Saturday, March 31, 2007

Pesach is Coming

The streets are filled with old furniture, and the gutters are running with grime as families power-wash the last of the chometz (leavened bread/pasta) crumbs from their homes in preparation for Pesach (Passover.) Monday night is game time, when we switch over all utensils and foods to the special, super-strict kosher for Pesach level.

Of course, I don't have any of my Pesach stuff here with me, so I had to go on a whole new round of shopping. I stocked up on piles and piles of meat products (salami, sauseges, etc.) but when I got home I looked at the labels and realized they were all with kitnyot (rice, corn, and legumes,) which Sephardim can eat during Pesach, but Ashkenazim like me can't. Ah, well, it's a new country, live and learn. Into the freezer they go, until after Pesach.

Anyway, Thursday saw me at the Bar Mitzvah of one of the neighborhood kids. His chevruta (study partner) also performs tricks, like juggling and amazing feats of coordination, with his twin brother. It was pretty amazing considering the kids were thirteen.

The brothers juggle together.
Juggling together from a distance.

Juggling together from a distance, while one brother balances on a plank on a bucket. I still can't believe he was able to pull this off.

Anyway, onward tomorrow with a shidduch, finishing my Pesach cleaning, and bedikat chomets (checking the house for leaven.) Monday night will see me at the seder with my landlord. There's never a dull moment in Israel.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Wedding of Jonathan Neril

As is said, when the month of Adar comes in, joy increases. Well, we're already in Nissan, but I have some pictures that I've been meaning to post from a wedding I went to on 25th Adar (which is also known as March 15th.) The wedding of my friend and landsman, who made aliyah from Walnut Creek a couple of years before I did, Jonathan Neril.

Transportation from Jerusalem was by communal bus, those of us without cars headed down to Shapelles Yeshiva to meet up. With the sleet and occasional snow falling heavily, walking through about a half-mile of the stuff to get from my bus stop to the meeting place, I began thinking about how much more wonderful life would be with a car.

Hail on a car roof, in Jerusalem before departure.

By the time we got out of Jerusalem to the nearby settlement of Kibbutz Kfar Etzion where the wedding was being held, it was dark. And at the higher elevation, they had experienced something very rare for this time of year in Israel....

SNOW! It looked like a full six inches and gave the landscape a dreamy feel.

As the wedding was getting started, Jonathan's father recognized me from Walnut Creek, and came over and handed me a video camera, asking me to video the whole wedding. So the pictures you see were taken while holding my digital camera in my left hand and the camcorder in my right. It took lots of focus, but had benefits, since I got a front and center view.

Meanwhile, inside, Jonathan gets warmed up with the guys.

And now for bedeiken (checking to make sure you've got the right bride.)

Jonathan's Parents take him back from the bedeikin.

Jonathan and his wife Shana are to move to the small yishuv of Bat Ayin, which has a reputation as back-to-nature organic whole-grain type of community. I'm hoping to get out there and blog the place some time soon. Jonathan, learning in the yeshivah there, invited his fellow bochurim (bachelors/fellow students,) so I got to see some familiar faces from the bay area.

The Bat Ayin guys set up their natural wood chuppah (wedding canopy,) with Adam, Jonathan's brother, on guitar.

The chatan (groom) under the chuppah with his parents.

Here comes the bride.

The reading of a most artistic ketubah.

Mazal tov! They're married. And now, off to the yichud room (alone room.) We got a little lost in the snow, as nobody really knew where it was, but we made it eventually.

Some collapsed in the snow in ecstasy.
Back at the wedding hall, the real fun begins.

Over the mechitzah.
Adam Neril and yours truly.
There's a mitzvah (commandment) to bring joy to the new couple, so one minhag (tradition) is to perform all sorts of tricks. In this case, a dangerous-looking ninja-dance with a wooden pole that could knock the lights out of anyone who got in its way.

Others display their musical talents.

The happy couple, starting sheva brachot (the seven special blessings recited after a wedding.)

Mazal tov to the new couple!

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Ani Rotzeh Mechonit! (I want a car!)

Standing on the curb waiting for the number six, the future passengers peeked around the Jerusalem-stone lined edge of the corner building. Ears perk and twitch, listening for that distinctive diesel engine rev. A miracle of the human creation, the auditory system can learn to pick the exact frequency and volume of the groan of the double-long bus from two hundred yards. Between the mess of banging and honking in the urban jungle, the sound of freedom, or at least gradual forward movement, at last comes, as the bus roars around the corner and comes to a stop. The doors hiss open and the crowd floods in. Being the sucker American, I let the old ladies ahead, who promptly elbow me back out the door. I try to hand my ticket to the bus driver, but the five foot thick wall of sweating human flesh between us blocks me. As the doors hiss shut, again and again, trying to compress my square peg of a body into the round hole of a bus, I reach a decision. It’s time to buy a car.

It wasn’t an easy decision. I’m watching the economy grow, massive new public works projects go up in the city, and better electronics fill the stores, but I will always associate life in Israel with poverty. It stems from my time in Be’er Sheva, when I lived in a working class neighborhood on a paltry research stipend. I remember the feeling of knowing that the food I had in the house wouldn’t be enough to last the week. I remember the woman who slept in her car under my bedroom window, the stray dogs, and the slums. I remember buying a bag of potatoes and then taking ketchup packets from burger king to make dinner for a week. I really didn’t mind so much, since the Talmud tells us that three things are bought with hardship: Torah, Olam Hab’ah (the next world,) and Eretz Yisrael.

It makes a car seem, well, haughty, like I’m cheating the system. After all, I don’t have army or reserve duty, I don’t have many problems with the language though I’m far from fluent, and I came with a great job already in the bag, so where’s the suffering? Not that I’m volunteering, it was just expected.

The fact is, I’m spending an hour each way on the bus to get downtown. That’s two hours to get to yeshivah and back, four if I want to go back into town later for a shidduch. Speaking of shidduchim, “I’ll pick you up in a fully-functional motor vehicle,” sounds a lot better than “I’ll pick you up on the number six.” So I thought I would buy a used car, like the old, unpretentious rust rocket I used to drive in Walnut Creek. But cars in Israel have a very high resale value, and I have immigrant benefits which reduce the taxes on cars from the astronomic 77% down to the merely stratospheric 50%. (Don’t quote me on those numbers. They could be higher) The discount makes it cheaper for me to buy something brand new.

And so the next aliyah phase begins. I’ve already started the process of transferring my California license over to Israeli, first by going to the driving school, then the eye doctor, then getting my physical, then going to the licensing office, then going back after they sent me home with the wrong papers. Next come lessons, the test, and the car purchase. It’s a major pain, but the freedom of the open road beckons!

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Sderot 4: The Spirit of Sderot

During the incessant rocket attacks against the Jewish communities of Gaza prior to the disengagement, only one or two families left. While Sderot was always a target, most rocket attacks remained focused on the settlements, which were closer at hand, and thus easier targets, than Sderot itself. Now that the Jewish communities of Gaza have been destroyed, the forces of Jihad have moved the cross hairs onto Sderot. But unlike the front line settlements, Sderot is not such an idealistic community. Jews moved here fleeing persecution in Muslim lands, poverty in Russia, and exile in Ethiopia. Life is hand-to-mouth, and there is little thought of a higher religious or national purpose. Without a higher ideal, the misery of life under constant rocket threat becomes unbearable.

"About four thousand out of the twenty four thousand residents have left," Noam tells us.

That's a sixth of the population. It seems that the overwhelming majority would leave if given the chance. Sderot's Mayor Eli Moyal made the reality of the situation clear, "Either turn Beit Hanoun into a ghost town or Sderot will become a ghost town."

So why don't they just pack up and leave? For one thing, real estate prices have plummeted by almost 50% since the attacks began. Another reason is the traditional family structure. Most of the families here are immigrants who moved together as a unit, with all their brothers, aunts, and cousins to the same little town, and don't really know anyone outside the city. For these people, there is simply nowhere to go.

While, amidst plummeting prices, building has all but ceased in Sderot, there is one place that's still under construction; the yeshiva.

The new yeshiva under construction. The Beit Midrash (study hall) located in the basement is already in use.

The beit midrash (study hall.)

"This is an important ideal of Religious Zionism," the Rosh Yeshivah (head of the yeshiva) tells us. "We need to move into the towns that are having problems. Sderot is by no means a religious town. We need to build up the spirit here." Since the death of secular Zionism, the people here have been without the motivation or idealism necessary to carry on. The yeshiva hopes to fill that void, bringing a spirit of love of the land and spiritual strength necessary to carry on the struggle for Sderot.

The Rosh Yeshivah (Yeshivah Head,) Rav Dov Fendel

"Secular Zionism is dead. We, the religious, have to offer an alternative."

He is part of a movement within the national religious which has become stronger since the destruction of Jewish Gaza, of "Hitchabrut" (connection.) It had always been assumed that, despite the tendency of the Israeli government to constantly speak of "painful concessions," the nation was largely supportive of the settlement endeavor. Upon realizing that the connection between the nation and the settlers had weakened, the national religious movement began sending "garinim," seed groups to set up yeshivot in towns not previously associated with Judaism. These groups provide a place of refuge, an alternative, for those raised without knowledge of Judaism but a desire to grow and learn.

The situation became more acute in front-line towns like Sderot. For many, the crux of the Zionist argument was that Jews, living as a minority in often hostile lands, were defenseless subjects of the often violent urges and religious or racial hatred of the surrounding peoples. Zionism, the ideology that Jews should live in and rule their own land, was to remedy this ill by giving Jews the opportunity to communally defend themselves from such persecution. But in Sderot, eighteen people have already been murdered, and the airborne torment rains down unabated. Despite Israel's military superiority, its unwillingness, in an act of moral vanity, to put this ability to use, exposes Zionism as a sham. It calls into question whether the Israeli government is truly sovereign. Because Zionism can no longer answer its critics, or defend its people, the people are searching for a more believable answer.

"In a few hundred years," Rav Fendel says, "when they excavate the town, I want them to remember not that Sderot was a town with a yeshiva, but a yeshiva with a town."

The yeshivah under construction.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Sderot 3: Life Under the Rockets

Arriving at our destination, Noam Bedein of the Sderot Information Center met us near one of the older apartment complexes in the city. Built prior to the laws passed after the First Iraq War requiring all buildings to have bomb shelters, the original apartment blocks of Sderot are completely unprotected.

One of the original tenement blocks of Sderot, circa 1950's.

Overall, the security situation in Sderot is one of grinding misery. Since the rocket launches have started seven years ago, families living in unprotected homes have crowded into the most protected rooms they can find.
"One of my friends' families," Noam tells us, "has been sleeping together in the living room for two years. Parents, children, everyone."
Evidence of the rocket attacks are everywhere, if you know where to look.

Damage from an Arab rocket attack on a public market.

What looks like an ordinary pothole is a recently repaired crater from a rocket attack.

Grooves cut in the brick, dug by shrapnell radiating outward from the impact location.

A view of the site of the same attack. Qassam rockets fire deadly shrapnel over 100 feet. Note the new glass on all the store windows.

People living under rocket threat are forced to make unbearable choices.

"I was in shul a few days ago when the 'Red Color' went off," Noam tells us. "I saw a father with two children, who was forced to decide which child to carry with him to the shelter."

The remains of Qassam rockets. Each terror gang paints its rockets a different color, in a sort of friendly Jew-killing competition.

Exploded Qassams

Occasionally, some money will shake loose from the government, or more often from private donors. The question then becomes where to spend the money. On researching a defensive system to shoot down the Qassams, or to fortify school buildings.

Driving through the town, I suddenly realize the purpose of the half-tubes built over the buildings I saw coming in.
Rocket protection over a school building.

But rocket proofing the schools has not been easy. To completely protect a school building costs two to three times as much as the building itself. In order to avoid the cost of completely protecting the school buildings, the government only provided a fraction of the funds necessary. The argument was that children in grades one through three would not be able to empty a classroom in fifteen seconds, but older kids would.

More rocketproofing over school buildings.

Shrapnel-proof windows.

To prove their point, the army filled a schoolroom with soldiers and ordered them to evacuate the room, which they did in under fifteen seconds. The fallacious argument that a classroom of fourth graders could be expected to evacuate with the same orderliness and precision as a group of adult, trained soldiers is laughable, but it prevented the government from having to pay for the additional fortifications. The city of Sderot is now suing the government for the extra funding required to completely rocketproof the schools.

The first rocket-proof Kindergarten in Israel. Note the thickness of the concrete.

By far the most disturbing idea is the long-term psychological effects that the terror bombardments will have on the children. Today there is a generation of children being raised who have never lived without the Qassam threat.

"A teacher told me that she asked her kindergarden class what the snail's shell was for. They all answered together, 'To protect it from the Qassams.'"

And what about going home from school? Well, you're on your own at that point.

To be continued...

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Sderot 2: Attack and Response

To every measure, there is a countermeasure. Israel has set up watch stations along the border with Gaza. Heat-sensitive cameras trained on Arab villages on the other side detect the high temperature of the rocket engines as they rev to full speed. This heat signature triggers an announcement over loudspeakers throughout the town, "Red Color! Red Color!" which sends Jewish civilians running for cover. After fifteen seconds, no more, the rocket impacts.

Thermal imaging equipment on a hilltop overlooking the Gaza border watching for the heat signature of a missile launch.

The frequency of missile strikes against Jewish civilians varies as the security situation heats up or cools down. On an average day, the city is bombarded with three Qassams. During a cease fire, when Israel refrains from all defensive military actions, the number of bombardments can reduce to as few as one or two. During a particularly bad spell, sixty Qassams landed in one hour, during Shabbat. Missile strikes are carefully timed for commuting hours, when people are out and unsheltered, to increase their chances of hitting innocent civilians.

Map showing Qassam strikes, as well as fatalities, during the Sderot Blitz.

There are small victories. An observation blimp with , tethered to the Israeli side of the Gaza border, peers over the border into the wastes of the now-destroyed Jewish settlement of Elei Sinai.

While the residential areas of Gazan Beit Hanoun are a mere half-mile from Sderot, they aren't far enough to fire into the neighboring, much larger city of Ashkelon. Occasionally, rocket crews set up in the ruins of Elei Sinai and the race is on. Can the Israeli army spot and kill the rocket launchers before they can fire their deadly weapons?
Locations of the strategic assets on the Gaza Border.

The Ashkelon power plant.

Despite the Palestinian Authority's abrogation of the Oslo Accords, Israel still fulfills its requirements, supplying Gaza with electric power and clean water free of charge. The rocket crews have therefore been quite hesitant to hit the power plant itself, lest they knock out their own electricity, which they are totally incapable of generating on their own. This has not prevented them, however, from firing over the power plant and into the city of Ashkelon itself.
The observation blimp, tethered to the ground.
Observation blimp closeup.

Israel is stuck in a precarious situation. Every military response necessarily results in the death of Arab civilians the Palestinian Authority uses as human shields. Rockets are launched from the rooftops of UNRWA schools or crowded apartment complexes. The terror gangs which make up the Palestinian Authority understand Israel's hypersensitivity to enemy civilian casualties, a hypersensitivity largely caused by the fact many Israelis in the decision-making class do not regard the civilians supporting these rocket attacks as enemies but merely future friends whose grievances and demands have not yet been accommodated. In order not to poison future negotiations, if they are ever to start again, and Israel attempts to reduce the suffering of the civilians living on the other side of the Gaza fence, and therefore does not respond militarily to prevent attacks from the civilian areas in Gaza. Similarly, Israel does not wish to poison relations with the rest of the international community, which expresses shock and outrage every time Israel enters Gaza to cleanse the place of rocket launchers and manufacturing facilities.
And so, the working class people of Sderot, without the friends in high places necessary to get anything done in this country, are left to their own devices. As Labor Party leader and Nobel Peace Laurete Shimon Peres put it, "What's the big deal? Kiryat Shmonah was shelled for years. Qassams, shmassams."
Ruins of exploded Qassam Rockets

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Sderot 1: The Qassams

Previous related posts on the history of Gaza and Sderot:

Gaza of the Phillistines
Gaza in History 1: The Romans through Israeli Independence
Gaza in History: After Independence
Sderot and the UNRWA
Gaza until the Peace Process

During the first intifada, and even more intensely during the peace process, the walls began to rise again. As Israel weakened its grip on Gaza, and its will to fight as a nation ebbed, the Arabs continued to increase terrorist attacks. After Israel had withdrawn from Gaza and major Arab cities, it was no longer possible to gather intelligence on the ground. Prevention of terror turned into fortification against the inevitable attacks. Prior to the intifada Arab representative issued only words of protest and condemnation against Israel. As Israel gradually came to accept Arab arguments, in the moral vacuum in which Israel refused to make its own case for a Jewish presence in Gaza, words turned into stone throwing at passing vehicles in the late 1980s. So Jews bought special shatter-proof windows for their vehicles. So the Arabs changed tactics and began suicide bombings. To prevent the suicide bombs, the Israeli Army set up makeshift checkpoints to search for explosives. Bombers figured out how to get around the checkpoints, so the checkpoints became fences. The Arabs figured out how to penetrate the fences, and the fences became walls.
Torn up dirt marking the ruins of Jewish Elei Sinai, destroyed in last summer's disengagement. The strip to the right is the new border wall.

On the other side of the wall, antitank rockets, C4 explosives, and small arms poured into the areas in Gaza recently abandoned by Israel. Any and every freedom and all humanitarian aid won through negotiations was immediately invested in intensifying the war against Israel. During the second intifada starting in 2000, and even more so after the Hitnatkut, the various terror gangs deployed small rockets.

The rocket is a crummy, barely airworthy baby brother of the Russian-made Katyusha, which gained infamy in last August's Second Lebanon War. Built from scrap metal and anything that could be stolen, including sewage pipes donated by international aid organizations, the rocket is wildly inaccurate but packs a 10-kilogram (22 pound) payload.

The Qassam rocket

The ease of construction makes it very difficult to control the import and distribution of the weapon. Rather than purchasing the rockets on the black market and importing them whole, they can be easily assembled from household goods. The critical component, the explosive warhead, is much easier to come by now that Israel has withdrawn from Gaza and surrendered all border controls to the Palestinian Authority. Launchers can also be readily assembled from spare parts.

Qassams, fired from makeshift launchers, can be assembled in seconds.

Hamas named the "Qassam" after a local Muslim fundamentalist preacher and highway bandit of the 1920's. Izz Adin Al Qassam formed his own terror gang, the "Black Hand," which attacked Jews and British living in the land of Israel during the 1920's and 30's, until he was surrounded by British police in a cave in Jenin and killed, thus entering local folklore.

Logo of Hamas' Qassam Brigades

Iz Adin al Qassam. Islamic fundamentalist, highway robber, and Gazan folk hero, killed by the British colonial rulers of Palestine in the 1930's

One thing I had never understood until arriving in Gaza was their ability to consistently hit the city of Sderot. After all, if these rockets are so crudely constructed, and wildly inaccurate, how could they make such precise hits? Maps appearing on the news showing firings from Arab Beit Hanoun into Jewish Sderot show the cities as two tiny dots.

A map showing the range of the Qassam

But travelling to the outskirts of the city, and viewing the proximity of the two cities gives a much better understanding why the rockets have been so successful.

Sderot is less than half a mile from Beit Hanoun, and the city of Sderot sprawls over several kilometers. One only needs to fire a rocket in the general eastward direction and it's bound to hit something, or someone.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Attack and Response