Saturday, August 29, 2009

A little help please!

The good part of traveling is that you get to see new places, meet new people, and eat new things.  The bad part of traveling is that you lose stuff.  Sometimes, you lose really important stuff you need to write your blog.

In this particular case, I lost my Israel Diplomatic Fellowship schedule.  Since I did not commit our itinerary to memory, I am now unable to continue speaker analysis.  If anyone saved a copy and could scan it and email it to me, I would be most grateful!

And yes, I feel like an idiot.  In the meantime, a couple other personal updates to come.

Friday, August 28, 2009


Sderot is a small city located less than a mile east of the northern border of Gaza.  The story of Sderot is relatively unknown in the United States although the city's recent history should be famous.  Since the beginning of the Second Intifada in October 2000, Sderot has suffered continuous rocket fire.  As of January 2008, over 8,000 rockets have landed in Sderot, an average of about 2.4 a day.

At the end of 2006, Sderot's population was about 19,300.  Aid organizations estimate that by the end of 2008, about 15-25% of the population left because of the incessant rocket fire.  We visited the town after lunch at the Air Force base.

It is difficult to write about Sderot without becoming overly maudlin or over-correcting into dryness.  I will try my best to stick to the facts without injecting too much of my emotions into the picture.

At first glance, Sderot seems like any normal Israeli city.  However, the sameness evaporates the moment you see a fortified bus stop or a house with a bomb shelter added on like an extra garage.  After our bus wound its way through the narrow streets and finally stopped, we saw a presentation from a group dedicated to showing the world the truth about life in Sderot.  We saw footage of a man levering the remains of a Qassam rocket from the ground only a few meters away from a school.  We learned about the warning system which gives citizens an average of 15 seconds to find shelter before a rocket lands.  We learned that Hamas has fired over 200 rockets at Sderot since the end of Operation Cast Lead and during an ostensible cease-fire period.  Then, we went to the police station and saw the remains of Qassam rockets.

The rockets are generally built out of readily available materials such as welded pieces of scrap metal and pipes.  Some of these materials actually come from aid packages sent into Gaza.  Like the IEDs used in Iraq, the rockets are filled with explosives and small bits of metal.  When the rocket hits something and explodes, the bits of metal are expelled outwards with great force, becoming shrapnel.  Any unprotected person within a few dozen yards of the explosion will suffer significant, possibly deadly injuries.

Upon close inspection, I was able to make out the markings on the rockets.  Most were green, the color of Hamas.  A few were yellow, however, the color of Fatah.  The welding was often crude and some appeared shoddily made.  Still, such rockets have killed 25 Israelis and injured over 700 more.

The Israeli government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars fortifying Sderot.  The schools all have bomb shelters including rooftop barriers designed to withstand a direct hit.  They are still trying to find enough money to complete these shelters but their efforts have helped keep casualties down.

The most emotional part of the trip came when we got back in the bus and drove past a playground.  This is what we saw:

(Thanks to Dave Fuchs for posting these on Facebook; they're much better than my iPhone pictures.)

As you've probably guessed, the caterpillars are bomb shelters for children.  When the alarm sounds, the children have an easily accessible and, hopefully, psychologically comforting place to hide until the rocket attack ends.  Post-traumatic stress disorders are fairly common among children in Sderot although, as our guide mentioned, the "post" doesn't apply since rockets and mortars continue to fall.

We took a brief bathroom break and walked up a hill overlooking Gaza.  Late in the afternoon, Gaza is hazy; it was difficult to see very far due to the smoke and pollution rising from the buildings.  It reminded me of a painting I used as a computer desktop for years called  "Desolation."  It is dusky blue, the ruined landscape of a city decimated by war.  The husk of something that used to be beautiful.

Most journalism focusing on the Arab-Israeli conflict talks about the physical damage done to people and places.  It deals with body counts, homes demolished, and rockets fired.  Through this lens, Gaza is a perfect example of Palestinian suffering; its inhabitants are poor, the buildings crumbling, and the body count high.  The story of Sderot is hard to tell because it doesn't fit this narrative.  The town is seemingly nice, the buildings well maintained, and the people relatively well off.

It is the caterpillars that tell the story of Israeli suffering over these past years.  The people of Sderot don't die in large numbers or fire rockets or do much of anything other than try to live normal, simple lives.  But they can't live peacefully because rockets fall on their homes, their synagogues, their schools, and their playgrounds.  Sometimes the rockets don't come for days or weeks or months at a time.  Sometimes over a dozen fall in a single day.  But you never know when the next one is going to fall.  You don't know if you really have 15 seconds to get to shelter, or 10, or 5.  All you can do is run and hope that you make it in time, and that your friends and family do the same.

That is the face of Israeli suffering.  It is the silent suffering of those who cannot be safe because others do not want them to be safe.  It is the suffering of those whose mere existence is enough to trigger murderous hatred in others.  Hamas cannot overcome the IDF and kill the citizens of Sderot.  But Hamas can induce fear.  Deep, corrosive fear.  Fear that causes adults to build bomb shelters in playgrounds.  Fear that causes intense trauma in children that manifests itself as bed-wetting, agoraphobia, and slowed mental development.  That is the goal of terrorism.  And that is another reason why such attacks must stop.

One last note: While we were looking at the Qassam rockets, a car alarm went off for a split second before the vehicle's owner turned it off.  Our guide, a former American who made aliyah just over a year ago, reacted instantly; he flinched, ducked down, and looked for cover instinctively.  Only a few of us noticed because he straightened quickly and continued informing us about the rockets.  Most of us didn't even remember hearing the alarm and didn't react at all.  But our guide did.  And he had only lived there for a year.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Criminal Kimchi?

There have been few times in my American life when I felt singled out because of my race.  These moments dot my memory but are spaced pretty far apart.  I've been in Israel for seventeen days and have already had two of these moments.

The first actually occurred at JFK Airport at the El Al security screening.  El Al employees question non-Israelis entering and exiting Israel, employing difficult questions such as "What is your father's name?" and "Where are you from?"  In my case, the second question immediately preceded, "Where are you originally from?"

This isn't usually a big deal.  Before my Birthright flight, I explained to them my origins, from birth in South Korea to adoption in the United States.  All went well.  This time, however, El Al felt compelled to hold my carry on luggage and separate me and four others from the main group.  Once they finished examining our carry on luggage, they walked us to the gate, making sure we stayed within their sight lines at all times.

I am sure they had many legitimate reasons to hold me (including my notoriously sneaky Korean appearance) and would profess to a random selection process.  Unfortunately, an event this morning increased my discomfort with looking different in Israel.

Erica left this morning, sadly, and is making her way back to Chicago as I type.  This left me without a traveling buddy and, more importantly, without a plug adapter for my computer.  Fortunately, a cell phone store nearby has these adapters so I walked a couple blocks to the store.

On the way there, a couple Israeli men with walkie-talkies stopped me and two other Asian tourists and asked for our passports.  We complied and they waved on the other two.  When it was my turn, they asked me where I was from.  Chicago, I replied.  They talked to each other in Hebrew and flipped through my passport.  When did I get here, they asked.  A couple weeks ago, I answered.  They pointed at the stamp on my passport.  Is this the last time you entered the country?  Yes, I said, starting to get annoyed.  They conferred with one another, then with the walkie-talkie.

After a few seconds, they waved me on.  Have a nice day, one said, already walking away.  During the entire exchange, they never looked at or stopped anyone who was not Asian.

I understand the need for security.  I understand that Israel must be vigilant to remain safe.  However, security and safety come at a price.  That price is my sense of belonging here, my sense of inclusion.  This country will never really accept me for who I am because of the color of my skin.  I will always be, in the eyes of many Israelis, an outsider, someone to distrust, question, and suspect because I am different.  I will always be part of the excluded.

I suspect there will be more evidence of this in the coming months.  In any case, the Sderot post should be done by this evening.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Israel Diplomatic Fellowship in Ha'aretz (and I'm quoted!)

There is an article in Ha'aretz, one of Israel's newspapers, today about the Israel Diplomatic Fellowship and it includes a quote from yours truly.  I may come off a bit strong in the quotes since they largely left out many of the positive things I said, but the sentiment is true.  Hopefully, we will see some discussion of historical narratives in future Fellowship programs and perhaps a few more speakers representing leftist positions.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Air Force Base

After the Pinchas speech, we trundled onto the bus and left for and Israeli Air Force base.  Pictures were not allowed unfortunately.  It is one of the largest air bases in Israel, I believe, and we met with four pilots and officers who fought in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead.  They were extremely proud of their jobs and derived great satisfaction from serving their country.  All had signed on for more than the 3 year minimum for men or 2 year minimum for women so they were a non-representational sample.

They spoke in general terms about their jobs but eventually latched onto a recurring theme in Israeli discourse: media bias.  All believed that the IDF took great care to avoid civilian casualties and even aborted certain missions if the risk of civilian casualties was too high.  They repeatedly accused mainstream world media outlets of bias since these outlets did not, in their view, fairly represent these efforts.  The emphasis on gross casualty numbers over the causes of those casualties, such as Hamas using human shields, skewed reports toward Hamas and did not reflect the overall reality, they argued.

There is truth to this assertion and I will explore the legal aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict in a later post regarding Daniel Taub, a legal adviser to the Israeli government.  However, there is little sympathy for Israel in this regard and constant complaint about media bias does nothing to change public sentiment.  Israel can no longer realistically claim the victim role when they have a huge military and economic advantage over Hamas, Fatah, and the PLO.  So even if the claim is true and the media is biased against Israel, repeating it does not help Israel's cause.

This also speaks to a certain breed of exceptionalism that permeates Israeli society.  They are, as they often repeat, a Jewish state, the only Jewish state in the world.  Thus, they are unique.  Like American exceptionalists, they often claim that scenarios and solutions found elsewhere do not apply to Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

They may be correct but as we have found in the US healthcare debate, bits and pieces of solutions used elsewhere can be adapted and applied if there is the political will to do so.  Israeli exceptionalism may also contribute to Israeli PR's inability to resonate outside of Israel and the most invested segments of diaspora Jewish society.  It is very hard to understand and connect with the other when one believes oneself to be wholly unique.

That's enough for now; I'll get to Sderot later tonight or tomorrow.