November 9, 2018
Belle Etra Yoeli is the Chief of Staff to AJC CEO David Harris. Responsible for making planes and trains run on time (among other things!), Belle travels with Harris around the globe, meeting with heads of state, cabinet level officials, dignitaries, and parliamentarians, and learning about the world at the very highest political levels.
Up Up and Away
One morning in early September, during a working visit in Israel, David, Avital Leibovitch, Director of AJC Jerusalem, and I headed to Sde Dov Airport in Tel Aviv, located in the northern end of the city. By 11am, I was on my first-ever helicopter flight, looking down on one of my favorite cities on the planet.
From Tel Aviv, we headed north for an in-depth security analysis tour of Israel’s borders with Syria and Lebanon. I took in the view, snapped way too many photos, and we kicked off an intensive day of learning with Brig. General (res.) Gal Hirsch.
A few minutes into the flight, as we approached Netanya - a city on the coast of Israel, not too far north of Tel Aviv - Gal pointed out that we are flying over Israel’s narrowest point. From the Mediterranean Sea, to the hill tops of the West Bank, the entire distance (just over 9 miles) was within my line of vision.
I remember thinking that references to Israel’s narrowest point are commonly used in advocacy materials in support of Israel, invoked to express one of the many examples of Israel’s serious strategic threats. In that moment, this tiny stretch of land was no longer a talking point - the aerial view made the potential threats crystal clear.
We then landed at our first stop in the North and drove to a location not normally open to civilians. There, we got up-close and personal with the border triangle between Israel, Jordan, and Syria.
Allow me to set the scene. Below us: a border fence, built by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) in anticipation of potential disruption in Syria at the start of the Arab Spring. Over the fence: what felt like a mere stone’s throw across the way, was a town in Syria, formerly controlled by ISIS and now under the control of the Assad regime. Down to the right: a Jordanian “checkpoint” on its border with Syria. (Checkpoint is a strong word, as thousands have fled to Jordan through this fenceless location.)
Gal mentions that quite close to where we are standing, multiple terrorists were killed several days prior, as they attempted to infiltrate into Israel from Syria.
A few moments later, my much-wanted photo op with an IDF soldier and his tank was disrupted, as a situation required his attention. We watched as he ran off, joined his fellow soldiers in the tank, and together they moved the tank into position with its cannon facing Syria. The term “this is not a drill” suddenly took on a whole new meaning.
Next, we ventured further north to meet with the IDF officer in charge of the Good Neighbor Unit, which partners with civilian organizations in under the radar efforts to assist Syrian refugees.
We learned that over 4,000 Syrians have been allowed into Israel to receive treatment in Israeli hospitals (all paid for by the Israeli government - at the cost of upwards of 15 million shekels). In addition, Israel has provided, in full, equipment necessary for a maternity ward with surgical capability in Syria, and has helped establish hospitals and clinics within Syria’s borders. Over 8,000 patients have been serviced through these efforts.
In referring to the Syrian refugees, the commander explained: “We couldn’t give them food, because they are only allowed to work with the enemy to save lives...so we started with medical supplies.”
A picture drawn by a nine-year-old Syrian patient hangs on the commander’s office wall. The drawing consists of an Israeli flag and the name of the soldier written in Arabic. This picture, to him, is proof that making neighbors out of enemies is indeed possible. As he himself said, “This is the Middle East, everything can happen.”
On our last stop, on the border with Lebanon, Gal flipped back and forth between war stories of the past and security challenges of the present, citing experiences from the ‘67 and Yom Kippur wars, along with his leadership role in the 2006 Second Lebanon War.
As we approached a vista overlooking Lebanon, he said, nonchalantly, and I am paraphrasing, “You see this beautiful view and this greenery, I see bodies, bloodshed, tanks, missiles, chaos.” After telling us about his experience in the Second Lebanon War, he concluded with, “Israel’s security establishment is one of the most important creations of the Jewish people.” In that moment, I couldn’t have agreed more.
When it comes to Israel and the headlines that surround it, it’s very easy to get caught up in the noise. Our day in-flight really brought this theme home for me.
There is no doubt that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has taken a heavy toll on both Israelis and Palestinians. And while the status of the Palestinians remains a critical, open-ended question, it is also true that Israel faces many additional challenges beyond the West Bank and Gaza. This tiny country is surrounded by security challenges on all sides, at every border.
Israel is also a young democracy - facing internal battles over democratic values, which many democracies, including the United States, continue to struggle with. Those of us who love Israel have legitimate reasons to be concerned for this country we hold so dear, but I think it is fair to say that we could all use a reminder of the need to see the whole board every once in a while - particularly in a time when everyone is an expert analyst, moving quick to shout our opinions from rooftops (and on twitter).