5/15/18 Israel Celebrates Gazans Die a Very strange 10 days

When I began writing this article, I had just returned from Rabin Square (the central square in Tel Aviv), where tens of thousands gathered tonight, May 14th, to celebrate the Saturday night victory at the annual Eurovision song competition, by Israeli pop sensation, Netta Barzilai. During the congratulatory festivities, Netta belted out her winning balad, “TOY,” as did a dozen other Israeli former Eurovision contestants from previous year — both winners and losers. This was the second celebration of the Israel’s Eurovision victory that take place within two days. Saturday night, immediately following the announcement that Netta had won, ten thousand joyous people gleefully streamed to the main square, at 2 AM in the morning. Rarely have I seen teaming crowds as jubilant as the celebrants these past two nights.

On the surface, it has been a very self-satisfying 10 days for Israel; starting on Friday, May 4th, when the Grand Tour races, the Giro d’Italia, began its three-day run across the country. On Tuesday, May 8th, US President Donald J. Trump announced he was pulling the US out of the Iran accord. Without addressing whether that choice was indeed a good thing for Israel, most Israelis (who have heard Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other politicians attack the accord repeatedly), applauded Trump’s decision. On Wednesday night, Israel had a brief mini-war with Iranians forces in Syria, which resulted in a lopsided victory — where the IDF destroyed most of the Iranian forces in Syria, without suffering any loses.

Late Saturday night, May 12th, 25-year-old Netta from Hod Hasharon became the third Israeli in 43 years to win the Eurovision (an international song contest, in which 42 nations compete). In addition to being a tremendous personal achievement, Netta’s triumph was clearly a national victory, as many in the BDS movement lobbied against anyone voting in favor of an Israeli singer.

However, if all this was not enough drama, Monday, May 14th — 70 years after the day Israel declared its independence; the day on which the US became the first country to recognize the nascent Israeli statehood— was the day the United States staged the dedication ceremony for its newly christened Embassy in Jerusalem. The event, which marked the official opening of the Embassy, was attended by Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, Secretary of Treasury Steven Munchin and Deputy Secretary of State John Jay Sullivan (as well as a robust delegation of Republican Senators and Congressman).

While the Embassy dedication ceremony was carried live on every Israeli TV channel, the event was clearly aimed at the base of President Trump’s supporters. As evidenced by the fact that at an event in Israel, two of the three clergy who spoke were Christian evangelical leaders, including Robert Jeffress, Pastor of Dallas’ First Baptist mega-church giving the invocation. The same Jeffress, who had once been quoted as declaring that Jews could not “be saved,” ended his words: “In the spirit of Jesus Christ, Our Lord, Amen.”

The benediction at the end of the Embassy dedication ceremony was offered by Pastor John Hagee (who had his own problematic incident with the Jewish people 10 years ago), concluded his remarks by declaring: “The Messiah will come and establish a Kingdom that will never end.” The only Jewish religious figure to speak was Rabbi Zalman Wallawick, a Chabad rabbi (the Chabad movement has been very publicly supportive of President Trump).

The ceremony opening the US Embassy in Jerusalem was, in large part, a ceremony to praise Donald Trump — who in addition to giving his own 5-minute video address, was feted for his decision to finally move the US Embassy to Israel’s capital by each and every speaker, whether American or Israeli, including Israeli President Reuven “Rubi” Rivlin and Prime Minister Netanyahu.

When speaking about President Trump, Netanyahu proclaimed: “By recognizing history, you are making history”. In short, even without Trump being present, the Embassy opening served as a great campaign rally. Yet, the average Israeli did not mind. The United States was finally granting official recognition of Israel’s capital; the reality of the fact that Jerusalem has been Israel’s capital since 1949 had now, at long last been, validated as fact by the US. Trump’s popularity ratings in Israel, no doubt, far outpace his ratings at home.

Of course, for Israelis, there is also another reality that seems inescapable. While news broadcasts reported on the various events and celebrations surrounding the opening of the Embassy, continuous cuts were required to provide updates on the latest news of the riots along Israel’s borders with the Gaza Strip. For the past six weeks, weekly marches have been held with the stated goal of attempting to breach Israel’s border.

Monday was advertised as the biggest of all the Gaza demonstrations. Hamas, who governs Gaza, went ‘all out’ to get people to the border, as a sign of protest against the opening of the US Embassy. Attempts made both by Egypt and Israel to persuade Hamas to call off the marches were to no avail. So, at the same time the US Embassy was being consecrated, 30,000 people were participating in a march on Israel’s border. According to the Israeli military, during the course of that march there were four instances of demonstrators opening fire on Israeli soldiers and 10 attempts to plant IED’s along the border.

Observers on both sides of the fence reported that those marching on Monday were particularly determined to reach the fence and try to breach it. Each time the Israeli army warned protestors not to approach the fence. Israel tried to stop the demonstrators from nearing the fence with non-lethal means, such as tear gas. However, after employing non-lethal force failed, the army used lethal force to stop the Gazans from breaching the fence. Tragically, regardless of the cause, or who bears responsibility, 60 people who woke up on Monday morning were dead by nightfall. These were needless deaths that accomplished nothing, but adding to the mounting statistics.

For Israelis, Gaza represents dilemmas, with no apparent solutions. Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip over ten years ago, with the hope that the Gaza territory could serve as a model for future coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians. Instead, the opposite has resulted. Today, 1.7 million people live in a small sliver of land, run by a government whose stated goal is the destruction of Israel. The people have no significant independent means of support, and many still dream of returning to the homes their great-grandparents left (or from which they were forced out) in 1948 — something that will never happen.

Hamas has repeatedly launched batteries of missiles from Gaza, which Israel’s anti-missile system has neutralized; they built underground tunnels, which new Israeli technology has efficiently revealed; and now, Hamas has turned to promoting mass riots; riots whose main results have been the death of their citizens and public relations problem for Israel. Hamas is desperate. Most Israelis recognize that desperate people sometimes do desperate, very stupid, self-destructive things. A scary thought indeed.

As this remarkable ten days for Israelis comes to an end, many here are very optimistic, some would say euphoric. Those, however, with a greater sense of history, have the feeling that trouble may be just around the corner. None of the good news of the past week makes us truly more safe. The opening of the Embassy in Jerusalem may be a wonderful symbolic act, but it does not impact anything on the ground, and some believe it might complicate future negotiations.

The decision of the US to withdraw from the Iranian pact has the potential to bring greater long-term security, but it is just as liable to present Israel with an Iran who possesses nuclear weapons, earlier rather than later. Despite our recent successful encounter with the Iranian military in Syria, Iran will no doubt try to avenge its losses.

So, despite the run of gratifying events, none of the latest good news has resolved Israel’s fundamental challenges. At the opening ceremony, Jared Kushner gave a rare, thoughtful public speech. In it, Kushner expressed the hope that the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem could be the springboard to achieving peace. Certainly most Israelis share that hope, though few believe that hope is achievable any time soon.