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Israel Diary of August 2023

Posted on the 18 September 2023 by Arirusila @AriRusila
Israel diary of August 2023

I spent most of August 2023 in Israel vacationing on weekends and doing volunteer work during the weekdays within the framework of the Sar-el program in the Israeli army. In the following, I present memories and observations of everyday life in Israel for one month, because many phenomena do not cross the international news threshold. I hope the article will give foreign readers a more diverse perspective on Israel than just following news headlines in the West.

5.8.2023 Busy Saturday in Tel Aviv

In Tel Aviv, this Saturday was busier than usual. A terrorist attack took place in the center of the city when a 22-year-old Palestinian Islamic Jihad member from Jenin, later identified as Kamal Abu Ahmed, shot Tel Aviv city security officer Chen Amir. Amir and his colleagues stopped their motorcycle at Kamal because he did not make eye contact despite the noise of the motorcycle on the pedestrian street. Kamal shot Amir twice, fatally hitting him in the head, while Amir’s colleague shot a Palestinian terrorist.

I was near the scene on the main street in Allenby, which was closed about a kilometer away. The locals I interviewed were shocked that something like this is happening again in the city center.

Israel diary of August 2023
The scene of a terrorist shooting in Tel Aviv on Saturday, August 5, 2023. Credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV

I took a detour to the Hahagana train station, which also opened a couple of hours late after the Sabbath break. The reason could be that the security personnel carefully combed the empty station for possible bombs. While sitting on the stairs, a rat jumped on my lap and I managed to kick it away.

Demonstrations against the government’s judicial reform continued as before. There was a gratifyingly much younger group and family members, most of them carrying the Israeli flag. There were also rainbow flags in the crowd because the reform is considered to weaken democracy and the rights of minorities. Mounted policemen came to observe the situation as well as regular police forces.

The weather in Tel Aviv was exceptionally suffocating, the temperature was only 35 Celsius, but the discomfort was increased by the exceptional air humidity and the sea water was too warm to refresh myself, so it didn’t matter even if the Coast Guard came on a jet ski to remove me from the no-swimming area.

13.8.2023 Demonstration in Tel Aviv

I participated in an anti-government demonstration in Tel Aviv on Saturday with tens of thousands of others. Drums beat, Horns sounded, each with an Israeli flag in hand and rainbow flags in addition. The demonstration started with the national anthem, continued with fiery speeches, rhythmic slogans, etc. Everything went calmly with a good atmosphere, the police watched but did not intervene when there was no reason.

The topic was the same as the whole year before, i.e. stopping the judiciary reform planned by the government and defending democracy. Far-right ministers fuel demonstrations every week with their actions. Last week, the Minister of the Environment, Idit Silman, presented his brainchild, his political program, in which women and men would not be able to swim at the same beaches at the same time in public nature parks. This way, for example, the family would have to go to different beaches on their picnic, or women and men would have to go to them separately. Fortunately, the legal interpreters stated that this kind of discrimination between the sexes is not tolerated in today’s Israel.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich from the extremist religious party also excelled by denying Israel’s Arab-majority municipalities 314 million shekels earmarked for equalizing living standards on the basis that it had been decided during the previous government (where the Islamic Arab Party was in government), i.e. the decision does not bind Smotrich.

Another of Smotrich’s decisions was to deny scholarships to Arab students from East Jerusalem to the Hebrew University. The scholarships were created because it was considered that Arab students would get a better picture of Israel than when they studied at Ramallah’s Birzeit University. It is worth noting that Smotrich managed to anger the opposition and Israeli Arabs as well as members of other parties in the government coalition. Furthermore, the security agency Shin Bet has criticized the finance minister’s decisions as hindering the security situation.

Israel diary of August 2023

Screenshot from the Jerusalem Post. Credit: Miryam Alster

Last week, there was an opposite demonstration on Wednesday and Thursday at the home yard of the President of the Supreme Court, Esther Hayut, when a hundred government defenders went to dump a load of bananas in her yard, accusing the Supreme Court’s actions of being similar to banana republics.

The current government has managed to lead the country to an internal crisis, which is already shown by the repeated mass demonstrations this year. The military’s performance in combating external threats has been undermined by elite reservists, pilots and cyber security officers refusing to serve. Foreign investments are decreasing, along with start-ups, the high-tech sector opposes far-right, religious and racist politics. Last week, the white coat movement (healthcare professionals) who are considering emigrating due to the government’s actions came to the fore. For example, the head of the Knesset health committee, Uriel Busso of the religious Shas party, is changing the titles of health care so that religious people who have completed a couple of weeks’ courses would partly be equated with academically trained speech therapists. Netanyahu has still not been invited to the White House, because even the Yankees do not approve of such blatant trampling of democratic values.

My bet is that the current government will not stay together for long, at least not until the next regular elections. Even now the ranks have started to crack when some representatives of religious parties have noticed that the government’s possible supremacy over the Supreme Court is perhaps not such a good idea. The next government could be without religious parties, and if it wanted to, it could eliminate all the benefits enjoyed by these supporters with a simple majority of votes, and in that case the Supreme Court, supporting the minorities, would no longer be able to save them either.

26.8.2023   Peaceful in Tel Aviv, violent in the east

After returning to Finland again, I will discuss fragmentary experiences and images from a week ago in Tel Aviv and a little bit elsewhere in Israel, because they might complete the picture of everyday Israeli reality.

The weekly mass demonstrations in Tel Aviv went off peacefully last Saturday, with about one hundred thousand participants, as before, and there were no problems with the police. Further east in the West Bank, the situation was completely different when two Israelis who were servicing their car were killed in cold blood by local Palestinian terrorists on the outskirts of the village of Huwara; this naturally caused a fierce backlash from the area’s Israeli settlement and the army intervened to prevent a worse escalation.

As before, the Saturday demonstrations consisted of very diverse groups, and this time I interviewed the groups on duty at the stands that I reached. I ran into, for example, two somewhat opposing groups close to the army, i.e. the reservists, and also the former soldiers’ breaking the silence group, which criticized the army’s actions in the West Bank. I didn’t notice the actual party stands, but one new party tried to spread its message, i.e. the socialists, who think that the parties of the current left are too conservative. Groups defending the rights of women and sexual minorities were prominently featured, as well as health professionals and the NGO – Movement for Quality Government in Israel – founded since 1990, which promotes better governance.

For myself, I got one t-shirt with a fist symbol because of old memories, because when I was younger in Serbia I wore the fist shirt of a pro-democracy student movement – apparently funded by Soros. Young people used the teachings of the same organization during the Arab Spring in Egypt, where the defeat came after the Muslim Brotherhood reaped the fruits of victory. I didn’t find out if this fist organization has any roots in the previous ones, but it’s a good thing they do too.

Israel diary of August 2023

Of course, the protests that have continued throughout the year in different parts of the country do not happen without payment, and the payers have also been investigated in an in-depth report by the Jerusalem Post. Based on that, the main part of the money seems to come as crowdfunding, i.e. from donations from the public. On the other hand, the financing of the corporate side comes mostly from high tech companies; organizational financiers include New Israel Fund, Blue White Future, Our Way and Commanders for Israel’s Security, of which the first-mentioned NIF represents foreign funding from the United States.

The same weekend, after a long wait, Tel Aviv’s first light rail line was opened; at this stage, it includes 32 stations, 10 of which are underground, so the line is part of the city’s metro plan. Tel Aviv has suffered from construction works for years and the situation will continue for years to come in order to open new routes. The mayor of Tel Aviv made his own protest by not participating in the opening ceremony, even on the opening trip. The reason for the protest was that the line, as part of public transport, does not operate on the Sabbath according to the government’s instructions. Nowadays, a few private buses run in Tel Aviv even on the Sabbath.

Israel diary of August 2023
The so-called light truck The red line was opened on Saturday, others may have to wait at least until 2035.

In the previous week, public transport was on display mainly because of the extremist haredi men discriminating against women on buses, they refuse to allow women to sit next to them and even bus drivers push women to the back of the buses for this reason. Some younger women also have trouble getting on the bus because religious men find their outfits too revealing. Similarly, these extremists have often offended, for example, female soldiers of the IDF; ironic because these female soldiers, like others, are defending Israel as haredi men do their best to obtain exemption from the army. Many government ministers have condemned this discrimination.

Discrimination also came to the fore especially in Jerusalem, where extreme religious Jews have forced Christian Israeli women, including Catholic nuns, off the sidewalks to the other side of the street, and these true believers have also rehabilitated themselves by spitting on Christian priests and physically harassing them in other ways.

Earlier in August, the haredi party in the government announced that the judicial reform will not go anywhere unless the haredi are granted a broad exemption from the army and more money for Yeshiva schools; they even threatened to overthrow the government if the demands were not agreed to.

Contrary to what was experienced in Tel Aviv, instead of mass protests in the West Bank, it was regrettably the usual terrorism. Shay Silas Nigrekar, 60, and his son Aviad Nir, 28, were driving from Ashdod on Saturday morning and stopped to get their car cleaned at a car wash. The staff apparently reported the Hebrew-speaking customers, after a while the terrorist came to verify their ethnicity and after that, shot both at close range. The Red Crescent ambulance, which arrived first, and the Israeli ambulance, which arrived later, tried to revive the shot victims without success. The search for the terrorist continued this week without success. The village of Huwara is partly in the C-alley controlled by Israel and partly in the B-area under the Palestinian civil administration, and the murder of two Israelis there in February led to a riot by the settlers.

Israel diary of August 2023

A picture of Aviad Nir and Shay Silas Nigrekar against the backdrop of the scene of the attack | Photo: TPS

On the same day, an Israeli woman – Batsheva Nigri, a 42-year-old kindergarten director – shot her car near Hebron while another woman was wounded. Later, an Israeli man accidentally drove into the village of Turmus Ayya in Area A of the Palestinian Hall and was wounded by stone throwing, the local residents helped him to the Israeli side to the protection of the IDF soldiers while the Palestinians burned his car at that time. It should also be mentioned that one Israeli settler in Ma’ale Levona was wounded by IDF soldiers when the settlers, who were armed with mines, were throwing stones at Palestinian cars.

In the same weekend, the IDF shot down two drones launched by Hamas from Gaza and a member of the Islamic Jihad was killed after an IDF raid in Jenin, an Israeli soldier was also wounded in the shooting.

When I was at the training center of the Golani brigade last week, I discussed the situation with the soldiers of this elite unit. They invariably stated that the situation has worsened in the West Bank this year, and more and more often they find themselves in the middle when calming the situation, on the one hand, when Jewish settlers attack Palestinian villages, and on the other hand, when Palestinians attack Israelis. At the same time, it has become apparent that the settlers are more and more openly ready for verbal and even violent actions towards IDF soldiers. A separate issue are the terrorist attacks, the severity of which is increasing due to increased weaponry and radicalization in the West Bank. On the other hand, at the same time, the IDF’s cooperation with the security authorities of the Palestinian Authority works despite occasional harsh rhetoric.

3.9.2023  Sar-El 8/23

After completing my Sar-El [Israeli Army Volunteer Program] period this year, here are some experiences from this time’s deployments. Really in the plural because exceptionally I had the opportunity to serve in two different bases during the same period.

Israel diary of August 2023

In the Sar-El program, the place of service is normally announced only in connection with the meeting at the airport, from where the transport is then directly to the base itself. I made a transfer request immediately at the airport when I heard that I would be sent to a medical care base where I had already served before. My transfer request was also accepted, so already in the second week I got to my previously unexperienced place of service, i.e. the training center of the Golani brigade.

In medical care

This time our group was large – about 30 people – and very heterogeneous. There were diaspora Jews from different countries as well as other individuals like myself. The participants were from Australia, Russia, the United States, Canada, Argentina, Germany, Sweden, Hungary, Poland, France, Holland, Italy and from Finland myself with the age range being 20-80, and there were about a dozen women in the group.

At the army medical care base assigned to me, the work was well organized and important, and all the facilities were in good shape. However, the base was isolated in the middle of a wider headquarters area and no soldiers were accommodated there at all, the headquarters area was full of officers and I only got into this area once behind the code locks. The disadvantage of the arrangement for me was the important lack of interaction with Israeli soldiers and officers during the free time of working days.

The week was saved by a war invalid and paratrooper colonel who came to visit us one evening and shared his amazing life story with us. He managed to get into the paratroopers by forging a permission slip from his parents (since his older brother had already died in the paratroopers in the Six Day War). As a young soldier, he participated in the Second Lebanon War (1982-85). The beginning of the war was good because some Lebanese greeted the Israeli forces as their liberators. However, on the outskirts of Beirut, his group was ambushed, half killed and half seriously wounded, storyreller among them.

Rushed to the hospital by helicopter, he survived, he lost his left leg, his right eye, half of his jaw, his right hand was permanently injured, and he still has shrapnel chips in different parts of his body. When the wife saw her half-dead husband in the hospital, she filed for divorce and gave birth to a son, claiming that her husband had died in the war. The paratrooper found out about the incident by chance and met his son for the first time when he was 13 years old.

During his long recovery period, the paratrooper studied for a university degree and wanted to return to the paratroopers even though he was a total invalid in the eyes of the army. However, he was able to return to office duties, trained and progressed all the way to his current position at the Paratrooper Selection Base with the rank of colonel.

You don’t want to come across such stories – of which only a short summary is given above – even in high-quality TV dramas.

Golani Brigade

I and some of the more experienced volunteers were transferred to the training base of the Golani brigade. The Golani Brigade is the top-3 fighting forces of the Israeli army, the elite of the commandos. To get into the brigade, top scores are required in various tests, but the best athlete or marksman is thrown out of the ranks if he is too much of a soloist and cannot function properly in a group. Group spirit is illustrated by an incident reported in the newspapers that happened during my service week, where the group decided to have lunch at a nearby pizzeria. A young non-military waiter used derogatory language towards a dark-skinned member of the group; this immediately left the place and the whole other group, including the commander, followed behind. Of course, the restaurant apologized for what happened afterwards and fired the waiter.

Israel diary of August 2023

Sorting ammunition in the Golani brigade. Ariel Rusila 8/23

The work for us volunteers was meaningful as usual, including, for example, sorting ammunition. There were four cartridge types in the same caliber: white ones for riot control, orange-headed light streak bullets for night use, normal copper-headed ones for standard use, and the green-headed ones were “cop killers”, i.e. more effective than normal bullets that penetrate heavy combat/bullet vests.

Israel diary of August 2023
For our free time, good lectures/discussions were organized not only with ordinary soldiers but also with various professionals. For example, one trainer’s main job was to go over the army’s code of ethics with the soldiers. Every soldier always carries this code (Tzahal), folded to the size of a credit card, and I personally consider it one of the IDF’s greatest strengths. On the other hand, the gunsmith went over the characteristics of the brigade’s light armament, its strengths and weaknesses.

At the base itself, the strength of the brigade varied between 800 and 1,500 soldiers depending on the training period, which created excellent conditions for casual socializing in the evenings when the bar (without alcohol) was open almost until midnight. It should be mentioned that there was a diverse group in this brigade as well, in addition to secular Jews, there were also Haredi men (they were allowed to keep their long hair in the service, seculars were not), people from Ethiopia or their descendants, Druze, some Arabs, and people who moved to Israel from elsewhere. For sure, this was in top-3 of my Sar-El experiences.

Israel diary of August 2023

Author at the Golani brigade’s training center.

This article is an English version of my articles appeared first in my web-publication (in Finnish) Ariel-Israelista suomeksi .

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