An American law student's experiences interning in Tel Aviv

Monday, July 24, 2006

Finally back home

Still quite jet-lagged, but home in South Carolina after a night sleeping in the London airport, a couple of days in New York, and an afternoon of jet skiing on the lake in NC. It's so nice to be back and able to relax. Have been watching CNN a bit, but the American print media is a bit surprising--it honestly seems to be more pro-Israeli than the Israel media! I was definitely impressed by the fact that every Israeli I knew (admittedly a leftist bunch) displayed compassion and sensitivity to the Lebanese and Palestinians, and were certainly able to engage in dialogue and listen to other points of view. I doubt much of the Arab media would adhere to such a standard, but I would be pleasantly surprised if they would.

As far as the conflict goes, I think it's appalling that the casualties on both sides have been largely civilian. Of course I want to protect civilians' lives as much as possible, but I've not been convinced that an immediate ceasefire is the best way to do that. At the time, I thought the Israeli pullout from Lebanon in 2000 and the subsequent prisoner-exchange were good ideas, but they have unfortunately been misinterpreted as Israeli weakness by Hezbollah. Any ceasefire that preserves the status quo (with Hezbollah's missiles and ability to control much of southern Lebanon) would be a victory for Hezbollah and lead to more aggression from both sides in the future. Is saving civilian lives today worth it if it means a greater number of civilians will be killed 6 months from now? Likewise, the prisoner exchange seemed like a good idea at the time, but if the price of gaining 3 dead soldiers' bodies and 1 Israeli businessman is a constant risk of more kidnapped Israelis and possible escalation, then Israel should not agree to a swap at this point.

Many of these prisoners need to be released--but unfortunately, it seems the only way would be through a comprehensive peace deal, so they will have to wait.

If the situation were reversed, and Israeli extremists (no shortage of them) crossed the Lebanese border to kidnap Lebanese and fire rockets at their cities, I would support Lebanon's right of self-defense. But it rings hollow to me to say "Israel is just as bad as Hezbollah because they are killing civilians" for several reasons. Hezbollah has established the nature of this war by its actions. Do you honestly think they didn't know what would happen if they established their headquarters in a heavily-populated area and stored their missiles in civilians' garages? It would probably not be an overstatement to say that they were counting on civilian deaths from Israeli rockets, to help with recruiting and to engender sympathy in the international arena. Israel has dropped leaflets warning civilians to leave areas that would be bombed (in contrast with Hezbollah's deliberate targeting of civilians), but they cannot simply concede defeat to Hezbollah because of the risk of civilian casualties, which can never be eliminated though it can be minimized.

Another argument I think is weak is: "Well, Israel's actions are only strengthening Hezbollah's support in a country where many didn't support it beforehand, so Israel's actions are counterproductive." I think it's true--war certainly strengthens support for extremists on both sides and undermines doves--but do you really think Hezbollah would play nice if Israel didn't respond? Sure, Hezbollah will hate Israel much more now, but they already hated Israel and were committed to wiping it off the map. If the only thing Hezbollah will understand or respect is strength, then Israel will show them who has the strength.

Nonviolent noncooperation is the only way the Palestinians will ever achieve their dreams. As far as Lebanon goes, the peace should be much easier to obtain because the Palestinian situation is SO complicated and they must share the same piece of land. Lebanon has to fulfill what is arguably the most important and only prerequisite of a nation-state: controlling its territory. I think a multinational force (which Israel has accepted) is probably the best chance for peace. As always, I look forward to hearing comments, but only by named individuals so I can know who I'm speaking with.

It's a bit funny that this travel blog has turned into such a political manifesto, but I guess the political became so wrapped up in my last week or so in Israel that it's inevitable. I will upload the last of my Israel pics with comments soon--ciao for now!

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

T minus 5 hours

I'm finally leaving Israel in a couple of hours this afternoon. This last week or so has felt like it's dragged on for many weeks--can't believe the conflict started so recently. Most people have been very understanding of my decision to leave early--one woman in my office pointed out, "This isn't your country, so why would you take extra risks just to stay here another 10 days?"

The mood in Tel Aviv has completely shifted from what it was earlier this summer, and it really weighs heavily on me. No one calls into the office, everyone is depressed and worried about their relatives up north and possible escalation of the conflict. I keep refreshing the "Haaretz" webpage to see the latest casualty rates and bombed-out towns in the north of Israel, and it just contributes to a general sense of weight and lethargy by the end of the day. We would have maximum 1 minute warning of sirens in which to reach a bomb shelter when bombs begin to rain on Tel Aviv. I think that when I get to New York I will sleep for 14 hours just to try to sleep away the tension and pressure.

There was an interesting editorial in the NY Times yesterday pointing out that there is no moral equivalence in this war, and I think it's so true. Lopsided casualty rates are due more to the fact that northern Israelis are mostly staying in their bomb shelters than to any humanitarian intentions on the part of Hezbollah. Over 500 missiles have been fired at Israel in the past few days--500 missiles! Even my quite leftist boss pointed out, "There's no way any country would stand for that, missiles coming down on their country." As far as Israel's "disproportionate" response goes---um, what exactly is a proportionate response to a terrorist organization bent on the destruction of your state?!

I don't even know what is to be done about the rise of Hezbollah and Hamas, but I think Israel should be damned if they EVER accept a cease-fire or hudna based on the double-speak of these organizations. I'm reading "Atlas Shrugged" now, and though it was written against the threat of communism, so much of the analysis rings true against these terrorist organizations and the state of Iran. When Iran claims that there's "no way" Israel can reach it with Israeli missiles, everyone knows they're lying! Their people must know. How on earth can you deal with that kind of false bravado, how do you dignify it with diplomacy? I wonder how long their people must suffer under that kind of regime.

At any rate, Mainon and I had a nice last day in Jerusalem before we fly out today. We went to the Western Wall and it was so moving to see all of the people praying there. I didn't pray so much as just feel the depth of history and of the Jewish connection to this place--women beside me were moaning and sobbing. Wonder how many of those present were praying for peace.

I will post soon from New York to let everyone know I'm back safely--off to say my farewell to Israel.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

In case of nuclear war, all rules will be temporarily suspended

Um yeah...so forget all the big talk and optimism of my last post. Mainon and I are officially leaving early--as in Wednesday afternoon, the first flight out we could get. This is all just getting to be a bit much. I didn't want to be run out of town, but at the same time even a small threat to my safety is just not worth spending an extra 2 weeks here. It also makes me nervous the way Israel keeps targeting the Beirut airport, that the airport here could become a huge target in retaliation.

Hezbollah is claiming they have missiles that reach all the way to Be'ersheva, far south of Tel Aviv, so that's not encouraging, and it just seems like things can escalate so much here in only a few days or hours (remember 4 days ago when I was supposed to go to Beirut?! yeah). But we're still fine and we're going to try to enjoy our last few days here before getting back to the good ol' US of A, where Canadian border guards NEVER try to kidnap our soldiers. ;-)

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Geopolitics keeps intruding...

...into my summer! Since when do Israel and Lebanon fight?! This is the worst it has been between them in 6 years or more. You can really feel it in the mood of the place--everyone was subdued at the office today, no one called, there wasn't even bad traffic (a first for Tel Aviv).

I'm being careful and will leave if necessary, but I'm cautiously optimistic that I will get to spend my last couple of weeks here. The conflict comes into your life at the weirdest times here. I was at a belly-dancing bar for my friend Naama's birthday, and we had a blast, but her friend Netan was there and he only has 1 eye, because the other one was shot out at a (peaceful) demonstration of anarchists against the wall. Just dreadful. Of course no one's been held accountable for it, but he is suing the state, so maybe he will get some compensation at least.

In happier news, Arthur got a rave review of his new book in Haaretz, which everyone should run to buy on Amazon immediately: "Occupied Minds." Check out the laudatory article here: http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/pages/ShArtVty.jhtml?sw=neslen&itemNo=735648

I also finally got my pictures from my first month in Israel online: http://share.shutterfly.com/action/welcome?sid=8DZNWbdm2YZI

Alright off to watch "Pirates of the Caribbean" to forget about the horrible things happening here for a bit. Later!

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Desert life

What an eventful weekend...in the last few days I have had my wallet stolen (by AMERICANS, no less), braved the border guards of Israel and Jordan (avoiding tell-tale border stamps so as not to sabotage my upcoming trip to Lebanon!), stayed in a Bedouin camp, 4-wheeled through the desert, hiked through Petra, changed my plane ticket home, and moved to a new apartment.

Mainon and I went through the southern border crossing at Eilat to get to Jordan. We headed up to Wadi Rum, which has gorgeous desert scenery that attracted Lawrence of Arabia. We arrived at the Bedouin camp in the desert and it was immediately so peaceful....not silent, but just quiet and calm. Any thoughts I had of a quiet, contemplative ride through the desert were dashed by our 4-wheel drive tour, driven by a maniac. He took us down a 45-degree 200 meter high sand dune at 90 km an hour--I think even Chuck Norris's heart would have skipped a beat. It was awesome though, so fun and just absolutely spectacular scenery.

Wadi Rum set an insanely high bar, but Petra managed to equal it. We passed through a small corridor between 2 enormous sides of cliffs and arrived at an ancient city carved into the red rocks by the Nabataeans. The Treasury is definitely the highlight--an extremely well-preserved tomb that starts off pink and looks deep red by the late afternoon sun. We hiked up to the High Place of Sacrifice, which was beautiful. When you get up to the top, you can see the altar where the sacrifices took place, stands where the people would watch, and drains for the blood! We took an obligatory camel ride around (and yes, I know I just rode camels in Morocco in March, but these were Jordanian camels, it's totally different!).

The Jordanians were wonderful, too--so friendly and open. I feel a bit guilty that I don't identify more with the Palestinians here, so now I feel like my would-be affection for the Palestinians is being transferred onto the Jordanians. But I bet they are more able to be open, confident and friendly since they have their own country and identity--I'm sure it's much more difficult for the Palestinians.

Alright dinner time, but will post pics soon!

Sunday, July 02, 2006

How low can you go?

Enjoying my sore quads and pleasantly sunburned arms after our trip to Masada and the Dead Sea this weekend. We left Jerusalem at 5 am to try to beat the heat...yeah, it didn't work. It was cool out for about a half hour, but when we started hiking at 6:30 it was already obscenely hot. Masada is located on a high plateau overlooking the Dead Sea and is supposedly a 45-minute hike, though it took us an hour and 10 minutes. I felt like I had finished a marathon when I got to the top, and the view of the mountains and the Dead Sea was a spectacular prize.

Masada was originally a fortress/palace of King Herod. The fortress was taken by Jewish zealots in 66 AD during the Jewish Revolt and was the last place in Israel to be re-conquered by the Romans 7 years later. The Romans used Jewish slaves to build a ramp up to the fortress and eventually broke through, but all they found were dead bodies. The Jewish zealots knew that the Romans would finally get in, so they chose to commit suicide rather than live as slaves. 10 men killed the other 900 people, but they left stores of food and water out to prove that they didn't die of starvation.

I was fortunate to arrive at the top at the same time as another group that included an Israeli giving a tour to his Austrian friend--the Israeli used to be a tour guide at Masada. They said we could join them so I got to hear all the stories about Herod's time and the revolt. Herod was so opulent he installed a swimming pool up at Masada--even today, the Israelis can barely get a water pipe up there to prevent dehydrated tourists and Herod filled a pool. Amazing.

The Jewish zealots added a synagogue (one of the oldest known in the world) and other small fixtures to the structures. They also had cannonballs they rolled down at the soldiers, and you could see the ramp the Romans created. The whole place just felt so lifelike-you could really play out the battle scene in your head.

Today Masada is a potent symbol for Zionism--every year, IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) soldiers come here and pledge "Never again shall Masada fall." But since it's Israel, there must be contradictions--Jews are forbidden to commit suicide, so what the Zealots did at Masada was not proper. I guess it's just such a romantic, heroic story that it intrigues and captivates foreigners and Israelis.

We took a much-deserved dip in the Dead Sea afterward--at 412 meters below sea level, the lowest place on earth. It's so salty that nothing can live in it and your legs pop back up if you try to push them underneath you in the water. (And by the way, my sunburn comes from the beach the day before in Tel Aviv, because Jared enlightened me with the tidbit that you can't get burned at the Dead Sea because it's too low and it has it's own protective ozone layer. How cool!) So fun to float around like a bobblehead, because your body weight keeps making you turn or flip one way or the other on the water.

On the way to Jerusalem we passed through Jericho and saw a Greek Orthodox monastery on the mountain where Jesus fasted for 40 days. Also saw the tree Zecchias reputedly climbed to see Jesus, prompting Mainon to bust into "Zecchias was a wee little man, a wee little man was he!" How can such a small piece of land have so many extraordinary sights? Doesn't seem fair to all the other countries...

Friday, June 30, 2006

Political musings...

So if the point of this fellowship was to get me to come to Israel and become more pro-Israeli...it's working. I'm just so impressed by what the Israelis have accomplished here. Tel Aviv is such a great city, and to think they managed to build this despite all the wars and violence over the past 60 years. Of course you can't help but contrast it with the fact that Palestinians have been living in refugee camps for the last 60 years, despite all the money that was poured into the Palestinian Authority during Oslo.

Part of it is the fact that Israelis are rapidly becoming my favorite people and culture ever. I love that they seem so normal on the outside, and it takes you a little while to realize that they're batshit insane. Then you see an M16 in your living room and you figure it out, or you're searched on the way into the mall. The weight of history is always in the background, and the fact that Palestinians are straightforward victims of most of it just seems to make them more boring. Israelis are victims and victimizers, and far more interesting for it. I was struck the other day when my Israeli friend Naama said she is anti-Zionist because she thinks it's a racist ideology (and bad for women and the environment, as well). I understood her point but it just made me wonder where she would be if the state of Israel didn't exist.

At this point, I feel pity for the Palestinians but I feel respect for the Israelis, and in my book respect trumps pity anytime. I was actually starting to feel a bit bad that my views were becoming so one-sided so Mainon and I took a tour with Bt'selem of the wall in East Jerusalem yesterday. Shades of Berlin, in more ways than one. All of the interesting, historic parts of Jerusalem are in the East, just like Berlin--the Old City was entirely controlled by Jordan pre-1967.

The beginning of the tour was classic because we saw a small wall along the road and our guide said, "Yes, that wall was put in because the residents of Beit Jala on the neighboring hill would shoot at the Jews living in Gilo here." Then we proceed to walk past the wall to the unprotected clearing beyond--yeah, what's to prevent them from shooting at us here?! We saw the checkpoints and the wall, and Eliezer (our guide) correctly pointed out that the wall is underinclusive because there are Palestinians on the western side of the wall who have no barriers to get into Jerusalem or Israel proper. It's true, but I also feel like most of the bombers came from deep within the West Bank (Nablus or Ramallah) rather than the outskirts of Jerusalem.

Of course there's a visceral reaction to seeing an enormous wall, especially when it's literally dividing villages in 2. Some of the most pitiful Palestinians were in one particular village that is not considered to be in Jerusalem, though their brothers and sisters and cousins 50 meters away are Jerusalem residents. The village is on top of a steep hill with valleys surrounding it, so they're totally cut off from Jerusalem and the West Bank. They can only get into Jerusalem at the whim of the soldiers, which is bad if they have any emergencies or need medical attention.

The part of the tour that affected me most was seeing a Palestinian family who lived on the "Israeli" side of the wall but didn't own their land--a Greek Orthodox church allows them to live there because the father was a junkie and they were helping him to get clean. They invited us inside and gave us tea--nice Palestinian hospitality. The mother was there with her 8 children, the smallest of which was only 6 weeks old. Eliezer told us later he feels very bad for them because the Israelis are trying to kick them out of their home, and they will probably succeed since they don't own the land, the church does. They were so sweet and it was awful to see how precarious their situation was--Eliezer said he already took a lawyer to see them, but there's nothing the lawyer can do.

I can't understand why the Palestinians don't feel the urgency of the need to renounce violence and work non-violently toward getting a state as soon as possible. The current situation is not hurting the Israelis--even the Israeli economy is doing much better now. Tel Aviv is doing great--people just live their lives normally here. And they get to keep building settlements and avoiding sharing Jerusalem, whereas the Palestinians are losing out to the changing "realities on the ground" as each day goes by. Their land keeps being taken, their economy is in shambles and Palestinians are increasingly being cut off from each other by the wall. It's frustrating that they should have all the motivation in the world but they can't get their act together.

Looking forward to some comments from people about how wrong I am...for now, I'm off to the Dead Sea! Later!