Actual facts about Israel and Gaza

“My mind is made up–don’t confuse me with facts.”

I know that’s the way antisocial media works, but it you’re interested in facts about the Israel-Gaza situation, read on. If not, well, you can also stop posting on my sites.

Here’s one that I haven’t seen anywhere except in my posts: The border between Israel and Gaza is an official, internationally recognized border. Part was determined in 1922, the rest in 1950, and Israel withdrew behind it in 2005 when it pulled out of Gaza.

Here’s another one: Israel ended its occupation of Gaza in 2005, evacuating 18 settlements and pulling its armed forces out. There are those who say that even so, Israel still occupies Gaza because it maintains a sea blockade and controls the border crossings between Israel and Gaza. That doesn’t stand up to objective scrutiny:

  • The UN has endorsed the legality of  the sea blockade because of the hostile Hamas regime in Gaza that uses every opportunity to launch attacks against Israel.
  • No nation in the world is required to keep its borders open under any circumstances, much less war. For example, the US even maintains closed borders with Mexico and Canada, allowing people in only when it chooses to (though many infiltrate illegally). Likewise, cargo crossings. Europe is an exception to this rule, but not really–the nations of the EU have ceded their right to total border control by choice. The demand that Israel open its borders to Gaza is totally unfounded in international law, and totally counter to logic on the one hand and practice on the other.
  • Gaza also has a border with Egypt, which opens and closes its crossings when it feels like it, and no one so much as peeps in dismay.

Israel has been dealing with Palestinian riots since 1987, when the first Palestinian uprising erupted. Israel has tried many methods to quell riots without killing people. Some are standard, like tear gas, water cannons, and rubber-coated bullets. Some are unprecedented, like dropping leaflets warning people to stay away from conflict areas, mass cell phone warning calls, and “knocking on the roof,” aiming low-lower mortar shells at buildings a few minutes before an actual attack–no other army in the world does these things, because they endanger its soldiers. Some are comical, like the gravel-spitting machine that was used for a while to try to break up riots.

What’s missing is an innovative method to break up huge riots like the ones in Gaza without killing dozens of people–because make no mistake: Hamas benefits from deaths of protesters, the more the better. It doesn’t matter if Israel says most of the dead were Hamas members. The numbers are the numbers, and they lead to the silly argument of proportionality, a concept that applies only to Israel. You can read about that here. The raw numbers lead to outsized diplomatic responses–recalling ambassadors, demanding UN inquiries, condemnations, calls for “restraint on both sides.” The fact that more people are killed every day in both Syria and Yemen is irrelevant to the people and politicians who see an opportunity to make some hay at the expense of Israel, whether it’s justified or not, whether they know that or not.

Yet that does not address the central issue–Israel plays into the hands of Hamas by killing Palestinians, even if Israel feels it can justify its actions. There’s an Israeli saying that translates, “Better to be smart than right.” That applies here. It is inconceivable that in the last 30 years, from the time Israel started dealing with Palestinian riots and suffering bad press and diplomatic sanctions from its handling of them, that no one has come up with a way to do this better. After all, Israel developed tankerand deployed an anti-rocket system, “Iron Dome,” to deal with rocket fire from Gaza and elsewhere. So why has this challenge been too hard to beat? Well, this is an article about  facts, so I won’t speculate about that. But I will offer the idea that if Israel used tanker planes that suck water up from the sea and drop it on forest fires–that would be a way to douse the flames of the burning tires and chase people away from the border with less damage and fewer casualties.

Next let’s look at the claim that all this is because of Israeli occupation, and if only Israel would agree to compromise a little bit, all this could be resolved peacefully. I’ve seen that argument several times. In fact, Israel has offered the Palestinians a state in the equivalent of all of the West Bank and Gaza, an unprecedented corridor between the two, and parts of Jerusalem TWICE, in 2000 and 2008, but the Palestinians turned them down. It doesn’t matter why Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas both responded to the offers by storming out of the room and slamming the door–those are the facts. Here’s why you might not have heard of the 2008 offer.

I spent many, many days in Gaza over the space of three decades, covering the conflict, the society, and the people. I haven’t been there since 2000, because I am an Israeli citizen, and we’re not allowed there, for obvious reasons. I can say as a fact that Gaza is and was a hellhole. There is genuine suffering, poverty, hopelessness.

factoryThere is a way to fix it. There are only 1.8 million people in Gaza, about the same as a medium-sized city anywhere else. Here’s the way: Instead of the politicized “aid” to “refugees” aimed at perpetuating the conflict–build one large factory. One car factory, for example. It could employ 10,000, maybe 20,000 people. The income from these factory jobs and the accompanying jobs they create would trickle down into every household in the territory. The factory would have to be heavily subsidized for a long time–but the price tag would be a fraction of what the UN is pouring into its perpetual “refugee” camps.

So in the space of one little article, here are two solutions: Tanker planes to break up Gaza’s riots, and a factory to rescue Gaza’s people. It’s really not that hard. All that’s needed is the will to do it.


So you canceled the deal–now what?

The celebrations have begun–the horrible Iran deal is no more. The Internet is flooded with hip-hip-hoorays next to screeds proving that Iranians are not nice guys, as if anyone ever said they were.

This wasn’t particularly hard, but it’s playing out exactly as I said it would. Here’s my pre-announcement article on a leading Canadian website.

So you canceled the deal. Now what?

What’s your next step? How do you follow this up?

First, let’s consider the consequences. Here’s one: Is there any reason why a foreign government would sign an agreement with the US now, knowing full well that in a very short time, the US might well cancel the agreement on its own?

Think about the implications. This administration already set off a trade war with Asia by pulling out of the regional trade accord overnight and then imposing tariffs on Chinese goods–again, unilaterally. Now there are rumblings that the US wants back into the Pacific trade mechanism. If I were an Asian leader, would I even consider that? I mean, what if President Trump changes his mind again?

Oh, sure, the US is big and strong and can dictate its terms to everyone out there. Except it can’t. Maybe 50 years ago it could, but now it can’t–not because of the machinations of the Muslim-loving, America-hating traitor Obama, but because the world is changing. Gunboat diplomacy is a term of the 19th century. This is the 21st century, and it doesn’t work anymore.

Where Obama went wrong was not with his policies, but with his inability to explain them and sell them to his people, even to his party. That doesn’t make him a Muslim-loving, America-hating traitor. It makes him a bad leader. Big, big difference.

I can and have explained his Iran deal, but as one of my friends wrote with tongue firmly in cheek (I hope), “You’re just a former important journalist. You’re not a famous actor. I don’t care about your opinion.”

So here’s the beginning of a 2015 article I wrote while the debate over the Iran agreement was in full force. Nothing has changed.

Here are four facts that turn the whole Iran debate on its head:

  • If Iran wants to build a nuclear weapon, it will.
  • Sanctions have accomplished all they can accomplish, and maintaining them or strengthening them would be counterproductive.
  • Iran has an educated middle class that already pulled off a near-successful revolt and is the key to Iran’s future.
  • What Iran does is more important than what Iran says.

Here’s a link to the rest of the article.

Now I find myself responding to serious-minded people who bought into the anti-Iran tsunami that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been flooding his people with for years, and supported the joint Netanyahu-Trump effort to scuttle the Iran nuclear deal. I repeat myself here and there, but that’s not because I’ve stopped thinking. It’s because the arguments are still valid:

–If it weren’t for the deal, Iran would already have nuclear weapons.

–You make deals because you don’t trust the other side, not because you do. Then you find ways to make it in their interest to keep the deal. Egypt-Israel is the best example I can think of.

–There’s no such thing as a military solution in the 21st century. Military action leads to new problems, not solutions. Iraq and Syria are the examples, again.

–In the end, Iran has bigger problems than Israel. It’s using Israel as a ploy, the way the Arab world has been doing to decades. This time, though, it isn’t working–Iran’s people really don’t give a crap about Israel one way or the other. As in Egypt, their focus is economic.

–Iran’s leaders also know full well what will happen to them if they attack Israel. It’s calledimages second-strike capability. So we can take a back seat and just watch, while protecting our interests, if that’s what we want to do. But after the show-and-tell we watched on TV, it’s clear that Bibi wants to keep the Iran-Israel spat up front, for his own political reasons, and that is, indeed, his fault.

So again, what’s your solution?

And that remains the question. I’ve seen some people saying the sanctions should be reinstated and tightened in order to bring the Iranian economy down, foment unrest, and set off a revolution. Well, how did that turn out in Egypt, Syria, and Libya? Chaos at best, dictatorship at worst. Why do people assume that the good guys are going to come out on top? Historically, economic chaos and privation has led to despotic rule, not democracy. The West has been disastrously inept at regime change, because regime change can’t be imposed from outside.

So now what? Does the US clamp sanctions on European companies and banks that continue to uphold the agreement their governments signed and do business with Iran? What does that accomplish, besides breaking the world’s sturdiest and most important alliance since World War II?

There are those who are clamoring for military action, attacks on Iran aimed at destroying its nuclear facilities. It is totally beyond me why people clamor for wars. I’ve served in a couple (in the rear) and covered several more. What emerges in this century is that unlike the 1967 Mideast war, for example, military confrontations no longer lead to solutions, even temporary solutions. They just lead to more military actions. Examples are Libya, Yemen, Iraq, and, of course, Syria. Attacking Iran would “only” set off a region-wide war, involving Israel just because it’s here–the result of which would be thousands of dead, widespread destruction–and no change in the political reality, except for hardening positions across the board and ensuring that as quickly as possible, Iran–and probably others–would race to acquire nuclear weapons as “self defense.” They don’t have to be built from scratch, you know. There are nuclear weapons, probably unstable ones by now, available in the former Soviet Union.

Do we really want that?

So I am left where I started, and for now, uncharacteristically, I have no answer. I usually refrain from writing an article before I have something constructive to suggest. This time I’m stuck still asking.

Now what?






Cancelling the Iran deal: a dangerous “I told you so’

The US appears likely to cancel the Iran nuclear deal. The appointments of superhawks Mike Pompeo as the new US Secretary of State and John Bolton as national security adviser practically guarantee that. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, rolling out documentation of an Iranian nuclear weapons program that was no secret after it was stopped in 2006, is pushing for cancellation of the deal. He’s likely to get what he wants.

Then we’ll hear cheers, shouts of joy, celebrations, parties, a raucous song of victory.

The chorus of that pathetic ballad will be, “I told you so.” The price—missed opportunities and dangerous consequences.

On the day the deal is canceled, lists of Iranian crimes against humanity, the Mideast, Israel, everything that moves, and everything that doesn’t will be hauled out for everyone to ogle. Endless Facebook posts, gifs, tables, charts, graphs. A comprehensive, convincing, convicting case against bad guy Iran, justification for canceling the deal.

If the US manages to scuttle it—and that depends on how Europe, China, and Russia step in or don’t step in to replace the US role—then Iran will indeed resume its work toward nuclear weapons. Soon it will have a nuclear bomb, might even test it. Then the “I told you so” celebrations over the death of the Iran nuclear deal could produce a region-wide war.

They said it was a bad deal, they worked to prove it was a bad deal, and in the end, they torpedoed it—so it must have been a bad deal all along, right?


The Iran nuclear deal had to be a first step toward bringing Iran back into the family of nations, rebuilding its sanctions-decimated economy, weaving it into the international fabric—so that it would have no further incentive to build nuclear weapons, and have something to lose. But none of this was ever attempted.

Critics of the deal, the “failure cheerleaders,” led by Republicans and Netanyahu, rejected the accord even after it was signed. Netanyahu went so far as to address a joint session of the US Congress at that too-late stage, railing against the deal and its prime mover, US President Barack Obama, thereby placing Israel firmly in the Republican camp after decades of bipartisan support—but that’s another issue.

Despite what the critics say about “loopholes,” most of which don’t even exist, the deal is one of the most stringent, limiting, shackling, and downright insulting accords ever signed by a nation that wasn’t just crushingly defeated in a war.

Here is quote from the accord, from a detailed article I wrote just after it was signed:

“Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons…

“For 15 years, Iran will not engage in producing or acquiring plutonium or uranium metals or their alloys, or conducting R&D on plutonium or uranium (or their alloys) metallurgy, or casting, forming, or machining plutonium or uranium metal.”

There are pages and pages of such restrictions.

The 10-year, 15-year, and 25-year expiration dates of the accord provide a clear example of two contradictory approaches. Critics say it just postpones Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. Supporters say 10 years is an eternity in the Mideast these days, an opportunity to change Iran’s behavior by creating a different set of interests.

It’s not a dream. North and South Korea are ending their decades-long war. Few thought that would ever happen. So can Iran ever mend its relations with the US, and Israel? It’s not inconceivable, based on mutual interests, as they had in the ‘70s. Even now, the nuclear accord could still be a good starting point, if we use it correctly.

Am I saying that Iran is a babe in the woods, just waiting for a nice family to join? Of course not. Iran is a source of evil in the Mideast and has been for decades. It is extending its reach across the region, funding terror groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, threatening Israel.

So what do we do? Either we can encourage Iran’s leaders to replace violence and subterfuge with economic recovery and benefits for their people, recognizing that despite its rhetoric, Iran has a rational regime with an educated middle class. That’s the perspective you can get from actually living in the Mideast, and it’s shared by Israeli experts who cannot be quoted by name.

Or we can blame the accursed accord and Obama, threaten Iran, pick fights, and hope that they’ll do something stupid that can trigger a proper war to “solve the Iran problem once and for all.” That’s the policy in Washington, where Pompeo has openly advocated military action, and Bolton urged Israel to attack Iran.

But as we’ve seen time and again, military action in the Mideast leads only to more and harsher military action.

So that policy may well turn out to be the most dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy in human history. Yet even as the rubble smolders and the mushroom clouds rise, you’ll still be hearing that chorus:

“I told you so.”

—   —   —

Journalist MARK LAVIE has been reporting on Israel and the Mideast since 1972, covering the Israel-Palestinian conflict from the front lines, and living in Cairo during Arab Spring. His second book, “Why Are We Still Afraid?” is ready for publication.

Egypt’s post-Arab Spring baby boom emerges as main economic threat

Here’s an interesting article co-authored by my Cairo friend Tarek El-Tablawy​, who guided me patiently through the ins and outs of the economies of Egypt and the Middle East.

Cairo women

The issue is Egypt’s exploding birth rate. In the past 60 years, Egypt’s population has  quadrupled to about 93 million. The birth rate remains high–straining the society and leaving millions in poverty.

The Arab Spring handle is weak, and Tarek confirms that in the article–but it gets attention, and that’s what you do in journalism today.

It remains clear that Egypt’s main problems are economic, and that an freely elected government (as opposed to strongman President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s sham election set for March 26) would not have the power to enact the necessary steps.

My latest article in my hometown paper

The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette remains one of the few American daily newspapers that maintains a keen interest in foreign news. Here’s my latest, about relations between Arabs and Jews in Israel.

I started writing sports for the Journal-Gazette as a high school student in 1963…and I’m proud of the long association. Articles printed in the J-G are at the center of my upcoming book, “Why Are We Still Afraid?”

Warning! Arabs and Jews in Israel!

“You have to pick those lemons right away. Otherwise the Arabs will get them!”

That urgent warning came from my neighbor across the fence here in Rehovot, a citylemons in central Israel. It’s her lemon tree, but since half of it extends over my property, the lemons on that part are mine. Across the alley, a new house is going up, and the construction workers are mostly Palestinians from the Ramallah area in the West Bank.

Hence the warning.

That’s part of the reality of Israel today—Jewish mistrust and hatred toward Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular, and Arab and Palestinian mistrust toward Jews in general and Israelis in particular.

About 2 million of Israel’s nearly 9 million citizens are Arabs. So are about 4 million residents of the West Bank and Gaza, the ones known as Palestinians. It’s an artificial but real distinction. Israeli Arabs are the ones who live within the area that’s been Israel since 1948. Palestinians live in the areas captured by Israel in the 1967 war (Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005).

The two groups are culturally the same. Most families have members on both sides of the old cease-fire line that marks off the West Bank. My neighbor doesn’t distinguish, either—to her, they’re all Arabs.

Indeed, there are tensions between the two peoples who make up almost all the population. That’s evident from my neighbor’s warning.

There’s also evidence that these tensions don’t mean as much as we think. Not that there’s deep, heartfelt cross-cultural friendship—people just get along when they casually interact.

Take that building going up across the alley. The Palestinian workers are friendly guys, ranging in age from about 20 to 50. All of them speak some Hebrew, some of them are fluent. They’re using electricity and water from my house, since they don’t have utility hookups over there yet (the owner, who’s Jewish, is paying me for the water and electricity, don’t worry).

So we’re in frequent contact. Beyond the usual “Good morning, how are you,” sometimes we talk because they shorted something out over there, and I have to go turn my circuit breaker back on. Sometimes they block the entrance to my house and I have to ask them to move their vehicles. I lend them tools from time to time, and once I lent a worker a charger for his phone.

Once when their cement truck was blocking our entrance, a worker jumped down from the building and helped my wife carry her groceries into our house. Another time a worker carried our 4-year-old granddaughter over a pile of construction materials.

The workers are amused and surprised when I try out my limited Arabic on them. I lived and worked in Cairo for two years during Arab Spring, and I remember a bit—but by and large, their Hebrew is much better than my Arabic.

So these are the Arabs I’m supposed to protect my lemons from. It’s a regrettable attitude, and it’s fairly common among Israelis whose family origins are in the Arab world. Their parents suffered there, and most escaped or were expelled.

So does the fact that I have an easy relationship with the guys across the alley make me some kind of special case, a hero of coexistence? Not at all.

The more we Jews and Arabs interact, the less the tension. One example of such a setting is the Ramla shuk

Ramla shuk


Ramla is a working class town about 15 minutes up the highway from my house. I’ve been going to the open-air market, the shuk, in Ramla every week for more than 20 years–except for the two years I was in Cairo, of course. And just as parts of Cairo reminded me of the Ramla shuk, so now the Ramla shuk gives me warm memories of Cairo.

Ramla is a mixed Arab-Jewish town. There are Jewish areas and Arab areas, and some mixing along the informal neighborhood lines. And everybody goes to the shuk.

You’ll hear Arabic and Hebrew from stall to stall, among the shopkeepers and customers alike. A woman in a black headscarf asks how much the tomatoes cost, but the shopkeeper doesn’t hear her, so I answer her in Arabic, and nobody bats an eyelash. I’m buying cucumbers at a stand where the shopkeeper is speaking to a woman in Arabic, so I try my hand at it, too—he’s delighted, answers me in Arabic, and then switches to Hebrew to say with a smile, “I’m a Jew, you know.”

Everybody gets along at the Ramla shuk. It’s not a demonstration, it’s not a highly organized meeting of Jewish and Arab peacemakers hugging each other for the cameras. It’s just everyday life.

I’m not going to pretend that everything is rosy in Ramla. Ramla is a poor town, and the Arab residents, Israeli citizens like their Jewish counterparts, are measurably worse off economically. A rundown Arab neighborhood, Jawarish, is known for drugs and weapons. A new neighborhood with shiny apartment buildings just across the highway from Jawarish is, as far as I know, entirely Jewish.

So the seeds of tension that often boil over into violence in the nearby West Bank should theoretically be present in Ramla—but I know of only one terrorist-related incident there in the two decades I’ve been in and out of Ramla—last year a young Arab girl tried to stab someone with a knife. She was captured, no one was hurt. That’s it.

So what’s the difference? Easy. Israeli Arabs have a state. It might not be their state, but it’s a functioning state. They have a welfare safety net, municipal services, education—perhaps not on the same level as their Israeli neighbors, but they have them. Their Palestinian relatives a few miles away in the West Bank can’t count on any of those things, despite the billions of dollars in foreign aid their leadership has received over the past 25 years, much of it aimed at infrastructure projects that often seem to progress only as far as the pilot stage.

But even Palestinians are not all militants, much less terrorists. Most of them just want to make a living, just like most Jewish Israelis, Arab Israelis, and Egyptians. Important as they are, political goals and dreams are not the top priority for most.

That’s not to say that Israel has solved the problems of its Arab citizens. My first radio feature in Israel, in 1972, was about Israeli Arabs. Their municipalities got less government funding than Jewish cities, their standard of living was lower, they were unable to build enough housing to keep up with demand. I said it was a powder keg waiting for a match. And sure enough, it has exploded a couple of times.

Things are better today, but not much. Arab towns are still at the top of the list when it comes to unemployment, and at the bottom of the lists when it comes to income and education. So this is not the time for us Jewish Israelis to sit back and smirk with satisfaction.

And it is undeniable that many Israelis share the animosity expressed so graphically by my neighbor. She learned it from her parents, who were refugees from Arab countries. My parents were refugees, too, and I have as little as possible to do with Germans as a result. So I get it.

But we don’t have to live with Germans here. We do have to live with Arabs. So while I Kumquatschose not to argue with my Israeli neighbor, I did tell the Palestinian foreman across the alley that the kumquat tree on my property, right across from their construction project, is all theirs for the picking. He lit up. “We make jam from kumquats,” he said, after I helped him with the word for “jam” in Hebrew.

I hope they’ll harvest all of the kumquats. And I hope I don’t get a hysterical call from my neighbor, warning that “the Arabs are taking your kumquats.” Because then I’ll have no choice but to set her straight.

Russia pulling its troops out of Syria?

Russian President Vladimir Putin dropped in to a Russian military base in Syria a few days ago and announced that he’s pulling his troops out of the country. I discussed this development with host P. J. Maloney on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh a few minutes ago.

This is the place to express my regrets over the decision to take KQV off the air at the end of the year. I’ve been doing these Mideast analysis broadcasts on KQV for six years, starting in Cairo during Arab Spring, and it’s been a real pleasure. P. J.’s interest in foreign affairs is a rarity in local media these days, and our discussions have been a welcome change from that norm.

Now about Putin and Syria. His pullout announcement creates an opportunity for the US to get its policy reoriented toward aid, not more bombs.

Putin’s rationale is that the war against ISIS in Syria is nearly won, so he doesn’t need forces there any more. But a quick look at Sputnik News, known to be “close” to the Russian regime (that’s to say, it’s a propaganda arm), gives some perspective.

Sputnik News notes what we all know: Russia has a naval base on Syria’s Mediterranean coast and an air base not far away. Russia wants those bases forever, so there will always be Russian forces in Syria. That’s why Russia is invested on propping up tyrant President Bashar Assad–he’s Russia’s man in Damascus.

The Sputnik analysis also notes that other forces will remain behind, notably Iran. Hezbollah (the Iran-backed Lebanese force) and, of course, the US-led coalition.

So this war is not over yet. It won’t be over any time soon. Another round of UN peace talks has ended in a shouting match, and there’s no real hope for a negotiated settlement at this point.

But Russia is scaling back its presence, intent on protecting its direct interests–keeping Assad in power, or at least keeping a pro-Russian government in power, protecting its military bases, but leaving the fighting to others.

It’s a savvy move. Let’s see if Washington has a counter-move.

I’d recommend scaling back military involvement and using the money saved from that to help the millions of refugees and homeless from the six-year war. It’s a way of restoring the American reputation in the Mideast, badly tarnished by decades of misguided military adventures.

The need is there, the opportunity is there, the money is there. It just needs to be redirected. And with the Russian move, the time is now.