The Itamar murders: Double incitement

You’ve got to hand it to Bibi Netanyahu, who somehow managed to turn international outrage over the brutal massacre of a young Jewish family on the Shabbat as they slept in their beds into widespread criticism of his aggressive settlement policy.

The most frequent question I get in speaking to Jewish groups around the country is “Why doesn’t Israel get better PR advice?”  The answer is simple: the problem isn’t PR, it’s policy and the way it’s announced to the world.

One Israeli friend emailed me this week, ” For a person supposed to be a seasoned, articulate ‘hasbarah guru,’ Bibi certainly clouded the water in the pond.”

Presented with an opportunity to focus international condemnation on Palestinian incitement and the PA’s refusal to return to the peace table, Netanyahu grabbed the spotlight for himself and turned the discussion to settlements.

A headline writer in one Israeli paper summed up the PM’s response: “They shoot, we build.”

Who benefits?  The rejectionists on all sides who don’t want peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Playing to his right wing base, Netanyahu not only announced the construction of 500 new homes but he also is trying to bring into his governing coalition the farther right National Union party, which includes an unabashed admirer of the late Meir Kahane.

An equally tone deaf Mahmoud Abbas failed to grasp the importance of this heinous crime. After much private and public prodding – Netanyahu labeled the initial PA response “weak and mumbled”—he went on Israeli radio to condemn this “abominable, inhuman and immoral” act.  It remains to be seen whether he will repeat that on Palestinian media in Arabic.

While the five members of the Fogel family, three young children and their parents, were being buried in Itamar, a few miles to the south in the town of Al-Bireh, Palestinians were dedicating a town square in the memory of the leader of Fatah terror cell which killed 35 Israelis and an American in a 1978 bus hijacking.

The Israel Today newspaper raised the possibility that extremist settlers could put a “price tag” [revenge] on the Itamar murders and try to collect from the Palestinians, which could kindle another violent intifada.

Both Netanyahu and Abbas had an opportunity to calm the waters and use the incident as an opening to return to the peace table, but, as usual, neither appeared interested.

It seemed as though everyone wanted to exploit the tragedy for his or her own purposes. 

For Israeli rejectionists it was more evidence that the Palestinians have no interest in peace and that withdrawing from the West Bank would be a disaster for Israel.

For the left it was proof of the need to accelerate peace talks, as if a signed agreement would somehow tamp down the overflowing animosities that undoubtedly motivated last week’s murders.

Hamas and the Islamists praised the murder as a “heroic” act of resistance. 

And among Jewish groups there were even those who saw it as a fundraising opportunity and mailed out appeals for contributions.

Several media organizations looked like they were out to prove their reputation for anti-Israel bias.  CNN seemed to question whether the murders were an act of terrorism when on its web site it put quotes around the term “terror act.” 

The BBC, with a longstanding reputation for bias, said the killer was an “intruder…whom the Israeli military calls a terrorist.”  And Reuters referred to the IDF as “the Israeli occupation forces” and then had the chutzpah to say there was nothing pejorative about using a term popular among anti-Israel activists.

Others used the incident to spread their ideology, facts be damned.  The notoriously unreliable DEBKAfile, an Israeli website that claims to be an intelligence and security news service, offered a totally unsubstantiated but incendiary claim suggesting Abbas himself was personally responsible for the murders.  It reported, “Abbas had quietly ordered heads of his Fatah organization to throw its support behind the atrocity.”

Netanyahu is right: incitement is a major source of friction and distrust.  But both sides play that game.  He should listen to the invective of some of his own ministers. One took the unprecedented – and inflammatory step – of publishing the grizzly crime scene pictures.  And does the PM think the announcement of 500 new settlement homes does not rile the Palestinians as well as Israel’s friends?

When he could have calmed the waters and displayed statesmanlike leadership, Netanyahu, who is often ridiculed for comparing himself to Churchill, chose instead to pander to his extremists. Harry Truman had a sign on his desk that said “The buck stops here.” Bibi needs one that says “Sheket Be’vakasha.”

Japan disaster and Itamar killings put Jewish giving on the spot

Almost as soon as the catastrophe in Japan began unfolding last Friday, Jewish groups scrambled to figure out how to get help to the area.

In Israel, search-and-rescue organizations like ZAKA and IsraAid readied teams to head to the Japanese devastation zone. In Tokyo, the Chabad center took an accounting of local Jews and began organizing a shipment of aid to stricken cities to the north. In the United States, aid organizations ranging from B’nai B’rith International to local and national federation agencies launched campaigns to collect money for rescue, relief and rebuilding efforts in the Pacific.

But then Shabbat came, and with it the news that a suspected Palestinian terrorist had brutally murdered five family members in the Jewish West Bank settlement of Itamar, and the focus of the Jewish community seemed to shift.

“Not sure who to think about first,” Nadia Levine, a British Israeli event planner living in Jerusalem, wrote on Facebook on Tuesday. “The devastated remaining members of the Fogel family from Itamar, Gilad Shalit — 5 years in Hamas captivity — or the survivors of the Japanese tragedy and the dangers they may be facing.”

The Orthodox Union, which sent out a message last Friday calling on supporters to donate to the organization’s newly established earthquake emergency fund, sent out another urgent message two days later calling on donors to give money to the OU’s victims of terrorism fund.

As of late Monday, the totals collected by each fund were running neck and neck, the OU’s chief operating officer, David Frankel, said in an interview.

“We have an obligation to care for our own,” Frankel said, “but the enormity of the tragedy that happened in Japan is so extraordinary that for the Jewish community not to have an outpouring of support would not only be a denial of one of our primary obligations to care for everyone in their time of need,” he said, but also a missed opportunity to honor the memory of Chiune Sugihara — the Japanese consul general to Lithuania who in 1940 helped save at least 6,000 Lithuanian Jews from the hands of the Nazis by getting them transit visas to Japan.

“The Japanese community helped us in our time of need; this is our way to help them in their time of need,” Frankel said. “We can never repay the debt, but this is the right thing to do.”

By Tuesday, Israeli teams of rescue personnel, emergency medical officers and water pollution specialists had reached the suburbs of Tokyo, and they were in contact with aid workers in the northern part of the country where the tsunami hit hardest, according to Shachar Zahavi, chairman of IsraAid.

Several American Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Federation in Chicago and the American Jewish Committee, are funneling money to IsraAid for disaster relief in Japan.

In Tokyo, the Chabad center commissioned a bakery in Sendai, one of the cities battered by the tsunami, to bake bread for its residents and surrounding areas. The center also trucked several tons of food and supplies to Sendai, Chabad officials said. The officials estimated that Chabad’s relief in Japan is costing approximately $25,000 per day.

In the United States, Jewish humanitarian organizations reported that the money was coming in fast for mailboxes set up to receive donations for Japanese disaster relief.

“We are determined to provide emergency relief as quickly as possible and to work with our partners to provide support over the longer term as well,” said Fred Zimmerman, chairman of the Jewish Federations of North America’s Emergency Committee.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the main overseas partner for the Jewish Federations, said it had collected more than $100,000 over the first weekend.

What makes the Japanese situation a unique challenge for Jewish humanitarian organizations is the absence of relationships in a country that traditionally has been an aid donor, not a recipient.

Indeed, when the American Jewish World Service, which led the Jewish aid response to the 2004 Asian tsunami, was asked what its aid effort would be for Japan, the answer was none at all because AJWS has no partners in the country, spokesman Joshua Berkman said.

The JDC found itself in a similar situation.

“We had no programs in Japan prior to the earthquake; we just worked with the local Jewish community,” said Will Recant, an assistant executive vice president at JDC.

But almost immediately after the earthquake and tsunami hit, the JDC consulted with the Jewish community in Tokyo to identify local Japanese nongovernmental organizations working in the affected areas. By Tuesday, JDC had begun funneling money to JEN, a Tokyo-based organization specializing in shelter reconstruction, support of the socially vulnerable and emergency supply distribution that had managed to send personnel to the ravaged Japanese prefectures of Miyagi and Fukushima.

As with other disasters, Recant said JDC will stick around to help with long-term relief, budget allowing. Only money raised specifically for Japan will be spent on disaster relief. There is no money in JDC’s budget for additional nonsectarian, humanitarian work, Recant said.

While Japan continues to reel from the triple disaster of an 8.9-magnitude earthquake, a massive tsunami and a subsequent nuclear crisis, experts in Israel are trying to figure out what lessons from Japan can be applied to the Jewish state, which lies on two fault lines, the Carmel fault and the Dead Sea fault.

Israel experiences tremors every so often, but the last time a ruinous earthquake struck the area was in 1927, when the West Bank city of Nablus suffered serious damage. An 1837 earthquake destroyed much of the northern Israeli cities of Safed and Tiberias and left thousands dead.

Israeli building codes have been updated for better earthquake safety compliance, but regulations and enforcement still are said to lag behind places like California, which experiences larger and more frequent quakes.

“There’s still a lot that has to be done as far as building codes are concerned,” said professor Michael Lazar, a tectonics expert at the University of Haifa. “There’s an attempt to encourage people to renovate older buildings and make them earthquake ready, but it really hasn’t caught on.”

A scenario in which Israel’s nuclear facility at Dimona, in the Negev Desert, would face the kind of meltdown scenario situation that Japan is seeing now is much less likely, Lazar said, because Dimona is far from the tectonic lines that cross Israel.

“But,” he cautioned, “it’s hard to tell how an earthquake would disperse.”

Japan earthquake relief: How you can help

Response to Itamar attack prompts Israelis to ask whether Palestinians are serious about peace

The Palestinian reaction to the grisly killings of five Israeli family members in the Jewish settlement of Itamar, on the West Bank, has prompted many Israelis to ask the same question of the Palestinians that the world often asks of the Israeli government: Are they really serious about peace?

On the one hand, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas went on Israel Radio on Monday to condemn the March 11 killings of the Fogel family members, including a 4-year-old boy and a 3-month-old girl, as “despicable, inhuman and immoral.”

On the other hand, a day after the attack, members of Abbas’ Fatah faction participated in an official dedication ceremony in the West Bank town of Al-Bireh for a town square dedicated to the memory of Dalal Mughrabi, a terrorist involved in killing 37 Israelis in a 1978 bus hijacking on Israel’s coastal road. No PA government officials attended the ceremony, Reuters reported.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu derided the Palestinian Authority’s reaction on Sunday to the Itamar killings as full of “weak and mumbled” statements, accusing the Palestinians of continuing to incite against Israel in their mosques and schools. Meanwhile, in Gaza, Hamas members reportedly handed out candy in celebration of the attack.

The Palestinian leadership must “stop the incitement that is conducted on a daily basis in their schools, mosques and the media under their control,” Netanyahu said. “The time has come to stop this double-talk in which the Palestinian Authority outwardly talks peace and allows—and sometimes leads—incitement at home.”

The brutal murders of the Fogel parents, Udi, 36, and Ruth, 35, and three of their six children—Yoav, 11, along with Elad, 4, and Hadas, 3 months—shocked and angered a nation that had seen terrorist attacks dwindle in recent years. The circulation of photos of some of the stabbed children—apparently distributed to news media by relatives of the victims—offered gruesome pictures of the blood-soaked scene.

A group called the Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigades of Imad Mughniyeh claimed responsibility for the attack. Israeli forces combed the area after the attack, and the Palestinian Authority agreed to participate in a joint investigation to find the killer or killers.

The attack sparked angry demonstrations throughout Israel and the West Bank in support of the settlers, with demonstrators holding signs reading “We are all settlers” and “Peace isn’t signed with blood.” One of the largest rallies took place in Tel Aviv near the army’s national headquarters.

After a funeral in Jerusalem for the Fogels drew an estimated 20,000 people, some settlers went to Palestinian villages to carry out revenge attacks, throwing stones and destroying property.

For its part, the Israeli government on Sunday announced the approval of some 500 new housing units in the West Bank, in the settlements of Gush Etzion, Ma’ale Adumim, Ariel and Kiryat Sefer.

In the attack, which took place late Friday night, two sons, aged 8 and 2, were spared, apparently because they were sleeping in a side room that escaped attention. A daughter, Tamar, 12, returned home late at night from a Bnei Akiva youth program to discover the door to the house was locked. Alarmed, she contacted a neighbor, and they entered the home together and encountered the gory scene.

Volunteers for ZAKA, the Orthodox-run search-and-rescue organization, described the scene shortly after the terror attack as “absolutely horrific.”

“We saw toys lying next to pools of blood, Shabbat clothes covered in blood and everywhere the smell of death mixing with the aroma of the Shabbat meal,” one volunteer said.

The Fogel family had relocated to Itamar following their removal from the Gush Katif settlement in Gaza, which was part of Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. They had lived for a while in the Jewish West Bank city of Ariel before moving to Itamar, which is near the Palestinian city of Nablus.

Danny Dayan, chairman of the Yesha Council settler umbrella group, called the approval of new housing in response to the attack “a small step in the right direction.” He said it was “deeply troubling that it requires the murder of children in the arms of their parents to achieve such an objective.”

At the emotional funerals, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin said the Fogel parents personified devotion to the Zionist vision and were pioneers.

“Your hands held both scythe and book—teachers and settlers whose entire lives were the love of their country and the love they had for their neighbors,” Rivlin said. “Build more, live more, more footholds—that is our response to the murderers so that they know: They can’t defeat us.”

Udi Fogel’s brother, Motti, appeared to reject the politicization of the deaths, saying that “All the slogans about Torah and settlement, the Land of Israel, and the Jewish people try to make us forget the simple and painful truth: You are gone. You are gone and no slogan will bring you back. Above all, this funeral must be a private event.

“Udi, you are not a symbol or a national event. Your life had a purpose of its own and your horrible death must not make your life into a pawn.”