of three mini surveillance drones currently used in Israel, said at the conference. “We’ve been doing it for quite some time here in Israel, legally and in a very superior way.”

Former Ministry of Finance Director General Lifshitz, also a past chief economist for the Israeli Ministry of Defense, estimated that of all the country’s high-tech exports — which make up about one-third of total Israeli exports — one-third of those are weapons- and security-related.

And “if you are trying to sell a system,” he said, “you will always get the question of if the IDF is using it.… It contributes to the selling power.”

At the UVID conference, expo poster boards were stamped with phrases like “battle tested” and “combat proven.” Israeli weapons giant Elbit Systems showed off images of their Hermes 900 unmanned aircrafts carrying munitions to drop on Gaza, while the smaller startup Roboteam unveiled the “unstoppable” underground bot they created in just four days to help IDF soldiers navigate Hamas tunnels in the heat of war.

“The Americans have not yet internalized the project of tunnels,” Col. Itzik Elimelech, president of Israel Military Industries in the U.S., said at the conference. “I think we’re pioneers here,” he said, imagining a day when robots could also be used to patrol U.S. border areas.

RT Aerostat Systems, the company whose white Skystar 300 surveillance balloons have become as recognizable along Israeli-Palestinian border areas as concrete separation walls, said business boomed throughout the war. “The IDF doubled our balloons along the Gaza border,” said Taly Shmueli, the company’s vice president. 

Shmueli said RT is currently in the final stages of locking down a contract with the U.S. government for providing surveillance drones along the Texas border with Mexico. She hoped Operation Protective Edge would be the final stamp of approval RT needed to close the deal.

“Really, we are the only tactical mobile system in the world that has proven the system in more than 500,000 flight hours in battle areas,” Shmueli said. “We think it’s a good solution for the Mexican border. The large systems can identify a person from up to 15 kilometers away.”

Yet another Israeli tech conference last week — the International Cybersecurity Conference at Tel Aviv University — focused on Israel’s growing advantage in the cyber-security industry. “Here in Israel, during the fighting in Operation Protective Edge, there were 2 million cyber attacks daily, which had very little success,” the conference chairman told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

In dozens of conversations at both the DLD and UVID conferences, most participants brushed off as a nonissue the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israeli products on behalf of Palestinians.

“What’s BDS?” asked an entrepreneur from England at DLD.

BDS “doesn’t permeate high tech,” said Margulis of QuikBreak. “I think the tech people aren’t really into that. They go, ‘Look, Israeli technology is awesome — you’re cutting-edge, you’re the best.’ They could boycott Israeli stuff, but they’re going to lose out, because it’s the best.”

If Israel resumes its war in Gaza at high intensity, Medved of the OurCrowd startup-funding platform said “there’s always the risk of a boycott. But the boycott is limited to groceries or tomatoes or Dead Sea creams. No one has had the courage to boycott Google, Microsoft, Intel.”

Israel, Hamas reach unlimited cease-fire


Egypt announced a new cease-fire between Israel and Palestinian groups shortly after an Israeli struck by a Gaza mortar died of his wounds.

The official Egyptian News Agency announced Tuesday evening that the cease-fire would begin at 7 p.m.

In the hour leading up to the announced cease-fire, dozens of mortars and rockets were fired at southern Israel. One Israeli was killed and at least two more were seriously injured in the Eshkol region.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in a televised speech at the start of a leadership meeting in Ramallah, said, “We announce the Palestinian leadership’s agreement to Egypt’s call for a comprehensive and lasting truce beginning at 7 p.m. today.”

Israeli Cabinet ministers reportedly were informed earlier in the evening that the cease-fire proposal had been accepted. The proposal did not require a Cabinet vote.

According to reports, the open-ended cease-fire would see the immediate opening of border crossings from Gaza into Israel and Egypt, and the expansion of Gaza’s fishing zone.

The second phase would begin in a month, with discussion of the construction of a Gaza seaport and the Israeli release of Hamas prisoners.

The sides have agreed to numerous cease-fires since Israel launched its military operation in Gaza early last month to stop rocket fire from the coastal strip.

Is Israel’s longest, bloodiest Gaza war over?


A rocket barrage fell on Israel, a boom sounded over Tel Aviv and then it was over — at least for now.

After 50 days of missiles, airstrikes, ground operations, tunnel incursions, truce talks, cease-fire proposals, death and destruction, Israel and Hamas agreed to an open-ended truce on Tuesday.

The cease-fire announced by Egypt stipulates that Israel and Egypt will open all border crossings to allow international humanitarian aid and construction materials to enter the Gaza Strip.

The agreement requires Israel and Hamas to cease hostilities but, according to reports, does not include commitments to allow an international airport and seaport in Gaza. After a month, should the quiet hold, Israel and Hamas will restart indirect negotiations in Cairo on easing Israel’s blockade of the coastal strip and disarming the enclave.

The end of the operation should not include “any significant political achievements for Hamas, which is a terrorist organization which doesn’t accept our existence here,” said Tzipi Livni, Israel’s justice minister.

‪Livni added that the truce should be “part of an overall accord with those who seek peace.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel had not spoken publicly or released a statement about the cease-fire as of press time. Two days prior, though, during a Cabinet meeting, he said: “We embarked on Operation Protective Edge in order to restore quiet and security to you and to all Israeli citizens. The more determined and patient we are, the more our enemies will understand that they will not succeed in wearing us down.”

The agreement is the culmination of Egyptian-led cease-fire efforts that have been ongoing throughout the conflict. Earlier this month, Israel and Hamas had agreed to a string of temporary cease-fires. The lull ended with Hamas rocket fire on Israel last week.

The fighting is Israel’s third major conflict with Hamas since 2008, following conflicts in 2008–09 and 2012. This one, however, was the longest and costliest between the sides since Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.


Relatives of three Palestinian boys killed by an Israeli airstrike visiting their bodies at the morgue of al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City on Aug. 21. Photo by Emad Nassar/Flash90

More than 2,000 Palestinians and 70 Israelis died in the latest conflict, which wounded more than 10,000 Gazans and 500 Israelis, according to Israel’s Foreign Ministry. Also, 20 Palestinians died in protests in the West Bank against Israel’s operation, according to a report in the Guardian.

The fighting created ghost towns across Israel’s South and devastated Gaza, destroying thousands of homes. Israeli forces delivered a punishing blow to Hamas during the conflict, with airstrikes destroying thousands of rockets and ground troops eliminating much of its tunnel infrastructure both under the Israel-Gaza border and across Gaza.

Last week, an Israeli airstrike killed three senior Hamas commanders. The chief of Hamas’ military wing, Mohammed Deif, may have been killed in a separate attack last week.

Israel’s aggressive military tactics, along with a high Palestinian civilian death toll, drew widespread international criticism. Last month, the United Nations Human Rights Council said it would send a fact-finding mission to investigate possible war crimes committed during the fighting. Israel has indicated that it likely would not cooperate with the investigation, alleging anti-Israel bias.

Even the United States, an Israel ally, issued harsh criticism following an Israeli airstrike that hit a United Nations school on Aug. 3, and tightened its controls on weapons shipments to Israel. American assistance to Israel continued during the conflict, though, as the U.S. approved an added $225 million for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system.

On Tuesday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. “strongly supports” the cease-fire.

“We view this as an opportunity, not a certainty,” Psaki said, according to reports. “Today’s agreement comes after many hours and days of negotiations and discussions. But certainly there’s a long road ahead. And we’re aware of that and we’re going into this eyes wide open.”

Hamas saw many of its attempted attacks on Israel frustrated. Iron Dome intercepted nearly all of the rockets Hamas aimed at city centers, and the Israel Defense Forces stopped Hamas’ infiltrations into Israel close to the border.

Nevertheless, Hamas killed 64 Israeli soldiers in Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza — the highest death toll for Israel since the Second Lebanon War in 2006 — in addition to six civilians.


Palestinians viewing a building in Gaza City witnesses said was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike on Aug. 26. Photo by Emad Nassar/Flash90

Despite being ineffective, Hamas rockets proved to have an increasingly long range — mortar fire reached nearly all of Israel for the first time. While residents of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were able to largely carry on with life under the protection of Iron Dome, they found themselves running for shelter daily at the sound of warning sirens, an experience that had previously been largely confined to southern Israel.

And Hamas rocket fire last month on central Israel led a number of international airlines to cancel flights to and from Israel for two days, leaving Israelis feeling isolated. The U.S. Federal Aviation Authority instituted a 24-hour ban on flights to Israel, which some criticized as unwarranted. Hamas celebrated the cancellations in a statement Tuesday as an “air blockade.”

The conflict began on July 8 following a barrage of Hamas rockets on Israel. Tensions between the sides had risen after Hamas operatives in the West Bank kidnapped and murdered three Israeli teens on June 12. Israeli troops swept the West Bank in the ensuing weeks, arresting hundreds of Hamas members, according to Israel. The July 2 kidnapping and murder of a Palestinian teen, who was burned alive by a group of Israeli extremists in a likely revenge attack, further stoked the flames.

Israel began its campaign with airstrikes across Gaza, targeting Hamas weapons and infrastructure but also killing hundreds of civilians. But following Hamas attempts to infiltrate Israel by tunnel and sea, Israel launched a ground invasion of Gaza on July 17 that lasted two weeks.

The ground operation ended as Israel and Hamas agreed to the first in a string of temporary cease-fires. During the calm, the sides engaged in Egyptian-mediated negotiations begun early in the conflict on a long-term truce. But the talks ended Aug. 19 without an agreement as Hamas resumed rocket fire.

As in previous conflicts, a vast majority of Israelis supported the operation, with 95 percent of Israeli Jews in favor, according to the Israel Democracy Institute. But the conflict also opened divisions within Israel’s governing coalition, as more hawkish ministers called for the IDF to deal a harsher blow to Hamas and opposed the various cease-fires. Residents of the South, who have withstood rocket fire for more than a decade, also have called for a continued operation.

“Any concession to Hamas is a surrender to terrorism,” Ashkelon Mayor Itamar Shimoni said Tuesday, according to Haaretz. “The residents of the South wanted to see this campaign resolved, but that will probably not happen.”

Call-up of additional 10,000 Israeli reservists authorized


A Knesset committee authorized the call-up of an additional 10,000 Israeli reserve soldiers.

On Sunday, the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee approved a government request for the call-up. Nearly 100,000 Israeli reservists have been called up since the start of Operation Protective Edge on July 8.

The committee also extended the special Home Front requirements until Sept. 2, calling on the Finance Ministry to finalize by then the amount of compensation the state will pay to residents of the south that have sustained property damage.

Also Sunday, Israeli lawmaker Elazar Stern of the Hatnua party in a letter to Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon called for the drafting of Hesder yeshiva students in place of reservists.

Students of Hesder yeshivas spend up to two years studying, serve for 17 months in the military and then return to a year-and-a-half of yeshiva studies, which is considered unpaid reserve duty.

Stern wrote that drafting the students would cost the state less and offer relief to reserve soldiers. He added that the students have been on summer break, which ends on Wednesday, the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul.

“When considering the absurdity that 20-year-old soldiers are on vacation and reservists with family are on guard duty or on patrols, it appears to me that this issue should be examined, if not at this time, then for the challenges that lie ahead of us,” he wrote.

The Association of Hesder Yeshivot responded, according to The Jerusalem Post, that Hesder yeshiva students have served in every area of the military during the current conflict with Gaza and that “yeshiva students have not been absent from those who have been wounded.” Many of the students, the association noted, stayed with their units even when they were scheduled to return to yeshiva.

“Yeshiva students of the Hesder program are present and ready for every task the army gives them and for every purpose, and those who have not been required for military missions will return next week to the yeshivot to increase the Torah study which is no less important than the security operations,” the association said.

 

Netanyahu: ‘No immunity’ for those who fire at Israel


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that any building from which Hamas carries out terrorist activities is a target for Israel.

Netanyahu, speaking at the beginning of the weekly Cabinet meeting on Sunday morning, said the Gaza operation will continue “until its goals are achieved.” As he did earlier this month, the Israeli leader again equated Hamas to the jihadist group ISIS.

He called on the residents of Gaza “to immediately evacuate any building from which Hamas is carrying out terrorist activity. Any such place is a target for us.

“In recent days we have proven there is no immunity for those who fire at Israel’s citizens,” Netanyahu said. “This is true in all sectors and regarding all borders.”

Several hours earlier, Israel had leveled a 12-story apartment building with an airstrike that its military said housed Hamas operations.

Addressing directly the Israeli citizens living in areas on the border with Gaza, Netanyahu said, “I appreciate your resilience. I appreciate your suffering and I share your pain.” He promised that the government would approve a package of assistance for southern Israeli communities for during and after the operation.

Netanyahu also said, “Hamas is ISIS and ISIS is Hamas. They act in the same way. They are branches of the same poisonous tree. They are two extremist Islamic terrorist movements that abduct and murder innocents, that execute their own people, that shrink at nothing including the willful murder of children.”

The Gaza operation could extend into the start of the school year, the prime minister said.

Rockets fired into Israel, violating cease-fire extension; IDF retaliates


The Israeli military struck sites in Gaza after rockets were fired from the coastal strip into southern Israel in violation of a cease-fire extension.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly also recalled Israeli negotiators from cease-fire talks in Cairo after the rockets from Gaza were  fired into Beersheba on Tuesday afternoon. Israeli government officials told Haaretz that the talks had collapsed.

The rockets broke a 24-hour cease-fire extension agreed to at midnight Monday. They landed in an open area; no injuries or damage were reported. The Iron Dome missile defense system did not attempt to intercept the rockets — the first targeting Israel in nearly a week.

Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon reportedly ordered the Israel Defense Forces to retaliate. One Israeli TV report said the IDF had hit 10 sites in Gaza.

“Yet again, terrorists breach the ceasefire and renew fire at Israeli civilians from Hamas ruled Gaza Strip. This continued aggression will be addressed accordingly by the IDF; we will continue striking terror infrastructure, pursuing terrorists, and eliminating terror capabilities in the Gaza Strip, in order to restore security for the State of Israel,” IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said in a statement.

Israel and the Palestinians had agreed to the extension of a five-day cease-fire reportedly because significant progress had been made on a long-term agreement.

 

 

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 view from Gaza: A bitter resolve


During the past month of fighting in the Gaza Strip — a rectangle of desert and farmland along Israel’s southern coast, home to 1.8 million Palestinians — a small boy with a shy smile lost his big brother. Now, squinting through the scope of an imaginary sniper rifle, he vows to kill Israeli soldiers as revenge. A curly-topped toddler lost her mother and the tendons in her tiny legs before she ever learned to walk. A young father lost the home he finished building for his family just two years ago. A mechanic lost his auto repair shop — today a sad pile of rubble and crumpled car parts. A Palestinian photojournalist for Agence France-Presse lost his best friend, another journalist, meeting him for the last time at a morgue instead of a cafe.

“Everybody in Gaza has lost something in this war,” said Mahmoud Abu Ghalion, 35, whose family’s tile factory was bombed useless  (for the second time) during Israel’s recent operation.

“If you didn’t lose your son, you lost your house, you lost your business,” he said.

[RELATED: Relatives say 1-year-old Raiga Wahadan, who lost her mother and older sister in strikes on Beit Hanoun, may never take her first steps after an Israeli drone rocket snapped tendons in one leg and blew a hole in the other.

At a high-energy (if slightly under-attended) victory march down one of Gaza City’s main roadways on Aug. 7, the third and last day of a temporary cease fire, Hamas parliament member Mushir al-Masri announced, “We have won the military battle, and with the permission of God, we‘ll win the political battle.” Gazans cheered, waving green Hamas flags. On side streets, young girls could be spotted skipping to the tune of Hamas victory songs pumped from rickety vans speeding through the city.

“We have to keep fighting until we get what we want,” said Misham Nasar, 40, a doctor at Al Quds Hospital in Gaza City who was front-row at the rally.

“Tell your people we are not killers,” Nasar said to an American journalist in the crowd. “We like life, like you. But if we have to die, we like to die standing. We love our resistance — not because we love killing, but because it is all we have to win our freedom.”

Dozens of Gaza residents interviewed by the Journal echoed this sentiment: To them, the fight had become more than a showdown between Hamas and Israel. It had become a war of independence.

“We lost a lot of people and homes. We can’t feel that we lost everything for nothing,” said Ahmad Al Eigla, 22, who had moved to a makeshift refugee camp outside Shifa, Gaza City’s main hospital, after surviving an airstrike on his home.

Naim Al Ghoul, 20, a Gaza City resident studying to become a teacher, said: “We are proud of [the Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing] and all the fighters on the ground. We will support them until we get what we want. We need to break the blockade to go out to study, to do business — to have a normal life like everybody in the world. We prefer to die [than to stop fighting] because we feel like we are already dead,” the young man said.

Along with the lives of 64 soldiers and three civilians, Operation Protective Edge reportedly cost Israel up to $3 billion in military expenses and indirect hits to the economy. It also boosted anti-Israel sentiment around the world and Hamas’ popularity in Gaza.

“Israel gave Hamas the life kiss” with this war, said longtime Hamas critic al-Ghoul.

“So if Hamas is our destiny in Gaza, at least give them a chance to be a government,” she said.

That may be one of Israel’s only viable options at this point. Ben-David said that if the IDF had wanted to take out Hamas, it could have — but that Israel knows Hamas is a safer neighbor than even more radical Islamist organizations that could rise to fill its shoes.

“Compared to others in the region, they look almost vegetarian,” Ben-David said of Hamas.

Avi, an IDF combat soldier who fought in Gaza and could not give his last name while in uniform, said Israeli troops understood Hamas wasn’t to be taken out completely. “We know Hamas — we don’t know others,” he said.

However, this made for a confused offensive. “The whole Israeli establishment, the military and political echelon, were looking at it as an operation,” Ben-David said. “But for Hamas, it was a war … and you cannot really fight a war when you announce to your enemy that they’re not going to lose it.”

He and many others have argued that once Israel entered Gaza, ground troops should have pushed all the way to the sea — at which point Hamas would have been forced to play by Israel’s rules.

“We should have avoided this war,” Ben-David said. “But once you’re in it, you can’t go in it without aiming to win.”

Young Palestinian mother Samar Mkat and her three children fled their home in northern Gaza weeks ago, when airstrikes came too close for comfort. The house was later destroyed by Israeli fighter planes, which were targeting Hamas rocket-launching sites in her backyard.

“I wish I could go back to my home, but at the same time, I’m proud [of Hamas fighters],” she said. “We love them more after the war, because they’re taking care of us.”

Mkat now shares sleeping quarters with 10 others in a sweltering elevator nook the size of a broom closet at a United Nations school in Gaza City that has become a shelter for more than 2,000 refugees. She is one of an estimated 250,000 people in Gaza who will have no home to return to when the war finally ends.

But despite her desperate situation, Mkat said Hamas’ end goals — including lifting Israel’s economic and travel blockade on Gaza — were worth the war. “We can’t find food, we can’t find work, we can’t find bread” because of the blockade, she said. “If my husband died and we had no money, what would we do?”

Even in wartime, the gangs of barefoot kids running the streets of Gaza are their usual elfish selves, darting through alleyways and doorways as if powered by jet packs. When asked, many will tell you they want to fight Israel when they grow up.

“Of course I want to be a fighter,” 11-year-old Shedi Al Dawawseh said. “Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Fatah, it doesn’t matter. We are all one people.”

Shedi and his brother Mohammed, 6, sat on a couch in their family’s stately living room on Aug. 9 as the house grew dark with the night. (Gaza has been without electricity since its only power plant was bombed.) On the walls hung big portraits of Fatah leaders next to photos of men in the Al Dawawseh family, prominent Fatah supporters.

“I’m Fatah,” the boys’ father, Zuheir, said proudly. “But the Israelis can’t differentiate between anyone. All for them is black-and-white.”

The first boom of the evening shook the room — an airstrike nearby, somewhere in Gaza City. Kids shrieked in the streets below, running past the spot where Zuheir’s 10-year-old son, Ibrahim, had been killed a day before — the first fatality after a 72-hour cease-fire dissolved. 

On the morning of Aug. 8, Israel apparently dropped a drone rocket on the Nour al-Mohammedi mosque, still under construction after being destroyed in Israel’s 2009 war in Gaza. It crashed through the scaffolding, killing Ibrahim and injuring other boys who had been acting out an imaginary gunfight at the site.

“The IDF was targeting two rocket-launching sites in the vicinity of the mosque,” an IDF spokesman told the Journal.

Asked if the boys playing at the mosque had been visible, the spokesman said: “Sadly, positioning terror sites near civilian areas such as a mosque is a method often employed by Hamas. The IDF goes to great lengths to avoid harming civilians when fighting in urban areas, while Hamas specifically uses its own population as human shields for its terror activities. In doing so, Hamas endangers civilians on both sides, for its agenda.”

When 2-year-old Baraa Bakroon, pictured here in his demolished home in Shujaiya, hears Israeli bombs falling nearby, he says, “Don’t be afraid, Dad.”

Neighborhood children said they searched through clouds of dust created by the strike for 10 minutes, finding various pieces of Ibrahim before they located his body.

One little boy held up a chunk of Ibrahim’s skull between two fingers to show a reporter. “This is from his head, see?” the boy said.

For the first time in three days, an ambulance screamed through Gaza City and pulled into the roundabout in front of Shifa Hospital. A swarm of photographers rushed to snap a photo of Ibrahim as he was pulled from the vehicle — his forehead peeled back, his head split open.

“We found him without a head,” his father Zuheir said to the reporters, sobbing uncontrollably. “He doesn’t fire a rocket, he doesn’t make anything. There is no reason to kill these kids.”

Zuheir turned his wet face to the sky. “Why did you kill him?” he asked. “What’s your message?” 

Later, at his home, Zuheir said he feared Ibrahim’s death would have long-term effects on his remaining sons. “I wish these kids would take care of me when I’m an old man, but now they are starting to think about being fighters because they can’t forget what happened to their brother.

“The Israeli army puts something inside these kids,” he said. “They give them a reason to be a fighter now.”

Al Monitor columnist Al-Ghoul has fought for women’s rights in Gaza, for her freedom to wear blue jeans in the street and, especially, for unity between the Palestinian political parties Hamas and Fatah.

But with Operation Protective Edge, she said Israel knocked the wind out of Gaza’s internal struggle.

“Even simple people who never fight, they start to talk about resistance and fighting,” al-Ghoul said over the phone. “This is not Hamas’ fault — this is Israel’s fault. If anybody makes Hamas more strong in the street, and if they win the next election, who did this? Israel and [Abbas].”

Al-Ghoul had just returned to work after taking a week off to grieve. “I still see their faces everywhere,” she said of her family in Rafah.

Despite Israel’s attempts throughout the operation to notify Palestinian civilians when they needed to evacuate, many did not. Some said they never received a warning from the IDF; others said they received one and decided to wait out the fighting like they had in past wars, when the IDF had targeted specific homes but didn’t tear down entire neighborhoods. Still others said they simply didn’t know of a safer place to go.

Kerem Batniji, a 35-year-old doctor at Shifa, said the severity of the war hit him after the first night of the IDF’s tank incursion into Shujaiya — a battle that churned the neighborhood into an unrecognizable gray pulp and reportedly killed more than 60 people. Batniji remembered treating a young boy on the brink of death that night.

“From the front, it looked like nothing happened to him,” Batniji said of the boy. “But his buttocks and back were totally evacuated. So I gave him pain medication and asked my fellow nurses to take him to a nice corner to die in peace. That was the only time I almost cried.”

An old man walking by, hearing the doctor’s story, said quietly: “We do not expect this from a civilized people.”

Some of the war’s most horrific scenes played out in the Khuzaa neighborhood, south of Shujaiya along the border with Israel.

The neighborhood — once among Gaza’s most beautiful, its streets lined with palm trees and its backyards filled with rabbits, chickens and grape-leaf arbors — was crushed to dust over days of fighting.

On Aug. 9, residents wandered the streets, dazed, surveying the damage and setting up blanket forts in the ruins of their homes. The air smelled of unrefrigerated food, sewage and rotting flesh. One group of men started a small fire at a bombed-out gas station to barbecue what remained of their dismembered chickens. A toddler stuck out his tongue under the faucet of a dried-up UNICEF water tank. 

Close by, the war marched on: A Hamas rocket shot up from the earth, followed minutes later by an Israeli airstrike targeting open land. Khuzaa residents were careful not to gather in large groups, saying they feared an Israeli drone that could be heard buzzing above would deem them a threat.

But a few young men took the risk, leading this reporter into a nearby sand pit that they said had been filled with Israeli tanks during the Khuzaa fighting. Heaps of toiletries and old, rotting food with Hebrew labeling — canned fruit, hot-dog buns, cranberry cereal bars, broken eggs — littered the area.

The land had once been a farm belonging to the Qdeih family, said 25-year-old neighbor Khaled Al Karaa. More trash littering the marbled family home indicated Israeli soldiers had been sleeping there; gaping holes in its walls and rubble on its floors indicated they had shelled it afterward.

“They destroyed everything,” Al Karaa said. “It’s like this is not someone’s home.”

A damning report out of Khuzaa from Human Rights Watch quoted Palestinians who said they had traumatic run-ins with Israeli soldiers while trying to flee fighting in the area between July 23 and July 25. In it, witnesses allege that IDF soldiers deliberately shot and killed civilians after telling them they could evacuate. Multiple residents of Khuzaa who spoke to the Journal said they witnessed similar atrocities.

“I was just crying and thinking they would also kill me,” said Mohammed Abu Reeda, a  red-haired 12-year-old from Khuzaa.

(When presented with witness accounts from Khuzaa, an IDF spokesman said the allegations were “still being looked into by the IDF.”)

Ahmad Al Najar, 78, an elderly Khuzaa resident wearing a red-checkered keffiyeh, said that of all the wars he’s experienced in his lifetime, “This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”

As tens of thousands of homes lay in ruins, years from repair, and international organizations race to patch the city’s most essential infrastructure before a public-health disaster, even Gaza’s brightest optimists are struggling to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

But al-Ghoul said despite it all, she still believes that, one day, “Gaza will be one of the most beautiful countries in the world. I was in Europe just three months ago — I can stay in any country I want with my children. But I believe in Gaza. Even if Israel comes every three years to kill the beauty and the peace, I believe Gaza will help itself.”

She said she thought the only immediate way to escape this cycle would be for Israel and the international community to recognize the Fatah-Hamas unity government — the same union that Israel originally resisted as if “bitten by a snake,” as Yigal Elam wrote in Haaretz.

Elam, a historian and scholar of the history of Zionism, argued in an Aug. 12 op-ed that Israel can’t afford any further operations in Gaza if it wants to retain any international legitimacy.

With violent options exhausted, he wrote, the only road left is diplomatic.

“I do not believe in reconciliation — nations do not reconcile,” Elam wrote. “But states do make peace and sign agreements in order to ensure the safety and well-being of their inhabitants.”

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