Monday, May 31, 2010

IDF Stops "Free Gaza" Flotilla on High Seas

A six vessel flotilla of humanitarian aid has been boarded and stopped from proceeding to the Palestinian port of Gaza City. The flotilla, said to be bringing relief supplies from Turkey, was boarded around 4:30am Monday morning, May 31, by Israeli commando soldiers who dropped down from helicopters and boarded with commando rubber dingys. In the mayhem that followed at least one soldier's automatic weapon was wrested from him by an activist who opened fire against the boarding commandos, who in turn returned fire, killing several activists and wounding many others. It now appears that those on board the vessels were expecting to engage Israeli military personnel as they were wearing life vests and wielding various weapons such as knives and clubs.

According to an Israeli military spokesmen, orders had been given to do what was necessary to maintain order as well as protect the lives of the soldiers involved in the operation. At least 10 activists were killed during the confrontation.

The activists, whose Free Gaze organization had set sail from Turkey a few days previously, had been monitored constantly by Israel and advance warnings had been given to the vessels not to try to "run" the blockade that the IDF has had on Gaza; by land as well as by air and sea. An offer had even been made to allow the aid flotilla unload its cargo at Ashdod Port, where the aid supplies would be permitted to proceed on to Gaza in trucks. The activists had a number of media representatives on board from Turkish TV and newspapers, as well as foreign media people from news bureaus such as Al Jazeera.

After gaining control of the vessels and their occupants, orders were given to tow the vessels to Ashdod, where the activists would be processed and treated for any wounds they sustained during the boarding operation. The more seriously wounded were evacuated by helicopter for treatment in Israeli hospitals.

Prior to the attack, Hamas political leaders in Gaza City were preparing a grand welcome for the Free Gaza flotilla and their occupants, hoping to gain more international support for their cause. Upon hearing news of the commando action, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haninyeh gave a call for all Palestinians to refuse to engage in peace talks with Israel. Various governments in Europe and elsewhere also strongly condemned the action.

For its part, Israeli government leaders, including Prime Minister Natanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak stated that "Israel will never give up the power to defend itself. In response to anti-Israel chants made by some of the 700 people who were on board the captured vessels, Asst. Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said: "Israel strongly condemns such statements as we publicized in various Medias today. The fact that such statements were made indicates the hatred these people have for the Jewish State."

The activists, including Nobel Prize laureate Mairead Corrigan-Maguire, will be deported from Israel after processing.

Israel currently allows around 15,000 tons of food, medicine and other humanitarian aid into Gaza on a weekly basis. Much of the aid on the vessels included electric wheel chairs, pre-fabricated houses and water purification equipment.

Once unloaded at Ashdod, the confiscated aid will be examined, and if found suitable will be delivered into the Gaza Strip via land crossings such as the Erez crossing, through which weekly humanitarian aid is usually channeled. This will be permitted despite the violence that has occurred, which the IDF claims was provoked by the aid group officials.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Shavuot and 'Bikurim' Festivals are Here

Delving through a mountain of blintzes, salads and cheese cakes (photo), many people look forward to the festival of Shavuot, the last important Jewish holiday of the year and also known as Bikurim or 'First Fruits' of the harvest. The holiday, which begins Tuesday evening, or the fifth day or the Hebrew month of Sivan, causes thousands of Israelis to rush to their favorite supermarket to stock up on provisions which such zeal that one would think that it was a week long festival instead of just one day.

One thing that may have been the cause for the abnormally large supermarket crowds, as well as the congested highways is that people are encouraged to visit many nature parks and Kibbutzim cooperative settlements which usually stage harvest pageants in which their members, especially children are dressed in special costumes to commemorate the bringing in of wheat and other crops.

Temperatures are still relatively comfortable, and Israel is blessed with a variety of natural sites, offering something for everyone. Those who are inclined can take advantage of these green spots, as well as seaside beach facilities on the Mediterranean Sea, Dead Sea, and Gulf of Eilat.

The parks and beaches surrounding Israel's only large fresh water lake, the Kinneret, are often very crowded, with many people camping out and cooking a variety of roasted meats on their barbeques or 'mangals'. The unpleasant side of this experience includes the overcrowding and the debris or garbage left behind, often scattered all over the park or beach front.

This year in particular, it is suggested that people think about conserving Israel's precious water resources as the country's only major fresh water lake, the Kinneret, is still very low, despite the rains which came this past winter. Another 'water issue' that people should become more interested in is the sad state of the Lower Jordan River, which for most of it's 115 kilometer distance after leaving the Kinneret is no more than a sewage canal, carrying a combination of raw sewage from towns and settlements along it's banks and saline water that is diverted into it from salt springs and fish ponds. Scientists studying the river's present situation fear that the Lower Jordan may even "run dry" by the end of 2011 when this sewage and saline water is treated by new sewage treatment plants and diverted to farmers for agricultural use.

From a religious standpoint, Shavuot is one of Israel's most important Jewish festivals, as it commemorates the receiving of the Torah or Laws of God which Moses received from God on Mt. Sinai. The name Shavuot, or "weeks", means the culmination of the seventh week from when the Children of Israel left their bondage in Egypt and began their long journey to the Land of Israel. For religious Jews, the entire night is spent in study and prayer which culminates the following morning. As noted at the beginning of this article, the holiday is also symbolized by eating dairy meals, especially various cheese dishes. Shavuot is the last major Jewish holiday of the year and also ushers in the summer period when many young couples get married in Israel.

Whether one celebrates this beautiful holiday from a religious or secular standpoint, the festival of Shavuot is beautiful time to be in the Land of Israel. - Headlines