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Project Interchange – Counter-Terrorism Trip – Day 7

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Our final day in Israel was meant to be a reflective one with visits to Yad Vashem and the Old City, as well as a farewell dinner at which the participants offered impressions.

I only want to blog about two things from this day.

First, we ended our tour of the Old City, and indeed our tour of this Country, in a way for which the group was not prepped, which added to the wonder of the moment.  We ended it at the Kotel as Shabbat was approaching.  As we went through the metal detectors, you could hear some faint singing.  As we entered the plaza, the group was amazed by the ruach, the excitement that seemed to come from every corner.  Young and old, modern and old-world Jews, men and women.  They were singing on the rooftops and in every corner of the plaza.  Some were in circles, some were dancing, and some were davening.  The final moments of the trip were elevated, and you could see it in everybody’s expression.

I walked with the men around the men’s side as they peppered me with questions – what are they saying?, do you do this?, does anybody ever collect those pieces of paper?, are these the modern orthodox or the ultra-orthodox, for how long do they stay here?, what’s in that tunnel?, do you feel special here?.

Secondly, we had our concluding session.  I asked the group a series of questions and gave them 5 minutes to think.  Some had already formulated their thoughts when they filled out the Project Interchange evaluation forms earlier in the day.  Here are some of those concluding impressions (some are paraphrased):

  • I start off by saying wow – it was an incredible adventure.
  • My expectation prior to coming here was of desert, camels, war-torn cities and country and more desert.  I was totally wrong.  Israel is a vibrant country.  The people are very industrious.
  • The trip was very eye-opening for me, because I had a different world view of this part of the world, in general, and specifically, Israel.  Only being exposed to American mainstream media, I viewed Israel as being a hardcore, military country – a kind of a boots on the ground, we’re in this thing for our survival, and we’re going to do what it takes at all costs to ensure that.  And, I am sure there are elements of that.  But, at the same time, what I did not realize is the level of political sensitivity that is pervasive in this country and the emphasis on human rights, especially for a country that has not ratified a constitution.  I think it is just incredible.  When we visited the Erez Border Crossing at the Gaza Strip, the things that they put in place and how they search and handle people – even though some may be terrorists – was built around the dignity of the people coming through.  As they told us, that facility is built for Palestinians coming into Israel, not Israelis.  It was a huge investment by this country for the Palestinians from Gaza.
  • We went to Sderot and listened to the bomb technician, and he talked about what he goes through every time a missile is fired.  I thought that our jobs are tough, but listening to that, I started to think that they are not so tough.  We do not have our families subjected to that every single day.  And, to want to stay there and protect their community in the face of that is incredible.  That is one of the things I am going to bring back and talk about with my staff – about commitment.
  • I think I learned more about Israel and the people that live here in a week than I could have in all of the classes that I took my whole life in school.
  • A tremendous education forced into a week – and a very balanced one.  It has lit a fire under me to pay attention to current events and a desire to start looking at the big picture.
  • I can say now I got it.  It was never clear to me.
  • When you are first approached, you do not know what it will be, but it was a first class operation down to the immersion in the culture.
  • The Golan Heights just isn’t a place on the map.  You have people working there and living there.  We even went to a winery there.
  • The level of access that we had was extraordinary.  I appreciate them extending the arm of friendship and diplomacy.
  • This is a country of survivors.

(Parenthetically, as we were driving to the airport, one of the participants gave me a very special gift – an Israeli survival bracelet that he had made himself.  The bracelet can be unwound and will provide 15 feet of tough string, hence the survival aspect.  He wove it with blue and white string, hence the Israeli aspect.  Pretty awesome.)

  • On a personal note, there were things from the Bible that I thought I would never see in my lifetime. I am so grateful for that opportunity.
  • I work closely with the Jewish community in the United States, and this will strengthen that.
  • I had envisioned far more segregation between Israeli Jews and Arabs.
  • This is life, and there are processes in life that cannot simply be read in a book.
  • It changed my perception that Israel is a very religious country.  I discovered that most of Israel is secular.
  • The threat to Israel and the world from intolerant and totalitarian ideology is very real.
  • I will now be able to articulate the issue of Israel as one that not only affects the Jewish community but all of humanity.
  • I did not realize that Israel is the size of New Jersey.  I expected it to be much bigger.
  • This was presented in an unbiased, unvarnished way, and I really appreciate it.  There was no sense of any other motivation but to share the truth.
  • This trip will help me as we try to prepare in my home community for threats that are out there.
  • Seeing the Holocaust museum always leaves me with the question of why – how could that happen?
  • Israelis, I am now convinced, are the toughest bunch of pacifists of I have ever met.
  • I can’t wait to come back here and bring my family.

The Hebrew word for the day was L’hitraot – be seeing you!


Written by Scott Richman, AJC Westchester Director

November 10, 2011 at 12:36 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Project Interchange – Counter-Terrorism Trip – Day 6

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Thursday was the longest and most jam-packed day of the trip.  Stick with this blog entry.  It is a little longer than the others.

It began with a visit to AJC’s Israel office in the center of Jerusalem, which is a lovely, restored 19th Century building right in the center of town – not far from Ben Yehuda Street.  There, we met the wonderful people who make the Project Interchange magic happen.  But, our purpose in going to the office was for our meeting with the renowned General Yosef Kuperwasser,   As we approached, it was clear from the guide’s tone that he is in awe of this man and his ability to analyze the situation. 

Here are some points that Kuperwasser made to our group:

  1. Islamic radicalization is coming to the fore all over the world, and the western world is engaged in rationalization.  Maybe Fatah is not as bad as Hamas, and maybe Hamas is not as bad as Islamic Jihad, and maybe Islamic Jihad is not as bad as Al Quaeda, but they all want to take us back to 1683 and the gates of Vienna when the Hapsburgs defeated the Ottoman Empire and solidified Christian control of Europe.  They all seek to raise the prominence of Islam; some just may have a more aggressive timetable than others.
  2. With the Americans leaving Iraq, this will now become yet another major issue in the region, especially for its neighbors Turkey and Iran.   What might happen is a fragmentation of the disparate communities of Iraq.  This may lead to a domino effect among other non-homogeneous nations.
  3. Iran’s efforts to pursue a nuclear weapon are an effort to change the world order, something they feel must be changed.  Israel is a small concern for them.  America is the main issue.  They believe that America is a country devoid of the right values.  They always believed that they would get there in the long run, but they want to accelerate the process.  They fought very hard to get where they are now, and they are clearly in the last stage of developing a nuclear weapon.  In 2004, the world said no to Iran developing a nuclear weapon.  They went ahead anyway.  They learned the valuable lesson that “the dog bites but does not bark.”  Our sanctions to this day are not severe enough to have an impact.  They can easily be bypassed.  Hopefully, a report about to be released will show the world how far they have gone and result in real sanctions.  The Iranians need to understand that there must be a choice between the regime or the nuclear weapon project.  He added that human rights in Iran are a huge issue.  But, nobody does anything.
  4. The world has developed terrorist strongholds in Lebanon, Gaza, Sinai, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan and Iraq.  These hot beds will not stay there.  They have their sites set high.  We will see a process of learning lessons.  First, we will see what they can do from a distance, and then we will see the use of unconventional weapons.
  5. The Palestinians do not really want a state.  They want the trappings of a state for the time being without giving up hope that all of “Palestine” will be theirs.  “The entire Palestinian discourse is about returning to Haifa.”  He believes that this is the reason that the Palestinians will not accept Israel as the State of the Jewish people.  The narrative that they presented at the UN speaks to this.
  6. He does not see Gaza and West Bank ever unifying.  Neither side will ever let the other gain any foothold.  By the way, Hamas these days is preoccupied with the notion of Al Quaeda taking hold in Gaza, as Sinai has become a great new place from which they (Al Quaeda) can operate.

From here, the group walked through the center of Town to the Jerusalem Police Station in the Russian Colony, where we met with the Deputy Chief of Police.  He surprised the group by talking about what an amazingly quiet city Jerusalem is in terms of crime, thanks to increased intelligence and police work, coupled with the security fence – all put in place as a result of the second Intifadah.

One fact that our group found interesting was that they allow West Bank Palestinians to come to the Dome of the Rock to pray without hesitation.  They receive a credit card to swipe, so it is known if they do not return.  It seems that this system is not abused, so it is continued.

From here, we went with the police to the Old City command center.  There are hundreds of cameras on buildings all over the Old City, monitoring activity 24/7.  This allows them to not only hopefully stop a crime in progress, but also to see the perpetrators and apprehend them, as well as have clear documentation when the details are denied.  This is relatively new and has been very effective.  The Muslims have grown to appreciate this, as well, as it has allowed the Jerusalem Police to stop Muslim against Muslim crime.

From the Old City, we drove to the Erez Border Crossing, the border crossing which is at the Northern end of the Gaza Strip.  About 30 minutes before we arrived, we learned thattwo Palestinians had just been killed.  They had approached the Israeli soldiers at the border and began shooting.  We immediately spoke with the IDF spokesperson who said that there was no immediate retaliation, so we should still come.

As we pulled up, we saw a small line of Palestinians waiting to enter Gaza and learned that some 400 Palestinians a day pass between Gaza and Israel – 80% of them for humanitarian purposes.  The other 20% are journalists, diplomats, human rights workers and Palestinian businessmen engaging in trade.  In addition, at the southern end of the strip, there is another border crossing where some 350 trucks a day cross, filled almost exclusively with goods.  There have been several incidents of suicide bombers there over the years, and they have developed extraordinary methods to manage this.

What was also stunning is that they employ 10 Gazans in the facility in an effort to make the Palestinians feel more comfortable and to promote some goodwill.  They are constantly checked by Israeli intelligence.  The Director of the crossing feels comfortable with them and said that they like receiving a good salary.  They know that if they give any cause for suspicion, they will lose that good salary.

Our group was frankly very surprised at this state of the art facility, at which such care is taken to deal with the Palestinians respectfully while still being extremely careful about security.  So much money and effort so that the Palestinians can come to Israel for medical treatment and purchase their goods, while the rest of the world sends flotillas to “break the blockade.”  No Jews go into Gaza.  Besides the few diplomats, human rights workers and journalists, this is all for the Palestinians.

Besides being a facility that can manage suicide bombers, it is also one that can withstand rocket fire.  As we entered, it was explained to us to where we should run if the alarm goes off that rockets are heading our way.  Thankfully, we did not have to test the system.  At one point, the operations person told us a story about a suicide bomber who succeeded in blowing himself up but not hurting others.  He explained that they cleaned up and went right back to work.  They are open day and night, and such episodes do not close the facility.  The group viewed it as a metaphor for Israel – if anything happens, they clean up and move on.  They do not let it stop them.

A few minutes later, we arrived in Sderot, the town that suffered the most Qassam rockets between 2001 and Operation Cast Lead in January 2009 – more than 8,000 and more than a dozen fatalities.  I had expected a small town, devastated by years of rocket fire.  Instead, what I found was a pretty city of 45,000 people filled with flowers, public art work, nice-looking homes and a determined population.

We were immediately led to the edge of town to see the view of Gaza before the sun sets.  From a small hilltop, we looked out over both Sderot and Gaza.  We could also see Ashekelon, the Erez Border crossing and the Yad Mordechai Kibbutz, which abuts the Erez Border Crossing.  I am not sure the group understood the significance of the guide’s explanation of Mordechai Anielewicz, the leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.  Just like its namesake, this kibbutz that defies all the odds by surviving at the border.

Rockets are still coming from Gaza to Sderot.  They did not end with Cast Lead.  They just slowed down considerably.  From Gaza to Sderot, the rocket takes 15 seconds to make it here.  That is the amount of time that the residents have from hearing the siren to getting into the shelter.  We could see that most private homes have a small extra building in their front yard that is their shelter.  Also, next to all the bus stops are small reinforced structures that are used as shelters.  All schools now have reinforced roofs.

We then went to the Police Station, where we saw their exhibit of exploded rocket casings and spoke with the head of the bomb squad.  Both he and the police chief spoke eloquently about how they pray that when they hear the explosion that it will just be in the fields.  The Police Chief said that he doesn’t know what to do first – check on his family or race to the scene of the explosion.  Nevertheless, he said that this is where he lives and where he will stay.

Finally, we visited the reinforced playspace that JNF built for Sderot a few years ago.  It contains activities for kids of all ages.  We saw a devastating two-minute film there on what life was like in the worst days of the rocket attacks.  Then, we saw the birthday room – the room that once again allowed the children of this town to have birthday parties.  That says it all.

In the face of all of this, on the bus ride back, the group’s reaction was unequivocal.  If this were the United States, they never would have waited.  At the first sign of any rockets, they would have pulverized the enemy.  We had many discussions on the bus about what it was like in those days before Operation Cast Lead and about the fact that Israel was resisting until the last minute incurring the world’s wrath as it went in and cleaned house.  As we all know, the world focused on “proportionality” and nothing else, unleashing their scorn for Israel which had killed more than 1,300 Palestinians and only incurred a few dozen casualties.  I recalled for them all the meetings with UN Ambassadors that I had those first few weeks when I started to work for AJC in January 2009 which were not pleasant.

One would think that this extraordinarily full day would end with this powerful visit, but no.  One more extremely impactful meeting awaited.  We rushed back to Jerusalem for a dinner meeting with Khaled Abu Toameh, an Israeli Arab journalist who now writes for the Jerusalem Post.  He was born in the West Bank – in Ramallah – and worked for years for the PLO newspaper before starting to work with international media and finally the Israeli press.  His English is superb, he has the experience of living on both sides of the green line and covering the leadership of both sides.  He said that he is neither pro-Israel nor pro-Palestinian, but he writes for an Israeli paper because he is allowed to write freely, unlike with the Palestinian papers.  He made the following points: 

  1. We long for the good-old days before peace.  Before Oslo in 1993, things were simply better.
  2. Arafat, as a result of Oslo, received billions of dollars which were “lost.”  When the fruits of peace were not realized, his people became frustrated and radicalized – into the waiting arms of Hamas who promised change. 
  3. When the election happened in Gaza, it should have been a requirement that all parties accept Oslo, since the election was under the banner of Oslo.  No such demand was made.
  4. Luckily, Israel was there to rescue the PLO people who were about to be slaughtered after the Hamas takeover in 2007.  Israel sent in all manner of transport to get them out.
  5. Fatah and Hamas hate each other more than they hate the Israelis, and it is only the Jews that are preventing Muslims from killing Muslims.
  6. To this day, the PLO has not reformed, which is why they are weak.
  7. In this environment, peace is not possible.  You have the simple message of Hamas which is for Jews to leave all Muslim land and the message of the PLO – we will not give up even 1% of the land conquered in 1967.  They have trapped themselves because they walked around saying that anybody who makes concessions to Israel is treasonous and should be killed.  His opinion is that Israel can never go back to 1967.  That would be ridiculous.  It is in people’s backyards.  Israel talks about keeping Maale Adumim, the Jordan River, Gush Etzion, and Ariel.  He then spoke about land swaps.  That should be fine.  The West Bank is not holy land like Mecca and Medina, and the Palestinians really should agree to this.
  8. Abbas is losing the support of the Jews by what he is doing at the UN.  They are trying to delegitimize Israel as was done with South Africa.  He felt that this would never work.  It just plays into the hands of the Israelis who do not want a deal.
  9. He is afraid that the situation could explode at any moment, and “as a Muslim living in this part of the world, I feel safer living in a Jewish state.”  He hears stepped-rhetoric from the Palestinian side of late.  Many people believe the terrible things that are said, such as the Jews being behind 9/11, spreading AIDS, creating tsunamis in the Arab world, etc.
  10. Regarding the settlements, he repeated what I have heard many times before – that Obama demanded a freeze on settlements, so the Palestinians followed suit.  Once both Obama and Abbas were up that tree, Obama climbed down, leaving Abbas up there.  If he were Netanyahu, he would offer another freeze on settlements, because it would calm the world down and change nothing on the ground.
  11. He wishes there were a third party – a third way – that could move away from this, but there is not.
  12. Salam Fayad is a nice man who has done remarkable things for the Palestinians, but he has no power.  He graduated from the University of Austin, rather than the university of the Israeli prison.  What did he ever do for the revolution, people say.  The same Arafat cronies still run the show after all these years.
  13. “All that Israel can do right now is to send the clear message to the Arab world that when they are ready to negotiate, Israel will be there to make peace.  Until then, if you attack me, I will chop your head off.  Any good will gesture is seen as a sign of weakness.
  14. He considers it a mistake for Israel to continue the ties with Gaza, either through trade or through supplying them with water and electricity.  The Egyptians sealed the borders, and the Israelis should have, as well.
  15. He envies the value of life that would trade one person for a thousand.  His kids asked him if this means that one Jew is worth 1,000 Arabs.  His kids laughed, but he had no answer.  Nevertheless, the next kidnapping is on its way, he predicts.
  16. He categorically denies that Israel is an apartheid state.  He sends his kids to a Jewish school, eats in Jewish restaurants, and there are 13 Arab members of Knesset.  In another meeting, it was mentioned that an Arab judge sentenced former Israeli President Moshe Katzav to prison, and nobody said boo.
  17. He believes that every third person in the West Bank wants to live in Israel.  He would much rather live in Israel with some discrimination, than in the West Bank or in other parts of the Arab world.

The Hebrew word for the day was:

Slicha- Excuse me

Written by Scott Richman, AJC Westchester Director

November 6, 2011 at 10:02 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Project Interchange – Counter-Terrorism Trip – Days 4/5

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Never let it be said that this is not a serious trip.  After dinner tonight, at a thoroughly non-touristy shish kebab place near Machane Yehuda (neither Sami nor Sima for those of you in the know), I suggested to our guide that we walk to Ben Yehuda.  The group had just arrived in Jerusalem and had little sense of the center of the City.  The guide seemed to pooh-pooh that.  “Too touristy,” he seemed to say.  “What is there to see there?”  For first timers to Jerusalem, there is a lot to see there.  And, besides the group was stuffed and needed to walk off a meal that they gushed over — hours later, they were still talking about).  So, as we walked to the bus, I casually asked if anybody wanted to take a walk and see a bit of Jerusalem.  Instantly, almost all stopped and said yes – thrilled to be free of the bus.

Again, seeing it through a first-timers eyes – even on a Wednesday night – it is impressive – shops filled with colorful souvenirs, street performers, cafes with tables outside, art galleries, and quaint alleyways.  And, they were full of questions – what is that Birthright sign in the window?, what are those boxes on the doors that I see people touching and kissing all the time?, how seriously do the orthodox enforce their strict laws?, how do the orthodox treat their woman?   One thing I did not expect as we walked was derogatory graffiti about the police on a small street between nachalat shiva and the park by what used to be the Sheraton.  They all had to get pictures with that.  I quickly recovered by making a statement about the extraordinarily free speech here.  They seemed inured to such graffiti.

I feel an obligation that they see and learn as much as possible.  They are here for such a short time, and there is so much to absorb besides all of the security issues.  One person confessed to me that besides some quick trips to Canada and Mexico, this was his first time really traveling outside the U.S. and that he had to get a passport for the trip.  The burden of responsibility is high when somebody tells you that.

Yesterday was devoted to context.  We spent the day traveling around the Golan Heights, where they were offered a deep understanding of the Six-Day and Yom Kippur Wars, the strategic importance of the Golan Heights, the history with Syria and Jordan, the closeness of Syria and Jordan, and how precarious the existence of Israel seemed only a short time ago.  They heard it from somebody who lived it.  Gadi served on the Golan from 1970-1973, and he offered an excellent (and not overwhelming) overview.

We also saw some Christian sites, and the group was very moved.  We saw Cfar Nahum (a.k.a. Capernaum) and Yardenit.  The former is where Jesus lived for a period of time.  There is now a Franciscan Church on the site.  The latter is the baptismal place in the Jordan River.  Pilgrims dress in white and dunk themselves.  They had photos up of all sorts of celebrities doing this – from the Chilean miners to radio personality Glenn Beck.

Last night, we stayed at Kibbutz Lavi near Tiberias.  You should have heard the trepidation.  I think that they pictured dorm rooms with bunk beds and rustic communal dining.  Gadi assured them that it was a fine hotel.  “We are not staying in kibbutz housing.  This is their business,” he assured them.  Indeed, it was high level with a buffet dinner that they loved.  The highlight was a home grown lecture on kibbutz life, delivered by Shmuel.  Shmuel is an older man who moved to the Kibbutz in the 1966 from New York.  He spoke about the history of the kibbutz movement and of this kibbutz.  He also described life on the kibbutz.  He left out all the criticism the movement has received in recent years.  He painted an idyllic picture of a lifestyle that very much intrigued our people.  Some sat at the bar for hours after that talking about Shmuel and his life.

Today’s sites were a bit different.  We spent the morning at the Shita/Gilboa Prison.  Once again, I am limited in what I can report, but it all boils down to one simple fact, which very much surprised my group:   the Israelis are softer on their prisoners than the Americans.  It started with the playground that they noticed as we pulled up to the prison.  It is for children of inmates to use during their visits.  We had a presentation about the jail and the jail system from the dentist.  We learned the following: 

  1. There are 33 jails in Israel – 31 for me and 2 for woman
  2. The majority of the prisoners are non-Jews.
  3. The United States has three times as many prisoners per capita than Israel
  4. There are both criminals and terrorists at this  prison
  5. The terrorists make up a clear schedule for their days.  This includes education (they can pursue a degree while in jail). It can also include radical studies, which are taught by fellow inmates.  Our group seemed surprised that this was permitted.  But, it is all in an effort to keep them content and occupied.  They feel that they are radical anyway.  We learned how much these benefits are upsetting to Israelis.
  6. They can also bring in their own food, though we heard about attempted smuggling of items that goes on as a result.
  7. The criminals can obtain education, like the terrorists, but they also have other benefits, such as group therapy, massage (collective group chuckle) and even spinning!
  8. Criminals are also entitled to vacation from jail once a month after serving for a period of time.  The length of time away increases as you go and come back.  This shocked our group.  Vacations are unheard of in the United States.  The Israelis seem to have no problem with them returning.
  9. Some of the criminals volunteer in schools to tell the children how not to make mistakes the way that they did, such as driving drunk.
  10. We entered a prison cell.  It was 10 to a room, but the prisoners had many personal possessions.  There was a television/dvd player in the room, and they were cooking in there.  Many of the prisoners (not terrorists) work at the prison and receive a salary which they use to buy these items.  Our group was surprised at how docile the prisoners seemed as walked in.  One of my people remarked that “it looked like my college dorm room.”
  11. Our group was very surprised at the low level of violence within prisons that occur in Israel.
  12. The last violent escape from here was in 1958

As we left, of my members said that there should really be an academic study done comparing the two prison systems.  Overall, people were extremely impressed with the results that the Israelis received by using softer methods and thought them worth considering in the U.S.

Our second major meeting of the day was with the Commander for the Coordination Unit of the Police Force in the West Bank.  This is a special Police Force unit of all Arabic speakers which coordinates all police matters with a special unit of the Palestinian Authority.  They are the go-between whenever there is an issue, which there is all the time.  Consider a domestic violence case between an Israeli Arab and West Bank Arab or a traffic accident between the same.  As the Israeli Arab is an Israeli citizen, Israel is responsible.  I am not allowed to give most of the details of this meeting.  Suffice it to say, this is a very unusual group of people in a pivotal spot.  As with the Tel Aviv police, it shows the great importance of building relationships with the Arab community and knowing how to relate to them.  Many issues are very delicate.  Note that they only deal with Fatah under the terms laid out by Oslo, never Hamas.

One interesting fact is that the Palestinian coordinating group is very uncomfortable with public knowledge of their relationship with Israel on these issues.  There is no media about this, and they are never publicly seen to be coordinating their efforts, despite the fact that on many issues, they work extremely closely – hand-in-hand on a daily basis.  He believes that the Israeli police are respected in the West Bank because they are honest and even-handed.

Over the two days, they learned the following words: 

Yala – Let’s go
Chick chack – 1, 2, 3; quickly
Nu? – Well??
Ma Nishma – What’s up?

Tomorrow, they will learn katyusha and retzuat aza…


Written by Scott Richman, AJC Westchester Director

November 2, 2011 at 6:47 pm

Posted in Uncategorized