Many Israelis skeptical peace can happen

Israeli peace monument

JERUSALEM – As US Secretary of State John Kerry’s arrives in Jordan for his sixth trip to the region this year, Israelis are questioning whether peace between Israel and Palestine can ever be achieved.

“Kerry didn’t do much of anything,” said David Boneh about Kerry’s most recent trip to Israel in late June. “There is no peaceful solution,” said the Israeli business owner and vendor in Jerusalem’s busiest market.

The eight generation Israeli believes peace between the border states is impossible. Although he wants to believe people will be able to live in harmony, Boneh thinks the on-going conflict will look “no different” in ten, twenty or thirty years.

Several rounds of unsuccessful peace talks and meetings between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, brokered by United States officials, are making some Israelis reconsider the possibility of peace between the two areas.

According to a recent poll conducted by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research 68 per cent of Israelis and 69 per cent of Palestinians believe the likelihood an independent Palestinian State will be created in the next five years is “low or non-existent.”

Military intervention, said 77 year-old David Cohen a merchant from Jerusalem, is the only way to reach an agreement. The history of Israel, said the three-time war veteran for the Israel Defense Soldier, is to fight.

“War may be tomorrow or in five years, we don’t know.”

Growing unrest in Syria and Egypt, however, is threatening to put Kerry’s Israel-Palestine peace talks agenda on the back burner. Kerry is not schedule to stop in Israel or the Palestinian territories, and will instead be meeting with Arab League officials to discuss the crisis in Israel’s most volatile neighbors, Egypt and Syria.

US Secretary of State John Kerry returns to region this week after what he described as a successful round of peace negotiations last month. Although Palestinian leader Mohammed Abbas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not meet, Kerry said the trip made significant headway.

Part of Kerry’s proposed peace plan includes a freeze on building new Israeli settlements in the West Bank – an issue that brought negotiations to a halt in 2010 – and the release of prisoners detained before the 1993 Oslo agreement. According to the same poll, a majority of Israelis believe a two-state solution is “bound to fail because of settlements.”

Kerry’s plan has been criticized by Palestinians who say it is too pro-Israel, and should offer more help to citizens of the Occupied Territories.  The adoption of a two-state solution, one that is supported by many in the international community, benefits Israelis over Arabs, said Omar, a Palestinian born in Israel.

“Within the next, five to seven years at the most, you will have some sort of two-state system, whether it is good or not is a different story,” he said. “This needs to change.”

A two-state solution, backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, would mean severing all times between Israel and the West Bank. Under the 1993 Oslo agreement, the West Bank was divided into three areas of varying degree of Israeli and Palestinian control.

Several outspoken Knesset members have voiced their disapproval for an independent Palestinian state. One-third of the Knesset, 42 of 120 members, are in favor of occupation and building Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

At a conference last month in Jerusalem, Israel’s economics and trade minister  Naftali Bennett told attendees Israel should annex large portions of the West Bank. Right now, Israel controls more than 60 per cent of the West Bank, with a strong military presence in a majority of that land. The idea of creating a Palestinian State, he said, is “over”.

David Wilder, the spokesman for The Committee of The Jewish Community of Hebron, is also adamant a two-state solution will not lead to peace.

“The only way to alleviate the situation we have now is to have a one state and basically make everyone citizens,” said David Wilder.

Regardless of whether a two-state or one-state solution is adopted, some Israeli residents are

optimistic about the future.

“We believe that very soon that will happen and together with the jews and the palestinians, we are going to be able to have peace as well,” said Donny Isenstack, a rabbi in Israel.

A face-to-face meeting between Israeli and Palestinians leaders last occurred in 2010. Both Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu have publicly stated their interested in a sit-down meeting.

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In Sderot, Life is Under Attack

Originally published on the Huffington Post.

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SDEROT– Fifteen seconds is the difference between life and death for residents in a small village 100 kilometers from Jerusalem. In Sderot, an agricultural village just a stone’s throw from the Gaza border, the fear of attack weighs heavy on everyone’s mind.

A giant multicolored slide stands in the middle of a playground at Kibbutz Mefalsim just outside Sderot. The structure is between two white cement blocks painted with brown monkeys and green flowers, and a narrow opening on one side. These cement structures, which blend in so well with their surroundings, are for protection, not play. The blocks are bomb shelters.

Bomb Shelter

“You always know a missile can land in your backyard,” said law student Noam Uerad standing next to the play structure. “You have learned to avoid a missile, but you never know when to expect an alarm.”

Sderot’s close proximity to the patrolled border with the Gaza Strip, complete with a barbed wire fence, makes it an easy target for Hamas and Al Qaeda-launched rockets and missiles.

Since 2001, more than 10,000 missiles have been launched toward Sderot, according to the Sderot Media Center, a nonprofit citizen journalism organization formed to bring attention to the community’s plight. Many of these remnants are on display at the local police station, while others are turned into intricate sculptures placed around the city.

Sculpture made of rockets

The exposure to the intense, on-going threat of missile and mortar attacks is a major stressor for the city’s residents. Almost 50 percent of the village’s preteens suffer signs of post-traumatic related symptoms including reliving attacks, according to a 2012 study by Journal of Adolescent Health. Since the fighting between Israel and Hamas intensified in the early 2000s, depression and anxiety among the village’s residents has doubled, states a study set to be published in the journal of Israeli Medical Association.

But native Sivan Hanukayev disagrees, saying the village does not suffer from PTSD. The disease’s definition, she said, implies the fighting and violence are over.

“In Sderot it is an endless situation,” she said. “We are experiencing on-going trauma…”

Here, just 800 meters from the Gaza border, children grow up playing Lego next to and inside bomb shelters, waiting for missiles to strike land.

“There is an entire generation that doesn’t know anything else,” added Uerad.

Bomb shelters are more common in Sderot than coffee shops in any major North American city. In many schools, the cement structures are painted in vibrant colors or disguised as 25-foot caterpillars that span the length of a playground. Common sites including bus shelters, garages, and rooms in family homes; even community mailboxes are made to withstand a missile attack.

Bomb shelter in playground

“Every kid born here has already experienced thousands of alarms,” emphasized Hanukayev, who can’t count how many attacks she has experienced.

Despite colorful paintjobs and clever designs, the city is always on alert. Children born and raised in Sderot, for the most part, know only a life of violence and terror. It’s their normal. The memories with the most impact are of violence and destruction.

“All those kids, their first memories, experiences and vacations, or forced vacations, happened because of the missiles,” added Hanukayev.

David Levi, 12, experienced his first rocket attack at age 4. His father parked the car at a nearby school, got out of the vehicle and took his sister to her kindergarten class. Levy was left alone in the backseat. Shortly after his father got back into the car, a rocket fell approximately 20 meters from their vehicle.

Levi is one of five smiling children in bright colored t-shirts standing against a white wall in the bomb shelter of his summer camp at Kibbutz Mefalsim. The pre-teens are sharing their first-hand experiences with rocket attacks.

Roni Tarnovski, 11, spent her 10th birthday in a bomb shelter following a rocket attack. In the evening, Tarnovski had to escape to an neighboring community. “It was scary,” she said.

Alon Cohen, an 11-year-old boy wearing a neon green t-shirt, begins to choke up as he speaks about one encounter with a rocket. Cohen was eating dinner at home with some friends when the warning siren went off. The boys, who were alone at the time, didn’t have a bomb shelter within sight so they hid under the dining room table. The experience, said Cohen, was stressful.

Kids like Cohen and Tarnovski are taught from a young age how to survive a missile attack. “Run to a shelter, or hide under a table,” said Tarnovski. While schools in other places conduct fire drills, in Sderot schoolchildren often perform routine bomb drills.

These training sessions work, but they take a toll on the students, said Anat Benami-Tarnovski, a mother and teacher at the camp. Two summers ago she had her students run from the deep water of a local swimming pool to the nearest shelter – all within 15 seconds. The test was tough, she admitted, and made the children aware of how fast they need to be when a siren sounds. This summer, she said, the students would not enter the deep water for fear of being too far from a shelter.

“It happens a lot,” she said about the frequency of missile strikes in her village. “It’s all the time.”

Regardless of their frequency, the attacks don’t seem to get any easier. The woman’s voice that echoes throughout the village when a warning siren goes off is etched into the memory of almost every resident, including the youngest children. Sometimes, however, residents are given no warning.

Despite a lifestyle plagued by the fear of the unknown, residents are optimistic about the future and about peace between Israel and Palestine. Many people living in Sderot will tell you they choose to live and stay in the war-afflicted village. For many, it’s where they have grown up and where they have made memories, both good and bad.

“It’s our responsibility to show we are not neglecting the people of Sderot because it can be unsafe,” said Uerad.

But it’s not just the adults that drive the optimistic spirit in this town: it’s the children.

“I really love this place no matter what,” said Levi, who sees himself as a symbol of a kid who should never abandon his home. Leaving this “magical place,” said Levi, means giving up.

“If we leave, they will have won,” he added. “Maybe sometime it will finish and it will be a nice place to live.”

rockets

Peaceful solution between Arabs and Israelis is unlikely

For an eighth-generation Israeli, a former soldier and now a shopkeeper in the teeming heart of Jerusalem’s busiest market, the outlook for the Arab-Israeli conflict is not a positive one. David Boneh sits in his small corner store in Mahane Yehuda selling freshly squeezed juice and sliced meats amidst the tumult and hubbub of the market while vendors out shout each other offering prices to passersby. The 54-year old said the noise can be overwhelming, but for him it is home.

Boneh working

Boneh’s family has owned an apartment in the market, more commonly known as the Shuk, for three generations. “It’s right there,” said Boneh, pointing to yellow building directing across the street from his shop. The apartment Boneh grew up in and sees from every angle from his shop now houses three American students. The noise in the market, said Boneh, was too much for his wife, so they decided to rent out the property. “She refuses to live there,” he said. “I don’t feel the noise.”

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But Boneh has not always called Jerusalem his home. For 20 years the soft-spoken electronics graduate from the Holon College of Technology lived in Rimonim, an Israeli settlement 20 minutes away from East Jerusalem on the West Bank. The settlement, like others in the West Bank, is controversial in the international community, where many view building in Palestinian territory illegal. Rimonim, named for the pomegranate trees in the area, was built in 1977 as a temporary com plex for Nahal military personnel, a group that combines military service and farming. By the time Boneh left in 2004, the temporary settlement had grown from five families to hundreds of residents. Living on the West Bank, said Boneh, gave him a new outlook on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Meeting and interacting with Palestinians on a daily basis helped him develop friendships and collegial relationships with Arabs, but more importantly it provided an insight into the difficulties of life on the other side of the wall. Despite taking several vacations with Arab friends, Boneh said he remains guarded and wary. “I don’t trust them,” he said, turning to the left to look at his male Arab colleague selling meat to a group of foreigners. More than two decades ago his family moved out of the Jewish Quarter after his great-grandfather’s butcher shop was taken over by Arabs. Now, he said he often feels uncomfortable taking his four kids, and wife through Damascus Gate. For now, Boneh is content working and living side-by-side with Arabs, so long as he doesn’t have to venture inside the gigantic limestone walls of the Old City.

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Police stop women from praying at Western Wall

Originally published on the Huffington Post 

JERUSALEM- In another example of the growing stress of the ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews on Israeli society, you only have to go as far as the Wailing Wall.

Police barricades blocked hundreds of Women of the Wall supporters, a liberal Jewish women’s group, who are demanding equality of worship at the Western Wall.  The ancient revered wall is one of Jerusalem’s holiest sites.

“We have the right to pray at the wall just like anyone else, and they (the ultra-Orthodox community) will get use to us,” said the organization’s director Lesley Sachs.

Current customs prevent females from wearing prayer shawls and from praying and reading the Torah aloud, as men are permitted to do. The group faces stiff opposition from the Ultra Orthodox community who say prayer shawls and other similar religious items are reserved for men.

Women of the Wall supporters

The group’s estimated 350 members were corralled into a section of the plaza in front of the Western Wall, guarded by lines of police officers and barriers.  It’s the first time in 25 years the women have been prevented from holding their monthly limited service at the wall.

“It is simply wrong,” said one of the group’s supporters Ellyn Bender. “Cage them, as well as create a space for us.”

About 1,000 ultra-Orthodox men gathered on the opposite side of the barricades, chanting and yelling profanities at the women. Midway through the service two ultra-Orthodox women charged their way through the crowd blowing their whistles to drown out the prayers. Some also threw eggs at the women seeking fairer treatment at the wall.

The oppositions’ behavior, said Bender, was inappropriate.

“For them to be yelling things like prostitute at us is completely unholy and unJewish.”

ultra-Orthodox

The unprecedented police action to restrict the group’s access was a necessary security measure, said Israeli Police Spokeswoman Kagit Rapapore. The decision, she said, had nothing to do with religion or politics, but with over-crowding in the women’s section of the wall.  As many as 7,000 young Orthodox women were out in support of their community.

The movement got a significant boost last April after a Jerusalem District Court Judge ruled the liberal women were not violating a high court ruling by wearing prayer shawls and reciting the Torah aloud at the Western Wall.The group’s director repudiated the police’s statement, saying there was enough space for them to pray.

Jerusalem’s Old City

Just over a week ago I landed in Israel for an international reporting program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  I wasn’t sure what to expect when I got here, but the country and the culture is more fascinating than I imagined.

After more than 24 hours of air travel from Ottawa to Tel Aviv, I hopped on a Sherut – which is basically a commuter bus in North America – to Jerusalem. The bus was my first snapshot of what Israel is really like: a cultural mosaic. Two young American students taking part in a pre-med program sat beside me, a Canadian-Israeli military officer was behind me talking to another Canadian about his work in high-tech, and two Orthodox Jews rode at the front of a bus, driven by an Israeli Arab. One bus ride depicted the diversity in Israel that makes it so great, but also causes political turmoil.

After a good night’s sleep and some much needed coffee the next morning, my group and I departed for the Old City – one of the holiest places on Earth. Massive limestone walls that span for kilometers separate the Old City from the rest of Jerusalem. The walls that were built to protect the city’s borders also divide the city into different quarters: Muslim; Jewish; and Christian. Regardless of religion, the Old City and its historical gems are sacred to people all over the world.

A view of the Old City from the Mount of Olives
A view of the Old City from the Mount of Olives

Navigating the winding, narrow sidewalks in the Old City would have been impossible without our knowledgeable American-Israeli tour guide, Cliff. Together we walked the Stations of the Cross, or the Via Dolorosa, where Jesus carried the cross from the Lion’s Gate to the famous Church of the Holy Sepulchre – the site of his crucifixion. Walking this path really hit home that Jesus was more than just a biblical tale. At one point, you can see a handprint in the wall where Jesus collapsed under the weight of the cross. Stories say two men from the crowd were picked at random to help Jesus carry the cross to its final destination.

Fifth Station on the Via Dolorosa

Our second day at the Old City was completely different. Rather than focusing on stories in the Bible and the Torah, we were learning about the people that live inside the Old City. This visit, the almost claustrophobically small sidewalks were jam packed with people. Friday is a day of prayer for Muslims, attracting thousands of people all over the country to the Dome of the Rock, the mosque with a reflective gold dome that can be seen from almost anywhere in Jerusalem. In addition to a loud call to prayer that echoched through all quarters of the city, vendors were out in full-force yelling at tourists and locals to buy their goods, as Franciscan monks and supporters prepared for the Via Dolorosa procession and IDF soldiers with machine guns on their shoulders stood on guard. Needless to say it was a hectic day.

I’ve only been here for a week or so, but I think it’s a country I could get used to. Below are some photos I took at the Western Wall, in the Old City and on the Mount of Olives.

Harlem Meer Performance Festival

The Harlem Meer Performance Festival is a tradition that runs every Sunday from Father’s day to Labor Day weekend. For 18 years, it has been attracting local residents, foreign tourists and musicians alike. Annie Claire Bergeron-Oliver attended the festival’s last performance.