Wednesday, December 24, 2008

When Rockets Fall

It's Christmas eve around the world; much of the world is praying for peace and good will towards man. Today in Israel, more than 60 rockets and mortars were fired at Israel. Fifty-seven people were taken to the hospital, suffering from shock, half of them children.

The Home Front again ordered that children not be allowed outside during school recess to play and people are once again running from place to place, knowing that if the Color Red warning siren sounds, they will have mere seconds to find shelter.

It's a sad day in your country, no matter where you live, that your government simply allows this to happen without making some attempt to stop it. Yesterday, despite rockets falling, the Palestinians demanded that Israel open the crossings and allow humanitarian aid to enter Gaza. But who will give the people of Sderot and Ashkelon humanitarian aid? Who will allow them to sleep at night and let their children play, as children all of the world do?

When rockets fall - there is no secure place.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Secure Place...Needed in Yemen

In 1948, Israel declared its independence and immediately became a secure place for Jews from all over the world. Jews came, in the years that followed, from all over the world, including places such as Yemen, where the people knew little of modern inventions such as planes.

When Yemen said they were displacing the Jewish population, the Jewish State of Israel was allowed to send planes to collect tens of thousands who were ready to flee. Their property was to remain in Yemen, but at least they had their lives. So, Israel sent the planes to Yemen, to a people who had never before seen planes, never dreamed they existed.

To ease the shock, the leaders of the community explained to the people that this was the fulfillment of the Biblical prophecy, that they would return home to Zion, on the wings of eagles. Most of Yemen's 50,000 Jews were evacuated to Israel during 'Operation Magic Carpet', a massive airlift conducted in 1949-50, shortly after the establishment of the Jewish homeland.

While the vast majority of Yemen’s Jews left Yemen in the early years of Israel’s existence, there were some that chose to remain there. In waves, the small community is either ignored and allowed to prosper, or harassed and attacked. Lately, they have been under attack.

A few weeks ago, Moshe Yaish Nahari, a 39-year-old Jewish teacher, was gunned down in his village. A suspect, claiming the killing was a "way to get close to Allah," has since been arrested. Two petrol bombs were thrown at a Jewish home Monday, the latest in a string of anti-Semitic acts. Jewish residents say that despite the rising persecution, authorities have done nothing to curb incidents of vandalism, stone throwing, and death threats.

The latest news says that President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen is planning to relocate the Muslim country's small Jewish population to the capital city of Sana following recent acts of violence against the small community, numbering approximately 400 people. Perhaps it is time that these last 400 consider coming to Israel, a place that has dedicated itself to being a true and secure place for the Jewish people.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Back to Realities as They Were

As I said, I started this blog not so much because of the American Consulate "mess up" as I wanted to have a place where I could write about Israel and today's realities in a straight manner. I love to write, I live to write. But I also understand that means matching the tone, the style, the contents, to the purpose of the document.

In my "other" life, I am a technical writer. We learn (and teach) that before you can write a document or tackle any project, you have to know certain facts. Two of these "primary" facts are: who is your audience and what are you writing.

I have a blog, A Soldier's Mother. The purpose of that blog is to show what it is like to be a soldier's mother. It sounded so simple when I started it and only later realized that it was a journey my son and I were taking. For him, it is a journey towards maturity; for me, it is a journey of accepting that our children's lives are often beyond our control and sometimes all we can do is watch it from the distance, worry and pray, and most of all have faith in God and in what we have instilled in them.

I started This is Israel to give others a glimpse at the country I love so much. Israel does so many amazing things with so little recognition and so the blog helps "document" many of these events. It is meant to give those who do not live here, a better and far more accurate image of my country than you will ever get in the media. It isn't "sexy" that Israel attempts to send humanitarian aid to Gaza while under fire from rockets launched by Hamas (in Gaza).

A Secure Place is where I feel free to write what I think - and so today, I think "anger." My country was hit by 14 rockets and 26 mortars over our weekend. In Israel, Friday night to Saturday night is our down time. It's the Jewish sabbath when many of us close our minds, our televisions, our computers, our malls. We withdraw into our families, our communities. It is especially hard when we know that our brothers and sisters in Sderot and those communities close to Gaza cannot enjoy this peaceful time with their families. We face hours where we can walk in the sunshine after a week working indoors. We stand outside and speak with friends and neighbors without worrying about the clock and deadlines. Today in Sderot, it is likely that the people didn't stand outside calmly, that when they walked outdoors, they did so with determination to be close to a place where they could take shelter if they needed it.

You have to understand what a kassem missile is - it is, by its design, a terrorist weapon. You can't aim it - you simply point it in some direction and shoot it. The weapon tells much about the people who fire it - they don't care who they hit, what damage they do. Their glory is in the terror it causes as much as in the outcome of what it hits. Their victory is calculated first and foremost in the 15 seconds that thousands of people have to scramble to what they hope will be safety. Even before the rocket slams into the ground, the building, the house, the school, those who fired it already have a victory of sorts.

The rocket is launched and, if we are lucky, Israel's advanced warning system kicks in and announces an incoming rocket, expected to hit...somewhere in the about 15 seconds. You hear the warning - Code Red - and you run for your life. You have 15 seconds. By the time you finish reading this paragraph, it is likely that those 15 seconds have passed. How far can you run in the time it takes you to read a mere three sentences because as you approach these words, time is up. Are you in a safe place?

There is no secure place in Sderot today, no secure place for tens of thousands of Israelis who wanted to enjoy a peaceful day off from work. That was the reality several months ago; that is the reality once again.

Three years ago, our government chose to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza and destroy 30 years of work, more than a dozen communities, home to 9000 people, and jobs for more 20,000 Palestinians who entered these communities and worked in the beautiful towns that the Israelis had built there, in the green houses that produced some of the best organic vegetables sold in Israel and abroad, the sweet zoo where Shauli the camel lived, the pizza place, the cemetery where loved ones were buried, the parks, the synagogues.

When the government's plan was announced, many protested against such a unilateral action. What sense did it make to destroy the lives of our citizens when the Palestinian leadership showed no interest in peace? This was ignored. What logic was there in uprooting people who had lived in these places for 30 years in return for nothing? This too was ignored.

Do you realize, so many said to the government, that if you evacuate these communities, expel these people, destroy what they have built, these places will become launching grounds for more rockets and missiles? Sderot and Ashkelon will burn; tens of thousands of Israelis will be further endangered? This too was ignored.

I argued then with a friend who was so happy to see Ariel Sharon's expulsion plan implemented. After we do this, he told me, God help them if they try to shower us with rockets.

Why, what's the difference I asked him?

Because then we will have the right to go in and flatten Gaza, if they dare, he answered. Our government won't have the nerve, I answered then.

It's been three years. This week, we passed the 10,000 mark! More than 10,000 rockets have been fired at Israel. My friend recently told me that he was wrong. The plan had been wrong; the way we treated those we evacuated, those whose houses and communities we had destroyed.

The plan was wrong - but the outcome was exactly as expected. Today, 14 rockets and 26 mortars were fired at Israel. Today, our citizens did not live in a secure place and tomorrow when they awaken and think of sending their children to school....tomorrow too, they will think about the 15 seconds that may change their lives forever.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Thing About Those Documents...

The Whole Story

When I first realized what the American Consulate had carelessly left inside the cabinets they sold to me, I was astounded (see previous post for details). The cabinets had been in my offices for weeks, perhaps even months, and no one from the Consulate had ever contacted me. I realized, to my utter amazement, that they didn't even know there had been a security breach. They didn't know that I had documents that told me how much they paid some of their Marines; how much they spent on various items (and where they bought them).

I had tons of travel plans (old, but still - perhaps enough for someone who knows how to seek information and find patterns to figure out a way to cause damage); I had dozens of budget reports, tax and expense account information, and cultural programs that had been supported by the Consulate over the past years. And again, all those social security numbers, birth dates, and more.

Politically, the documents were interesting because they show the naivete of the Americans here in Israel and in the State Department. Later, I reviewed the programs that the Consulate had supported - requests from Israel's ultra-left party known as "Shalom Achshav" (Peace Now), and many others. There is a pattern here that even I can discern.

The US government spent tens of thousands of dollars flying a few young Palestinians and Israelis to Washington and giving them "the big tour." The youth were supposed to be representatives of the Fatah and Likud organizations and yet, after spending all that money, what was accomplished? The answer, according to a letter sent by the Likud organization after the project, was not much.

There were many documents about ways to promote "leadership among the Palestinians" and attempts to cultivate connections. Dozens and dozens of applications to send young Palestinians to events in the United States to study, and more.

There were hundreds perhaps thousands of documents in those files, most of little meaning in terms of security or protecting the individual. Clearly, the tax forms and personal information about the Marines was a security violation, but the greatest sin here was the simple presence of the documents and how they were carelessly mishandled. When stacked together, the pile of documents topped 3 feet.

Once I discovered that there was a security breach, I wondered what to do.

"What do you care?" asked the Israeli policeman who came to take the papers this week.

My son is a soldier in an artillery unit, I started to explain.

"I'm artillery, too," the policeman answered back. That's the way it is in Israel. This man who is probably in his early 50s, who likely hasn't done reserve duty or been near a cannon or tank in well over a decade, remains what he was when he entered the army some 30 years ago. He, like my son, will always be artillery.

I thought of someone carelessly endangering my son's identity - his identification numbers, name, birth date, the dates of his service and hurt for the American Marines and people who served here. I tried to explain about the concept of identity theft.

"Why would they be embarrassed? Tell me what's here? Translate something?" the policeman asked me in Hebrew.

I showed him the papers, the tax forms, the projects. I explained how many of the projects show the American naivete in the Middle East. They see we have no real peace partner here in the Middle East, no other democracy and so they are trying to create one by sponsoring program after program. There is a sense of desperation in the papers there - maybe by sending so many young Arab scholars to programs in the States, they can help these young Arabs to understand and think along Western values.

"Look here," I pointed to the policeman. "The question says, 'did this trip help change your attitude to the United States?' and his answer is 'not really'."

"Why did you hold these papers three years?" the policeman asked. "Why didn't you just call them and give it back to them?" He was trying to help. The Americans at the Consulate, having finally understood the magnitude of their "mess up" had decided to get nasty. They demanded and threatened to get the papers back because they wanted to be able to respond to a Fox News story that was about to break. Fox would publicize the security breach and only with the documents could the Consulate spin a tale. "We've examined the documents," I could almost hear some guy in a suit say, "and really, there was nothing there. No serious issue. No security breach."

"Why did you call the news in?" the policeman asked, and so I explained.

When I first saw the documents, I noticed a huge amount of papers and didn't have time to look through them. My first thought was to throw them out, but I decided to leave them until I could confirm my assumption that they were garbage left there on purpose by the Consulate. I collected them all; put them in the bottom drawers of one cabinet, and used all the other cabinets for supplies.

They stayed that way, in the bottom drawers in the back of the storage room, until we moved to bigger offices (with a smaller area for supplies). I finally got a chance to review the documents and realized what was there - not something I could just throw away; definitely something that should have been shredded before being discarded.

Around the same time, we were planning a vacation to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. I had a huge internal debate about going abroad with my husband - there's no end to the number of places I dream of going - a week in Ireland or Italy; perhaps London or maybe a cruise. In the end, what clinched my decision was an almost unreasonable fear of being caught abroad with a son in the army.

We chose to vacation in Eilat and while we were there, a young Palestinian man who had wanted to marry his cousin but was refused, decided to ram his family BMW into a busy sidewalk in Jerusalem. His immediate target was a long line of Israeli soldiers and when my phone beeped about the terrorist attack, I got to a television and began watching the aftermaths of Israel's latest terrorist attack.

The first soldier they showed on the screen had a turquoise beret on his shoulder - artillery. Like the beret on my son's unit. The second had the same beret; and the third and the fourth. A soldier lying on a stretcher with his arm thrown over his face also had the same color and by then I knew I had to admit to myself - the terrorist had targeted an artillery unit out on a "cultural" event near the Old City of Jerusalem. It was close to midnight when I called my son, but he didn't answer. I went to sleep only to be awakened by my son's call around 2:00 a.m. He was fine. He hadn't been there. But it was his unit; boys from his base, who had been taken by the army to Jerusalem and were hit by the car.

What does this have to do with the documents?

A few days later, stories were published that the car was bulletproof and had been sold to the family by the American Consulate. And the first thought that popped into my head was, "Again!" Again they had messed up - the first security breach could have hurt American Marines and others; the second security breach could have killed boys from my son's unit who even then were still in the hospital.

In the end, I was to learn that the news stories were not true; that the car had not been owned by the Americans. But the impetus for my next actions remained. I was given a contact with Fox News. I called them and explained what I had, what had happened, and they came down to my office - three of them, and began reading and reading and reading.

There was a major story here, they confirmed. A major security foul-up, something that shouldn't have happened, something that shouldn't be covered up. They took some of the documents to scan and read more carefully, with a promise to protect the sensitive information it contained. They interviewed me, asked me what I wanted to say to the Americans and my answer was, "how could you be so stupid?"

Fox News called the American Consulate for a comment. The Consulate refused to believe Fox News until Fox finally faxed them some of the documents. Hard to argue when the facts are shoved in your face. Within a day or two, two men came to my office and said they wanted the documents back. They realized there had been a major mess-up and promised that they would investigate.

I hesitated because I wanted to be sure that this would not be covered up internally here in Jerusalem; that policies would be put in place to ensure this didn't happen again. It was clear they had no idea what had happened, what I had. It was also clear that their concern was in getting the documents back quickly so that they could answer the media storm they were anticipating. That disturbed me. It seems like I was more upset with why I had received the documents in the first place, while their focus was on damage control.

I asked for a few days to think over what to do. My plan had been to burn the documents myself to ensure the safe disposal of what should have been destroyed three years ago. Other than a business card and a flashed badge of some sort, I had no real evidence that these men were who they say they are and truthfully, if I destroyed the documents myself, I would ensure that no damage would result from their mess-up, AND, perhaps not knowing exactly what I had would be better. Perhaps they would assume the worst and take better precautions, whereas if I gave them the files, they would try to minimize the importance of what happened.

They said they considered me a friend and would like to hear back by Thursday (it was Sunday). I said no problem. I thought long and hard that day and by the next day had already decided to return the documents. I tried calling the numbers they gave me on Monday, but I could only leave a message. I tried again on Tuesday, with the same results before leaving the office early with a bad cold.

On Wednesday, I decided to take the day off until my secretary told me that one of the men from the Consulate had returned and threatened to call the police if I didn't give them the documents that day. I couldn't believe they were threatening me. I hadn't done anything wrong. I'm not the idiot who left the files there in the first place.

A spokeswoman for the Consulate even hinted that they couldn't confirm HOW I'd gotten the documents and were investigating. They were considering that I'd stolen them. I laughed when I heard this. I haven't been in the American Consulate in more than 10 years...actually, I think 12 years, when my son was born. And how exactly would I have gotten in and out of the Consulate with a stack of papers three feet high?

On Thursday, the Israeli police called and said the Americans were demanding that I be charged with theft and blackmail. I decided to deal with the Israeli police who were undoubtedly more honorable and trustworthy than the American Consulate representatives.

There'd been no theft - it was their sheer stupidity in leaving the files in the file cabinets that they sold that started this, I told the Israeli police. "You don't need this," the police told me. "Let us come and take the documents and we'll give them to the Americans." I told them to come on over.

There'd been no blackmail - what would I have blackmailed them for? After the threat to call the police, my lawyer wanted to send the American Consulate a letter demanding compensation for storing the documents for three years. I told him I didn't want any money. In fact, it was the American representative who tried to "bribe" me with an invitation to meet the Jerusalem Consular for coffee or lunch (not quite sure why he thought I'd be interested in that).

The Israeli police were kind and supportive when they took the documents. They assured me that they would tell the Americans to leave me alone. I'd done by duty by protecting their documents, "tell them they are lucky it was an Israeli who bought those cabinets and not someone who could have sold the information to cause damage."

My lawyer wanted the American Consulate to send me a letter of apology for their threats and a letter of gratitude for my voluntarily returning documents and helping them correct their mess-up.

In a post 9/11 world, security is a major concern for all of us. That the American Consulate caused a breach in security by their careless actions is obvious. That they were more concerned with covering their embarrassment than about what actions they had taken or not taken to cause this situation, was also painfully clear by the time the documents were given back to them.
In the end, I wanted assurances that I never received, got threats I didn't deserve, and returned basically worthless documents because the security flaw here wasn't in what they left in the files, but in the fact that they left anything; and that they had NO idea what I had (or even that I had it) for three years.

We all seek security - in this case, what could have been is a lot worse than what was; and no matter how the American Consulate tries to spin this story, the truth is that they endangered their own people by failing to follow basic security rules.

Having returned the documents, I'm back in my secure place. But I'll leave the Americans who have worked in the Consulate here in Jerusalem with one final thought. In the auction lot we bought, there were dozens of file cabinets. We didn't have room for all of them; several, we left in the place the Consulate rented to dispose of the stuff and several more that were locked and dented, we threw into garbage bins on the side of a road. We don't know if there were documents in those cabinets we didn't take or in those we threw away without opening.

Those who seek to do harm in this world, seek information about who we are, what we do, and when and how we do it. In a world where security is so fragile, it is truly a shame that this basic reality was so badly violated.

Security Messups

I'm waiting for the Israeli police to arrive and thought of "A Secure Place."

A Secure Place is what we all want in life; at the human level, at the nation level, at the world level. Actions of others, inevitably interfere and so our secure place feels less secure. When that happens, we seek our balance, that place where we can again feel secure. This blog is about that which enhances, that which infringes, and that which helps us return, again and again, to A Secure Place.

I've been thinking about starting something like this for a while and the last few days clinched my resolve.

What threatens our security - beyond those who threaten our society with rockets or attacks or bombings or whatever, are the security messups that occur within our own bureaucratic offices. So, why did the police come to my offices today? Well, it's an interesting and rather long story and, in some ways, may affect your secure place too.

Three years ago, the American Consulate in Jerusalem decided to hold an auction to get rid of old furniture, computers, desks, chairs, etc. I would guess this is something that is done throughout the world fairly regularly, as each consulate or embassy decides to refurnish and update so that those who come visit are welcomed and impressed. It helps them get rid of things without having to actually get up and move them and, in theory, helps the local population as well. "Locals" get some used stuff relatively cheaply, the American offices raise a few dollars and all are happy...unless something goes terribly wrong.

Our company saw an advertisement for such an auction and put in some bids and we "won" a room filled with filing cabinets. We had not even remembered bidding on them and yet...who can deny that receiving something like 20-30 metal file cabinets in varying sizes -all for the price of about $45 is a great bargain.

We paid the money and got a receipt - and now we were the proud owners of many varying cabinets - tall and short, gray and brown, two and three and four drawer. Some needed to be mounted, some had wheels. And some, we discovered a few weeks after we had put them into our storage room...hadn't been cleaned out properly by the American Consulate and were filled with all sorts of papers - piles and piles of documents - tax forms with social security numbers of Marines who had served in Israel, travel documents, copies of passports and expense accounts and so much more.

I'll write the rest of the story soon - for now, I'll just explain that the files have been returned to the American Consulate and are no longer here. I chose to give them to the Israeli police because I trust them to return them and confirm that this was done (especially after the Americans who had so badly messed up by leaving the documents in the file cabinets, dared to accuse me of stealing them!)

You might hear about this story in the news, or you might not. If you do hear about it, you might well hear the American officials here in Jerusalem spin their tale that all is well, that there really was never anything compromising left in the cabinets, and that others are blowing this out of proportion. I didn't think about this before, but after seeing how they jumped to call the Israeli police and suggest that I had stolen papers that they themselves had given to me, I decided that my secure place must be built on truth and so, I begin this blog not as I intended - about the fact that I live in Israel and that we need our country and society to be secure, but rather, I begin by writing about American security, as it was, to some extent, compromised not by terrorists, but by the careless action of some workers.