14 June, 2016

Israel’s many flashpoints

In Golan, Ramallah, Gaza, or the Ariel settlement, you see a curious contrast — clusters of military presence amid the pastural idylls of the Levant.

“If your hat flies off, please don’t try to retrieve it! Or you may return without some parts of the body,” our guide to the Golan heights, Brigadier Nuriel cheerfully tells us as approach it. Here on Mount Bental, much of the land remains a minefield, and especially in the winter, when it’s covered with snow, people have been known to be caught in landmine explosions.

Golan, at the northern tip of the land controlled by Israel, was taken from Syria in the Six-Day War, and even today isn’t recognised by the United Nations as Israeli territory. But the Israeli grip on it is complete, as officers explain its crucial strategic purpose: As one stands here, it is possible to see Syria just below, Lebanon to the east, and Jordan to the south.

^ A cow walks past Israeli military vehicles in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights near the border with Syria. The small brotherhood of about 100 cowboys who are responsible for raising the primary source of Israeli domestic beef know well they face a particular set of unique challenges. For starters, they operate on a relatively small patch of land made up mostly nature reserves and military grounds so everything they do has to be coordinated with authorities. Israel captured Golan from Syria in the 1967 war | AP

When we reach the top, flying in by helicopter from Tel Aviv, our pilot points out the borders with each country, but he really doesn’t need to. Because of its assiduous management of irrigation and agriculture, and judicious use of aquifers, the Israeli side of the border is lush green. On the other side, there is brown, uncultivated land. Today, none of the countries are at war with each other, but the guns aren’t silent, the UNTSO (United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation) soldiers tell me. From their checkpoint up on the Golan they say they frequently hear battles rage over the border in Syria between the two groups — owing allegiance to ISIS and Jubhat Al Nasrah respectively — that control the area.

Neither has made advances on Israel yet, but Brig. Nuriel says that is cold comfort, as troubles on the dangerous frontier could spill over at any time. Pointing to the Israeli checkpoint on the next hill, he adds that they must be vigilant always. Interestingly, unlike the India-Pakistan Line of Control, we don’t see soldiers manning checkposts on the border itself, but they monitor it closely, always ready to go in at the first sign of trouble.

^ A horse runs through a pasture as an old Israeli tank trains its guns into the distance in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights on the border with Syria. | Reuters

The next war is always just around the corner, they say, even as we see busloads of tourists, and school-children wander around the hillside, unconcerned by the history of the heights and its predictably tense future. There’s even some humour here — the cafeteria on Mount Bental was named Annan because, some years ago, during the tenure of former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, someone nicknamed the café “Coffee Annan”, and the name stuck.

^ The security inside Jerusalem keeps the walled city in a constant state of tension. | Suhasini Haidar

In the nearby hilltop town of Tzfat — also a short chopper ride away — we see an even more unusual sight: Syrians who are wounded are brought here to the Ziv Medical Centre for treatment. A doctor from the Red Cross, who briefs us, says at least 610 Syrians have been treated over the past three years. We are introduced to a man who claims to belong to the Free Syrian Army, the most moderate of the groups battling the Assad regime. He looks just out of his teens, and has taken a bullet in the shoulder. When we ask what he will do once he has healed, he replies, “I will go back and fight, Inshallah.” We ask why they would take in non-state actors, who are clearly going back to fight in one of the most brutal wars of our times, and not hand them over to the Syrian government instead, but receive a cold stare from the doctors. Some fault-lines are better not crossed.

Another physical faultline we are unable to cross is that into the Gaza strip, on Israel’s southern edge. For the world, Gaza must remain an open sore on its conscience: with an estimated population of 2.5 million, mostly refugees cramped into an area of just 365 square kilometres. They have shanty towns and no amenities, little education for the children, little hope for the future and no easily available exits from this tiny Palestinian outpost now controlled by the radical Hamas Islamists.

After Israel “disengaged” from Gaza in 2005, emptying settlements and withdrawing its troops, it has fallen into what is possibly a more desperate situation.

Gaza is fenced off from Israel, and Egypt has sealed its other frontier at Raffa shut. All food must come in trucks over land checkposts and even those who drive the trucks face attacks. Israel’s naval blockade ensures the large sea front provides no options to Gaza residents, and the radicalised, instransigient Hamas leadership gives them none at all with its refusal to recognise Israel or negotiate a better life for their electorate.

This is also where insurgents — over whom Hamas claims it has no control — launch rockets intro Israel, coming through dozens of underground tunnels that Israeli Defence Forces keep finding. One particular target is the Kfar Aza Kibbutz, of Israelis who have chosen to build their commune right on the ridge overlooking Gaza. During operation “Protective Edge” in 2014, when Israel first tested its complex system of surveillance shields and missile destroyers called the Iron Dome, this area was the scene of a 90-day war in which 2,300 were killed. 2,200 of them were Palestinians killed in Israeli air raids of Gaza, and 73 were Israelis, including 7 civilians. It is an unequal and easily winnable war for Israel, but defence forces understand that each victory creates more hatred and greater desperation in Gaza, who feel abandoned by everyone, the international community, and even Arab countries, who are now unwilling to accept refugees.

^ An Israeli woman and her two children take cover during a rocket attack near Kfar Aza, just outside the northern Gaza Strip on January 7, 2009. The woman had come to meet her husband, an Israeli army officer currently serving on the Gaza border. Rockets exploded as they were waiting for him.

On the other side are kibbutzes like Kfar Aza, and Nahal Oz, just a few kilometres from Gaza’s edge, where people have barely 10 seconds to rush into shelters after the Iron Dome detects that a rocket has been fired at them. Violence here barely merits comment: on the day we visit the Kfar Aza area near Sderot, Israel, has conducted two air raids in Gaza in retaliation for rockets attacks here.

The incident barely makes the local papers, let alone international ones.

While the frontier with Palestinian territories in the West Bank is no less tense, it is stable, and people here seem to have accepted the status quo of fences and checkpoints. There are no rockets here, and since the Israel government began its project of 1,000 km of wall (600 km of which are ready), there have been few suicide blasts and bombings that terrorised Israelis in the 1990s and 2000s.

Instead, a spate of stabbing incidents frighten people, IDF soldiers being the main targets, but also Hassidic or ultra-orthodox Jews living in settlements within the West Bank. Checkpoints today perform dual purposes: keeping Israelis out of Palestinian areas where they face danger, and keeping Palestinians in their villages and unable to move freely even in areas that are considered theirs. Palestinians that work in Israeli areas and settlements face the greatest strictures: each one has to be cleared by the Defence ministry, go through strict physical checks each time they cross over, and are restricted to three crossings a day.

Even the senior Palestinian authority leader we meet is not immune. He is late, he says, because his driver was detained twice at checkpoints by IDF. “Israel is in danger of becoming the 21st century’s apartheid state,” Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, Chairman of the Political committee of the Palestinian Legislative Council tells us.

According to Dr. Abdullah the only chance of a solution is the 2-state solution of Israel and Palestine, but in the interim, what is needed is increased economic activity on the Palestinian side. Ramallah is unexpectedly well developed, and homes built on pretty tree lined streets, but most of it is built on aid from the west and Arab countries, which is unsustainable in the long term, he says.

(This is the first of a series of pieces in which The Hindu's Suhasini Haidar provides a fly-on-the-wall perspective on Israel, its conflicts and faultlines)






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