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‘We’re ready for anything’, says firefighter on Gaza border

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Israel

A volunteer firefighter who was born in South Africa has been at the forefront of the fight to protect Israel’s “Gaza envelope” – the area of Israel that shares a 40km border with the Palestinian enclave.

Former farmer Keith Isaacson, who is head of security in the Eshkol region, says his family made aliyah to the area in 1975 and has never left – and he will stop at nothing to protect it.

Last week, a video went viral of Isaacson standing in front of a fire which he said was on a moshav nearly 7.5km from the border with Gaza as a result of a rocket landing there. For him, it was just another day at the office, as he attempted to help wherever he could as the area faced a barrage of destruction from the sky.

Of the 4 000 rockets fired into Israel over the past two weeks, “just more than 1 200 were fired into the Eshkol region, and of that, 72 were fired directly into kibbutzim and moshavim. If 30% of missiles are shot into one area, it definitely has side effects,” he says.

These include rockets that have burned acres of agricultural land in Israel, and residents leaving the area to get a break from the incessant stress. “We don’t call it evacuation,” says Isaacson. This is home for him and so many others, and they certainly aren’t leaving.

Though people in the area are resilient, Isaacson says, more than 50% have had to have counselling to deal with the trauma of living under a rain of rockets. “I’m sure there will many more. The whole world comes to this area of Israel to learn about how we treat trauma because there is no one more experienced.”

One of his most challenging moments in recent days was “saving wooden houses from a big fire. It surrounded us, but we managed to fight it.” Though the farm’s fields were burned, he’s satisfied that they managed to save the homes from going up in flames.

“My father is from Johannesburg, my mother from Namibia. We made aliyah in 1975, straight to a moshav next to Gaza,” Isaacson says. A husband and the father of two sets of twins, he was a farmer until 2014, when Operation Protective Edge wreaked havoc on the region.

“After that, I decided to close my farm and go into security, hoping to restore the confidence that was damaged in 2014. I mostly work with the army because it’s such a sensitive area which shares borders with Gaza and Egypt. I also work with emergency units like fire fighters and rescue teams.”

Isaacson says that 40km – two thirds of the Eshkol region’s border – is shared with Gaza, and 20km with Egypt. “In those 20km, there are many problems with fighters from ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] interacting with the Egyptian army, which affects us daily. It’s not our fight, but because it’s so close, we are affected. ISIS is trying to smuggle drugs, and it’s violent smuggling, with shooting. This whole area feels the bombardment of the Egyptian army. It’s not a quiet border.”

Yet, ultimately it’s a peaceful region, with wide-open spaces and the beauty of farming communities. When he was a farmer, Isaacson’s main crop was chrysanthemums. “It’s the biggest farming area in Israel – about 450 000 square metres of agricultural land,” he says. “It’s mainly tomatoes, but also vegetables and citrus.”

Terrorists across the border know that the fields are susceptible to fire and take advantage of it. “They send fire balloons and kites which are always carried inland as the wind flows in from the sea. They don’t care about nature and conservation. But for us, to see the fields burn is traumatic. Since 2019, they have burnt 40 000 square metres. But lately it has been much less as we have better equipment and are much more organised. There is much more co-operation between fire fighters and nature reserves.”

The area is also affected by terrorist tunnels, snipers, drones, and anti-tank missiles from Gaza. Another danger from the recent rocket attacks is missiles left on the ground, some of which haven’t yet exploded. “We have the demolition squad come in, and their work can take up to a month,” Isaacson says. But, in spite of the dangers, “I doubt one family will leave the area,” he says. His parents, brother, and three out of his four adult children live in the Eshkol region.

As Israel battled Hamas, Isaacson says, “We definitely hit them hard – especially their military capacity and tunnel network.” He points out that the Israeli army “works tirelessly to prevent the loss of innocent life, sending warnings for civilians to evacuate well ahead of operations”. In this context, most of those killed were terrorists, and the total loss of life in Gaza was low compared to what it could have been if any other army was at war in such a highly populated area.

As the ceasefire came into effect, Isaacson notes that “there are many different factions in the terrorist groups, so we hope that no factions break the ceasefire. We are ready for anything, and we are proud to be civilians of this area.”

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Israel

Let my people in – how Israel slammed the door on diaspora Jews

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In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, Israel chose to prevent the entry of foreigners including our brothers and sisters, the members of Jewish communities, into the country.

So, many couldn’t attend a family Barmitzvah or be with family to sit shiva for a loved one. Although the ban has mostly been lifted, the damage has been done. However, Israel could change its policy before the next wave of COVID-19 (G-d forbid) to prevent exacerbating the problem.

The state of Israel is strengthening and growing, while many diaspora Jewish communities are shrinking and declining. For a generation that grew up in Israel, it’s difficult to internalise that there are many Jews living in the diaspora who actually believe Israel is their second home.

There is a sense of belonging not only in a spiritual, deep, or biblical way. These Jews don’t necessarily plan to make aliyah to Israel in the future. They have a good life in their countries. Yet they believe they have another home, a true motherland.

In some cases, this may be because they have family in Israel. They might even have a son who is a lone soldier serving in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

These same Jews, who live thousands of miles from Israel, go to shuls on Shabbat and pray every week for the well-being of Israel and its soldiers.

These Jews are loyal to their birthplace countries though they have another home that they care about. They’re interested in everything going on in Israel. They get upset about any criticism of Israel. They defend the Jewish state in every social-media post and stand by our country in any discussion or argument. They attend rallies in support of Israel, and send donations whenever they can.

These are Jews who visit Israel on holiday and send their children to study there or on various educational and gap-year programmes. These are our Jewish brothers and sisters, who share our homeland even without an Israeli passport.

Facing the COVID-19 pandemic, Israel opted for a strict policy of intermittently blockading its borders. This right cannot be challenged. The policy of giving preferential treatment to its citizens – those who live in Israel – sounds reasonable.

Although in the past few days Israel was reopened to vaccinated people, we cannot ignore the suffering and frustration of blood brothers within Jewish communities.

We also have to prepare for the possible next wave, when Israel will again close its borders and Jews will again feel locked out from the Holy Land. Or will it be different? Will it have learnt a lesson and change the rules for certain people?

In the recent period when South Africa was red-listed, a South African family who came to comfort the mourners of terror victim Eli Kay was denied entry into Israel.

A grandmother who so wanted to be at her granddaughter’s wedding was denied entry. She can fly in now, but the wedding is long over.

A South African father couldn’t attend his Israeli son’s Barmitzvah.

A South African mother of one of the olot chadashot (new women emigrants) wasn’t able to be there for her daughter when she gave birth. This was a once-in-a-lifetime event that she missed. She can go there now, but the moment has passed.

A mother was delayed in being there for the urgent surgery for her daughter, who suffered a stroke in Israel.

A son couldn’t support his father on his deathbed. Fortunately, his request to be at the funeral was granted, but he will never be able to say those last words to his dying father.

A student who was on her way to start her university studies in Israel was sent home.

Israeli consulates around the world received instructions, and these were frequently changed, which only elevated the level of tension and confusion.

Contacting Knesset members influenced the discretion of the decision-makers and opened their hearts and the gates of the Holy Land. A few more days, more pressure, more discussions, and more letters created a bit more relief, reducing restrictions.

But it was too late for most people. They missed lifetime opportunities.

The special committees for exceptional cases collapsed under the pressure of the large number of applications, including those whose affinity to Israel is easy to prove. These people aren’t casual tourists who wanted to come on a holiday in the middle of a pandemic. They have family in Israel – first-degree relatives. Their foreign passport is packed with entry stamps to Israel. They had a one-time family special event, which has now passed.

After two years of coronavirus, it’s not too late to design regulations that apply to this group of people who knock on Israel’s doors. They’re willing to go through every test and isolation, any vaccination, as well as hotel costs just to be able to be allowed into Israel, their other home.

After the devastating tsunami of Omicron in Israel, we’ll hopefully have enough time to be prepared for the next cycle and set new rules – not an exhausting exceptions committee.

Don’t get me wrong, according to Israelis, Israel made no mistake in shutting its borders. They agree with the clear and transparent policy to minimise at all costs the importing of COVID-19 into Israel.

However, Israel needs to hear the voices of Jewish communities and consider future steps to avoid its conduct causing unnecessary frustration within world Jewry.

The stubbornness and procrastination in response to humanitarian requests have had a deep impact on those Jewish communities that believe Israel is also their home. Israelis have successfully managed to prove to their diaspora brothers and sisters on a daily basis how wrong they are.

Jewish communities are still Israel’s “home front” and defenders, who have ancestral rights to the establishment of the state of Israel. They also play a role in strengthening the country and in the ongoing moral justification for Israel’s existence. It was in their faces that Israel slammed the door.

Israelis don’t understand how much the arrogant, bureaucratic process can hurt a lonely soldier who needs to go to South Africa. He might be serving in integral and powerful units in the IDF, and is then refused the right to go and see his family. This is unacceptable.

It’s such an unnecessary but deep and painful hurt, yet very simple to heal with some care and kind attention. Our leaders need to consider this going forward.

  • Advocate Zvika (Biko) Arran is a social entrepreneur. He lives in South Africa with his wife, Liat, who is the Jewish Agency representative in South Africa, and their children.

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Tenacious Miss SA returns to hero’s welcome

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In spite of being crowned Second Princess in the Miss Universe pageant held in Eilat, Israel, last month, Miss South Africa admits to having felt nervous about returning home to South Africa afterwards.

Lalela Mswane flew to Dubai and then Israel without the support – or knowledge – of the South African government, which had been pressurising her not to go for weeks beforehand.

“I didn’t know what was awaiting me [in South Africa]. I was anxious but optimistic at the same time. I had a warrior-princess attitude. I had been to hell and back. I felt like, ‘Bring it on!’,” she says.

But the 24-year-old need not have worried. A hero’s welcome awaited her as ordinary South Africans showered her with pride.

During a press conference at OR Tambo International Airport, she expressed disappointment and anger at the government’s decision, and the mass criticism she had received in the lead-up to the contest.

“I felt abandoned,” she said. “I’ll never comprehend what I did to make people feel justified in their actions. You don’t have to be for me, but you don’t have to be against me. You don’t have to, certainly, wish death upon me because I made a choice.”

The starlet recognised the situation for what it was. It reminded her of the years of bullying she’d endured while growing up.

“I’m tenacity personified,” she quips. “I believe in standing for something. Even if you have to stand alone, or stand with very few people, be strong in your convictions.”

Born in Richards Bay and raised in Pretoria, the beauty queen discovered her love for ballet in the Jacaranda City, and went on to complete a Bachelor of Law at the University of Pretoria. Her passion for humanitarianism and creating positive change is what ultimately steered her towards competing in Miss South Africa.

“The dream [of being Miss South Africa] was planted in my heart when I was about seven,” she says. “I saw my predecessors do so many amazing things and the impact they could have.”

As a devout Christian, the opportunity to travel to Jerusalem was a dream come true.

“It was emotional. We went to the Western Wall and heard a prayer. I literally felt a sense of renewal and rebirth, and said to G-d, ‘Let your will be done.’ I was at peace from that moment on. For me, spiritually, that trip was everything and more.”

Mswane describes Israelis as “extremely friendly, very welcoming”, and even picked up a little Hebrew. “Todah”, she says perfectly. “The first thing I asked when I arrived was how to say thank you because I say thank you a lot!”

No trip abroad would be complete without sampling the country’s cuisine, and this journey was no exception. “Oh, the food! I think I gained weight. No, I know I gained weight,” she laughs. “I’m not a bread girl, but I couldn’t get enough of the bread there. It was so fresh! You could just get the sense that it was made with love.”

She’s even become a fan of Israel’s most famous dish – hummus.

“I’ve been converted. I had it the other day at a restaurant [in South Africa] but it didn’t hit the spot.”

Now that she’s back on home soil, Mswane is serious about placing the entire ordeal behind her and focusing on how she can help South Africa overcome unemployment.

“I don’t regret my decision one bit. I’m so happy I went. Israel was everything and more and I’ve often said that I would have gone regardless of the location. My stance was never political; it was me going to pursue a dream that I have always had.”

The battle has now turned to the courtroom where last month, nongovernmental organisation Citizens for Integrity (CFI) brought a case over the government’s withdrawal of its support to the high court as a matter of public interest. Although it failed to get the urgent hearing it anticipated, “no merits of the application were discussed. The only aspect discussed was urgency. The case continues,” says CFI founder Mark Hyman.

The application by Africa4Palestine (formerly the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions group) to be amicus curae (a friend of the court) wasn’t even heard by the judge, who asked it to leave.

The department of sport, arts and culture falsely claims on its website that the case was struck from the roll. Minister Nathi Mthethwa argues online that, “Our position is rooted in the responsibility to encourage a culture of moral stewardship amongst all who carry the South African name.” He has yet to respond to an open letter by CFI saying it isn’t too late for him and the government to apologise to Mswane.

Says Hyman, “We remain steadfast in the belief that only when the government is held accountable for its unacceptable conduct toward its own citizens, and the courts make such orders, can we say that we are making South Africa a better democratic society. This is what we seek to do by fighting for the rights of South Africans in this case.

“CFI remains convinced that the government has avoided its obligations and has failed to respect the rights of its citizens, and needs to be taken to task because of it. We believe that the government had no constitutional right to interfere in legitimate private business affairs in the first place or to bully such a party into submitting to the government position and to publicly sanction her for refusing to comply with its demand. We also believe that the government has unconstitutionally impaired Miss South Africa’s dignity by detailing to the public, in emotive terms, the nature of private discussions simply in order to justify a decision which it imposed on her.”

Mswane, though, has already put it behind her.

“I definitely cannot say I’m the same person. Before, I was searching for validation and support from everybody. Post everything, I feel like if something resonates with me deeply, I don’t need validation. Resonating with me should be enough.”

It’s often said that a person’s name has the ability to shape them. Mswane’s parents must have known this when they named her “Lalela” which means “listen” in isiZulu.

The greatest lesson she’s taken from the experience is to listen to her heart.

“If you know that you have found peace in a decision, do it, because you need to stand for something in life. Not everyone is going to agree with you, and that’s fine, but you need to back yourself all the damn time.”

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Miss SA shines as local boycott goes to court

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It’s just days before the Miss Universe pageant in Eilat, and Miss SA Lalela Mswane has been soaking up the sights and sounds of Israel and making friends with dozens of fellow contestants ahead of the glamorous event.

Beauty queens from at least 70 countries have toured a number of popular destinations such as Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, where they smothered themselves in healing black mud.

Over the past few days, they have been in the coastal city of Eilat posing in swimwear.

The deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, hailed Miss SA for her bravery in deciding to participate in the pageant in spite of Israel-haters’ attempts to stop her from taking part.

Hassan-Nahoum thanked Mswane for “speaking truth to power”, and for participating in spite of the South African government and the minister of sport, arts, and culture withdrawing support for her in November because the contest was taking place in Israel.

Following a fashion event hosted in Jerusalem, she tweeted, “I thanked #MissUniverse South African contestant Lalela Mswane for speaking truth to power and not just being a beautiful but a very brave lady.”

Meanwhile back home, Africa4Palestine, an anti-Israel lobby group aligned with the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, this week submitted an application to the High Court Gauteng Division to be an amicus curiae (an impartial adviser to a court of law in a particular case) in a case brought before the court by Citizens For Integrity (CFI).

CFI has accused the government and the minister of sport, arts, and culture of acting unconstitutionally and irrationally in its “bullying” of Miss SA.

The non-governmental organisation has filed papers in the high court taking the government and Minister Nathi Mthethwa to task for withdrawing its support for the local beauty queen in November, and for calling for her to withdraw from the 70th Miss Universe pageant to be held in Israel at the weekend.

It has demanded an apology and an immediate retraction of the statement withdrawing support for the Miss SA Organisation and Mswane.

Although Mswane is already in Israel, the CFI launched an urgent application to have the government’s statement declared unconstitutional, said Sibongile Cele, the deputy chairperson of the African National Congress Women’s League Johannesburg.

“We aren’t changing our stance, we will give Miss SA our full support. She is being victimised by these people,” said Cele.

In papers before the court, the anti-Israel group asked to be amicus curiae to assist the court in making its decision. It wanted to provide the court with information on alleged atrocities perpetrated by Israel as well as to provide information on reports by human rights bodies drawing parallels in Israel to apartheid in South Africa.

The organisation said the government had adopted a longstanding stance on the Palestinian-Israel conflict, and submissions by the CFI attempted to challenge its policy and stance on the “Israel occupation” and its right to act in accordance with those principles.

“In doing so, it attempts to allege that the government’s stance is one which has been adopted with the intention of allegedly violating the constitutional rights of Miss SA. This stance is blatantly false and misleading”.

Mthethwa, in his heads of argument, accused the CFI of making “wild generalised statements and unsubstantiated allegations” which should be dismissed on the basis they are “hearsay and irrelevant”.

The court papers stated that the minister’s statement was made in “good faith”, and was in line with legitimate government purpose in its “commitment to the advancement and protection of fundamental human rights, not only within the borders of the Republic of South Africa, but also extra-territorially”.

“This commitment is immediately apparent in the Bill of Rights, which is the cornerstone of the constitutional democracy of the Republic and affirms democratic values of human dignity, equality, and freedom,” the papers say.

The minister “Simply reiterates the policy by government in that South Africa will not tolerate the senseless and continued Israeli bombardment of the Palestinian people and denial of their right to self-determination. Accordingly, the egregious violation of human rights by the Israel people towards Palestine weighs more than the support that South Africa should show for Miss Universe pageant to be held in Israel.”

It was heavily argued that the matter was not urgent and should be dismissed.

Willie Hofmeyr, the retired head of the asset forfeiture unit at the National Prosecuting Authority and one of the founders and directors of CFI, was present during the proceedings and was unable to comment at the time of going to press.

Cele, who is also the spokesperson for the CFI, insisted that Miss SA’s rights had been infringed upon. “As a committed Christian, I felt it was important to look at her rights as a woman and her rights as Miss SA. The protesters can jump and scream, but we will stand up against this injustice. As Christians, we believe Israel is the apple of G-d’s eye, and we will continue to pray for peace between Israel and South Africa.”

Anti-Israel lobbyists staged a small protest outside court on Wednesday, 8 December. They have accused CFI of being “a front company for the Zionist lobby” and in an online poster advertising the protest, they said, “Israel keep your dirty hands off our government.”

Throughout Miss SA’s short reign, lobbyists have attempted to harass and bully her into withdrawing from the pageant, but she has stood her ground.

Beautiful pictures of her in a white bathing suit enjoying the sun at Coral Beach in Eilat were posted on the Miss SA Instagram page. The Miss Universe organisation has challenged contestants to speak about sustainable fashion and according to the Miss SA Organisation, Mswane has embraced the challenge by using special outfits worn by her predecessors.

She has consistently thanked everyone who has supported her in the run-up to the competition.

The CFI opposed the application for amicus curiae. At the time of going to press, court was still in progress.

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