Thursday, December 25, 2003
Another Bethlehem Xmas

Midnight mass passed relatively quietly in Bethlehem this year. In fact, you could have mostly just re-broadcast the coverage from the year before or two years ago: same rotten mood, same sparse crowds, and in the church the same empty chair draped with a keffiyeh where Arafat was supposed to sit.

Arafat remains in the Muqata'ah this year (where he will hopefully spend the rest of his hopefully very short life). Outside the Church of the Nativity, a group of Palestinians stood protesting. As the Times describes the scene:
And among the children prancing in Santa suits, several Palestinian families held a protest to demand the return of their relatives, militants whom Israel has deported to Europe and the Gaza Strip.
Now, please bear in mind that these family members being referred to are a bunch of gunment who took over the Church of the Nativity last year. They held the clergymen there hostage in a standoff with the IDF that lasted more than a month. The standoff only ended once an agreement was reached whereby the gunmen would be deported to Europe instead of being arrested here. Some of them have recently been arrested in Belgium on armed robbery charges.

Besides these protests, there have also been a lot of cries about the fact that Arafat was not allowed to come and about the security fence giong up to protect Israelis from Palestinian terrorism.

As to the former, what can I say? Arafat is a terrorist. If there was any justice in the world, he'd be rotting in a cell next to Saddam instead of being the toast of Europe. If you can't have him rotting in jail, you should at least be able to have him rot in his own headquarters. Besides, what's all the damned fuss about? The guy's a Muslim. Whose rights are we violating from keeping him from attending a Christian mass?

As for the fence, you have to hand it to the Palis. They might be lacking in most basic forms of common sense but they do know how to stay on message. Everyone, from the people in the square to Bethlehem's mayor knew to scream about the "wall" every time they saw the camera crews from CNN or Sky. Does it matter that the "wall" (which is in reality mainly a fence) doesn't come all that near to Bethlehem? You bet it doesn't.

But, as someone pointed out last year, when it pissed down rain on Christmas Eve, they even manage to blame Israel for the weather.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003
Season's Greetings

And seeing as how the sixth night of Chanukkah falls on Christmas Eve this year, I just want to take the opportunity to wish everyone out there a happy Chanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Festivus, or what ever else you might want to celebrate this year.

O Little Muslim Town of Bethlehem

So, it's Christmas time again and in Bethlehem, things are in the same miserable state they've been in since the Palestinians launched the intifada three years ago.

It was reported yesterday that a bunch of "peace" activists are planning on staging a protest to mark Christmas. They want to hold up signs saying "Would Mary have Been Able to get through Israeli Roadblocks?" It's an interesting question, and one whose answer would probably be "yes". That is, unless Mary was trying to smuggle an explosive belt under her skirt or hide grenades and pistols in baby Jesus' swaddling clothes.

I think the better question is whether Mary, Jesus and Joseph would be able to live in Bethlehem at all. Over the last decade and a half, the demographics of Bethlehem changed. Palestinian Christians, who were the majority in the town for millenia, suddenly found themselves outnumbered by Muslims. And not just any old Muslims. Bethlehem has a large Hamas base.

In general, things have gotten increasingly uncomfortable for Palestinian Christians. Since the PA took control over, there's been a real drive to highlight the Muslim character of the Palestinian national movement. Historically, Palestinian nationalism was supposed to neutralize the differences between Christians and Muslims. Because of this, some of the most fanatic Palestinian nationalists -- Edward Said to give just one example -- have been Christians.

No more. Now Palestinian Christians find themselves caught between the IDF on the one hand and wild-eyed, kalachnikov-and-Koran-toting thugs on the other. No wonder that they've been leaving the area in droves (and thus exacerbating the demographic problem for those who remain).

So, as things are going now if Jesus and his parents were in Bethlehem today, the best they could hope for would be a life of dhimmitude, living as second-class citizens.

Brilliant TV

One of the less pleasant aspect of living in Israel is that you develop a tremendous sense of paranoia when it comes to anything connected to home repairs. Every time you call a plumber or electrician in to fix something, you operate from the assumption -- warranted or not -- that the guy is there to rip you off.

Channel 2 debuted an amusing show last night which plugs into this feeling. The program is called Yatzata Tzadik ("You Came off as a Saint") and its premise is pretty simple: They take an average Israeli household (whose last name is actually "Israeli", oddly enough) and wire up their house with cameras and microphones. Every week, they set up some minor technical problem and call a number of different technicians or handymen in to fix it. They then see which of these technicians/handymen are honest and professional and which ones will try to rip them off.

Last night's show dealt with refrigerator repairs. The show's producers disconnected the light bulb wires in the refrigerator. The rest of the fridge continued to work fine. They then had different members of the Israeli family call the technician to tell them there was a problem with the refrigerator. The repairmen were judged according to: Professionalism (would they find the problem and fix it), honesty (would they tell the owners that the only thing wrong with their fridge is the light bulb or would they also "find" some additional nonexistent problems), and price (the maximum they should really charge should be 200 NIS).

Two of the five repairmen passed the test and were rewarded with a medal and some good free publicity. One repairman ripped apart the refrigerator thinking there was a problem with the fan, then couldn't find the problem, and finally told the family to ship the fridge back to the manufacturer (cost of shipping alone: 400 NIS). Two others fixed the problem and charged a decent price, but failed the honesty test. They both invented stories that the refrigerator had a stuck fan.

More embarrassingly, both were caught on camera taking food or chugging water from a bottle in the fridge without asking.

According to the show's host, they actuallycalled in 20 repairmen to have a look at the broken light. Only four passed the test, more evidence to justify our feeling that we're being ripped off. The sad thing is that the two guys who failed the test on grounds of honesty didn't actually gain anything. They could have in good faith charged the same price for fixing the lightbulb as they would for unsticking a fan. And eating someone's food without permission is simply boorish.

(Hysterically, the show's producers stung the technicians on this. They had a family member come out, look inside the fridge, and then start hysterically accusing the others of eating her bourekas or drinking her water. This escalated into such a family row that the technicians couldn't have dug themselves holes deep enough to hide in. Both slunk out of there as quickly as possible).

One of the two technicians who got the medal voiced what seems to be the moral of the show. "I work hard to get a loyal customer base," he said. "If I rip them off, they won't call me a second time and they won't recommend me to others, so I'd be shooting myself in the foot."

And if common sense doesn't tell you that, perhaps you need to be subjected to a dose of naming and shaming on prime time TV.

On Refuseniks

Imshin has a number of spot-on observations about the mentality of people like the IDF soldiers who recently signed a letter saying they refused to serve in the territories:
They are setting themselves apart, separating themselves from the people, and therefore losing their ability to influence. People who live in a society have a responsibility to others in that society, and not only to their consciences. No man is an island and all that. The hard thing is not refusing to man a checkpoint. The hard thing is standing in that checkpoint, day after day, week after week, and behaving humanely. And making sure everyone else behaves humanely.
Another thing that foreign supporters of IDF refuseniks don’t seem to realize is that legitimizing left-wing refusal also legitimizes right-wing refusal. If it’s okay to refuse to guard settlements in the disputed territories, its also okay to refuse to forcibly dismantle them, when the time comes.
The latter is probably the strongest argument against these guys.

Meet the New National Squad

In a rare example of an Israeli football coach actually taking advice and doing the right thing, Avraham Grant announced a complete overhaul of the national football team yesterday. All the big names -- Revivo, Berkovic, Nimni -- are out. In their place he's put together a squad of young and relatively unknown players whom he hopes to forge into a winning side by 2008.

It's a good idea all around. The younger players get to test their skills against some of the best footballers in the world. Their egoes have yet to be inflated to Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade size, which means they might play as a cohesive team. (An old joke: What's the difference between Berkovic and God? God doesn't think he's Berkovic).

And anyway, what do we have to lose? It's not like the current team, which includes some of the best players the country has ever produced, has done anything of note in international competitions.

Now, all Grant has to do is take some other advice and get his boys to the point where they can actually run around for 90 minutes.


The General Security Services and the IDF have caught a large Hamas cell working in the Ramallah area. The cell was composed of 22 terrorists, split into three separate groups. It was responsible for the murder of 10 Israelis in a number of different shooting attacks. Although the security forces say that they have in the past captured terrorist cells which were more lethal, this is the largest and most sophisticated one that has fallen.

The group was caught before they had a chance to carry out a Gruesome plan to capture soldiers. According to the plan, the terrorists would use a garbage truck to ram a military vehicle. When the soldiers would get out of the vehicle, the terrorists would open fire. They would then grab the bodies to be used as bargaining chips in order to get their cronies released from prison.

Because the Hamas guys weren't sure if their getaway vehicle could hold all the corpses, they planned to decapitate some of them and had bought the equipment to do so. Just in case you've forgotten what kind of animals we're dealing with in this war on terror.

Another fun tidbit: the cell received its funding from Hamas HQ in Syria. Bear that in mind next time Bashar Assad tries to peddle that "Harboring terrorists? Mois?" crap again.

The operation puts a big dent in the terror infrastructure of Ramallah. Not that there won't be some new cockroaches to take the place of these ones, but at least it will take them some time to organize. And hopefully the IDF and GSS will be waiting for them before they do.

Wouldn't it be nice if the PA would do this instead of Israel? You know, like they promised to do when they signed the road map?

Tuesday, December 23, 2003
Israel's Nukes

Now that Qadaffi has announced he's getting rid of his WMDs, I fear it's just a matter of time until pressure comes on Israel to do the same with its nukes. We're already seeing the first inklings of this. Take for instance Christopher Hitchens' analysis of the Libya announcement in Slate recently. Although the piece deals with Libya and the success of the war on terror, Hitch can't resist the temptation to take a swipe at Ariel Sharon over Israel's nuclear weapons and wonders when Israel will be forced to give them up.

In an excellent reply, Roger L. Simon argues, amongst other things:
Israel [is] one of the longest-lasting nuclear powers on Earth (just after the Americans, Soviets, British, and French --I'm not sure where the Chinese fit in) and they have never once used one. They have behaved just as responsibly with their nukes as any of the foregoing, maybe more than some.

In other words, Mr. Hitchens, why should the Israelis have to give up their nuclear arms before the Americans, British, French, Russians or Chinese? Sound like a rhetorical argument? Well, think for a moment which of these countries is most likely to have their weapons fall into dangerous hands. Russia remains a chaotic place and France may be headed that way with a rapidly growing Islamic population, some of whom would doubtlessly love to seize a nuclear arsenal far more potent than Pakistan's. (A half dozen thrillers are probably already being written with that premise.)
He's spot on right. As they say, read the whole thing.

Palis Attack Egyptian FM

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher came to Jerusalem on an official visit. The visit went well, as Maher talked with Israeli diplomats about the state of negotiations with the Palestinians.

And then, Maher went up to the Temple Mount for a visit. There, a mob of Palestinians attacked him, throwing shoes at him and calling him a traitor and a Zionist stooge. Security officials of the Waqf (the Muslim religious authority that oversees the Temple Mount) managed to get Maher out with the help of the Israeli police.

Maher fainted briefly and was taken to Hadassah hospital to recover.

This incident doesn't look good for anyone. Maher went up to the Temple Mount without Israeli police escort, at his own request. But Israel didn't coordinate the visit properly with the Waqf and they subsequently weren't prepared for it.

Maher, for his part, was caught on camera looking like a frightened little girl and then fainting. Not a good thing for a guy from a terribly honor-obsessed culture.

But, of course, the Palis managed as usual to make the worst out of a bad situation. It's bad enough that Maher was attacked by a Palestinian mob. But the PA refuses to officially apologize to him. While Abu Ala & co. called the Egyptian FM to wish him a speedy recovery, they pointed the finger at Israel (of course) for the incident.

When they're not being used as a convenient conduit to channel local anger, the Palestinians are fairly well despised by the rest of the Arab world. And it's incidents like these that show you why.

Monday, December 22, 2003

The four Israelis who were being held hostage in Colombia were released earlier this evening. Benny Daniel, Ido Guy, Erez Altawil and Orpaz Ohayon were kidnapped by guerillas from ELN, a Marxist group, three months ago, along with some Germans and an English hiker, Mark Henderson. The Germans had been released earlier.

Negotiations between the Colombian government and the ELN have been fairly tense, and fell through a couple of times before the ELN decided to release the hostages as a Christmas present. According to news reports, they initially planned to turn the four Israelis over to Hamas, but were persuaded to hang onto them.

So, four families tonight are celebrating their own Chanukah miracle and I think the rest of us are joining in with them.

UPDATE: The hostages and their families have been interviewed almost non-stop since their release on all the TV and radio stations here.

The most charming interview I saw was with Ido Guy talking to Rafi Reshef this morning on IDF radio. Reshef asked him if they managed to keep up with world events during the three months they were held hostage. Guy said that they got bits and pieces of information. For instance, they heard about Saddam's capture.

He then said that he was most interested in finding out the Israeli football league standings, since the season started right after they were kidnapped. Reshef asked him which team he supports and Guy said that he's a fan of Maccabi Haifa.

Reshef: "Then I have the pleasure of informing you that your team is currently at the top of the league." Awwwww.

Shelly Yechimovitch, friend of the Working Class

One of the high points of my Friday night's entertainment is watching Shelly Yechimovitch's commentary spot on the Channel 2 news. Almost every week Yechimovitch, a highly respected journalist, lectures us on the evils of capitalism and scolds us for our lack of compassion. Shelly rails against the government's plans to scale back Israel's bloated public sector. She complains about Netanyahu's war with the Histadrut labor federation. She points a finger and accuses Israeli society of engaging in slavery with regards to the treatment of foreign workers.

And all this is done in a hectoring tone with a sour expression that can only be described as a "turd face". (My daughter makes a similar expression when she's straining to make a poopie.)

Shelly is one of the last of the old-time Bolshies around here, which is surprising seeing as she's only in her 40s. Despite everything that happened at the end of the last century, she clings to a view of the world neatly divided into workers (noble men and women in cloth caps being violently exploited by the evil bosses) and capitalists (guys in striped suits and monocles sitting around smoking cigars and plotting to see how they can best exploit the poor workers). She refuses to see that the old system breeds inefficient public sector monopolies whose only motivation is preserving their members' inflated salaries. Nor does she have an answer to why the income gaps and level of poverty in Israeli society has grown in direct proportion to the level of government subsidation of the poor.

Ha'aretz ran a lengthy interview with her in their weekend magazine, the occasion being the release of her new novel Mishakei Zugot ("Couplings"). It turns out from the interview that Yechimovitch's adherence to debunked social theories comes from her childhood growing up in a communist household.

The interview is fascinating, mostly in the way Yechimovitch keeps skirting the issue of how she -- a staunch socialist and hardcore feminist -- justifies working for the media establishment that she herself characterizes as elitist and chauvinist, not to mention picking up what must be a fairly fat salary. She doesn't actually wrestle much with these issues, and instead falls back on the old line that she wants to use the system in order to broadcast her ideas which subvert the system.

She then steers the conversation towards a critique of "neo-liberal" politicians, and then complains that the Israeli left is more concerned with the plight of the Palestinians than the plight of the homeless guy across the street. Either that or she complains about people who supposedly criticize her feminist principles. In fact, she comes off as almost a caricature of the sour, humorless socialist.

This is blatantly obvious when asked about the impersonation that Tal Friedman does of her on the Friday night comedy show "A Wonderful Country." Friedman doesn't make much of an attempt to look or sound like Yechimovitch (he plays her in drag, for starters), but he does capture Yechimovitch's scolding tone. Shelly's reaction:
Satire is my favorite genre. But what gets me down is that a genre that can be so subversive is in the end aimed against my feminism and against the IQ of [President Moshe] Katsav. I don't think that's courageous. I find it a bit strange that of all the terrible things that are going on in the country today they chose to deal with my feminism, of all things.
Which reminds me of the old joke:
How many feminists does it take to change a lightbulb?

That's not funny.
Anyway, her new novel sounds dreadful, but Shelly Yehimovitch makes my Friday night and I hope she keeps it up.

Another Letter

Here we go again. Reservists from an elite unit of the IDF send a letter to their commanders announcing that they will no longer participate in activities in the Territories on "moral grounds".

We've been through this before. Last time it was a group of IAF pilots who said they would not participate in targeted assassinations. This time it's members of Sayeret Matkal, the IDF's most elite special forces unit. Thirteen members of ha'yechida ("The Unit," capital T capital U) sent a letter to Ariel Sharon saying they would no longer do reserve duty in the Territories due to issues of conscience.

As with the case of the pilots, the media has jumped on the story and the army and political establishment have rushed to issue huffy proclamations denouncing the action of the soldiers. And, as with the case of the pilots, I'm betting that two weeks from now the story will have been completely forgotten.

The protest by the pilots failed because they set themselves up stupidly. They appeared in uniform, thus shifting the focus away from their protest and more to the issue of dragging political issues into the IDF. (This is considered a big no-no in Israeli public opinion). It also hurt their case that none of the pilots were in a position that they would actually be called up to participate in a targetted assassination.

While the Sayeret guys have so far avoided appearing in uniform, they've opened themselves to the same charges that were levelled against the pilots. By and large, The Unit does not do that much inside the Territories. Sayeret Matkal participates in operations like the Entebbe rescue in 1976; you certainly won't find them manning roadblocks, demolishing smuggling tunnels in Gaza, or going door to door in Jenin looking for Hamas and Fatah terrorists. This is to say, the 13 soldiers are not protesting against things they themselves might have to do, but rather protesting out purely political-intellectual considerations. This debases whatever moral claims they might be making.

Also, they still face the fact that an overwhelming majority of Israelis oppose military figures expressing political views in general, and refusal to follow orders specifically. I understand the motivations of the Sayeret guys. They think that if the "best and brightest" protest vehemently against The Occupation, then they'll change minds and hearts. I don't think it's going to happen.

Unfortunately, while this kind of protest fails to move the politicians or the general population it does provide a fair amount of ammunition for Israel's enemies and the useful idiots who support them.


Meryl linked to this story, which also appeared on the news here last night. And I dare anyone out there to read it and not be touched.

Benny Shilon and his sister Shoshana November, both now in their 70s, last saw each other in Poland in 1938. They were separated during the war. Shoshana was sent to Auschwitz, where she managed to survive by sheer luck. Benny escaped to Russia, where he served in the Red Army. Both siblings emigrated to Israel after the war and grew up thinking they were alone in the world after having failed to locate each other.

A few years ago, Shilon's grandchildren pestered him into filling out forms at the Yad Vashem Holocaust center for a project to match up relatives of Holocaust survivors. The database found a match and Shilon was reunited with his sister this week after 65 years. The news report followed Shilon as he met not only his sister, but also the nieces and nephews that he never knew he had. I certainly got a little tear in my eye watching it.

With everything else going on, it's so nice to see these little stories of happiness.

Sunday, December 21, 2003
That Speech

Sharon's speech the other night at the Herzliya Conference seems to have generated a lot more discussion in blog land than it has in the real world here. The speech was highly anticipated, but then received with a certain sense of "whatever". At this point it feels like every politician out there has his own personal peace plan which he's trying to peddle, and they all more or less amount to the same thing.

On the face of it, what Sharon is saying makes sense: We want to give the road map another chance, but it's not going to move forward so long as the Palestinians don't take serious action against the terrorist groups. (And by "serious action" we don't mean inviting them round for tea and asking them to be nice). On the other hand, we're not going to wait forever for the Palis to get their act together. Therefore, if the situation continues as it is, Israel will take unilateral steps to redraw the lines of conflict. This means removing settlements and withdrawing to more defensible borders.

Sharon has employed some interesting doublespeak here. He never says that the settlements will be dismantled but rather that they will be "relocated". Or, instead of "withdrawal", he talks about "disengagement". (The newspapers are having a good chuckle over this. Ha'aretz's cartoon today has a couple explaining to their children that they are planning to "disengage".)

Some thoughts:
  • Sharon's plan sounds very similar to the one Amram Mitzna proposed a year ago when he was running for Prime Minister. Granted, Mitzna's plan called for a complete withdrawal from all the territories, while Sharon is calling for a partial withdrawal without specifying which parts. And yet, Mitzna crashed and burned badly while Sharon is still riding high. This goes to show you once again that in matters relating to the Palestinians, Likud politicians can get away with ideas that would kill the careers of Labor politicians.

  • I disagree with Jonathan's analysis that this unilateral withdrawal will do much for negotiations with the Palestinians. I'm wary of a full-blown unilateral withdrawal from the Territories in general, since I'm afraid it will send the same message that out withdrawal from southern Lebanon did, and encourage the Palis to continue with their terrorism.

    At any rate, there's no way this will be seen as a good-faith gesture. The Palis will milk this thing for all its PR worth, declaring that it's nothing more than an Israeli plot to grab Palestinian land.

    As I've mentioned before, our relationship with the Palestinians has moved to a point where the best we can hope for is conflict management rather than conflict resolution. In a situation like this, it matters less whether you have x or y number of settlements. What matters more is how fast the security fence can go up and what its route will be. And here I don't see that Sharon has any news. Unless, as has been suggested, this is a ploy to switch the focus of debate from the fence elsewhere.

  • Personally, I don't believe that Sharon will ever dismantle a single settlement. Certainly not at the moment, when he faces his government falling apart on him if he does and Labor not intending to bail him out.

  • I think that Sharon's speech is meant to buy him more time in the eyes of the US. Sharon may well be forced to resign within the year over one of the financial scandals he's under investigation from and there's a feeling of desperation about these latest moves.

On the Organized Crime Front...

File under "What the police here won't do, police somewhere else might, or else the criminals might do to themselves."

Meir Abergil, head of the Abergil crime family, has been arrested in Austria on drug trafficking charges. The German police have had Abergil under surveilance for months and will likely get him extradited to Germany to face charges. The Abergils are allied with the Alperon family, and both have been feuding with Ze'ev Rosenstein.

According to police reports (Hebrew link) Rosenstein planned to have Abergil murdered. The Abergils are thought to be behind the recent attempts on Rosenstein's life, the last one of which left three civilians dead. Besides Meir Abergil, there are two other brothers. Yitzhak Abergil is currently hiding out overseas while Abie Abergil is under arrest here for conspiracy to sell drugs and conspiring to kill Rosenstein.

Question is whether the arrest of Meir Abergil will put a serious enough dent in the family to knock them out. Or, barring that, weaken them enough so that they stop trying to whack Rosenstein. The guy has more lives than a cat while everyone around him gets hurt.

David Perlov, an Appreciation

A nice piece in Ha'aretz's weekend magazine by film critic Uri Klein about David Perlov, who died last week.
In 1963 I went to the Esther Cinema in Tel Aviv to see "Murder, She Said," adapted from one of the Jane Marple novels by Agatha Christie. The ads for the film noted that the feature would be preceded by an Israeli documentary entitled "In Jerusalem." I was less than thrilled by that announcement. Israeli movie theaters of that era occasionally screened such films before the feature presentation. Most of them were produced by the Israel Film Service and other official institutions, and were no more than propaganda films, traditionally directed and lacking creative inspiration. So I prepared myself for gaping at some mind-dulling documentary in anticipation of the film about the elderly British female sleuth.

Then David Perlov's "In Jerusalem" came on the screen. I didn't yet realize the full importance of the film and its director in the history of Israeli cinema, nor could I know the place that Perlov would come to occupy in my life. What I did know was that this was an Israeli film the likes of which I had never seen before: neither a documentary nor a feature film. I had the feeling that Israeli cinema was being born before my eyes.