Thursday, August 09, 2007

Pollution in the Air and Army

A professor at Bar Ilan University may be indicted for inciting a riot during the evacuation of two families from the Hebron wholesale market on Tuesday. Reportedly, Prof. Hillel Weiss was filmed cursing Colonel Yehuda Fuchs during the evacuation, saying, "I hope his mother will be bereaved, his wife will be a widow and his children orphans." Weiss also yelled out that the soldiers were “"worse than the Germans."

Politicians from Shas and Labor, including Minister of Defense Ehud Barak, have called on Israel’s Attorney General Manny Mazuz to indict Weiss. Weiss says his yelling out epithets was no worse than curses hurled at opposing sides during a soccer match.

A dozen religious soldiers refused to take part in the evacuation for ideological reasons. The soldiers were following orders from their rabbis. A father of one of the soldiers said he supported his son’s actions, blaming the army for removing Jews from their homes. Minister of Defense Ehud Barak has demanded charges be leveled against the soldiers for refusing to obey orders.

According to a Haaretz poll, one-third of the public believes the soldiers were justified in following their rabbis' orders to refuse to take part in the eviction. The poll showed that 54 percent of people who voted Likud in 2006 support insubordination, as did 75 percent of Shas voters.

The IDF sending religious soldiers serving in the territories, sometimes helping evict friends and neighbors has been criticized frequently. The IDF responds that soldiers are given orders and must carry them out, no mater what the order or where the action is to take place.

The soldiers, almost all from the “Hesder” Yeshiva program, serve a year and a half in the army, spread out over a three-year period in which they commit to a mixture of Yeshiva studies and army duty. Few of the religious soldiers come from ultra-orthodox backgrounds. Most are of the knit kepaw variety associated with the religious Zionist movement. However many of the soldiers come from families who live in west bank settlements, or sympathize with such settlements.

The news commentaries are filled with discussions of the soldiers refusing the order to evacuate the settlers in Hebron’s abandoned vegetable market. The stores which were occupied are in a closed off section of the market heavily guarded by Israeli troops. One of the reasons for the evacuation of the two settler families from the market was the thousands of troops it took to protect the few settlers.

A few hundred settlers, who are described as “extremist die-hard settlers” by liberals, live in the old nearby old city of Hebron, in a heavily fortified neighborhood amid nearly 100,000 Arab residents. Strife has been common between the settlers and the Arabs since the Israelis first moved in twenty odd years ago.

Israel’s new Minister of Defense, Ehud Barak, is taking a forceful position against the settlers, something his predecessor Amir Peretz never did. Pundits see Barak’s move as part of his strategy to make a strong impression on the Israeli public as he prepares to make a bid for Prime Minister the next time general elections are called.

Barak has also made moves to mini-manage the IDF’s training exercises, as if he is a “ober Chief of Staff” as the Haaretz newspaper called him. Barak has increased live-fire exercises among the troops, something that hasn’t happened in years. One reserve soldier in a tank unit said this was the first time in five years he’d touched a shell for the tank’s canon.

The media is especially sensitive to the comments of men like Professor Wolf, and some of the Rabbi’s who run the Hesder Yeshiva programs, since talk like that of Wolf was what ultimately lead the religious Zionist settlers into thinking that the murder of former Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin was justified.

A few Knesset members have suggested dismantling the Hesder Yeshiva soldiers units, and dispersing the religious soldiers among the regular army. As of now the Hesder Yeshiva students are allowed to stay together as groups of thirty to a squad. Regular army squads consist of forty soldiers. Hesder Yeshiva students are also allowed to join up as a group, with an entire class of a certain Yeshiva all going into the army together, and staying together in the same squads, from basic training through regular army service. Analysts say that this unity encourages a squad, or a majority of it, to refuse orders knowing they have the backing of their fellow soldiers. Critics say that dispersing the soldiers throughout regular units, without this concentration of friends in a specific unit, would decrease the incidence of soldiers refusing to carry out orders.

Religious Zionist soldiers have served with distinction since the beginning of the state. Many have lost their lives in the service of the country. Most of these religious Zionist soldiers do not serve in the Hesder program, but go into the regular army and do a three-year stint. Some critics believe that by changing the rules of the Hesder Yeshiva students service they would discourage these same students from joining the army. Others say that religious Zionist youth are anxious to serve in the army, and would do so with or without the Hesder Yeshiva structure. Some analysts believe that the Hesder program itself has a deleterious effect on other soldiers, since most Israeli youngsters are obligated to serve for three years in the regular army, while the “benishim” (literally the benei yeshiva or sons of the Yeshiva) only serve half that time.

The issue is to be reviewed by the IDF. As of now Chief of Staff Ashkenazi has called on all civilians of draft age to serve in the army. The Chief of Staff has said that draft dodging had become a common and socially accepted behavior. The burden of defending the state has fallen more and more on fewer and fewer people. Ashkenazi wants to make the public aware of the draft dodgers and bring shame to those avoiding army service.
The move to demand that ultra-orthodox non-Zionist Yeshiva students also serve in the army or at least do some form of community service is also under discussion. This issue comes up every so often but is beaten down due to the realities of coalition politics. Political analysts point out that Labor, Likud and Kadima need ultra-orthodox religious partners in a coalition; either to help form a government, or pass important legislation. Coalition politics is also responsible for true for budget allocations to Yeshiva students. Like the issue of army service, few ultra-orthodox men are active in the work force; mainly they exist on stipends handed out to support their studies. Not only don’t they pay taxes, critics point out, and don’t serve in the army, but they live off of public monies. While this issue upsets most Israelis, as long as coalition politics exists there is little to be done about these complaints.

Proponets of the Hesder Yeshiva program point out that these are religious boys who are not avoiding the draft, but serve in the army and then join the work force, pay taxes, and become responsible citizens.

The ironies of Israeli politics and finance are not lost on Hamas. According to a story in the Israeli press, Hamas has received monies from the Palestinian Authority to pay salaries of Hamas fighters. The Haaretz newspaper reports that these PA monies were actually given to the PA by Israel. The monies were tax rebates Israel had been holding back from the Palestinian Authority.

The Israeli media has been running a series of stories about the environment and pollution. The Haaretz paper ran a piece about an Arab man from the north of Israel who stepped on a fish while bathing in the Sea of Galilee. The fish had a serious bacterium that was transferred to the man through the wound in his foot. After the man collapsed from the infection caused by the fish, he was hospitalized and treated with massive amounts of anti-biotics. Stories of the pollution rampant in the Sea of Galilee have caused many not to swim there.

In another case, dangerously high levels of polluted air were discovered in the Haifa port area. Wednesday night residents of the area complained about burning in their eyes and throats. An investigation was launched and it was discovered that a Haifa company was reposnbile. The Environmental Protection Ministry called Frutarom Industries to an emergency hearing after discovering that an unusual emission of odors from its factory was the cause for the air pollution detected in the Haifa bay area. The ministry also found that Kryat Ata scrap metal dealers illegally burning tires and metal, were also responsible. Strong winds blew the poisonous fumes from Kryiat Ata to Haifa. According to the Yideot Achranot newspaper, “Robert Reuven, director of the Environmental Protection Ministry Haifa's bureau, said it was the chemical reaction between the two, fueled by strong winds coming from the west, that caused the problem to spread over a wide area.”

Other critics, interviewed on Israel Radio’s Reshet Bet said that as long as companies find it profitable to pollute they will continue to do so. Only hefty fines making pollution unprofitable will stop them.

Given all of Israel’s existential problems, neither pollution in the air, or in the army, is good for the long-term health of the Israeli society.