Friday, December 28, 2012

Two stories from Saudi Arabia: Police arrest dozens for "plotting to celebrate Christmas" & Saudi liberal faces death penalty

Saudi religious police stormed a house in the Saudi Arabian province of al-Jouf, detaining more than 41 guests for “plotting to celebrate Christmas,” a statement from the police branch released Wednesday night said.
The raid is the latest in a string of religious crackdowns against residents perceived to threaten the country's strict religious code.
The host of the alleged Christmas gathering is reported to be an Asian diplomat whose guests included 41 Christians, as well as two Saudi Arabian and Egyptian Muslims. The host and the two Muslims were said to be “severely intoxicated.”
The guests were said to have been referred to the "respective authorities." It is unclear whether or not they have been released since.
The kingdom, which only recognizes Islamic faith and practice, has in the past banned public Christmas celebrations, but is ambiguous about festivities staged in private quarters.
Saudi religious police are known to detain residents of the kingdom at whim, citing loose interpretations of Sharia and public statements by hardline religious leaders to justify crackdowns.
Saudi Arabia's head mufti Sheikh Abdel Aziz bin Abdullah had previously condemned “invitations to Christmas or wedding celebrations.”
A member of the Higher Council of Islamic scholars in Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Mohammed al-Othaimin recently prohibited sending holiday wishes to "heretics" on Christmas or other religious Christian holidays.
'Apostate' at risk of execution
On Thursday, the Beirut-based Gulf Center for Human Rights reported that Saudi human rights defender Raef Badawi is at risk of execution on apostasy charges.
Badawi is co-founder and editor of the Liberal Saudi Network. When he first appeared before the district court in Jeddah, he was charged with “insulting Islam through electronic channels” and “going beyond the realm of obedience.” The Judge then referred the case to the higher Public Court on an apostasy charge, which carries the penalty of death.
The General Court in Jeddah proceeded with apostasy charges on December 22.
Badawi was arrested this June after the Liberal Saudi Network called for “a day of liberalism” in Saudi Arabia, which included a conference that was later canceled after a warning from authorities.
Earlier this week, controversial Saudi novelist and political analyst Turki al-Hamad was arrested for criticizing Islam and the royal family in a series of tweets.
Al-Hamad is an outspoken liberal who writes about sexuality issues, underground political movements and religious freedom. The offending tweets suggested that Islam be rectified in the same way that the Prophet Muhammad is said to have revised earlier Abrahamic religions.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

An Open Letter to Toronto District School Board Chair Bolton and Director Spence regarding the Board's Strategy Consultations

I've re-posted the open letter below from the Eye on a Crazy Planet blog:

Dear Trustee Bolton and Director Spence:

I am the Co-Chair of the Parents’/School Council at Central Technical School in Toronto, which as you know is one of the largest high schools in the city with a student population of over 1900.

Regarding the current consultations conducted by the TDSB for the K-12 Strategy for the coming years, there is an issue of very serious concern about which I would like to offer my comments.

The so-called social justice aspects of the curriculum frequently reflect a subjective and highly politicized interpretation of the word “justice”. As such, the way it is approached needs a very serious review, and in my opinion a complete overhaul. 

There are inappropriate attempts in the TDSB to integrate so-called social justice aspects into subjects like Math, where questions such as “Calculate how 5 global social issues could be solved if the US military budget were applied to them” are posed to children in their mid-teens. The obvious implication is that military budgets and the military in democratic countries like the US and Canada somehow detract from the resolution of social problems.

What are not addressed are the catastrophic results that would occur if democracies did not have the means to protect themselves. Anyone who is familiar with European history between the World Wars understands the horrendous consequences of Britain and France’s decision to decommission most of its naval capabilities after WW1.

One can have reasonable debates about such matters, but the clear purpose of questions of the nature in the example provided is to indoctrinate to a particular type of thinking. And frankly, the people at OISE (The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education) who have designed such questions have nowhere near the knowledge in geo-political affairs or history required to understand them thoroughly.

That is reflected further in the way the TDSB teaches about such issues as the internment of Japanese-Canadians during World War 2. It is right and proper this be taught.  But it is taught in middle school to students who are not instructed about the causes and history of the Second World War. Nor are they yet provided with reasonable context, such as the treatment of minorities by Imperial Japan prior to and during the war. The result is an implication that Canada is and was a particularly and unusually racist country for its time when that is historically untrue.

In fact, the TDSB’s providing politicized indoctrination under the guise of social justice is becoming pervasive through the system. I was at the TDSB Futures conference earlier this year where Director Spence delivered an address. One of the keynote speakers was Tim Wise, who blamed the inequities in the education system on “white privilege.” (More on Tim Wise here.)

That fatuous reasoning left absent the fact that inequities in education in Canada transcend racial divisions and far more often than not are independent of them. More alarming, Mr. Wise, with the apparent approbation of the TDSB, said that education needs to focus less on the individual and more on the collective, including collective racial identities.
This flouts everything opponents of racism have been fighting for many years. As a society, we have been working towards achieving a color-blind world that deals with individuals as individuals and not as part of collectives differentiated by ‘race’ or ‘color.’

It is deeply disturbing that, while with the best of motives, the TDSB, has been working to counter such progress through its use of ill-advised trends put forward by politicized activists in the education system and in politicized programs in institutions like OISE.

These are but a very few of many examples currently occurring within the TDSB.

These questions are designed through programs at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, which has programs that specifically teach teachers to be activists against neo-liberalism (i.e. free-market, liberal democracies) in schools. These same people frequently advocate for solidarity with Communist Cuba.

It should not be necessary to point out how disturbing it is that our children’s’ curriculum are in many instances designed by people who advocate against a system that has produced the freest, most prosperous societies in the world’s history in favor of a repressive, totalitarian society that imprisons dissenters. Yet because of its recurrence in the TDSB, such admonitions are regrettably necessary and will be for the foreseeable future.

Honest people can disagree about ideas and we should always strive for improvement. People have a right to hold different opinions on how to approach the matters discussed above. Unfortunately, the term “critical thinking” which is so often used by TDSB personnel in describing the approach they want to instil actually means trying to create a “group think.” Specifically, “critical thinking” is a doctrine that criticizes of our democratic foundations while promoting ideologies that are antithetical to them.

Social justice for someone who admires Che Guevara has a very different meaning for those of us who believe in free speech and parliamentary democracy.  People have the right to share their views with their children on their own time, but not to attempt to indoctrinate the children in Toronto’s public school system with them. 

Some of the fault for the concerns I have delineated rests squarely with the Ontario Ministry of Education, which is responsible for the Province’s curriculum. But much of it also rests with the TDSB.

With the challenges facing our children, who will grow up in a world undergoing a technological revolution, the limited time they spend in schools should focus on giving them the tools they need for success in such a world. This is the focus on which I hope the TDSB will concentrate going forward.

Richard Klagsbrun

Read another excellent piece on the meaning of "social justice" in our kids' schools here.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christianity 'close to extinction' in Middle East

Christianity 'close to extinction' in Middle East

The Telegraph (Britain)

Christianity faces being wiped out of the "biblical heartlands" in the Middle East because of mounting persecution of worshippers, according to a new report.
The study warns that Christians suffer greater hostility across the world than any other religious group.
And it claims politicians have been “blind” to the extent of violence faced by Christians in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
The most common threat to Christians abroad is militant Islam, it says, claiming that oppression in Muslim countries is often ignored because of a fear that criticism will be seen as “racism”.
It warns that converts from Islam face being killed in Saudi Arabia, Mauritania and Iran and risk severe legal penalties in other countries across the Middle East.
The report, by the think tank Civitas, says: “It is generally accepted that many faith-based groups face discrimination or persecution to some degree.
"A far less widely grasped fact is that Christians are targeted more than any other body of believers.”
It cites estimates that 200 million Christians, or 10 per cent of Christians worldwide, are “socially disadvantaged, harassed or actively oppressed for their beliefs.”
“Exposing and combating the problem ought in my view to be political priorities across large areas of the world. That this is not the case tells us much about a questionable hierarchy of victimhood,” says the author, Rupert Shortt, a journalist and visiting fellow of Blackfriars Hall, Oxford.
He adds: “The blind spot displayed by governments and other influential players is causing them to squander a broader opportunity. Religious freedom is the canary in the mine for human rights generally.”
The report, entitled Christianophobia, highlights a fear among oppressive regimes that Christianity is a “Western creed” which can be used to undermine them.
State hostility towards Christianity is particularly rife in China, where more Christians are imprisoned than in any other country in the world, according to the report.
It quotes Ma Hucheng, an advisor to the Chinese government, who claimed in an article last year that the US has backed the growth of the Protestant Church in China as a vehicle for political dissidence.
“Western powers, with America at their head, deliberately export Christianity to China and carry out all kinds of illegal evangelistic activities,” he wrote in the China Social Sciences Press.
“Their basic aim is to use Christianity to change the character of the China and overturn it,” he added.
The “lion’s share” of persecution faced by Christians arises in countries where Islam is the dominant faith, the report says, quoting estimates that between a half and two-thirds of Christians in the Middle East have left the region or been killed in the past century.
“There is now a serious risk that Christianity will disappear from its biblical heartlands,” it claims.
The report shows that “Muslim-majority” states make up 12 of the 20 countries judged to be “unfree” on the grounds of religious tolerance by Freedom House, the human rights think tank.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

UN Human Rights Council elects two more human rights abusers to vice-president: the Maldives and Ecuador

The Maldives are a great place to honeymoon...

... but you wouldn't want to live there.

Besides rewarding Mauritania for being the worst country on earth for slavery (more here), the UN Human Rights Council also elected the Maldives and Ecuador as vice-presidents of the council,  both of which go to prove that abusing human rights is the best route to high office in the UN Human Rights Council.

It's an especially bad year to reward the Maldives with a vice-presidency. In February, the Maldives first democratically elected president in 2,000 years was overthrown and the new regime reversed the president's attempts to reform the Maldives brutal history of repression. Even before this year's coup, the U.S. Department of State reported that: 
The most significant human rights problems include restrictions on religious rights, abuse and unequal treatment of women, and corruption of government officials. The constitution requires all citizens to be Muslim, and the government’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs actively polices and enforces compliance with Islamic practices. There were reports of religion-related self-censorship in the press and among civil society contacts.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) condemned the performance of the judiciary and executive branch for their inadequate treatment of criminal cases, especially rape. Corruption existed within the judiciary, members of parliament, and among officials of the executive and state institutions.
Other human rights problems reported included flogging, arbitrary arrests, harassment of journalists, and discrimination against expatriate laborers. Migrant laborers were subjected to labor abuses and were the primary victims of human trafficking. Many laborers migrated illegally into the country, making them particularly vulnerable to forced labor and debt bondage.

As for Ecuador, the State Department reports that:
The following human rights problems continued: isolated unlawful killings and use of excessive force by security forces, sometimes with impunity; poor prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; corruption and other abuses by security forces; a high number of pretrial detainees; and corruption and denial of due process within the judicial system. 
President Correa and his administration continued verbal and legal attacks against the independent media. Societal problems continued, including physical aggression against journalists; violence against women; discrimination against women, indigenous persons, Afro-Ecuadorians, and lesbians and gay men; trafficking in persons and sexual exploitation of minors; and child labor.
The next time you hear about the UN Human Rights Council, remember its purpose is not to protect human rights, but to protect human rights abusers.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Th UN Human Rights Council rewards Mauritania, where slavery still thrives

Read CNN's special report on Mauritania: Slavery's Last Stronghold here.

It’s hard to believe but slavery still exists in today’s world. One of the world’s worst offenders is Mauritania, where a fifth of the people – as many as 800,000 out of a population of 3.5 million – are slaves.

The United Nations has reacted to this awful situation, but not by condemning it. Instead, the UN has elected Mauritania to the position of Vice-President and Rapporteur for the UN Human Rights Council. Thus Mauritania now has boasting rights as a UN recognized champion of Human Rights. 

Mauritania will also be able to report on human rights conditions in other countries. Canada, for example, might receive condemnation from Mauritania, just as earlier this year, the UN Human Rights Council sent a special rapporteur to check up on whether Canadians were starving and condemned our government for not making sure we’re properly fed. You couldn't make this stuff up. 

Next time you hear anything about the UN Human Rights Council, remember Mauritania, and understand that the purpose of the UN Human Rights Council is not to protect human rights, but rather to protect human rights abusers.

Here’s the full release from UN Watch…

Human Rights Day Marred by Election of Slave-holding
Mauritania as VP of UN Human Rights Council 

Syria remains on UNESCO human rights committee

GENEVA, Dec. 10 – UN Watch condemned today's election of Mauritania, a country that allows 800,000 of its citizens to live as slaves, as Vice-President of the UN Human Rights Council.

In addition, the Geneva-based group also announced the failure of its yearlong campaign, with 55 MPs and NGOs, to get UNESCO to remove Syria from its human rights committee.

1. Mauritania Elected Today as VP of UN Human Rights Council

The UN Human Rights Council met today in Geneva and elected Mauritania as its Vice-President and Rapporteur for the next year, the second highest position at the world's top human rights body.

"It is obscene for the U.N. to use the occasion of Human Rights Day, when we commemorate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to elect the world's worst enabler of slavery to this prestigious post," said Hillel Neuer, UN Watch executive director.

"The U.N. is making an arsonist head of the fire department. It defies both morality and common sense."

According to a recent report by the Guardian, "up to 800,000 people in a nation of 3.5 million remain chattels," with power and wealth overwhelmingly concentrated among lighter-skinned Moors, "leaving slave-descended darker-skinned Moors and black Africans on the edges of society."

In today's session, Poland was elected president, while Ecuador, Maldives, and Switzerland were also elected as vice-presidents.

Neuer also objected to Ecuador's election, citing its "notorious record of censoring independent journalists and shutting down newspapers."

UN Watch expressed regret that while the dictatorship of Belarus took the floor in today's meeting to criticize the election of Poland, none of the democracies said a word about the election of Mauritania or Ecuador.

2. One Year Later, Despite Appeals, Syria Still on UNESCO Human Rights Committee

Despite having murdered tens of thousands of its own people, the Bashar al-Assad regime remains a full member of UNESCO's human rights committee, "and no one at UNESCO seems to care the slighest bit," said UN Watch executive director Hillel Neuer.

This week marks one year since UN Watch launched its campaign of 55 parliamentarians, human rights and religious groups calling for Syria's expulsion, following UNESCO's inexplicable election of the regime to a committee that rules on invividual human rights complaints worldwide.

"It's time for UNESCO to stop legitimizing a government that mercilessly murders its own people," said Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch.

"UNESCO is allowing the Assad regime to strut in Paris as a U.N. human rights arbiter -- it's indefensible and an insult to Syria's victims."

After UNESCO elected Syria to its human rights committee in November 2011, UN Watch launched a campaign to reverse the decision, prompting the US and Britain to initiate a March 2012 debate at UNESCO.

However, while a resolution was adopted censuring Syria's violations -- a welcome first for UNESCO -- the promised call to oust the regime from UNESCO's human rights panel was excised.

U.S. ambassador David Killion had urged UNESCO to revisit the decision. The watered-down text included language suggesting UNESCO chief Irina Bokova could raise the issue again, but she has failed to do so.(See links at bottom.)

Earlier this year, UN Watch had received notice from the British Foreign Office that it would seek to cancel Syria’s “abhorrent” membership. 

In an email to UN Watch, the UK said it “deplores the continuing membership of Syria on this committee and does not believe that Syria’s presence is conducive to the work of the body or UNESCO’s reputation. We have therefore joined with other countries in putting forward an item for the first meeting of the Executive Board at which we will seek to explicitly address Syria’s membership of the body.”

The UK also expressed hope that other members of the executive board will join London in ending what it called “this abhorrent [and] anomalous situation.”

Paris insiders say that UNESCO diplomats from non-democratic regimes are afraid to create a precedent of ousting repressive governments.

Monday, December 3, 2012

"UN: Palestine is now a non-member state; Reality: Palestine will continue to be a non-existent state" by Barry Rubin

In his address to the UN, the "moderate" Palestinian president
Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel of racism, apartheid, colonialism,
murder and ethnic cleansing, and he praised the terrorists killed
in Hamas's  recent war against Israel as blessed martyrs.
Good thing, they didn't let a radical Palestinian speak!

I think Barry Rubin has the best assessment of the recent vote at the UN General Assembly in favour of declaring Palestine a state…

Twenty-four years ago, almost to the day, in 1988, I stood in a large hall in Algeria and saw Yasir Arafat declare the independence of a Palestinian state. And that was forty-one years, almost to the day, after the UN offered a Palestinian state in 1947. Twelve years ago Israel and the United States officially offered a Palestinian state as part of a compromise at deal in the Camp David summit of 2000.
Arguably, despite all their errors, the Palestinian movement has made progress since those events, though it is not very impressive progress. Yet in real terms there is no real Palestinian state; the movement is more deeply divided than at any time in its history; and the people aren't doing very well. 

Now the UN will probably give Palestine the status of a non-member state. The only thing that will change is to convince people even more that they are following a clever and successful strategy. They aren't.

Perhaps in 24 or 41 years there will actually be a Palestinian state.

There are two ways to respond to the General Assembly’s likely vote to so designate a state of Palestine. One of them is outrage at the absurdity of how the international system behaves. The other would be to dismiss the gesture as meaningless, even more than that, as something that will even further delay the day that a real, functioning state comes into existence.

Certainly, there are threats and dangers, for example the use by Palestine of the International Court. Or one could look at this as another step on the road to a final, I mean comprehensive, solution to the issue. Yet over all, I’ll go for disgusted and cynical as the most accurate responses.

Let’s start with disgusted. In 1993, the PLO made an agreement whose very basis was that a Palestinian state would only come into existence as a result of a deal made with Israel. Instead, the Palestinian side refused to make such a compromise and broke its commitments repeatedly. The ultimate result was Yasir Arafat’s refusal to accept a Palestinian state with its capital in the eastern part of Jerusalem both at the 2000 Camp David meeting and a few months later when President Bill Clinton made a better, and final, offer.

I have just this minute come from an interview with a very nice journalist who asked me, “But doesn’t Israel want everything and offer nothing in return.” What was most impressive is the fact that he had no personal hostility or any political agenda.  (You’d understand if I identified the person and his newspaper but I’m not going to do that.) This conclusion was simply taken as fact. He was astonished to hear that another perspective even existed.

My first response was to point down the street two corners to the place where a bus was blown up in 1995 and right next to it where a suicide bomber had killed about a dozen pedestrians around the same time. This was the result of risks and concessions that Israel had voluntarily undertaken in trying to achieve peace. And, I added, it was possible to supply a long list of other examples.

So despite Israel taking risks and making concessions, the Palestinian Authority rejected peace. Today the same group is going to be recognized by the UN as a regime governing a state. Moreover, this is a body that is relentlessly begging Hamas, a group that openly calls for genocide against both Israel and Jews, to join it.

Hamas, of course, ran for office without accepting the Oslo agreement (a violation of it) and then seized power in a coup. Since then it has rained rockets and missiles on Israel. In other words, although it is unlikely to happen, in a few months Hamas might become part of the official government of this non-member state of the UN.

Yet complaining about the unfairness of international behavior or the treatment of Israel, like complaining about one’s personal fate, doesn’t get you anywhere. It is cathartic to do so but then one must move on to more productive responses.

The second issue is whether it will really matter. Yes it entails symbolism, yes it will convince the Palestinians they are getting something when the course they have followed ensures they get pretty close to nothing. But, to use a Biblical phrase, it availeth them not. On the contrary, to coin a phrase, this move “counter-matters,” that is it is a substitute for productive action that actually detracts from the real goal.

To the extent that “President” Mahmoud Abbas convinced West Bank Palestinians that they have achieved some great victory it takes off the pressure for violent action or support for Hamas there. Of course, there is no popular pressure for a negotiated solution. Indeed, I’m not aware of a single Palestinian Authority official who has even claimed for cosmetic purposes that the reason for this move at the UN move is to press Israel to compromise or a deal. Its purpose is to make Abbas’s regime look good and be a step forward toward total victory, a Palestinian state unbound by commitments that could be used as a base for wiping out Israel.

But that doesn’t mean it will work. The next morning, the residents of the Palestinian Authority will still be exactly where they are now. Hangovers wear off even after non-alcoholic celebrations.

You should also understand that in Israel there are no illusions about this whole charade. Few think that a real deal is possible with either of the current Palestinian leaderships—those who do have already all written op-ed pieces in the New York Times—and the UN action will make the public even more opposed to concessions.
Incidentally, people on both sides in other countries make a serious mistake in assessing Israel. Its enemies think it evil; many of its friends think it stupid. Both are wrong. There are real constraints in the international system, including the current government of the United States.

The solution is not to rail against this fate verbally but to assess the best course in the context of these conditions. There are many who don’t comprehend the implications of this situation. They either think Israel should endlessly make concessions or that it should win total victory by ignoring the surrounding reality. It’s amusing to see those of various political hues who are thousands of miles away pulling theories from their heads that have nothing to do with the actual events.

At any rate, the UN General Assembly’s action neither contributes to peace nor is a just decision. Nevertheless, once again we have a case of symbolism over substance.  This is the same General Assembly that received Yasir Arafat as a man of peace in 1974 at the very moment he was masterminding terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians and the following year voted for a resolution that Zionism was racism. Can one really say things have gotten worse?

During the period since then, Israel has survived and prospered. Its enemies in the Middle East have undergone constant instability and economic stagnation (except for those small in population and large in oilfields). The supposed springtime of democracy has quickly turned into just another authoritarian era of repression and disastrous policies that ultimately weaken those countries and make their people poor and miserable. What else is new?

Ignoring that history and the contemporary reality, some Western countries are voting for this resolution or abstaining for a variety of reasons: cheap public relations’ gain among Arabs and Muslims; a belief that this will shore up the Palestinian “moderates” against the radicals, or that it will encourage the non-existent peace process.
What it will do, however, is to sink the Palestinian leadership even deeper into an obsession with intransigence in practice and paper victories that mean nothing in the real world. And, yes, that’s what the result of this UN vote will be. And of course no matter what is said publicly about unity between the Fatah-ruled Palestinian Authority and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip there will be no change on that front either.

In 1939, the British offered the Arab states and Palestinian leadership a deal in which they would be handed all of the Palestine mandate as an Arab state if they accepted a few simple conditions, including a ten year transition period. Despite the pleas of some Arab rulers, the Palestinians said no, believing a German victory would give them everything soon. Almost precisely 65 years ago the UN endorsed the creation of a Palestinian Arab state. The Palestinians said no believing that the military efforts of themselves and their allies would give them everything soon.

The Palestinians’ leaders have long believed that an intransigent strategy coupled with some outside force—Nazi Germany, the USSR, weaning the West away from Israel—will miraculously grant them total victory. They aren’t going to change course now but that route leads not forward but in circles.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center  and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

What I Saw During Operation Pillar of Defense

Four years ago, watching the coverage of Operation Cast Lead from the comfort of my dorm in Arizona, I was a conflicted college student. As supportive as I was of Israel, I still found it painful any time I heard about civilian casualties in Gaza. 

But what I saw portrayed in the media didn't add up: on the one hand I knew that the IDF was engaged in careful efforts to prevent civilian casualties, despite Hamas's strategy of fighting from amongst its own civilian population. Yet the media made it seem like the IDF was actively targeting civilians.
Back then, I understood Israel's efforts at protecting civilians as a something akin to a talking point -- I had no personal involvement in the conflict. Yet I had no idea how true it is until I myself participated in last week's Operation "Pillar of Defense" as an officer in the IDF.
When I moved to Israel and enlisted, I joined a unit called the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), which is devoted to civilian and humanitarian issues. 
As an International Liaison Officer in the Gaza office, my job primarily entails coordinating transfers of goods, aid, and delegations into Gaza. I work closely with representatives of the international community, and although our perspectives may differ, we maintain relationships of mutual respect born of a common goal; I am here to help them succeed in their work improving the quality of life in Gaza.
While the day-to-day work is challenging in Gaza, I learned over the past ten days that the true test comes with crisis. At exactly the point where most militaries would use the heat of war to throw out the rulebook, we worked harder than ever to provide assistance wherever and whenever possible. 
The eight days of Operation "Pillar of Defense" have been some of the hardest I have ever known physically and emotionally. The college student from Arizona would never have thought it possible to work 20 hours a day, fueled only by adrenaline and longing for just an hour of sleep on a shelter floor – wearing the same filthy uniform because changing, much less showering, wouldn't allow me to get to a shelter in time when the next rocket barrage hit. And no, wearing the green uniform does not mean that you aren't afraid when the sirens sound.
Had you told me four years ago that there were IDF officers who stayed up all night under a hail of rockets, brainstorming ways to import medical supplies and food to the people of Gaza, I am not sure I would have believed you. But I can tell you it is true because I did it every night. 
What amazed me the most was the singular sense of purpose that drove everyone from the base commander to the lowest ranking soldier. We were all focused completely on our mission: to help our forces accomplish their goals without causing unnecessary harm to civilian lives or infrastructure. 
It is harder to explain the emotional roller-coaster – how proud and relieved I felt every time a truck I coordinated entered Gaza, and how enraging it was when we had to shut down the crossing into Gaza after Hamas repeatedly targeted it. Or how invigorating it was help evacuate two injured Palestinians from the border area, only to be informed minutes later that a terrorist had detonated a bomb on a bus near my apartment in Tel Aviv.
So after all that I see and do, nothing frustrates me more than the numbers game that is played in the media. The world talks about "disproportionate" numbers of casualties as the measure of what is right and wrong – as if not enough Israelis were killed by Hamas for the IDF to have the right to protect its own civilians from endless rocket attacks.
In my position, I see the surgical airstrikes, and spend many hours with the UN, ICRC, and NGO officers reviewing maps to help identify, and avoid, striking civilian sites. One of our pilots who saw a rocket aimed at Israel aborted his mission when he saw children nearby – putting his own civilians at risk to save Gazans. 
At the end of the day, what these "disproportionate numbers" show is how we in Israel protect our children with elaborate shelters and missile defense systems, whereas the terror groups in Gaza hide behind their children, using them as human shields in order to win a cynical media war.
What's really behind the headlines and that picture on the front page? Every day, I coordinate goods with a young Gazan woman who works for an international aid organization. Last month we forged a bond when we had to run for cover together when Hamas targeted Kerem Shalom Border Crossing – attacking the very aid provided to its own people.
During the eight days of Operation "Pillar of Defense," not one day passed without me phoning my Palestinian colleague, just to check in. "Are you okay?" I would ask.
"I heard they fired at your base. Please stay safe," she would reply.
And every night I made her promise to call me if she needed anything. These are the things that the media fails to show the world, just as they underplay how Hamas deliberately endangers civilians on both sides of the border – by firing indiscriminately at Israel from Gaza neighborhoods.
Maybe stories such as these make for less exciting headlines, but if they received more attention there would perhaps be more moral clarity, and thus more peace in the Middle East.

Friday, November 30, 2012

A gold Porsche and luxury hotels in the world's largest "open air prison"

Anti-Israel activists like to accuse Israel of making Gaza into an “open-air prison.” They don't mention – or maybe don't even know – that Gaza also has a border with Egypt. So to the extent that Gazans are hemmed in, it's thanks to the Egyptians as much as to the Israelis. 

But while Egypt does control what travels into Gaza above ground, below ground there's an extensive network of smuggling tunnels through which smugglers move anything you can imagine. These smuggling tunnels have made many Gazans rich, not least the leaders of Hamas, who heavily tax the tunnel trade. 

The Economist reports:

Hamas leaders seem increasingly content to enjoy the fruits of splendid isolation. The parliamentary car park, full of rickety bangers when Hamas first took office, now gleams with flash new models hauled through the tunnels under the Egyptian border. Two Hummer H3s and a golden Porsche were recently spotted cruising the streets.

Ministers and members of parliament seem unbothered by the lack of accountability as well as reports of money-laundering. “We're hunted and targeted,” explains a self-pitying MP on Hamas's parliamentary ethics committee, who recently spent $28,000 on a new car with the help of a $12,000 loan from the movement.

Besides smuggling Hummers and gold Porsches through the tunnels, the enterprising smugglers of Gaza have also brought in enough materials to support a building boom in the “open-air prison” of Gaza – including the construction of several luxury hotels. Journalists reporting on the dire living conditions in Gaza favour the Gaza Grand Palace Hotel.

The Grand Palace Hotel in Gaza
They can also stay in the al Deira, “an architectural and artistic gem located on the sands of the Gaza coast.  Built in a traditional style featuring graceful arches, vaulted and domed ceilings, hand crafted furniture and open interior spaces, the Al Deira brings to mind a contemporary palace overlooking  blue Mediterranean waters." Take a photo tour here.

The restaurant patio at Al Deira
 But the most luxurious hotel in Gaza is probably the al-Mashtal Hotel, where one night in the Royal Suite will put you back $880 – in U.S. dollars, of course. The jihadists may hate Americans, but they love their dollars.

Terrorist chilling by the pool at al-Mashtal
During a war with Israel, these hotels are among the safest places in Gaza – after all Israel won't bomb a hotel that’s full of journalist and officials from well-financed NGOs. Still, the luxury hotel market isn’t doing well in Gaza. The 222-room al-Mashtal was recently reported to have only ten rooms occupied. Apparently, starting wars with Israel hasn’t been good for attracting upscale tourists. 

On the other hand, when Israel freed hundreds of terrorists in exchange for kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, Hamas put 105 of them up at the al-Mashtal as a reward for their crimes against humanity.