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‘Land Day’ march highlights dilemmas facing Israel

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A Bedouin youth in the southern Israeli village of El Araqib takes part in the 34th annual “Land Day” protest, March 30, 2010. Uri Lenz/FLASH90/JTA

JERUSALEM – A mass demonstration by Israeli Arabs highlighted the core contradiction at the heart of the Israeli-Arab experience: demands for greater equality within Israeli society amid growing alienation from the Israeli state.

An estimated 50,000 demonstrators marched in two long columns March 30 to the Galilee town of Sakhnin to commemorate “Land Day,” an annual protest against unequal distribution of land resources and in memory of 19 Arabs killed in clashes with Israeli security forces in 1976 and 2000.

In the first Land Day demonstration, in March 1976, six Arabs protesting the expropriation of around 5,000 acres in the Galilee were killed; 13 died in Land Day rioting following the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in the fall of 2000.

News Analysis

This year’s protest was one of the biggest and best organized to date. For the first time, large numbers of Arab women took part, there was no police presence along the route, and no violence.

The message, however, was not uniform. While speakers focused mainly on land allocation, thousands of demonstrators waved Palestinian flags, emphasizing their own Palestinian identity and suggesting identification with Palestinians in the west bank and Gaza.

A few masked men went further. As the procession passed, they hoisted large photographs of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and slain Hezbollah operations chief Imad Mugniyeh, an expression of support for the hostile Iranian-backed Shiite militia. The Hezbollah supporters, however, proved to be very much in the minority. After angry exchanges with the marchers, they were confronted by Sakhnin municipal stewards and, after a brief scuffle, forced to leave.

Although public support for Israel’s enemies is rare, there can be little doubt that Israeli Arab alienation from the Jewish state is growing. In late 2006, the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee — the Arab community’s main representative body — published its “Vision Document,” calling for a large measure of Arab political and cultural autonomy. Israeli Jews saw in this a radical demand for separation from the state; Arab leaders countered that it was more a plea for help and a warning of what might happen unless the Jewish majority makes a genuine effort to integrate the 20 percent-strong Arab minority as fully equal citizens.

The main Arab charge on Land Day was that the government continues to destroy illegally built Arab homes, mainly in the Wadi Ara area of central Israel and the Negev desert in the south, without giving the Arabs a chance to expand their villages, towns, and cities legally. According to the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, by not drawing up new master plans that allow for growth of Arab urban and rural areas, the government is effectively choking them.

The ensuing tensions have been exacerbated by a string of legislative initiatives by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s hawkish Yisrael Beiteinu party, the latest of which is a proposal to open the foreign service only to people who have done military or national service — effectively disqualifying most Arabs. Lieberman’s argument is that Israeli Arabs must be made to realize that sharing in the benefits of Israeli life comes at a price: loyalty to the state. Israeli Arabs, however, see this as discrimination on ethnic grounds. And pointing to Lieberman’s key position in government, Arab Knesset members charge that racism has become a central tenet in Israeli political life.

Other Arab leaders take a more conciliatory line. Writing in Yediot Achronot, Mohammed Zeidan, chairman of the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, insisted that the Israeli Arab struggle was not anti-Israel and had just two goals: equality within Israeli society, especially with regard to land ownership and use; and a just peace between Israel and the Palestinian people, based on two states along the 1967 lines.

“Our central message on Land Day is that we are part of Israeli society and we are struggling to remain part of it,” he wrote.

Some Israeli right-wing politicians focused on the hoisting of the Hezbollah photographs and the potential threat a radicalized Israeli Arab community could pose to the Jewish majority. Likud Knesset member Ophir Akunis called for tough measures against the masked Hezbollah supporters, arguing that a democracy under threat must defend itself.

Avishai Braverman, a member of the Labor Party and the minister in charge of minority affairs, agreed that the men who hoisted the photographs should be punished, but insisted that most Arabs want to be part of Israeli society. Braverman argues that integrating Israeli Arabs as equals in Israeli society is a major strategic interest, for both security and economic reasons.

A former World Bank economist and president of Ben-Gurion University, Braverman has set up a $40 million fund for projects in Arab communities, and intends to raise more, partly from diaspora Jews — just as he did in transforming Ben-Gurion University from a backwater college into a major academic institution. He argues that would be money well spent in defusing what might otherwise become a major existential threat.

“When I go round the country Arabs say to me: ‘Braverman, we finished the university, now we want jobs here, because we have nowhere else to go.’ On the other side, there are people creating fear and talking about a fifth column,” he told JTA. “If we don’t want the Israeli Arabs to turn against us, we must embrace them.”

JTA

 
 

Condemn report, welcome Goldstone

 

Former Sharon adviser Gissin tells what it takes to make Mideast peace — and it will surprise you

Iran’s influence in the Middle East must be curbed before Israel and the Palestinians can make peace, according to Raanan Gissin, former senior adviser to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Whether the Israelis and Palestinians like it or not, he said, the Iranian regime holds the key to Middle East peace.

Gissin spoke twice at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly last week about the Iranian threat, first to the general public on May 6 and again in a special Hebrew-only session with the local Israeli community on May 8. Gissin, who has a more than 30-year career in Israeli government and strategic affairs, shared his insights with The Jewish Standard at a private Teaneck home late last week.

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Iran is the key to the Middle East, says Raanan Gissin. Jerry Szubin

When Sharon would visit with President George W. Bush before the Iraq invasion, Gissin related, he would always say that Iraq is the immediate threat in the Middle East, but Iran is the long-term threat.

“Today the Iranian threat is like global warming,” Gissin said. “Everybody talks about it. Everybody is concerned about. It affects everyone, but nobody knows what to do about it. With global warming you still have some time. With the Iranian threat, time is running out.”

The Obama administration has renewed its focus on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, while Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is pushing his own plan to unilaterally declare a state in 2012. Neither of these paths, however, will succeed in bringing about full peace, Gissin said, because terrorist organizations Hamas and Hezbollah take their marching orders from Tehran, which is comfortably brushing off the West’s demands to curb its nuclear program and has an interest in keeping global attention focused on Israeli-Palestinian tensions.

“Without Iran being weakened or contained, there’s no prospect for these developments to take place,” he said. “If Iran wants to change its policy, Hamas and Hezbollah will also have to change. It all comes back to Iran right now.”

The nuclear issue

The Iranian threat is not just its burgeoning nuclear program or the concern that a nuclear Iran might hand off an atomic bomb to one of its terrorist proxies. According to Gissin, the Iranian regime has designs on redrawing the map of the Middle East, and then the West, into a Muslim empire with Tehran at the helm. Israel would be first on its chopping block, but Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan stand to lose a great deal as well.

“Iran is trying to relentlessly push for its ultimate goal and achieve hegemony of its brand of Islam over the rest of the world,” Gissin said.

The Sunni Islamic world is frightened that Shi’ite Islam, led by Iran, is gaining a stronger foothold, according to Gissin. The response, he said, has so far been appeasement. Turkey, for example, has been hedging its bets and moving closer to Iran’s extremist corner.

Israel, however, is “the one joker in the card deck.”

“They’re afraid of [Israel],” Gissin said. “They fear it because Israel has in its hands the capability to really spoil their plan.”

But Gissin doesn’t recommend military action against Iran. That, he said, would lead to a regional war with Iranian proxies Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as traditional armies such as Syria’s.

U.S.-led negotiations with Iran are not the answer to the nuclear problem either, according to Gissin. Iran’s negotiations with the West are meant only to buy the regime more time, according to Gissin, and the regime is very patient.

“If they are set out to achieve Islamic domination, then there is no way to negotiate,” he said. “They can negotiate the terms of your surrender. You can’t have any kind of meaningful negotiation.”

What America needs to do, he said, is change the behavior of the regime by threatening what it values most: its power. By instilling a sense of fear within the government hierarchy that it could be overthrown, the government will be forced to focus on its own survival instead of regional domination. For example, if the regime is forced to spend its resources on its own security because of increased threats from Iranian dissidents, then there are fewer resources for its nuclear program or global terrorist organizations.

“The only way you can prevent Iran from taking action is if they’re concentrated on their own lives inside Iran,” he said.

The West, therefore, needs to work from within Iran to cultivate fear in its leaders that their power could be taken away, Gissin said. That means supporting the growing protests in the streets and increasing pressure on the government. At present, the Iranian government doesn’t have a sense that it is being pursued and therefore can comfortably delay negotiations with the West while stoking the fires in regional conflicts.

Gissin projected that the West has a deadline of maybe two years before Iran completes its nuclear work. He proposed that Western powers spend that time in a concerted effort to operate inside Iran to create an atmosphere of fear within the government,

“Iran is creating fear among Arab countries,” he said. “I don’t think there is any Arab leader today who doesn’t think about what will be Iran’s next move. They don’t sleep well at night in their beds. You have to create a situation where [the Iranian leadership] can’t sleep peacefully in their beds.”

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process

Analysts who believe solving the Israel-Palestinian problem is the first step to peace in the Middle East and then taming the Iranian threat are mistaken, he said. It’s the other way around.

“If the United States will take action to contain Iran, then there will be peace,” he said.

Only after the Iranian issue is resolved — or the regime is at least preoccupied with its own survival — can the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians move forward, Gissin said.

Israelis and Palestinians this month revived stalled peace negotiations with proximity talks featuring shuttle diplomacy from U.S. Middle East Envoy George Mitchell. Israeli Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom said in The Jerusalem Post last week that peace talks are doomed to fail because no Palestinian leader can accept less than what the late Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat was offered in 2000, and no Jewish Israeli leader can offer more. Gissin agreed, and shared Shalom’s pessimism about the success of the talks, but said that the appearance of movement is still better than allowing the entire process to fall apart.

Gissin was witness to Israel’s last major concession for peace: the disengagement from Gaza and parts of the west bank, orchestrated by the Sharon government. The plan, which resulted in the removal of thousands of Jewish settlers and eventually paved the way for Hamas’ takeover of the strip, achieved partial success, Gissin said. Israel gained certain security guarantees from the United States as a result of the move, as well as relative freedom from international pressure to carry out its wars against Iranian proxies Hezbollah in 2006 and Hamas in 2008-09.

“It didn’t succeed in being a corridor to peace,” he said. “The reason is not because of good will in Israel or [from] the Palestinians. It has to do with Hamas and Iran. These two definitely don’t want to see a peace process under way.”

Turning his attention to regional peace in the Middle East, Gissin said that the Arabs are not ready for peace with Israel, nor has Israel succeeded in arguing its case to them.

Israelis do not want peace as much as they want peace of mind, Gissin said. Peace of mind, he continued, means acknowledging that Israel has problems, but continuing to run the country, send kids to school, and have a thriving economy.

“It’s carving some security out of chaos,” he said. “That’s what most Israelis want. If you have strong leadership, you can do it.”

Israel-Arab relations

The Arab world is not ready for peace with Israel, according to Gissin, and part of that is Israel’s fault. The country has failed to explain its position to its neighbors, he explained. The Jewish state has focused too much on its security needs and not its right to be there in the first place. Aside from Egypt, he said, Israel is the only country in the region with historical boundaries.

“It’s the power of our rights and not our right to use power,” he said. “Everybody knows that we’re powerful. In order to have normal relations between Israel and the Arab world, they must realize we also have the right to self-determination.”

The media battle is Israel’s new war, Gissin said, and to win it, Israel needs to turn to its strongest advocates, especially non-government organizations. The college campus, he said, is one area where Israel is losing the battle. Israel advocates are intimidated, he said, because the level of animosity toward the Jewish state is so high, and Israel should be sending its best representatives to the campuses.

Gissin recalled that Abba Eban once said there are three elements to being a good spokesperson for Israel: speaking with conviction about your rights, speaking with compassion toward your enemies, and speaking with passion to your people.

“We excelled at fighting terrorism,” Gissin said. “We excelled at fighting suicide bombers. There’s no reason we can’t excel at changing the war on the media battlefield and win,” he said.

 
 

Diaspora Jews rally to Israel’s defense

'Iran has been stirring the pot'

Much of the international spotlight these past two weeks has focused on Israel, which, according to political analysts, is exactly what Iran wants — to deflect attention from its nuclear pursuits.

Even as the U.N. Security Council passed another round of sanctions against Iran on Wednesday, worldwide concern grew that the Islamic Republic could spark a military conflict in an attempt to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Turkey, which launched last week’s flotilla, has increasingly aligned itself with Iran — which also pulls the strings of Hamas and Hezbollah — stoking more fears of a new regional terror-supporting alliance.

“Iran has been stirring the pot,” said Leonard Cole, an adjunct professor of political science at Rutgers, Newark. “It’s no secret that weapons from Iran and individuals from Iran have found their way to Gaza — smuggled in via Iran’s friends from Syria and elsewhere.”

The Iranian Red Crescent — the equivalent of the Red Cross — announced plans this week that it planned to launch its own aid flotilla to Gaza. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard has said that it would escort such a flotilla if ordered.

“To openly engage Israeli forces, which is what would happen if openly identified Iranian contingents tried to break the blockade, would be a huge escalation in Middle East tension to have Israeli and Iranian military forces shooting at each other,” Cole said. “If initiated in Israel’s neighborhood, it could well escalate into Israeli military action much closer to or directly at Iran.”

The Iranians are trying to make a statement, said Iran analyst and Fox News guest commentator Lisa Daftari. And, she added, Israel has not said how it would specifically respond to such a provocation — except that it would not allow Iranian ships through the blockade.

“Iran has flexed its muscles and shown it can politically run circles around our government,” said Daftari, a Paramus native. “While we’re having summits and meetings, thinking how to next negotiate with Iran, Iran is carrying on its own agenda.”

Cole does not believe Iran would carry out its threat to openly send military forces to Gaza because it’s not interested in a conflict in the Mediterranean. Daftari declined to hazard a guess as to what might happen if Iran tries to break the blockade, but said the government is looking to shift blame onto Israel for any regional conflict. If the activists aboard last week’s flotilla actually cared about getting aid to the Palestinians, she said, they would have diverted to Israel’s Ashdod port as requested.

“The Palestinian people are not the main issue,” she said. “There’s an Islamist agenda here that Iran has been carrying on for years.”

Iran would like to get rid of Israel, said Dan Kurzman, the North Bergen resident who penned biographies of former Israeli Prime Ministers David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin. Mutually Assured Destruction kept the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal in check during the Cold War, but Kurzman does not think that policy would work with Iran.

“These guys in Iran are not rational,” he said. “If they’re willing to kill themselves because God wants them to, why should they care if they kill a million Jews? This is really dangerous.”

To head off the Iranian threat, Israel needs to make peace with the Palestinians, Kurzman said. After that, it can more easily forge deals with the rest of the Arab world against Iran.

“The Arab world doesn’t fear Israel,” Kurzman said, “but it does fear Iran.”

Because of this, Israel has a chance to pull the Arabs to its side — if it can make peace with the Palestinians, Kurzman said.

“Iran says they want to destroy Israel with an atom bomb and they’re close to getting a bomb. All of this wouldn’t have happened if there was peace,” he said. “They wouldn’t have an excuse for getting a bomb.”

The author cast blame on Israel not just for its handling of the Mavi Marmara, but also what he called the collective punishment of Gaza. He agreed that cargo should be inspected before entering the coastal strip but he railed against the blockade.

“It’s the wrong policy from the beginning,” he said. “You don’t punch everybody for what the terrorists do. It’s really shooting yourself in the foot. Israel is now in a terrible position where the whole world’s against them.”

Despite the provocations aboard the Mavi Marmara, Kurzman said, Israel made a mistake in the way it handled the activists.

“There are ways of stopping a ship and making them come to a halt and eventually getting on board to check on this stuff,” he said. “It’s riot control. There was a riot aboard the ship, and in a riot you don’t just shoot into crowds. This was a terrible mistake that could have been avoided.”

Kurzman recalled that after the Six Day War, Ben-Gurion said there was no chance of making peace if Israel didn’t give up the west bank. Neither Ben-Gurion nor Rabin would have agreed to give up Gaza without a peace treaty, though, Kurzman noted. He called the disengagement from Gaza an “absolute disaster.”

“Israel brought this on itself,” Kurzman said. “That’s the great tragedy of history. Israel thinks it’s invincible, but it isn’t.”

 
 

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Bringing down the house: Beth Aaron expanion ‘long overdue’

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Photos from http://www.bethaaron.org

With several mighty blows of a backhoe, the house next to Cong. Beth Aaron in Teaneck was razed last week, launching the long awaited expansion project of the synagogue at 950 Queen Anne Road.

The $2.4 million project calls for a larger lobby, a new multi-purpose room, a new teen minyan space, and additional youth department rooms.

The multi-purpose room will provide more functional space for lectures, community events and social programming, such as the Shabbat morning kiddush, said Larry Kahn, co-chair of the expansion committee. The new youth department rooms, located on the lower level, will accommodate the increasing number of children attending groups on Shabbat and holidays.

The construction will also add 65 seats to the main sanctuary, restoring 35 seats that were lost roughly nine years ago when the synagogue bought permanent pews and adding 30 seats on top of that, Kahn said.

Construction — scheduled to begin in the next few weeks by the Ridgewood-based firm Visbeen Construction — is expected to conclude late next spring.

The house, which Beth Aaron had owned, had been rented by Rabbi Ephraim Simon, executive director of Friends of Lubavitch of Bergen County, who has moved to the north side of Teaneck.

With a roster of some 300 member-families, the expansion of Beth Aaron’s building —which hasn’t been updated since 1986 — is long overdue, congregants say.

Pews at Shabbat services are often packed, and several minyanim need to be held simultaneously to accommodate everyone. The Shabbat morning kiddush draws overflow crowds and members have lamented for years about the cramped party room where it’s difficult to host a sizeable brit breakfast or bar/bat mitzvah luncheon.

Parents have also grumbled about the challenge of running youth groups for children on Shabbat and holiday mornings when the classroom space is inadequate for all the grades.

Indeed, said Rabbi Lawrence Rothwachs, it is not easy to serve the needs of everyone in the congregation in the current building. “This project will enhance our shul in numerous ways and allow us to serve all our members from the very young to old…. We’re extremely excited about the expansion. We are hopeful that this will be the beginning of another wonderful chapter in the history of our beit knesset.”

Synagogue President Larry Shafier said the new facility will allow us to “better serve our members and guests by providing for concurrent and additional prayer opportunities, classes, children, teen and youth programming, and an enhanced and more meaningful experience for everyone.”

Plans for the expansion were first introduced to the Orthodox synagogue in 1999. The project lay dormant for a number of years and was reactivated in 2006 after Rothwachs arrived at the shul.

Some congregants initially voted against the expansion, citing concerns about its high cost in a turbulent economy. But now, many of its critics have become staunch supporters of the project.

“We were pleasantly surprised by the amount and number of donations, especially in an uncertain economy, and we’re now running ahead of projections,” said Allen Friedman, co-chair of the expansion committee. “All of this indicates to us the importance the kehilla [the community] attaches to the project.”

The donations cover close to half of the project cost. But the synagogue still continues to collect more on its website. http://www.bethaaron.org., Friedman said.

“If we want a kehilla that will continue to be warm and to flourish, we need a building that let’s that happen.”

When the plan was initially proposed to the townshp, some neighbors expressed concern that an expanded building would bring more noise and parking woes to the neighborhood. But after they were invited to spend an evening at the synagogue to review the plans, they were won over, said Kahn. The township’s board of adjustment voted unanimously in favor of the project in 2009.

Beth Aaron was established in 1972 by Rabbi Meir Gottesman in a home on West Englewood Avenue at a time when many young people felt disenfranchised with their parents’ establishment synagogues, recalls longtime member and founder Mollie Fisch. Gottesman aimed to create a congregation that would attract young people who were rebelling against their parents and joining cults or running off to the Far East, she said. A Merrison Avenue family offered its basement in 1972 as a place for the congregation to meet and, years later, Dr. Stuart Littwin offered his home on Queen Anne Road, which eventually became the site for the existing synagogue building.

Although the expansion comes with hefty bills for members, Kahn says it has been met mostly with eager anticipation. “Many people are enthusiastic about the shul beginning a new chapter in its existence,” he said. “They’re looking forward to more opportunity for social interaction as well as spiritual growth in a setting that is conducive for that.”

 
 

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Showdown looms in the Middle East

 
 
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