Despite concerns, Israel a vibrant country
Last updated October 9, 2007 5:08 p.m. PT
By DAVID BRUMER
Having just spent the past three weeks in Israel, I'm happy to report that, rumors to the contrary, Israel is alive and well and thriving.
Israel is a country about the size of New Jersey. Space is at a premium, and so is security for this small expanse of land. That was brought home to me during a three-hour "Intellicopter Tour" around the country, provided by The Israel Project, an international non-profit that educates the media and the public about Israel.
We took off from Herzilya airport, on the Mediterranean coast just north of Tel Aviv. Flying east, we were at the edge of the West Bank within minutes, hovering over Tulkarm and Qalqilya. Unknown to most Westerners is the fact that at this latitude, Israel's waist is at its most narrow, spanning just nine miles (several miles less than the distance from the University of Washington to Microsoft in Redmond).
The coastal plain, where 80 percent of Israelis live, is literally minutes by foot from the West Bank. From the skies, it is much easier to understand why Israel started construction of its Security Barrier in 2002, a year that saw 450 Israeli deaths attributable to terrorism. Often referred to as the Wall, more than 95 percent of the 800-kilometer barrier, when completed, will actually be constructed of chain-link fence.
In Qalqilya, the barrier is in fact a concrete wall. This is because Qalqilya sits on a hill above Highway 6, a major north-south artery for Israelis, and until the construction of the wall there, Israeli motorists were vulnerable to Palestinian snipers. The majority of the concrete portion of the barrier is in Jerusalem, where a fence would be impractical in such a densely populated locale, given that the fence requires a buffer zone on either side for motion detection and army patrols. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the barrier has been enormously successful in stopping terrorism and saving lives. In areas where the security barrier is completed, attacks are down 90 percent.
Flying southwest from Jerusalem, we touched down in Sderot, a development town in the south, only a few kilometers away from the Gazan border. Sderot has borne the brunt of the Qassam missile attacks, with more than 2,000 landing after Israel's full withdrawal from Gaza in August 2005. Although unsophisticated and inaccurate, the Qassams are a very effective weapon of terrorism for the precise reason of their unpredictability. And when on target, they are deadly weapons. The newer Qassams have a range of up to 12 kilometers (7.5 miles), putting the Ashkelon Power Plant in their sights. To date, Israel has not come up with an adequate response, in part, because to strike back at the launching sites would endanger Palestinian civilian lives, something Israel is loath to do.
I came away from the helicopter tour with a renewed appreciation for the security dilemmas Israel faces, especially with the radical Islamists of Hamas now holding the full reins of power in Gaza, and vying for control of the West Bank. To see with one's own eyes the very real security risks that this tiny country faces (not to mention the threats on the northern borders from Hezbollah and Syria, compounded by Iran's long-range missile capabilities and nuclear ambitions) gives one pause.
Israel must balance her citizenry's security needs with ordinary Palestinians' human rights. And Israel's Supreme Court has on several occasions overruled military dictates, for example when the security barrier has been deemed encroaching on Palestinian villages.
Despite those concerns, Israel remains a vibrant, prosperous society. Construction is booming, the high-tech sector is burgeoning and people are out at parks, beaches, cafes and cultural centers.
From the magnificent Baha'i Gardens in Haifa (home to the holiest shrine in the Baha'i faith) to the Druze village of Daliat al-Carmel to the streets of Rehovot (home of the world-class Weizmann Institute for Scientific Research), Israelis of all ethnicities and amazingly diverse backgrounds are dancing, studying, dining and doing it all with a great zest for life.
It is said that great wines are produced from vines that are most stressed and must dig deep into the Earth's surface in search of nourishment. The few grapes those vines produce make the finest of wines. And so it is with Israel, a people who must dig deeply within their greatest resource -- themselves -- to meet the prodigious challenges that this amazing land presents, and in so doing create the modern miracle that is Israel.
David Brumer is a geriatric social worker and psychotherapist. Visit his blog, BRUMSPEAK, at brumspeak.blogspot.com, for more in-depth dispatches from Israel, September 2007.
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Thursday, October 11, 2007