Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Bible Belters repent at Knesset

Surreal deal. A whole passle of Christian Zionists are in town to mark the 40th anniversary of Jerusalem's unification (when Israel reconquered the walled city where the Second Temple once stood, during the Six-day war). About 200 of them showed up at the Knesset to read a belated letter of repentance, an abject apology for two millenia's worth of Christian atrocities against the Jewish people. Coincidentally, this is an act many of them reckon will hasten the "End Days" before the Second Coming of Christ. The bloodbath of Middle Eastern current events leads some to believe that the prophesized "Time of Tribulations" is already underway in the Promised Land. The unusual prayer service was sponsored by the Knesset Christian Allies Caucus. The mixed Israeli and Evangelical audience belted out Israel's national anthem with vigor, as if it were a martial Zionist hymn.

After the tearful apology came the love fest. Seymour Kook-- a pastor from South Carolina with a name right out of a Bart Simpson cartoon-- read aloud a touching collection of love letters from born-again Christians to the "God of Israel." These expressed gratitude "for the root of God's olive tree (and) for every Jewish father of the faith... we stand in faith in our branch, without arrogance, with humility toward your God and the fathers of Israel, who took us in when we could not deserve him and could not find him."

"May Jacob be blessed by us, not scattered to the nations, but brought back on eagles wings, not inheriting his land divided, but yours, returned to you to steward until the messiah comes, and then forever and ever and ever." The room erupted in applause. Prayers were addressed to the "mighty God of Israel as your holy people, Jews and gentiles, one people as you would want us to be." (No mention of the Jews needing to worship the Messiah, post-Rapture, or else being condemned to hellfire. A minor oversight?)

Meanwhile, as Christian Zionists communed with the Chosen People, the Israeli foreign ministry skipped a long-planned meeting with the Vatican, which would have touched on their strained relations and touchy subjects like taxes on the Catholic Church's Jerusalem properties. This last-minute snub understandably left the diplomats from Holy See quite cross, and they issued a press release to this effect. The High Church in Jerusalem attracts mainly Arab Israelis or Palestinians, both in the priesthood and among the local congregation. Some of their leaders had lashed out at Christian Zionists last summer for misuse of the Book of Revelation as a latter-day Gospel scare tactics. This Knesset prayer session may have been a tatty diplomatic tit-for-tat for the Christian Zionists to relish. Or just a scheduling conflict, as the government asserted. Condi Rice's flit-through was another excuse not to meet Pope Benedict XVI's posse. The German Pope says he will be happy to come visiting once there is peace in the Middle East. Yeah, right. He also says Hell "exists and is eternal," and did not specify when it might freeze over.

Texas twangs and soft Nigerian accents were much in evidence at the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum before the Knesset meeting, and bus loads of evangelical tourists had rumbled up to Yardinit, the latter-day mass baptism spot on the Jordan River which the Kibbutzniks of Kinneret have set up next to their gargantuan souvenir stall. (The actual site of Jesus' baptism is located inconveniently in the West Bank near Jericho. That did not prevent baptisms and re-baptisms of many soggy and joyous bus riders.)

Even though Christian missionaries officially are persona non grata in Israel, and Messianic Jews, who accept Jesus Christ as the Messiah, must be stealthy about spreading their conversion doctrine, the Knesset's Christian Allies Caucus has official approval. Its appeals to evangelical Christians in the US and elsewhere yield large donations , along with prayers of solidarity and political opposition to a two-state solution with Palestine. The government tourist board, wounded by scary media coverage of the Intifadas and conflicts in Gaza and Lebanon, is ecstatic over the popular Evangelical tourist circuit emerging in the Holy Land. Prayer is all the protection these true believers think they need from Qassam rockets or potential suicide bombers, and they continue to arrive in droves. An amusement park, with televangelist Pat Robertson's inimitable input, and a plush Robert Trent Jones-designed golf courses near the Mt of Beatitudes are being developed expressly for Evangelical Christians who seek holy sites beyond Jerusalem. For Chrissakes, what next? One purported attraction is a plexi-glass platform just inches under the surface so visitors can take snapshots of each other walking on the waters of the Sea of Galilee.

painting at top by Salvador Dali, 1951: Christ of St John of the Crucifix
cartoons courtesy of preterist archive

This Situation Stinks

Families in Gaza can rightly complain about being dumped on, and the unlucky Bedouin community of Umm Naser, located just 300 meters from the border with Israel, found themselves awash in a fecal flood yesterday.

To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, America’s erstwhile Secretary of Defense, shit happens. It sure does. These villagers literally were caught without a paddle up a chest-deep brown-water creek. Rescuers gagged, and reporters witnessed angry survivors firing bullets at local politicians who came belatedly with photographers to pose beside the stinking mess. At least five people drowned, 35 were injured, and nearly 100 tin shacks were submerged in raw sewage. More bodies are expected to be retrieved, and emergency efforts to prevent further collapses on half a dozen cesspools underway. Now the fault-finding has begun in earnest.

The Palestinian Authority was forced to halt some sewage projects due to sanctions against Hamas, but the undersized treatment plant near Umm Naser was not one of these. True, the United Nations warned in 2004 that these sewage facilities were woefully inadequate and a spill was inevitable unless capacity was increased. Delays were caused by security concerns rather than equipment shortages, authorities insist. But Gaza City's mayor, Majid Abu Ramadan, said the makeshift sewage holding tank gave way on Tuesday morning because locals had dug soil away from an earthen embankment that shored it up and then hawked the dirt to building contractors for $70 a truckload. Subsequently, a sewage tsunami swept away the posessions of the dirt poor and desperate.

The aged sewage treatment plant, built by the World Bank near the frontier, stored incoming waste in seven holding basins. But the growing population now produces quadruple its capacity, so government officials stored the overflow in the nearby dunes, creating a foul lake of sewage covering nearly 110 acres. Bulldozers are reinforcing the remaining cesspools and Mekorot,Israel's national water company, is providing a couple of high-powered pumps. The choking odor drifts over the border. Smells rather like Katrina-- a predicted tragedy which ineptitude worsened.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Is cannabis Kosher?

In the lead-up to Passover celebrations, observant Jews are expected to ritually clean their households and give away offending foodstuffs. On their front page, the Jerusalem Post today highlights the current confusion over whether keeping hemp products in the house violates any religious traditions of kitnyot, practiced by most devout Ashkenazies. (Marijuana and hashish are clearly classified as illegal by Israeli police, although enforcement of this law can be patchy.)

Now, the Aleh Yorok (Green Leaf) Party spokesperson, Michelle Levine, wonders whether a seasonal prohibition of marijuana implies that during the rest of the year, cannabis is kosher. The party, activists for legalizing hashish, is awaiting a Rabbinical consensus on this quandary before its leaders issue a joint statement.

Weed-whiffers in Israel, after all, are not exactly enjoying high times these days. The Green Leaf Party did not fare well in the Knesset elections. Some Israeli potheads blame the problems on that nasty Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and his minions: after the summer war destroyed prime croplands with rockets, mortars and tank treads and further blocked smuggling routes for any Lebanese Blonde which was harvested, prices surged 800 per cent. (Already, smokers were concerned that their indulgence might constitute high treason, since some traffickers' profits allegdly went to Hizbollah's coffers. Or should that be coughers?)
At any rate, tossing out such high-priced spliffs in order to keep kosher strikes some smokers as unfair. Others argue that it's just a token sacrifice.

Late addendum: Keeping kitnyot was effectively quashed when legume-eating was ruled kosher, according to Ynet news. This may give a whole new slant to the high holy days.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Triple threat: Crocodile chaos at checkpoint

Border guards at the usually-closed Rafah crossing from Egypt into Gaza shrieked in fear last Thursday after an oddly chubby veiled woman was taken aside for a closer inspection. Beneath her loose robe she had strapped a girdle of live crocodiles! The policewoman screamed and bolted from the search cubicle. Even her seen-it-all superiors succumbed to pat-down panic when the dangerous materials in question had teeth and claws.

According to press reports, this was no suicide bomber, then, but a wildlife smuggler. She had tied the mouths of three crocodiles shut with string and cinched the trussed reptiles around her waist. (Photo courtesy of Rafah's European observers.) Each was about 20 inches long, and could be sold for around $500, equivalent to a couple months' salary.

The clandestine crocodile girdle was not the first wildlife contraband seized at this sensitive frontier, where arms and drugs are far more common. Another lady once tried to sneak through a monkey tied to her chest, and attempts to smuggle exotic birds and a tiger cub into Gaza have been thwarted. Wearing full hijab, this smuggler was arrested and her reptiles returned to Egyptian custody. The policewomen finally stopped squealing and some even admired the gumption it took to strap on a reptile belt.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Red Sea, red indeed

Izzy took off for the Sinai coast last week, despite the latest terrorism alerts and arrests, and had a blast. No, not literally. We just relaxed and took a pleasant dip in the Red Sea on the far side of the border. This time, during my sixth swim here ever, the water was blood red. Clearly red. Not an illusion.

Scholars always say that the Red Sea's evocative name has nothing to do with its colour, but is derived from a mis-translation of the Hebrew name, Yam suph (ים סוף)--or "Reed Sea"-- the one through which Moses and his Biblical throng made their exodus. Wikipedia's clickable clique notes that this traditional name comes from the Greek Erythra Thalassa (Ερυθρά Θάλασσα), Latin Mare Rubrum, and Arabic Al-Baḥr Al-Aḥmar. The colour red also might indicate the cardinal direction south, or the rich colour of the sunburnt earthen hills that crouch down to the water's edge and get reflected in the waters. Hmmmm. Could have fooled me.
The simplest explanation is that old-time sailors saw red. Check out my photographic proof above, snapped on the Gulf of Aqaba just north of Nuweiba in the Egyptian Sinai one week ago. (On this aerial photo below, it's near the tip of the little watery horn on the right.)

This startling redness was not a smelly slick on top, like the red tides of southern California. It was not a chemical. The pigment was mixed right into the translucent water and it resembled Martian canal-water or a sign from the heavens that blood would flow. Abdullah, a Bedouin scuba instructor, reassured us that this was just algae which overblooms once in a while, whenever the reef fish which usually eat it are in decline. The scientific name of this plankton-like stuff is cyanobacteria Trichodesmium erythraeum, and I even found a microscopic photo.

Alarmingly, the condition means the coral reefs are at risk.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Own Goals: can football unite the Israelis?

As the Barmy Army of English football fans descends on Tel Aviv's Sportek for the Euro 2008 qualifier this Saturday, sportsmanlike conduct comes under scrutiny on and off the pitch. Racist chants definitely will be monitored.
Die-hard Israeli footy fans were hoping that the general strike might prevent the Brits from landing at the airport, making an extra 5000 tickets magically available. And some newly arrived British Jews still agonize over which side to support in such a momentous match. Is dual allegiance possible? Even after making the total commitment of Aliyah, by moving from the farflung Diaspora to start over in the Jewish homeland, these guys fear flunking the old Thatcherite Norman Tebbit test about loyalty to an adopted country.
Going beyond the standard sports mania and navel-gazing, the Independent's correspondent, Don Macintyre, takes another angle altogether. He examines the loyalties of the 1.4 million Arab-Israelis, of which only two (including the veteran player Walid Badir, pictured above) will play for their nation tomorrow night. Click here to read his thought-provoking piece.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Tiny terrorist: like mother, like daughter?

A four-year-old girl vowed to become a suicide bomber just like Mommy in a Hamas TV show, according to Itamar Marcus, who monitors the airwaves for Palestinian Media Watch.

The disturbing broadcast on Hamas television today purported to show Duha, the four-year-old daughter of the notorious female suicide bomber Reem Riyashi, singing to her dead mother and promising to carry on her terrorist agenda. In 2004,Reem Riyashi killed four Israelis and wounded at least ten people at the Erez crossing between Gaza and Israel. She had gained the sympathy of the checkpoint soldiers by claiming she had a metal plate in her leg that would set off the metal detector. After she was taken to a cubicle to be searched privately, she detonated the bomb stashed under her clothes. The reenacted video clip ends as the orphaned little girl picks up explosives left behind in her mother's dresser drawer.

In the Al Aqsa TV children's program, a child actress plays the daughter, and while watching Riyashi prepare the explosives, she pipes up: "Mommy, what are you carrying in your arms instead of me? A toy or a present for me?" She later sees a TV news story about her mother's suicide mission and gory death, and realizes her mother was the bomber.

"Only now, I know what was more precious than us..." she sings of the martyrdom.

Although Duha misses her mother, she vows to follow in her footsteps. The video ends as she opens her mother's drawer and picks up a stick of dynamite her mother had left there.

It is unclear if this is supposed to be a recruitment video or act as a warning to the guardians of those left behind. Izzy would like to confirm the context of this unsettling propaganda clip. Women suicide bombers do not share identical motives. Personal tragedy is often interwoven with frustration, nihilism, or revenge, and results in these subversive act of terror by young females, according to analysts. Last summer, a gruesome Palestinian grandmother blew herself up as well.

Song lyrics sung by little Duha, Reem's daughter, are below:

[Daughter sees mother preparing explosives sticks]

"Mommy, what are you carrying
in your arms instead of me?

[Mother turns to hide bomb]

A toy or a present for me?...
Mommy Reem!
Why did you put on your veil?
Are you going out, Mommy?...
Come back quickly, Mommy
I can't sleep without you,
unless you tell me and Ubaydah [her brother] a bedtime story.

[Daughter sees mother's picture and news story about bombing on PA TV]

My mother, my mother,
Me and Ubaydah are awake and waiting for you
to come to put us to sleep.
Me and Ubaydah, oh Mommy,
still need you to wipe our tears...
Instead of me you carried a bomb in your hands.
Only now, I know what was more precious than us...
May your steps be blessed,
and may you be flawless for Jerusalem.
Me and Ubaydah wish we were there with you.

[Images of her mother's grave and the graves of other terrorists,
including Aayat Al-Akhras, 17-year-old female suicide bomber and Fatah operative]

Send greetings to our Messenger [Muhammad] and tell him:
'Duha loves you.'
My love will not be [merely] words.
I am following Mommy in her steps.

[Finds explosives that mother left in her drawer,
picks up stick of explosives]

Oh Mommy, oh Mommy."

It's about time somebody puts some more positive role models on the kiddy shows. Apparently, Seinfield and Mr Bean reruns don't do the trick. Young Palestinian children, who have minimum contact with Israelis other than with soldiers, have been the target of an outreach program by some of the militias since 2002. Could increased education and exchange programs counteract the seeds of hate that result in sick images like the one below? No, it's not a bad taste Purim costume.

photo courtesy World Net Daily

Cushy Socks for Roadblocks

Checkpoints are a daily delay for Palestinians who must cross between walled-off areas in the West Bank at a pace determined by bored teenaged security troops with guns.

Now a 22 year old Palestinian woman has come up with some small comfort for foot-sore pedestrians who cannot predict how many hours they must spend standing in line.
Maram Abdel Latif, who works at a rest home for the elderly, spent three years perfecting her cushy gel socks, which seem quite similar to the comfy gel liners of some ski boots. They are especially useful for pregnant women with swollen feet or the aged.
Although a wearer must have oversized shoes to accommodate Latif's new prototype "watersocks"--possibly even the clownish-looking Crocs, pictured left, which are sported by many trendy Israelis--
she told the BBC that wearing them will make feet feel "like sleeping on a waterbed, which is far more comfortable than a regular mattress".

Once Ms Latif finds a manufacturer to produce these in bulk, Israeli defence forces better be briefed on the new fashion. Otherwise they are apt to mistake her customers for semtex shoe-bombers.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Sirens sound - you know the Drill

Because Israeli officials worried that people in vulnerable attack areas near the Lebanese border or West Bank might panic, Israel's widely heralded nationwide air raid drill at 2 pm did not have quite the expected impact. Media coverage was spotty, but showed that the public could cope with a rain of phony Qassam rockets, a fake gas attack and a staged prison riot. But, most tellingly, in some strategic places intelligence agents warned of actual terror threats, so there was not enough manpower to see through this high profile drill.
Here in Jerusalem, if actual nuclear Armageddon had been unleased, Izzy would have been unable to hear any siren and take precautions against the final flash. Pardon the expression, but that's quite a buzz kill. So was the stalled traffic on Highway number two near Tel Aviv. By all reports, it seemed like the usual traffic jam, not any end of the world scenarios. So the poets are right: when the time is nigh, drill-preparedness or not, it'll end not with a bang, but a whimper, folks.

from Ynet News, Sderot schoolkids are attack-ready

PS- times are tough for media in Palestine

A brand new independent English language paper covering the West Bank and Gaza launched in Israel this Sunday, on what seemed to be a rather more upbeat day than usual, the day after the Hamas-Fatah Unity government emerged in Palestine. (Since then, however, Israel has refused to deal with the new government and the Hamas militant wing broke a 4-month truce when its sniper wounded an Israeli civilian near Gaza. A potential suicide bomber said to be from Hamas was detained at the Egyptian frontier the same day.) For each step forward, there are a couple steps backward or sideways. No wonder progress is so slow.

You might say the new Palestine Times is neo-realist by default, because it tacitly recognized Israel when it inked a deal with a major Israeli distribution network.
The Editor-in-chief Othman Haj Mohammed says the goal of his Palestine Times is to show the "real image of Palestinians...stories of failure and success, sad moments and happy moments." Cartoons, commentary, and features are as lively as the news section and help counter the brutality of day to day life. Yet online readers won't be able to click past the site's home page without buying a subscription. (Note that an online British "Palestine Times" has no relation to this new publication.) Old-fashioned print seems to be Otham's anachronistic message of choice, but the newspaper is a welcome breath of fresh air. Blogging is dicey where power shortages are rife, after all. Both the Palestinian and Israeli governments have increasingly curbed press freedom inside the Palestinian Territories. Encouragingly, a South African media group recently launched station RAM-FM, in English. This station broadcasts throughout the Palestinian Territories and Israel, with studios in Jerusalem and Ramallah.
More communication and understanding is urgently needed inside a territory steeped in mixed messages, disinformation and twisted interpretations. Izzy notes with dismay that the BBC Gaza Correspondent, Alan Johnston, who covered the breaking news in the Gaza strip with integrity and even-handedness for 3 years, still is held captive by gunman more than a week after his abduction. It is not clear if the abductors' motive is ransom or notoriety or some hidden message to other militia. Such kidnappings cannot help public relations much, and only reaffirm all the muttered misgiving by neocons and Zionists. It's worth noting that Mahmoud Abbas has been talking to British officials about Johnston's plight. Reassurances about the correspondent's wellbeing have not revealed any clues to where he is being held. British colleagues have been holding vigil for him in Gaza. Any one of them, caught in the wrong place at the right time, could have been a kidnap victim. Gaza is increasingly mercenary and unpredictable, reporters say.

Silent spy: mini-plane skylarks over Mid-East battle zones

Boy-toy gizmos like this one are apt to distract armchair generals from the grind and gore of warfare. They can gather intelligence silently, without being detected, so combat decisions are based on data (The interpretation is not done by robots, however.) These Skylark mini-planes, designed and sold by Elbit defense electonics in Israel, already are in the vanguard of counter-terrorism surveillance. They resemble something a model airplane geek might toy with, but contain sophisticated spyware. Today, in an airshow in Australia, the public gets an up-close look at the latest pilot-less models which a single soldier can get aloft. They land on an inflatable little cushion, making it easier to retrieve them intact. The IDF employed skylark mini-drones over Lebanon during the nameless war last summer, which has yet to receive an official moniker suitable for the gravestones of the 119 soldiers killed.

Check out the wire story on drones:

JERUSALEM (AP) - Pilotless planes small enough for a single soldier to carry and operate are gathering intelligence for U.S.-led forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Israeli manufacturer said Monday.

Elbit Systems, one of Israel's leading defense electronics companies, said its little "Skylark" can cover an area within a range of 6 miles day or night. It is about 7 feet long with a wingspan of nearly 8 feet, the company said.

"Skylark is operational and currently deployed in the global war on terror in Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan," the statement said. It described the Skylark as suited for "close range, beyond-the-next hill, counter-terror missions."

Lt. Col. Matthew McLaughlin of CENTCOM, the American command that handles Iraq and Afghanistan, said the military "would not confirm the use of the drone," but is always looking for aircraft with such capabilities.

Elbit said the Skylark, one of several items of Israeli defense hardware deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, would be unveiled to the public at the March 20-25 Australian International Airshow.
The Skylark's console is toylike and easy to operate.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Face 2 Face:making faces, making peace

The high photographic concept of Face2Face, unleashed on the public by the undercover artists JR and Marco this month, already is drawing double takes and a few guffaws wherever in Israel or Palestine their huge posters are unfurled.

As a serious conflict resolution method, an exhibit that replaces big guns with outsized gurns is a bit naive and its impact will be tough to measure. But anything that brings the odd smile to these mean mixed streets is welcome indeed.

Black and white portraits of Palestinians and Israelis doing the same jobs are juxtoposed in huge formats, in "unavoidable places" around the Holy Land. It is an openhearted effort to point out the common humanity shared by the people here. The artists insist that they favor a 2-country solution where "Israel and Palestine would live peacefully within safe and internationally recognized borders."

The seed of the project took just a week to germinate, according to the artists' website. A documentary on its impact will follow soon.
"These people look the same; they speak almost the same language, like twin brothers raised in different families...A religious covered woman has her twin sister on the other side. A farmer, a taxi driver, a teacher, has his twin brother in front of him. And he is endlessly fighting with him.

It's obvious, but they don't see that.

We must put them face to face. They will realize."

Click on this link to see the portraits, and to appreciate the bold decision every one of these subjects took when agreeing to be photographed. Or if you live in the edgy areas, just go outside and open your eyes!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Ehud to Mahmoud: we need to talk

Despite heated rhetoric around the globe, along with Ehud Olmert's recent veiled threats that Israel would "not rule out" using the A-bomb, reports published today reveal that most Israeli leaders prefer to keep the nuclear option in their back pocket, and would go for diplomatic dialogue with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran over a tactical military strike against his nuclear facilities. The telling phrase is that Israel "lacks enthusiasm" for unleashing its weapons at this juncture.
This sane approach to dealing with the region's "existential threat" is heartening, particularly since Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's ultra-right Minister for for Strategic Affairs, is ratcheting up nasty talk with representatives of the American Jewish Council. Today he accused European technocrats of being ready to "sacrifice" the Jewish nation in order to preserve economic ties with Iran.
"There are elements in Europe that are ready to sacrifice Israel on the alter of their security, of their trade contracts" with Iran, snarled Lieberman.
Meanwhile, Olmert is under threat of losing his job over his botched handling of the so-called "Northern Operation",
the summer war against Lebanon. Analysts say he is not about to embark on another military venture without exploring all alternatives first.

Unruly bridge and tunnel crowd

UNESCO, the Paris-based international culture agency which recently inspected Israel's controversial archaeological salvage tunnel near the Temple Mount, is expected to release its report today, urging Israel to halt its excavation until international experts can oversee it. These United Nations bureaucrats, who were led around by the outspoken Israeli archaeologist, Dan Bahut, seem to be sending a decidedly mixed message, even though local press reports stressed that no official statements about the UNESCO conclusions were expected until next month and that a policy of transparency is accomplished with an online video camera focused at the site round the clock.

Fears that Muslim holy sites were being undermined by Israeli shovels appear to be unfounded. King Abdullah II of Jordan had pleaded last month for restraint by the so-called "Temple Raiders" and Islamic riots resulted in Kashmir when Israeli digging commenced.

After clashes between 3000 security police and Muslim residents of East Jerusalem led to a couple dozen injuries from stun grenades, clubs, and stones outside the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert invited the UN into the fray. The new report, which examined exploratory digs for antiquities which were undertaken to prevent possible damage when Israeli engineers erect new support pillars for a collapsed walkway, seems to be quite cautious. It points out that Israel has not violated any norms. Yet religious sensitivites concerning this locale, where a ramp allows non-Muslims--mostly soldiers, tourists, and settlers ---to ascend and overlook a site which is sacrosanct to three monotheistic religions, are volatile. This was the magnificent Second Temple of Solomon, demolished by the Romans; the same temple where Jesus once threw out the Philistine money-changers; the place where Mohammed embarked on a night ride that revealed the Koran. That's why UN experts recommend scrupulous restraint. Israel is expected to consult with authorities from Jordan and from the local Islamic Waqf board before any further work gets underway on the Temple Mount. Nearly 100 arrests for inciting or participating in violence were made in February. A spy drone hovered overhead on subsequent Fridays, tourist visits were cancelled, and only middleaged Muslims over the age of 45 were allowed to worship. Younger Muslims were prevented from entering, and Islamic schools near the site were closed. A rabbi recently purchased a flock of sheep which he grazes on the grassy slopes outside the walled city; his reasoning reportedly is to be ready in case the temple is re-erected and a call for sacrificial animals results.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Er, what's in the diplomatic pouch?

The scandal of a kinky Israeli diplomat discovered in the garden of his San Salvador residence rather worse for wear on the morning after-- still bound, gagged and clad in bondage gear with an incriminating ring of damp sex toys strewn around him on the lawn-- has caused quite a ripple in Jerusalem's top circles. (With the President recently accused of sexual misconduct and serial rape, this takes some doing.)

An Australian headline that referred to the nation's representative as "hog-tied and tongue-tied" particularly embarrassed the government, which has since admonished Tsuriel Raphael, the ambassador, for undignified behavior and stripped him of his title. The incident, technically on Israeli property, happened two weeks ago, but was not disclosed until Monday night. The middle-aged envoy certainly has done his bit to make the foreign service appear less stuffy. Until the rubber ball in his mouth and gag had been removed, Rapahel was unable to identify himself to Salvador authorities. It was not immediately clear whether the sado-masochistic bondage gear had been imported from Israel or was locally produced.
Obviously, a few kinks must be worked out before posting diplomats in the torrid zone.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Bin there, done that: half a century on

Both these unconventional characters have been around for 50 years now. The cat and the Sheikh are growing decidedly middle-aged, yet retain appeal for young, malleable minds.

Any other obvious similarities?

It's a very odd pairing indeed.

The lovable Cat in the Hat creates chaos and gets the kids in trouble (the Hebrew edition's cover is shown)

Osama Bin Laden, the face of fundo fury, has unleashed dreadful bouts of destruction, and now sends out taped messages from the forlorn Hindu Kush badlands.
One brash photojournalist from the US asserts that al Qaeda now supplies arms to Gaza-based Palestinian militants to launch attacks inside Egypt. Intriguing, but there has been not one shred of hard evidence of this. Paranoia and bravado between rival guerrilla factions stymies investigations here. Far more posters and t-shirts of Nasrullah and Arafat than OBL appear on the streets of Gaza and Palestine.

They make an unsettling pair,the cat and the tall ascetic, both hell-bent on teaching us some kind of lesson.

Bin Laden's horoscope today indicates he is a Pisces and an extremist..but didn't we know that already? (An alternate date, July 30 1957 has been put forth too; it's as if the sheik has taken to celebrating two separate birthdays, like the British queen. He has his share of admirers, alas. The Middle East blogosphere is buzzing with birthday tributes to the notorious recluse. The 25 million dollar bounty on OBL's head remains the same. Plus the $2m bonus from the air pilot's association, of course. So far , no takers.

Dr Seuss's frenetic feline, who famously Came Back the next year, is an irrepressible force. This cat is known to English-speakers the world over. His distinctive striped top hat is widely imitated. He has nine lives and lots of tricks up his sleeve.
Osama, the other other birthday boy, has the added unpleasant feature of being for real, albeit in a evasive way. Osama has become the bearded phantom of Al Qaeda, rarely sighted, and holding out against harsh odds, occasionally taunting the West from his tribal hidey-hole. I don't know what exactly Bin Laden embodies now. For some he is the ultimate evil; for others a defiant and righteous zealot. We live in bizarre times. Here's hoping none of OBL's birthday wishes come true.

Muddle East pleas of king, lawyers, and pols

King Abdullah II of Jordan, an eloquent moderate Arab who flattered US lawmakers without lapsing into unctuousness, wowed most Americans when he addressed a joint session of Congress this week. His message about the need for the US to back peace in the Middle East was not particularly new, but the king's words were passionate, urgent, and from the heart. He demands a peaceful solution by the end of this year.
A neighbor in West Jerusalem who watched the speech live on CNN swore it brought tears to his eyes. But there was very little comment from the Israeli press, mostly yawns and shrugs for the region's arguably weakest monarch. Indeed, the lead story about Jordan in the English-language papers headlined the trial of a pair of thugs who allegedly had plotted to assassinate George Bush on his last visit.

But there is a reaction of sorts to this royal plea in Jerusalem. A right-wing NGO of combative lawyers, called Shrat HaDin (the Israel Law Center), has resolved to redouble efforts for their "Ultimate Mission" and is actively promoting an 8-day tour for American movers and shakers. The aim is to offer foreigners with deep pockets a chance to "experience firsthand Israel's struggle for survival and security."

The itinerary obviously aims to present a Fox News-style fair and balanced view of the Jewish State. These paying guests will meet with intelligence agents, assassins, generals, politicians, settlers, judges, collaborators, and heroes, and of course bond with one another.
It's quite a Grand Zionist circuit, with night cruises and luxurious private plane flights to distinguish it from those free Taglit Birthright tours that tempt younger American Jews to visit Israel en masse. A similar Christian Zionist mission tour is underway right now.
The chosen people on this Ultimate Mission can take up-close snapshots of the security barrier and even go inside one rather atypical Arab-Israeli village to meet "Israel's Minority Community." This place, Ilabun, is where the government stores tactical nuclear artillery shells, nuclear landmines and other weapons. I guess the security won't need beefing up. When not acting as tour guides, the Israel Law Center also runs a defense fund for Arab collaborators. Izzy is tempted to come along, but is rather put off by the price tag. It is not just the hefty US $1896 for tour costs, which works out to $237 a day plus tips, but the hidden extras. Every participant must make a tax-deductible donation of between $500- $5000 to Shurat HaDin. Sure, we all become charter members of Shurat HaDin’s Global Advisory Network. The money goes towards funding terror victims' litigation against the PA, various Palestinian leaders and their financial patrons. Suing Hamas for property damage in Sderot, for instance,say, in a New York courtroom. One wonders if a "sue the bastards" approach is the best way to engage global sympathy for Israel's terror victims. Legal advisories issued by the World Court at the Hague haven't had much sway over the construction of Israel's separation barrier.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Viper and Heron- Israel's latest war robots

This is not a toy. Meet the ViPer, the newest weapon of the Israeli Defence Forces, a hunter-killer robot designed expressly for urban guerrilla warfare. It shoots a mini-Uzi or plants stun grenades. This deadly counterinsurgency gadget is the size of a vacuum cleaner and sniffs out bombs. According to Elbit Systems, the manufacturers, ViPer moves relentlessly on its treads "undeterred by stairs, rubble, dark alleys, caves or narrow tunnels". There's a videocam and some laser sensors on board, so IDF soldiers can aim it from a distance with considerable precision or program in electronically. The Elbit press release points out how the new ViPer could lower the risk to soldiers in hand-to-hand combat situations akin to last summer's streetfighting against Hizbullah.
Israel plans to deploy the VIPeR among its infantry units after field tests are done. The makers also hope to market this little robot to foreign police units or American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. If only it could negotiate as well, the ViPer would be like R2D2 on steroids, packing heat. No wonder scientists in Korea are trying to come up with a robot ethics code.

"What was science fiction until not so long ago is now becoming that will create a revolution in counterterrorism," said an Israeli weaponry expert. A soldier can haul a ViPer to the battle in a backpack, because it weighs less than 5 pounds.

Meanwhile, Israel’s Air Force has a new Heron (Mahatz in Hebrew), a drone with a 50-foot wingspan, which can fly up to 30,000 feet high with a 550-pound payload. It can fly up to 30 hours without refueling and can be operated completely by remote. The large UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle in mili-speak) also can pinpoint the launch sites of missiles and is said to be able to launch air-to-surface missiles, eliminating targets as far away as Iran.

The Heron is considered cutting-edge and can carry a heavier payload than any other aerial drone. Israel already has rush orders to send Herons out to American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

If the other side manages to gear up and fight with robots as well, perhaps there will only be civilian casulaties in future combat.

Unhappy Easter - thousands to stay away

The Holy Sepulcher may be a little less crowded this Easter.

Some 2000 Egyptian Christians will be denied exit visas by authorities in Cairo, thwarting their annual Easter pilgrimage to Jerusalem, according to Israeli press reports today. These would-be travelers, mostly Coptic or Greek Orthodox, are further incensed because Jerusalem hotels refuse to refund their deposits, and insist that foreign Christian visitors have already reserved rooms elsewhere for high season. Egyptian Christians find themselves unwitting pawns in the row between their predominantly Muslim country and its Jewish neighbour state.

Tensions between Egypt and Israel have heightened recently during the spy trial of Mohamed Essam Ghoneim, who allegedly worked undercover for Mossad.
And a diplomatic spat over an Israeli documentary doesn't help matters much.

Shaked Spirit
, which aired last week, relates how during the Six Day War, an Israeli elite unit killed 250 enemy captives. Egypt regards the slaughter of hundreds of unarmed POWS as a notorious 60s war crime. Fuming Arab politicians want to re-examine financial ties and trade with Israel after this old controversy was resurrected.

So far, there has been no perceptible change in the number of visitors to the Holy Sepulcher following another controversial documentary: the broadcast of James Cameron's 90-minute special about the "Lost Tomb of Jesus" this week. The Titanic director and the "Naked Archaeologist" Simcha Jacobovici conjectured that the remains of Jesus Christ and his family were discovered in a crypt in suburban Jerusalem, even though most archaeologists who specialize in the Near East were highly skeptical of such claims. And the docu-drama doesn't have a prayer of changing the minds of any true believers. Yet if the claims prove valid, the discovery at Talpiyot would contradict the essential Christian tenets of Resurrection and Ascension. Every spring, thousands of Christian pilgrims flock to the little chapel built atop an empty tomb at the heart of the walled city to celebrate Easter Mass. By all accounts, they are continuing to do so in droves.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Persian villian of Purim, 2007

In the spirit of Purim-- the festive holiday that celebrates the Jews' escape from annhilation in Persia with costumes, masks, noisemakers, and booze-- a West Jerusalem friend shared this composite photo. It is a startling image of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad which is making the rounds and really has the power to straighten the old curly whirlies. Iran's president is a postmodern Haman, the personification of evil, to many Israelis who view him with the same suspicion once reserved for Yassir Arafat. The mention of his name could one day set off a chorus of wooden graggers
But this newswire photo (left) has almost equal shock value, with the added frisson of being real. It was snapped a couple months back at the Tehran Holocaust denial conference. Moshe Aryeh Friedman, a senior member of Neturei Karta, an ultra-orthodox fringe group, soon regretted that public kiss. His Austrian wife was so repulsed by lips that had touched Mahmoud's flesh, she promptly left the guy. Friedman is regarded with contempt and pity, a wingnut who lacks the intellectual rigor of a typical 'self-hating Jew' outside the homeland. Go figure.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Sleeping with the Enemy

Here’s a dismaying tale about Jerusalem newlyweds who get wrenched apart by social separation barriers just as daunting as the Israeli security fence. Love cannot always find a way around conflict when hatred festers on home ground. BBC news ran a poignant feature clip this week about the challenges when a Jew marries a Muslim in Israel today.

Osama --not a hassle-free name for any Muslim Romeo who must regularly cross a West Bank checkpoint-- discovers that love is not enough to smoothe the way for a secure future with his Jewish bride, Jasmine. Three years into their convention-defying marriage, this besotted couple in their mid-20s cannot find any way to live together without menace. So ultimately Jasmine packs up for exile in Europe, where she hopes her man can join her once he gets permission to travel. Her permit to reside in the West Bank can't be renewed and on Jasmine's Israeli passport, an official stamp says her marital status is "under investigation". So Osama cannot even see his wife off at the airport: the authorities won't recognizes their inter-faith union. The dejected husband is held back by armed guards at the security barrier.

Let's hope the British artist Banksy's vision of breaking through such walls can somehow, someday be made reality. See one of his poignant murals below.

(photo of a bridal couple courtesy of

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Cherrypickers,Gnostic Nasties,Unholy hype

Here is Simcha, the self-dubbed Naked Archaeologist, who insists he found Jesus. Literally. Then got James Cameron in on the deal.

No bones about it, the most hits in the brief history of the Israelity Bites blog came this weekend after Izzy Bee posted that Discovery Channel docu-drama preview of the disputed “Lost Tomb of Jesus” on Friday. James Cameron and Simcha Jacobovici triggered a major cyber-spasm on this site with their claim that a suburban Jerusalem tomb had contained Jesus Christ & son, plus a clutch of other relatives. So the Holy Sepulcher’s not wholly holy? The implication made some clergymen get rather hot under the dog collar. Nuns were having none of it. After all, second Temple-era stone ossuaries, similar to the two caskets unveiled at the NYC public library this week, are so common that Israelis frequently use them as planters for begonias or geraniums. But when a Canadian journo and the Titanic showman teamed up to think outside the box, plenty of people got that sinking feeling.

Hey, I did not intend for my blog to be another conduit for the James Cameron publicity machine, but it turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg. The comments poured in for days and Izzy pored over them in fascination.

They ranged from testimonies of faith, rationalist discourse, gnostic nasties and Monty Python shtick, with some doubting Thomases and furtive freemasons weighing in, too. And all blasphemers were cursed in CAPS by a fire-and-brimstone believer in a vengeful deity. Izzy Bee hopes that after the controversial show runs on Sunday, sceptics and believers will resume their dialogue here. Time to curb your dogma, sharpen your tongue, and go at it with logic and vigor.

This afternoon, Izzy Bee followed the senior archaeologist Dan Bahat through a subterranean tunnel that skirts the sacrosanct Western Wall of the Temple Mount. An Al-Jazeera film crew came along too, trailing the heritage protection team from UNESCO, and after a few snarls from the Israeli security detail, all were allowed inside. Dr Bahat is both a scientist and a religious man, and besides teaching at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, is on the theology faculty at the University of Toronto. Like most experts on Jerusalem’s past, the professor seemed to be bothered by the sketchy science behind the “Lost Tomb” program. The Talpiyot cave's 10 caskets were catalogued and the bones reburied 27 years ago, so this earth-shattering hypothesis is a non-starter in Israeli scientific circles. The video trailers suggest that evidence was cherrypicked to support the documentary’s premise that the body of Jesus, son of Joseph and worshipped as Christ, was stuffed in a box outside the walled city for 2000 years. This strikes Jerusalem-based scholars as pseudo-science based on conjecture. But interesting if true...

As our group walked past enormous Herodian stone blocks, where Jewish prayers on paper slips were tucked into some ancient crevices, then beside Byzantine arches, Umayyad masonry, old Roman toilets, moats, cisterns and the like, this unholy row over Cameron’s slight-of-hand documentary seemed carefully manipulated for maximum profit. Watch this space.