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Mission to Israel - Report back

About 20 people – the majority of them members of Sydney’s Jewish community, plus a number of West Australians and Americans  - are currently participating in the inaugural NSW Jewish Board of Deputies-HonestReporting Advocacy Mission in Israel. This unique, eight-day study mission is being led by Board of Deputies President Yair Miller and HonestReporting CEO Joe Hyams. The mission has evolved from the Board’s popular Talking About Israel course, with the majority of mission participants having graduated from the course. Reports will be filed daily by participants, beginning with the first two.

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Day 1

By: Michael Jaku

Participants were treated to a packed first day with dynamic and knowledgeable speakers, often sprinkled with humour.
The opening address was by Australian-born Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office and a regular face in media across the world. He referred to the current news stories regarding the Arafat exhumation and the Palestinian application for recognition at the UN. He also answered questions on Israel’s lack of desire to have engaged in Operation Pillar of Defence. Regev confirmed that Israel had no desire to enter into a conflict and that the timing of the conflict, as well as the need for the Israeli response, was entirely as a result of Hamas’ actions. He foreshadowed that Iran would be the big issue in 2013.

Joe Hyams, CEO of HonestReporting, spoke on fighting media bias and hosted the group for lunch at their new headquarters with panoramic views of Jerusalem. 

At Yad Vashem, Ephraim Kaye, Director of International Seminars, spoke on Holocaust denial and its implications for advocacy. He took the group through advanced techniques used by Holocaust deniers and showed how proving the Holocaust occurred, based on any single element of proof, was almost impossible. He showed clearly, however, how the mass of individual pieces of evidence brought together prove beyond reasonable doubt that the murder of six million Jews did take place in a systematic and methodical manner. 

In the evening, over dinner at a Moroccan restaurant, Darna, the group was addressed by Amotz Asa El, former executive editor of the Jerusalem Post, who spoke of Israel as a major domestic success story with particular reference to the spectacular renaissance of the Hebrew language, the thriving economy, absorption of migrants and the manner in which religious difference has been accommodated. Asa El posited that while today the mention of Israel to most people brings thoughts of wars and battles, these domestic issues will be those for which Israel’s amazing success is remembered in the centuries to come. 

A tiring but very satisfying and informative day was had by all. Tomorrow we hear from Itamar Marcus of Palestinian Media Watch and Ambassador Yoram Ettinger and take a tour of the security barrier, followed by a closed door briefing by the IDF. 

Michael Jaku is a participant of the tour, a TAI graduate and Chair of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies Shoah Remembrance Committee.  

Day 2

By Mike and Myrna Machet

The first speaker this morning was Itamar Marcus (pictured) on monitoring Palestinian media. He began by discussing the motivation behind the organisation. Palestinian Media Watch, a watchdog group that monitors Palestinian media in order to find out what Palestinians are really saying. They analyse the

 television station funded and controlled by the PA, examine schoolbooks, sports events, newspapers and magazines.  

Sport could be used as a bridge to normalise relationships between Israeli and Palestinian youth.  However, when Canada invited Israeli and Palestinian youths to participate in a soccer tournament, this was reported negatively in the Fatah media and disciplinary action was taken against the participants. They further found that many sports events are named after terrorists, who are used as role models. 

Many of the songs on Palestinian TV claim that all the territory belonged to the Palestinians and envisages a world without Israel. Children’s programs show maps of Palestine with no Israel and children reciting poems in which they glorify terrorism and look forward to the day that Jews are eliminated. 

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There is a trend in favour of Sharia Law, and in recent polls 85% of the Palestinian population indicated that religion plays an important role in their lives. The defeat of Israel and the Jews is portrayed as a religious war where “Muslim” territory will be reclaimed and the defeat and elimination of the Jews will lead to resurrection. 

The conclusion is that they are not preparing people to live in peace with Israel; rather, it appears that duplicity is built into the system in terms of what they say to the world and what is said to their own people.  In particular, terrorism is glorified and Jews are demonised, for example referring to them as ‘Satan with a tail’.  Conspiracy theories abound such as that Jews spread AIDS and are trying to destroy the Al Aqsa Mosque. 

yoram   The second speaker was Yoram Ettinger (picture left) on ‘Debunking the demographics scare’.  The demographic data in 1997 indicated that the Palestinian population would overwhelm the Jewish population. However, analysis of the data indicated otherwise because of various anomalies, such as double counting, including people who were non-resident, over-estimation, immigration and under-estimation of emigration. Birth rates which were high at the time were also projected to continue at those levels. However, recent figures indicate that Arab birth rates have declined and Jewish birth rates have increased. In addition, there is increased emigration from the West Bank.

Our final visit of the day was to the security barrier, where we were briefed by Captain Barak Raz, who explained that the IDF’s concerns are focused on security and that political issues are left to the leaders of the Palestinian and Israeli people. He told us that the security situation had improved and largely stabilised for reasons such as the security fence, intelligence, co-operation with the PA police and that Hamas has not been able to take control of the West Bank. 

He emphasised that sensitivity is needed when dealing with protests, although it is important that these be controlled.  He explained that the fence follows the topography of the area and security needs are prioritised. The walled section has been re-routed where possible to enable villagers to have easier access to their olive groves; however, there are still protests every Friday, although these are much diminished. We acquired a far clearer picture of the challenges facing the IDF in the protection of Israeli citizens.   

Day 3

By Hilary May Black

Day 3 of our tour here in Israel with the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies and HonestReporting begins with a visit to the Joe Alon Museum of Bedouin Culture. We are given a rare insight into their culture and lifestyles both past and present and then briefed on the current issues relating to land rights and planning issues. 

Fortified by hot sweet tea and strong coffee courtesy of our guides at the Museum of Bedouin Culture, we take a few minutes to salute our fellow countrymen and women at the Beersheva Park of The Australian Soldier dedicated to the exploits of the charge of the Light Brigade in 1917 - a game changer in the progress of World War 1. Fittingly Michael Jaku, chair of the Shoah Rememberance Committee of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, read a poem by Banjo Patterson commemorating the charge, as we paid our respects to those lost on that day.

Our next visit is to Sderot. Everyone has heard of Sderot. Everyone in Sderot wishes you hadn't. Sderot is a modest little town in the south of Israel a kilometre from the border with Gaza. Now home to 25,000 people, Sderot has achieved recognition worldwide as the unfortunate recipient of constant mainly low-level rocket fire from Hamas-controlled Gaza.  The Sderot police station has a notoriety all of its own. We were fortunate enough to be granted special access to see this extraordinary sight. The station hosts a veritable Aladin’s cave of home-made and, now, increasingly sophisticated rockets, some with the insignia and signatures of their makers. Quite a few resembled domestic plumbing pipes complete with welded fins and our guide confirmed that they were made from locally available materials including cut down lamp posts filled with shrapnel and metal fragments. This display and the concrete bomb shelters located at every bus stop around the town are sobering.

The day's program indicated that our next stop would be to the Gaza border with a "briefing from an IDF (Israel Defence Force) spokesperson". Sounds fairly straightforward, you would think. What actually followed was an extraordinary few hours that took us to the heart of the challenges to Israel today. We often hear that Gaza is either "occupied" by Israel (actually, no, Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005) or, alternatively, "blockaded" or "under siege" by Israel and, naturally, we are concerned for the humanitarian needs of the people living there. In particular, we hear there are shortages of basic foodstuffs and medicines, and building materials are banned so that even if they wanted to the Palestinians cannot rebuild their damaged buildings.  

We met with a Lieutenant Colonel from the IDF who is in charge of all commercial dealings with Gaza for the Israel Ministry of Defence. This includes all goods moving in to Gaza from Israel and all exports from Gaza to the West Bank and the rest of the world. He outlined how he and his team ensure that the needs of the civilian population in Gaza are met by careful coordination with local farmers, businesses and representatives from the Palestinian Authority. This was, of course, confusing since Hamas and not the PA control Gaza but apparently Hamas refuse to deal with Israel and prefer to let the PA manage infrastructure issues such as these. Either way, it means that foodstuffs, medicines, consumer goods, even cars get to their customers in Gaza as required and Israel also facilitates export trading from Gaza to the outside world. 

The ban on construction materials started after Hamas started redirecting this material from civilian reconstruction to building reinforced underground rocket launching bases. Now these materials are provided largely through international aid projects where the sponsoring organisation ensures the materials reach their intended destination. The only passage for goods to legally move into Gaza is provided by Israel through the Keren Shalom crossing. The crossing from Egypt is closed to goods and only open to pedestrian traffic.

Having learnt more about the movement of goods in and out of Gaza, we wanted to hear more about the movement of people. We pushed a little to go closer to the border to see the pedestrian crossing itself. 

Again, being part of this Board of Deputies-HonestReporting tour gave us unprecedented access. This time it involved seeing the inside of the Erez crossing between Israel and Gaza. The viewing area we were escorted into is a high security area not open to the public. The crossing itself, built only a few years ago by Israel at a cost of over 250 million sheckels, was made even more secure after a female suicide bomber pretending to need medical help blew herself up along with the three young officers who came to her aid. 

The officer who took us around, who is in charge of coordination with international organisations, pointed to the area where a Qassam rocket landed a week ago. "I was on the phone to my mum at the time," she said. When her mum asked what the noise was, she made some excuse, She didn't want to worry her. I asked how old she was. "Twenty", she said. "And you're in charge here"? I asked. "Well... I have some help". 
As we drove back to Jerusalem just after sunset, the impact of the remarkable day began to sink in. 

Hilary May Black is a graduate of the TAI course and a member of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies Membership Development Committee. 

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