Israel Deploys Heavy on the Egyptian Border

The prospects for the future between Israel and Egypt are still ambiguous. Egypt’s Sinai is more of a worry than it’s been at any other point in the past 30 years. Since last year’s Egyptian Revolution, Egypt’s natural gas pipeline exporting fuel to Israel has been attacked 14 times. Amidst Israel’s lacking popularity with Egyptians, their government suspended its gas deal with Israel two weeks ago, claiming the deal undervalued the exported fuel and demanded renegotiation. But without the threats to the pipeline, there would have been little motivation to implement the move.

This is the first significant move by Israel’s military to prepare for engagement along the Egyptian border. Two major concerns hang over the heads of Israeli security personnel, on the one hand something a near-term concern and on the other a long-term one. Firstly, like with the pipeline, Bedouin in the Sinai desert might present a threat to Israeli tourists in Egypt. There have been terrorist attacks on resorts in the Sinai before, but the concern is more acute now. Egyptian police initially abandoned the Sinai during the revolution last year. They’ve slowly returned to respond to local instability, though after months of sabotage attacks. With some Bedouin motivated by Islamic militancy, the concern is more terrorists might try to infiltrate Israel.

But, Israel took the initiative last month when the high brass of the IDF requested the Knesset authorize a larger reserve call-up than usual to patrol not just the Syrian, but also the Egyptian border. According to the Reserve Duty Law, updated in 2008, veterans can be called up once every three years unless the IDF requests permission to call up more people more frequently. In this case, six battalions will be split between the two borders with permission to call up 16 more if necessary. The threat from armies is not the priority, but the one posed by smuggling and border raids by terrorists. In the words of Deputy Chief of Staff Dan Harel, “The army needs a better ‘answer’ than in the past to the threat.”

There is a fading worry Bashar al-Assad would start a war with Israel to distract Syrians from instability at home, focusing rage on an external tormentor. That would probably split the feeble Syrian army at this point. The real concern is Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Here’s why:

Guns to Gaza

The peninsula is home to two different concerns. In Northern Sinai, Bedouin manage smuggling routes into Gaza. In the beginning of May, the Egyptian government captured a massive cache of weapons heading there. That includes huge caches of captured weapons Libya’s rebels sold to Hamas last year. The north’s main city is slowly slipping out of reach of the rest of Egypt. El-Arish is littered by pictures of the fundamentalist presidential candidate Hazem Abu-Ismail, showing where Egypt’s Sinai is headed. Construction supplies are stolen by corrupt workers and sold off to be smuggled to Gaza. But most unsettling of all, human trafficking is enforcing the industry of these same crime rings, including kidnapping for ransom, torture, rape and organ theft.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=utsk0hsVnTc&w=560&h=315]

Bedouin leaders are unsettled by where their tribes are going. With unemployment as high as 90% in the Sinai, they receive a lot of lip service from the country’s leaders but little practical help. Consequently, smugglers continue to invest in their businesses, the more and more brutally. Despite whatever imperative local chiefs have, they don’t have the power and few have the will to make progress.

Human Trafficking, Organ Trafficking and Slavery

Egypt’s Bedouin are closely related to the tribes in the Israeli Negev. The international border between the two territories is only 100 years old, and for much of that time Israel had control of both areas and no fence separated the areas. Bedouin still wander the desert, crossing borders with ease and without hesitation. Consequently, crime syndicates on the Egyptian side would be well-connected on the Israeli side.

Sudanese and Eritrean refugees are caught in the middle. Escaping the conflict zones in their countries, they head for the closest First World state they can – Israel. Traveling north through Egypt, they hire Bedouin trackers to get them across the desert to an unguarded gap in the Israeli border. Presumably they can restart new lives or head to Europe. But many of them are turned on and kidnapped by their handlers. Taking $3,000 for the service of guiding them through the desert, their relatives are called with demands of $30,000 or even $40,000 for their release. Contacts report the captives are tortured with electric cables, even as they are put on the phone to plead for their families’ help. With Egyptian police failing miserably to enforce order, families are left to sell all their possessions with slim hopes anyway. The European Union has a resolution on the table demanding Egypt do more, acknowledging the situation.

On the Israeli side of the border, the situation is being overlooked. Ministers are actually more concerned with deporting refugees already in Israel than they are about the ones already lost on their way. Concerns, however exaggerated, range from thinking Islamic militants are sneaking into the country to parts of the country being over-run by refugees. No matter the motivation, it is a PR nightmare for the country that the focus is on gettign rid of the refugees rather than saving their brethren from an apparent common enemy.

South Sudan

Israel has built a relationship with South Sudan. The country only went independent last year and has seemed to be the natural ally, being the enemy of Arab northern Sudan. It’s that Sudan, the north, which has fueled much of the conflict that drove refugees to Israel in the first place. Jerusalem has been concerned with arranging deportation with the South Sudanese government, but has invested little into fighting a Bedouin threat that South Sudan also wants stamped out.

Israel will need to shift its focus if it wants to get ahead of the game in the Sinai Peninsula. Bringing attention to the human component of Bedouin crime rings in the Sinai will go a long way in pressuring Egypt to be more aggressive in policing what is supposedly its own territory.

Without more aggressive measures from Cairo, Israel’s different branches of military will have to do the work themselves. That should not mean a full scale invasion, but it would imply a lot more covert activity, making alliances with certain tribes and not others, as well as working with South Sudanese to penetrate and neutralize groups that are smuggling as much armor as they are human cargo.

Bringing Kadima into the Government Increases the Possibility of a Multilateral Strike on Iran

Shaul Mofaz‘ win in the Kadima primaries just three weeks ago was about a lot more than the survival of Tzipi Livni. Read the postmortem reports about Tzipi Livni’s political career and you find that her inability to compromise with other politicians was what ultimately doomed her candidacy to remain at the top of Kadima. When Ehud Olmert resigned his post in 2008, she couldn’t form a coalition with other political parties and had to hold a new election. Even after winning those elections in March 2009, 28 seats versus Likud’s 27, she still couldn’t compromise enough for any parties in order to get them to agree to joining a new coalition. That’s why second-place Likud ended up leading the government. Livni made things worse by opposing everything Likud did in power, even though they were often continuing a lot of the same policies she supported while she was in power the previous administration.

In reality, this primary was about whether or not to join the Likud-led government. Now Mofaz, former head of the IDF and Minister of Defense, is a member of the administrative Cabinet and Deputy Prime Minister. He has been revered for his performance during the Yom Kippur War and an appropriate leader in the event there were a war with Iran.

And that might be what has made this deal happen. Benjamin Netanyahu would have won the September elections easily, with few parties offering much opposition or alternative. But instead of going to elections and refreshing his term as Prime Minister, which would then be guaranteed to last at least until September 2016, he will lead the largest coalition in Israeli history and its largest cabinet (94/120 Knesset members; 33 members of the cabinet – over a 1/4 of the Knesset). Why? Perhaps because he wants political strength to strike Iran.

When the government he formed took power in Spring 2009, worries circulated worldwide about the direction of policy and particularly the influence of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Leading Yisrael Beitenu, he has been extremely outspoken about the uselessness of the peace process and applied enormous social pressure on Israeli Arabs. Many on the political scene thought there would be massive diplomatic boycotts of the figure, and they’ve been right. Ehud Barak has met with a number of Western leaders in place of Lieberman. Avoiding Lieberman preceded the actual diplomatic crisis two years ago when Israeli commandos killed 9 Turks on a boat running the Gaza blockade. Many people wanted Kadima to join the government in order to blunt Lieberman’s influence and impact policy on the peace process.

What impact this will all have on policies toward settlements and relations with the Palestinians remains to be seen, though the first hints of change are breaking through. But Shaul Mofaz is important for the reason he effectively opposes a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran. His coming in gives the government a number of things. On the one hand, it eases Israel’s trigger finger, which many have speculated has been on the verge of a strike. But on the other hand, Mofaz is a defense man, and a unity government like this might signal leaders’ preparing for a strike and ensuring near universal political approval. Regarding diplomacy, Mofaz becomes the instrument others have hoped for since 2009. He opposes striking Iran, but has called striking Iran under certain scenarios “unavoidable.” He is rational and flexible. He enhances the image of Israel’s government abroad, even by just a bit. Bringing a qualified voice of caution into the mix brings Israel’s position closer to the Western powers negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program. Closing the gap, Israel’s aggressive stance is going to start sounding more rational as Mofaz probably will cool the rhetoric, talk about calculated steps and especially emphasize multilateral, international opposition to an Iranian nuclear weapon.

So if things do break down, Mofaz and his Kadima Party will make it easier to talk alliance with other countries, and maybe even increase international support for a future unilateral Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The Importance of Water: The Ancient Key to Power in the Middle East

Historically, the Middle East hosted the most well-known empires known to us today. The Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Egyptians and rulers from modern Turkey dominated the region. Rarely if ever was there a power centered in the Land of Israel or Syria that dominated the region. Only with Islam’s Caliphate, centered in 7th century Damascus, did that change. The reason is simply because this area doesn’t have the natural resources to support a large population that Egypt’s Nile or Anatolia’s forests or Iraq’s rivers do. All that is changing today and Israelis should be well aware of it. There are key elements to Israeli technological innovations and its military policies that make it an unprecedented phenomenon in Middle Eastern power.

Water

The main reason Egypt, Anatolia (Turkey) or Iraq have been the homes to the major Middle Eastern powers is because of the access to natural resources. Egypt & Iraq don’t have much in terms of wood or stone – as a matter of fact many of the bricks common citizens used in construction were mud bricks. What they lacked in such things they maintained in water. In the desert Middle East particularly, that has been the fundamental element to power. The Assyrian and Babylonian empires both centered themselves on the Tigris & Euphrates rivers of Iraq. Egypt, of course, has had the Nile. Israel has only the Jordan and it hardly supports a massive population.

But two things have changed the game that give Israel a power advantage. For one, Israel has developed the desalinization industry, converting sea water to fresh drinking water to support a rapidly growing population. Secondly, Egypt and Iraq might be overpopulated. Without this Israeli technology, its use of the aforementioned rivers is excessive. Even though Israel, Jordan & the Palestinians have decimated the health of the Jordan River, desalinization replaces the supply, in fact increasing it and even making Israel a possible exporter of water.

The more Israel increases this resource, the greater its power might become. The fact that producing more water is tied to continuing to develop and refine new technologies also speaks well to the economic power of Israel. This is one of many reasons that Israel’s diplomatic issues and impasse with the Palestinians does not undermine Israel’s strength as much as it would a small state centuries ago.

Navy

Indisputably, that power would be nowhere if it weren’t for the stimulus of Western weapons that have enabled Israel’s modern army. But it’s not just the most capable air force in the Middle East that is giving Israel its might. Israel might control the most powerful navy in Israel’s history. While it has nowhere near the manpower that Turkey has, it does own 4 Dolphin submarines bought from Germany with 2 more on the way. Further, because of Israel’s newly found natural gas wealth resting miles off the coast, its navy is considering an unprecedented build-up of armor to defend against Lebanese and Turkish attacks.

Historically, the empires of the Middle East relied on land power – infantry & cavalry – to conquer and defend. In fact, between 1100 & 1500, the Ayyubid and Mamluk Empires of Egypt had virtually no naval power. The Crusaders had such an advantage that those empires decided to desert the coast of modern Israel and move cities inward, merely to avoid giving their enemies usable ports and a strong foothold on land. Every time a ruler would have the initiative to build a fleet, budget cuts or pressure from conservatives ended the project early. The Ottoman Empire did not repeat this mistake, but they did not possess the power to defeat European naval powers like the Portuguese & Spanish in the early 1500s to stop the rapid expansion of European colonies and thus European power.

With increasing threats from smuggling, terrorists and even Turkey, Israel is on the verge of creating the certifiably strongest navy in Middle Eastern history. Merely maintaining one that can tango with the other powers in the region reads well for Israel’s future in the region, certain to solidify military abilities that historic powers have lacked.

If Israel continues its water projects and rehabilitates the Jordan River & Dead Sea, it would consequently be extending its technological abilities and the ecological health of the country. In so doing, it would enhance the natural strength of the country and the availability of natural resources. If that is an indicator of where countries can go, the Jewish State would theoretically be on the path to becoming, at least on a regional level, a superpower.

Considering the Holocaust, Will Israel Have the Balls to Recognize the Armenian Genocide?

Originally posted in The Beacon Mag

Last May, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin pledged he’d recognize the Armenian Genocide in the Knesset. Rivlin’s a moderate in the Likud Party, but he’s been a hawk on the issue. For five years, the Knesset has been debating commemorating the Ottoman Empire’s crimes. In 2011, they finally made the discussions public. So why is it so hard to acknowledge something that even Hitler supposedly did as early as 1939? According to one translation, the scumbag put it this way:

“Only thus shall we gain the living space (Lebensraum) which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

So until now what’s kept Israel from acknowledging the disaster? Quite simply, it would piss off Turkey.

Jews in other places around the world recognize the crime, and the Turks aren’t around to bully them into not. The USC Shoah Foundation, which sports many high-value Jewish donors, is adding 400 recorded testimonies from survivors of the Armenian Genocide to its archives. This is a major change for the foundation’s Institute, which has only focused on the Holocaust till now. In 2007, the Anti-Defamation League recognized the WWI massacres. The Zionist Organization of America also recognizes it. But the ADL’s head Abraham Foxman did so only after pressure from inside his organization. While Foxman wanted to protect Israel’s diplomatic position, his own organization pressured him to face the facts. Inside Israel, now that Turkey’s on the outs with Jerusalem, what could possibly justify continuing this ridiculous policy?

Azerbaijan. Despite whatever denials the government here in Israel cooks up, the security asset the Azeris are in the fight against Iran is tremendous. Israel might use Azerbaijan as a staging ground to attack nuclear sites, so reports say, so now denying the Armenian Genocide seems as important as ever. On April 6th, an Azerbaijani news outlet got to interview the country’s ambassador from Israel. What he said was revealing:

Question: Recently, the committee of the Knesset has discussed so called “Armenian genocide”. Will this issue come to the agenda of the Israeli parliament?
Ambassador Michael Lotem: The committee will discuss, but I think it will not go beyond. This issue should be kept to historians, not dealt by the politicians.

No matter how many meetings there are in the Knesset, Israel’s Foreign Ministry still seems to be revealing the country’s intent. Any Knesset meeting on the subject is a publicity stunt aimed at scaring the Turks. It’s not serious. It’s embarrassing as a country so intent on highlighting the devastation of the Holocaust that its leaders are apathetic to the idea of recognizing other crimes. Benjamin Netanyahu has used the Holocaust as a point of comparison to Iran’s intent regarding Israel’s Jews, so what good could it possibly do to diminish another genocide and risk diluting the significance of the Holocaust in the eyes of the world?

Turkey still refuses to recognize the magnitude or viciousness of the slaughter, arguing the numbers of those killed and the circumstances – battle as opposed to systematic murder. But a wave of European countries do not just recognize the event but criminalize denying it. On April 9th, it was reported the head of the Slovakian Supreme Court would have any Turkish official prosecuted if he dared deny the genocide on Slovakian soil. France pissed off Turkey several year ago when it passed its own version of the law. France’s statute was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court there, but the attitude toward the event is clearly on equal terms to how countries treat denial of the Holocaust. Europe is awash with these laws. Germany is the most famous for it, but in other countries the statutes exist: Austria, France, Poland and Portugal. Spain is more lenient about denial per se, but specifically prosecutes justifying the Holocaust. Israel has its laws outlawing Holocaust denial, but hasn’t even brought itself to acknowledge the mere happening of the Armenian tragedy.

Recognizing it will deepen Israel’s relationship with Turkey’s rivals: Greece and Cyprus. Turkey usually threatens consequences for diplomatic ties if another country recognizes the genocide. That threat means little these days in Jerusalem. Without leverage on Israel, the Jewish voice on the matter will weigh heavy against Turkey in the court of international opinion. Whatever problems Israel has diplomatically, its authority on genocide issues and its intimate connection to the Holocaust make the Jewish point of view extremely important to advocates of genocide prevention and recognition (see Armenia, Rwanda, Darfur).

Otniel Schneller, a member of the parliament, rolled out the identical argument for avoiding the issue as others had in the past, saying “Sometimes our desire to be right and moral overcomes our desire to exist, which is in the interest of the entire country.” But it’s more paranoid than proven that Turkey or Azerbaijan could have such a devastating effect on Israeli security. Turkey’s relationship has gone to crap with Israel, Syria and Iraq over the last several years, leaving it with little leeway for its own foreign policy in the region and thus little to threaten Israel with. Regarding Israel, the Jewish state lets other countries dictate its talk in the strangest ways, and the state is only undermining its assertiveness letting pressure from a non-ally, Turkey, bully the Jewish state into avoiding a simple moral statement. Turkey and Azerbaijan still need Israel as an ally against Iran; not just the other way around. Not acknowledging Jewish sovereignty on the issue is not merely impotent, but hits at the ‘galus’ mentality.

Recognizing the “Forgotten Holocaust” this year is a promise of Rivlin’s, but he’ll have to put his money where his mouth is to end this embarrassing situation. Rivlin and the entire Knesset will soon get their shot. It’s disgraceful it’s taken so long, but perhaps this year the ball will drop.

Israel’s Navy Could Be Fighting off Africa

Despite the fact India lacks what might be becoming a standard element of modern navies, its services have been in high demand from other countries seeks its help in the Indian Ocean. The European Union wants to protect shipping along the African coast, for example against Somali pirates. European countries are trying to build the naval abilities of “Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea, Kenya and Tanzania.” Where Israel is in this project is a question for market researchers as much as it is for Israel’s political leaders. The project is trying to hand over responsibilities to local actors, and India is the natural choice. But Israeli private contractors have operated in the region for years, even preventing one pirate attack on an Italian ship.

Israel has strong relations with Kenya & Tanzania, so she’s perfectly placed to make an impact with its own thriving defense industry. Even Russia & China are part of international efforts to patrol the area, joining NATO’s (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) Operation Ocean Shield.

Where’s Israel’s leadership comes in is here, with NATO. Recently, Turkey refused to allow Israeli reps at a NATO conference in Chicago. Every country in the alliance has a veto on policy decisions, and Turkey has used its power several times in the past. Other Mediterranean countries who are not part of the alliance were also in attendance. Until the fallout with Turkey, Israel’s relationship had been growing with NATO, virtually to the point of being an unofficial member. As Israel’s naval powers grow, it will want to extend its reach further, especially off the coast of countries where Israeli diplomats have been attacked and Islamist militant organizations are operating, i.e. Somalia. Israel will get that chance this summer, when Turkey’s other rival and Israel’s new energy business partner Cyprus becomes the President nation of the European Union. That will put Israel’s navy in an optimal position to be more directly involved with the European Union in both the Mediterranean & the Indian Ocean defense project.

The European Union is the backdoor for the IDF to cooperate with European armies when Turkey is blocking its access to NATO. The two organizations, despite being headquartered in the same city and actually having 21 members in common, do not coordinate policy, projects or operations well at all. The main reason is actually the Turkish dispute with Cyprus, making the second half of 2012 one of the more interesting times for European politics in recent history. With disputes about the Euro, possibly a new French president and the relationships in the eastern Mediterranean deteriorating, diplomats will be busy trying to patch up Turkey’s faltering diplomatic relationships before they infect European initiatives in both the EU & NATO.

Israel's been aiming to expand its diplomatic footprint in Africa itself for years.

But Cyprus will be in command, and the Cypriots have used their political position against Turkey before. In 2005, Cyprus vetoed another idea, to invite Turkey to join the so-called “European Defense Agency.” That agency is more a loose accord to get armies from the EU and outside the EU to talk to each other. The contracts Cypriots have been signing with Israelis over joint exploration for gas & oil make it a real opportunity for Israel to get into the economic and security projects of the European Union.

Personally, while I’d like Israel and Turkey to patch things up, Israel needs more leverage in future negotiations over the two countries’ relationship in order to make getting back together worth it. This is an opportunity for Israel to do that.

Israeli Companies are Building India’s Robotic Weapons

India has been beefing up its naval abilities ever since Pakistani terrorists landed in Mumbai in 2008 and killed nearly 200 people. It’s the latest in a mostly positive stringof encounters with Israeli military companies, especially welcome after what happened to IMI.

The latest Indian project involves unmanned drones, but this time in the water. Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd. (MM), an Indian sporting company, is teaming with Rafael to make the machine happen. India has been augmenting its navy since the 2008 attacks anticipating more break-in attempts, especially from Pakistan. Much of the development is focusing on defending the coastline of Gujarat, the largest state in India. The latest project adds to the efforts, announced in January, of adding a second aerial unmanned squadron to the Indian arsenal. That project involves Israel Aerospace Industries.

Robotics as a non-military venture is also gaining traction. Recently, the National Committee on Robotics and Automation and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) sent reps to Israel for further research and venture development with Israeli companies. They met with the head of the Israeli Robotics Association, Professor Zvi Shiller. According to his bio, he has been involved in projects with the Israeli Defense Ministry, Science Ministry and even its Space Agency. Meeting Shiller might not have any other political implications, but the fact he is on staff at Ariel University (in the West Bank) was not at all on the list of concerns, let alone the radar whatsoever, of the Indian delegation.

This is all happening despite obstacles in the Israeli-Indian relationship, including accusations Israel Military Industries, owned by the Israeli government, has been bribing its way to Indian contracts. Various reports range from $44 to $70 million in seized assets to serve as a fine for the breach in trust, which is actually included in the contracts India’s Defense Ministry signs. That action brought up issues inside Israel regarding the ethical conduct of its major companies in general. Now with another country taking notice of such business practices in a public way, it’s an especially humiliating prospect. In the meantime, IMI is appealing the Indian decision. It is unlikely they’ll make headway, since they are only one of seven companies India has blacklisted (India won’t make defense deals with these companies for at least 10 years).

Judaism’s New Holidays: Zionist or Not, Jews’ Religion are Increasingly Affected by Israel’s Celebrations

Four new holidays, all in the span of a month, have smacked the Jewish calendar in the past two generations. One of them applies universally but has monumental impact on Israelis: Holocaust Memorial Day (Yom Ha-Shoah). Commemorating those who lost their lives in the Holocaust, it is a somber day in Israel and a day to be marked in Jewish communities around the world. It rests adjacent to Israel’s national holidays on the calendar, preceding them by a week.

This week marks the next two. Their are fundamentals for the modern Israeli: Memorial Day and Independence Day. Growing up in the United States, not only are the two days separated but they are treated the same way. Neither has as much emotional significance anymore, both are barbecue festivals and both are days you’ll get good deals on furniture. This is wear religion has played a nuanced role even for secular Israelis. Judaism, as I’m sure is very true about many religions, is careful to play to the themes of the subjects its holidays commemorate. While the Israeli Rabbinate is a thorn in the side of even many religious Israelis because of its bureaucracy and political patronage, it has played a significant role in the regulation and scheduling of Israeli national holidays.

For these two days, the oft-cited theme in religion of going from darkness to light is overt. The day before Independence Day, Israelis remember their fallen soldiers and officially the civilian victims of terrorism. Jewish consciousness extends that memorial to Jewish victims of terror who never carried Israeli citizenship, recognizing the intertwined fates of Jews and Israelis who have been targeted over Middle Eastern politics. Additionally, it reflects a true timeline. The day before Israel issued its Declaration of Independence, 38 civilians were killed defending Gush Etzion, a small group of towns south of Jerusalem. The Jordanians, who had already invaded the territory of the former British Mandate for Palestine before Israel declared independence, massacred those men in an incident that the Jordanians have never denied was an indecent act. It resonated throughout the Jewish population and was fresh news in the minds of everyone the next morning when the State of Israel was declared. Today, Gush Etzion has been rebuilt, but only after its land was recaptured in the 1967 Six Day War.

Reading that headline, Israelis went with heavy hearts through the light at the end of the tunnel to declare independence within 24 hours of the tragedy. But perhaps more symbolic is placement of Holocaust Memorial Day, Yom HaShoah, a week before both holidays. In 1945, after the Allied Powers had conquered Germany, the full scale of the disaster for Jews was still unimaginable. Survivors faced humiliating or impossible decisions, to move back to homes surrounded by anti-Semitic neighbors or to leave for greener pastures. Many chose the idealized guilded journey to the Land of Israel, facing three years of British actions against new immigrants and Holocaust survivors. Local Jews picked up the pace smuggling survivors into the country by boat and from the harbor. Thousands were jailed on British military bases on Cyprus. Eventually, the Jewish population doubled from about 300,000 before WWII to 600,000 on the eve of independence.

That week can symbolize those three years of adjustment. With no clear end to the plight in sight, Yom HaZikaron hits the Jewish mindset – intentionally – at a time when the community is still coping with the anxieties, humiliation and ruins of the Holocaust. But Memorial Day, Yom HaZikaron, has a very different atmosphere. While it seems to be an additional day of mourning and despair, the tone includes one of work left to be done and accomplishments yet to be achieved. The soldiers memorialized, many of them Holocaust survivors who picked up the pieces and settled in Israel after the War, died fighting. Israelis visit cemeteries even if they have no loved ones buried there. Many Jewish seminaries, Yeshivas, take the day off from classes and bring students to see the throngs of people visit memorial parks, events and loved ones’ final resting places. The most popular sight is Mount Herzl, Jerusalem’s local military cemetery which has taken on a de facto status as the national cemetery similar to the American one in Arlington, Virginia.

Independence Day

That’s the atmosphere that precedes Independence Day for Israelis. It is a truly religious experience in one of the most nationalist, patriotic countries in the world. In a mentality of utter darkness, there is suddenly a burst of light. Fireworks and barbecues light up the country. Schools empty across the country like the day before with kids streaming into the streets of cities and even small towns dressed in blue & white. The narrative of the country’s survival is ever present and effervescent when you walk down the streets. Teenagers, soldiers and Yeshiva students wrap the Israeli flag around themselves like a cape screaming and hollering in euphoria.

But it’s not Israel’s only Independence Day. Three weeks later, Israel celebrates a second. It isn’t celebrated by everyone because of the political implications people read into it, but Jerusalem Day, Yom Yerushalayim, has had a much larger significance for modern Judaism than any other newly marked day on the calendar. The reasons have to do with, on the one hand, the city’s vitality to Judaism itself. The second, though, has to do with the emotional rollercoaster I described above. The day incorporates all the feelings the other three exemplify and project.

Jerusalem Day & Preventing another Holocaust

Jerusalem Day is celebrated on the anniversary of the third day of the Six Day War when the city was captured. It’s intent was to be a day to celebrate winning that war without any other meaning attached to it, but the gravity of that war was too immense not to take on further meaning. In the three weeks preceding it, Arab radio made waves of it threats to do away with Israel and literally throw the Jews into the Mediterranean. The implication was there would be mass massacres and total annihilation of the institutions the Jews had created in Israel. Quite literally, some grim newspapers urged the last Jew standing to “turn out the light.”

So when at 8AM on June 5, 1967, the Israeli Air Force caught the Egyptians on guard duty lazily making a shift change, it combined the ingenuity of the military, preparedness and incredible faith to reverse the situation and mentality completely. In one swoop, a funeral turned into a birthday. Egypt’s and Jordan’s air forces were decimated on the ground, and the most incredible preemptive strike in modern military history re-declared Israeli independence. The sweeping UN condemnations of the Israeli action have enshrined Israeli distrust of the organization, considering it was the UN’s monitors who abandoned guarding a buffer zone between Israel and the advancing Egyptian army. Gamel Abdul Nasser never recovered, dying of a heart-attack three years later. Syria saw another coup before the Yom Kippur War six years later. Jordan never again went to war with Israel.

Religious communities, even going beyond the pro-Zionist ones, have had difficulty playing down the miracle that Jerusalem Day celebrates for Jews worldwide. Anyone with Jewish parents who were living in communities at the time – Brooklyn, Long Island, New Jersey, California, etc. – can learn from them that the jubilation of Israel’s survival combined with such an epic return to the capital city of Judaism has been unmatched in the younger generation’s lifetime. Not even the panic that gripped Jews worldwide when Israel was attacked on Yom Kippur, just six years later, could match the ecstatic electricity that channeled through the Diaspora when it was reported Israel had conquered Jerusalem on the third day of the war.

For these reasons, Jews in Israel and in many Modern Orthodox & Conservative communities today celebrate Israeli Independence Day as a religious holiday, fulfilling a religious obligation to thank God whenever surviving a threatening situation or obtaining something wonderful. In this case, both. More so in Israel but also abroad, Jerusalem Day gets its religious share more emphatically. Even Haredim, that is Israeli Ultra Orthodox Jews usually standoffish of Israeli national holidays, celebrate the redemption of the day and are overwhelmed by significance of recapturing Jerusalem. The title might seem controversial if you see the world through politics, but its significance for Jews and Judaism is much broader than even the threat Israel’s conquests might be given away to another, non-Jewish country.

Israeli newspapers are littered with religious ideas about Israeli independence, linking the event to the week’s Torah and Haftarah readings (recent example: here).

Golan Heights’ Druze: An Intro

The Golan Heights is a disputed territory to the southwest corner of Syria and in the northeast corner of Israel. Once used as a high ground from which to launch shells into the Galilee Valley, the Israelis captured it in two days during the Six Day War. It was not an empty area. Maybe 100,000 Syrians lived there. But most of its poor inhabitants fled immediately. The only group that largely stayed were the Druze: “Around 7,000 remained in six Druze villages: Majdal Shams, Mas’ade, Buq’ata, Ein Qiniyye, Ghajar and Shayta. They are estimated to number 20,000 today.” There are populations of Druze in Israel and Syria. Nothing was particularly different about the Golan’s Druze until this moment. None could have guaranteed they’d be virtual Israelis into infinitude, but that has what happened.

In 1981, Israel annexed the Golan Heights for several reasons. Unlike the West Bank, it was a direct front with a sworn enemy, unlike the West Bank regarding Jordan. Jordan was not as hostile an Arab state as Syria, nor did the issue of negotiating territory with the Palestinians come up with the Golan – it was never Palestinian. So only the Golan and East Jerusalem have been annexed from the conquests of the Six Day War, leaving both populations with unique residency rights in Israel. The Golan Druze face a different social situation than the Palestinians of East Jerusalem. They were citizens of Syria, and their territory was recognizably Syrian. East Jerusalem was void of an internationally recognized owner. So here, nationality was neither in dispute nor coalescing. East Jerusalemites have experienced waves of Arab nationalism, Jordanian citizenship and Palestinian nationalism both under the Jordanians and under the Israelis. Golan’s Druze were cut off from their indisputable home government.

Druze are generally labeled fiercely loyal to their home regimes, no matter who’s in charge. Along the same lines, the leadership is generally pragmatic. In Israel, Druze living in the Carmel and the Galilee aligned themselves with the Jews in the Israeli War of Independence. Today, they are the only ethnic or religious group aside from Jews who are obligated to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces (a request made by the group’s leadership).

The Druze of the Golan don’t have any sort of requirement. The reasons are simple. For one, their loyalty is ambiguous. There have been vocal pro-Assad demonstrations in the Golan for years. The community has either been motivated by a genuine patriotism for Syria or fear that a land-for-peace deal might bring vengeful Syrian police to arrest anyone who advocated against Damascus while the territory was Israeli. But secondly, while it’s practical for the Israeli government to hold back anyone whose loyalty to the Jewish State is just non-existent, it’s also a humanitarian gesture and obligation that they don’t serve in the IDF. It is illegal under international law to force residents of an occupied territory to serve in the conqueror’s army. Even if it weren’t, it would be cruel to compel service to anyone who is conflicted about their national identity.

Golani Druze carry Israeli residency cards and have virtually open access to the country’s services without some of the rigors of citizenship, but maybe about 10% of them have accepted Israeli citizenship. Many Druze have taken the opportunity to attend universities, a fictional example of which coming from the Israeli film “Syrian Bride.” On the Syrian side of things, there is an exchange between the two countries for Golani college students to go for free (with Syrian government funding) to universities in Damascus. Funerals also bring visitors, who more and more over the years have gotten more relaxed ruled on moving between the borders.

After almost 50 years on the Israeli side, the attachment to Syria is breaking. The lot of native Israeli Druze is noticeably good. Despite whatever social and economic issues might exist for the small Israeli Druze community, it doesn’t approach critical levels. Intermingling is also much easier than with Syrian Druze. The social scene is also available to the younger Golani Druze, being just another opportunity to immerse themselves on the Israeli scene.

With no clear way of returning the Golan Heights to Syria, much less to a Syria ruled by Bashar al-Assad, Golan’s Druze will probably continue to adopt Israeli citizenship at an increasing rate.

Israel’s Navy Expanding to Defend Offshore Gas

Israel has expanded its relationship with Greece for two reasons. The first is because Greece is the natural alternative to having an alliance with Turkey, which is falling apart. The second is Greece is the natural patron of Cyprus, the other country about to win big from natural gas fields discovered in the Mediterranean Sea. Israel is planning to develop several fields, so naturally they will want a strong relationship with the other country nearby, Cyprus. The fields are in the “territorial waters” of the two countries, that is the area of ocean or sea water that is within legal range of a country’s coastline.

But that also involves Lebanon. Lebanon is nowhere near as advanced as Israel in its ability to explore for mineral deposits offshore. But now that Israel has hit the jackpot, Lebanon is making claims that some of the fields are in Lebanese water. The maps would have to be manipulated to make that true, but that hasn’t stopped Hezbollah and the rest of the Lebanese government from making an issue out of it. Hezbollah added fuel to the fire, threatening Israel if it crossed into the ambiguously defined Lebanese waters. In kind, Israel promised it would defend its gas deposits with force.

There is teeth to the Israeli words while little to Hezbollah’s. Despite what little naval options Hezbollah or Lebanon would have, Israel is stacking up. The navy is negotiating with South Korea and Hyundai to buy a bunch of new frigates. Israel recently had a spat with South Korea’s military industry because Jerusalem chose to buy a squadron of training planes from Italy instead of the Koreans. Filling the need to bulk up the navy and stay on good terms with South Korea is like killing two birds with one stone. Some even want Israel to stock up on bigger sorts of ships like destroyers and cruisers.

Israel is also replacing its joint naval war games with the Turks by conducting new ones with the Greeks. Greece is a patron to tiny Cyprus, so any business or military affairs happening on the island resonate in Athens. Greece is equally involved in the cultivation of the natural gas deposits as Cyprus or Israel, so the Greek navy will be the first natural ally for the Israelis in the Mediterranean.

Cyprus might end up mediating between the Israelis and the Lebanese on a maritime border. Cyprus already has working agreements with both countries on exploration, but both could be undermined if either country cannot begin working offshore. Lebanon refuses to ratify its agreement with Cyprus until it gets clarity on its southern border, forcing Cyprus to get pro-active about solving the dispute. Israel and Lebanon are also beginning to cooperate in other ways on the waters of the Mediterranean Sea – blocking Palestinian activists from crossing into Israeli waters on Land Day and Nakba Day. There is room to settle the dispute, but it might have more to do with Hezbollah’s willingness to cook up an issue to fight about then actually taking a pragmatic approach to the issue.

Turkey is the big reason though to bulk up. Initially you’d think I’m talking about the Flotilla incident in 2010, when the Israeli navy boarded a ship and killed nine Turkish activists on their way to protest the blockade of Gaza. The reason to buy bigger boats has more to do with Turkey’s relations with Cyprus. Turkey has a tense relationship with Cyprus. In 1974, Turkey invade Cyprus and carved out the northern third of the island as a separate country for Turkish residents – Northern Cyprus. Only Turkey recognizes the country, and in September 2011 signed a joint exploration deal with the tiny country to search for gas off the Northern Cypriot shore.

Turkey has had fierce rhetoric since and its own naval maneuvers, rattling its sabers in the direction of the Greek, southern Cyprus working with the Israelis. In December, Turkey drove ships toward the fields claimed by Israel and the southern Cypriots and fired in the direction of the fields. Israel and Cyprus have asked for help from the US to keep the Turks back, but the tensions are hot as Turkey seeks to stake a claim for itself and its tiny Northern Cypriot neighbor. The International Crisis Group in the beginning of April accused Turkey of a series of provocations against southern Cyprus, and told Turkey to discipline itself.

Turkey’s Alevis: An Intro

There’s been attention on the Alawite sect of late. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad comes from the sect, and the sectarian implications of the violence in Syria is huge. I recently posted about members of the religion who live in the Turkish-Syrian border area and how their emotions could complicate Turkish intervention in Syria.

Another group weighs even more heavily on Turkish politics: the Alevis. Their name has a similar origin to the Alawis’, but there are few similarities after that, religiously. Both groups are outgrowths of mainstream Shi’a Islam. Politically, the two groups have been traditionally marginalized and faced discrimination for their unorthodox beliefs. But the ambiguity of both groups’ religious beliefs has caused a lot of confusion. Religion and Middle East scholars often mix the two groups up unintentionally, making studying the two minorities unnecessarily difficult. That confusion even runs through the groups themselves. Since Alawites kept many particulars to their dogmas under wraps to a degree and Alevis are both secularized and don’t emphasize religious practice, the two groups have members who think the two religions have a lot more in common than they actually do.

Their beliefs are much more esoteric than mainstream Islamic sects. There are ideas similar to the Catholic trinity, heavy borrowings from Sufi ideas & a heightened appreciation of Muhammad’s cousin Ali.

Alevis might make up as much as 20% of Turkey’s population, though that rarely factors into political analysis. The party of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan is religious in nature, Sunni to be specific. Its popularity and indicator of resurgent religiosity in Turkey overshadow the diversity that actually does exist in Turkey. Alevis’ religion also has origins in the various Sufi sects that once had much more influence in Turkey during the period of the Ottoman Empire. It made telling the difference between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, in general, a difficult task. The groups has been influenced by Sufi spirituality, making their religious culture much richer in arts, dances and meditation. Because of the former influence of Sufis, Sunni Turks also felt their impact. That translates today in political terms.

Alevis have a tremendous but nuanced influence on the country. Because they are such a large group, their votes can make a difference. The fact the head of the Turkish opposition is an Alevi could spell future electoral trouble for Turkey’s leaders. Alevis also appreciate the secular traditions of modern Turkey much more than the current ruling party. Disenfranchised secular voters, combined with agitated minorities, could swing an election. In fact, it’s their religious beliefs that are actually a political issue in Turkey. Much of the ambiguity scholars reflect about Alevi and Turkish Sunni commonalities is because the Turkish government has maintained a policy that doesn’t recognize the minority as a separate religion. Recognition is important for many reasons, of late to avoid the mandatory Sunni-oriented Islamic classes in public schools. Because of that, the sect’s only institutions and places of worship don’t get the sort of government support that Sunni places do. Though the assumption they are Sunnis should enable money to flow to their centers, unofficial discrimination still exists.

On Syria, the confusion about Alevis’ connection to the Alawites isn’t the only thing that matters. Alevis might feel that an aggressive government policy toward Syria would actually be a Sunni push against a minority-ruled regime. If that were to happen, it could initiate the political backlash mentioned above.

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