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West Bank settlements’ house prices go through the roof

Growing up in a Jerusalem apartment, Aaron Lipkin used to marvel at the two-storey houses that he would see on weekend drives with his parents.

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BEN SALES

It made little difference to him that those houses were in Israeli West Bank settlements. A religious Zionist, he has no problem living in the territory that the international community views as occupied.

So when he and his wife went house hunting in Jerusalem 19 years ago and couldn’t find anything in their price range, they ventured north to this settlement. Ever since, they have lived there in the two-storey house of Lipkin’s dreams.

A generation later, Lipkin is facing the same problem. His kids want to move back to Ofra – but now it, too, is unaffordable. Lipkin bought his house in 2000 for 550 000 shekels – about $200 000 (R2.8 million) in 2018 dollars, correcting for inflation. Now, houses the same size in Ofra sell for at least 1.5 million shekels, (R5.9 million).

In fewer than 20 years, in other words, the price of housing in the settlement has doubled.

“We’re not sorry for a second when we think about the price of the house, the ease of buying it,” Lipkin, the spokesperson for Ofra and a tour guide, told JTA while sitting in an chair in the corner of his spacious living room. “Today we’re shaking from fear. We have five kids and we have no idea how our kids will buy their own house without becoming enslaved to a crazy mortgage.”

Since the Lipkins moved across Israel’s pre-1967 borders, or the Green Line, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have followed their lead. In 2000, there were fewer than 200 000 settlers living in the West Bank, excluding eastern Jerusalem, according to B’Tselem, a left-wing Israeli organisation. Now, the number is closer to 400 000. And home prices are rising accordingly.

Many of the settlers are ideological – committed to the principle of Jews living in what they call Judea and Samaria and Israel retaining control of the area. But others are drawn by the quality of life offered by settlements – larger houses, more green space, and intimate communities.

The Israeli government has also facilitated that comfort, building access roads that avoid Palestinian areas and increasing the number of bus lines that go directly to the settlements. The changes mean that many settlers can live their lives, if they choose, largely avoiding contact with the Palestinian villages around them. Even relatively distant settlements like Ofra have the feel of a suburb.

But, the settlements are now becoming more like Israel in yet another way: The country’s festering housing crisis, in which home prices have ballooned for a decade, is moving across the Green Line. The safer settlements feel, the more their home prices rise to meet the national average.

According to a November 2016 paper by the Shoresh Institute, a research group in Israel, housing construction in the settlements has not kept up with population growth. An October 2016 paper by Israel’s Center for Political Economics found that the number of average monthly salaries needed to buy a home in the settlements rose from 87 in 2003 to 152 in 2015. That’s only 10 pay cheques less than the national average of 162.

The housing market is also booming in Efrat, a settlement that acts as a bedroom community for nearby Jerusalem. Right-wing politicians like Naftali Bennett, the Minister of Education, have pushed annexation of so-called consensus settlements like Efrat – those that most Israelis assume will remain part of the country under any future scenario – for years.

As he walked through an empty corner townhouse for sale in Efrat, real estate agent Yaniv Gabbay said that as the prospect of a Palestinian state – and corresponding settlement evacuation – becomes more and more distant, Israelis feel increasingly comfortable investing in West Bank property. Another townhouse in this development sold for 2 million shekels (R7.8 million), in 2016, before it was built. This five-bedroom unit on the corner was going for 2.6 million shekels (R10.1 million)as of May.

In an Instagram Q-and-A on Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “I can promise you that no settlements in the Land of Israel will be evacuated.”

Israel’s right-wing is also increasing the country’s settlement building. According to Peace Now, a left-wing Israeli nongovernmental organisation that monitors settlement activity, the amount of new construction in the settlements was 17% above the annual average in 2017.

On Wednesday, Israel announced the advancement of construction plans for 1 000 more housing units in the West Bank.

Meanwhile, Palestinians living in Area C, the area of the West Bank fully administered by Israel, have long protested that they can’t build any houses or infrastructure.

“Area C has been allocated for the benefit of Israeli settlements or the Israeli military, at the expense of Palestinian communities,” according to the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “This impedes the development of adequate housing, infrastructure, and livelihoods in Palestinian communities, and has significant consequences for the entire West Bank population.”

Hagit Ofran, who heads Peace Now’s Settlement Watch project, said the main problem facing any potential settlement evacuation is the sheer number of residents who live in isolated settlements. She is less worried about Israelis who move to the West Bank for quality-of-life reasons than the tens of thousands of ideological settlers who are committed to living deep in the West Bank.

A few settlers in the northern West Bank said quality of life was the driving factor in bringing them to the territory. When Miriam Shatsky and her husband were looking to buy a home recently, a mortgage agent laughed at them after they revealed their salaries and said they wanted to live in the central Israeli city of Modiin. A few months ago, they were able to buy a five-bedroom apartment for slightly more than $300 000 (R4.2 million) in Karnei Shomron, a settlement with a large English-speaking, or Anglo, population.

“Real estate in the territories was really risky, and we didn’t know we wanted to settle here,” Shatsky said. “As we got better jobs, the target kept moving farther and farther away. Actually, Modiin sounded very interesting to me, but it was knocked off the table because it wasn’t affordable. A lot of Anglo communities are in places that aren’t affordable.”

Lipkin said that after living in the settlements for a while, the differences between quality-of-life concerns and ideology blur. With right-wing politicians frequently calling for some form of settlement annexation, Israel is doing more to absorb the settlements than to leave them. And in the meantime, more Israelis keep moving in.

(JTA)

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World

Holocaust refugee’s son a powerful politician in Congo

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(JTA) Like many powerful politicians in Africa, Moise Katumbi goes by multiple titles. He is widely seen as the leader of the opposition of his native Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the president of its TP Mazembe soccer team, which is one of Africa’s finest.

Now, Katumbi is also closer than he’s ever been to becoming the first African ruler descended from a Holocaust refugee.

Katumbi’s father, Nissim Soriano, was a Greek Jew who fled the island of Rhodes from the Nazis and settled in Congo in the 1930s when it was still a Belgian colony. Soriano built a fishing empire, and married the daughter of a local chief, Mwata Kazembe XIV Chinyanta Nakula, with whom he had two children.

Katumbi, who has said several times that he wants to become president, forged a crucial political union last month with former rival Jean-Pierre Bemba. The union helped Katumbi, a former regional governor, become the second-strongest politician behind only president, Felix Tshisekedi.

Katumbi doesn’t define himself as Jewish, “but he has a warm connection to Judaism and Israel”, said Menachem Margolin, a Brussels-based rabbi who has been a close confidant of Katumbi since 2018.

In public addresses, the African politician refers frequently to his Jewish roots, even calling himself “the Moses of Katanga, back to lead his people”. (Moise is the French spelling for the name Moses.) Katumbi was the governor of Katanga, one of the country’s 21 provinces and by far its richest in minerals.

Margolin, the Israel-born director of the Brussels-based European Jewish Association, said his relationship with Katumbi started “because I’m a rabbi”, but he declined to elaborate, citing his need to preserve the privacy of those who approach him in his rabbinical capacity.

Last week, Katumbi was asked to become prime minister or appoint one of his allies to the post, according to the African Report. He has not yet responded to the offer. Katumbi, who declined to be interviewed for this article, spent three years in exile in Brussels, where he met Margolin, before his return to Congo in 2019.

Katumbi had to flee because prosecutors in the capital, Kinshasa, issued a warrant for his arrest for alleged corruption. Katumbi, who enjoys considerable popularity in Katanga, has argued the claim was bogus to prevent him from running for president. The warrant was finally lifted in 2019, allowing his return.

Congo has lived through decades of anti-democratic political dysfunction that has essentially bankrupted the war-torn Central African nation three times the size of Texas with an unparalleled wealth in natural resources.

Katumbi’s own family lost everything, including their name, in one of the Congo’s best-known upheavals: the rise to power of its kleptocratic former despot, Mobutu Sese Seko, in 1965. Under Mobutu, his loyalists nationalised and divided among themselves businesses and possessions across the country, including the Soriano family’s fishery business. The family was also forced to change their Western-sounding name to something more African. They selected Katumbi, a name that appears in the lineage of the chief’s family.

Mobutu, who had seized power in a coup d’état, renamed the Republic of the Congo as Zaire. Following his ouster, the name was changed to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In Greece, Soriano’s family, including his parents, had all perished in the Holocaust. Soriano’s sisters, however, came with him to the Congo and survived.

Katumbi, who is married and has six children, preaches reform and change in his speeches, a focus reflected in the very name of his party, Together for Change. His credentials go beyond rhetoric.

As governor of Katanga, Katumbi pulled off one of the most remarkable economic rehabilitation programmes in Africa in recent history.

Annual revenue in his region – the size of Spain which has 55% of the world’s cobalt production and 5% of copper – was about $100m (R1.5bn) in 2007 when he was elected governor at the age of 43. By 2013, two years before the end of Katumbi’s term, revenue had soared to $1.2bn (R17.7bn).

Katumbi achieved this partly by halting the export of raw materials and investing heavily in local processing and refinement. It was a bold gambit in a country where a culture of corruption and theft has stunted industrial growth for decades.

Yet that move, coupled with Katumbi’s political appointments and vigilance, paid off massively. Under his leadership, the production of copper cathodes in Katanga rose from 18 000 tons in 2007 to more than a million tons six years later, according to African Business.

Just less than a third of the province’s collapsing roads have been rebuilt in that period and access to water rose from less than 5% to 67% of the population. School attendance in Katanga, where about five million people live, rose from 400 000 children in 2007 to 1.2 million in 2013. The share of girls at schools tripled, from 15% to 45%.

It’s not anywhere near good enough, Katumbi told African Business.

“We not only have minerals in abundance, we have good rains, good soil. We should be as economically strong as South Africa,” he said.

Those who know Katumbi, an athletically built tennis and soccer player, speak of his laid-back demeanour, wry sense of humour, and excellent people skills in at least three languages, including English and French.

Africa, and Congo specifically – where about 70% of the population live in extreme poverty on less than $2 (R29.48) a day – have experienced many promising politicians who declare their intention to improve the lives of their constituents but end up doing the opposite.

Margolin believes Katumbi’s story will be different.

“He has what he takes,” the rabbi said. “He has the warmth needed to be loved by his people and the vision necessary to lead them and command the respect of international partners. I think something very special is about to happen in Congo.”

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OP-EDS

Time to substitute evidence for emotion about vaccine delays

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This week, a balloon of hope that thousands of healthcare workers would be well on their way to long-awaited immunity against COVID-19 was deflated as the government announced it wouldn’t dispense the one million doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine as planned. The vaccine’s efficacy against the 501Y.V2 South Africa variant was unveiled at just 22%.

As this development was announced, my Facebook feed became increasingly flooded with frustrated community members calling out the “inept” government for buying one million vaccines that now need to be thrown away. “Typical South Africa!”; “Trust our country to get it wrong!” These were the comments attracting the most attention.

My mind went to a mere six weeks ago, when I followed a webinar in which Professor Barry Schoub, the chairperson of the COVID-19 Ministerial Advisory Committee on coronavirus vaccines, said that the government would be taking its time to evaluate the most appropriate choice of vaccines and rollout approach in view of the complexities of the population and variants here. This would be in contrast to countries like Israel that had already dived into a mass rollout. Interestingly at the time, I also came across similar “typical inept South Africa!” comments.

Aside from the apparent cynicism that has grown in our society – perhaps from inconsistency in public policy in so many facets of public life, COVID-19 being no exception – I believe a real understanding of levels of evidence of medical research is needed here. Sound medical decisions are informed by evidence. Evidence is graded into seven levels: randomised control trials occupying levels 1 and 2, control trials without randomisation level 3, case controls level 4, large reviews level 5, single studies level 6, and expert opinions level 7. So, without getting too technical, when you visit your doctor and (s)he tells you (s)he strongly believes in a new supplement, it may be a level 7 at most.

The risky and expensive process of rolling out millions of vaccines across South Africa ought to be informed by the highest level of evidence – randomised control trials (RCTs). An RCT involves recruiting thousands of volunteers and randomising them to two groups: one that receives the vaccine and one that doesn’t. However, the volunteers ought not to know who is in which group lest their preconceived beliefs and subsequent behaviour play a role in the outcome of their results.

In the context of a COVID-19 vaccine, to test whether an Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine would work on our population, thousands of people needed to be recruited and randomly assigned to either a placebo or a real intervention group, and then followed for months to see whether there would be a difference in incidence of COVID-19 infections between the groups.

South African mainstream medical scientists have, thankfully, always been focused on these principles with a deep commitment to recommending interventions that do no harm and work scientifically. COVID-19 has been no exception to this. So, the above process was followed.

The Wits Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics (VIDA) Research Unit has run the Oxford COVID-19 vaccine trial in South Africa for months, and has raced ahead to produce results as quickly as possible. It so happens that because of the immune pressure on the SARS-CoV-2 virus to survive amongst a relatively already exposed population, the virus mutated in November 2020.

It was only due to the rigorous efforts of units like VIDA that South Africa identified the variant so quickly and soon began to evaluate whether the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine would work here. It also soon became apparent that 95% of all cases in the second surge of the pandemic were, indeed, this new variant.

Stuck between a rock and a hard place of procuring stock while still awaiting results, the government secured its first shipment and cautiously forged ahead. Telling results have now followed, just before implementation.

We are all deeply disappointed by the failure in the efficacy of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine against our local strain of COVID-19. But we should be equally encouraged by our scientists’ and the country’s commitment to balancing swift action against evidence-based results, which unfortunately takes time to unravel.

With this mindset, let’s take a moment to reflect on what we now know about COVID-19 in February 2021 that we didn’t know six or eight months ago through this evidence-based lens:

1.    The 501Y.V2 variant of SARS-CoV-2, causing COVID-19, was detected in the Eastern Cape in November 2020. It accounts for 95% of infections in South Africa today. It’s more transmissible than its predecessor, the original SARS-CoV-2 virus. (High-level evidence.)

2.    The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine showed 70% efficacy against the original strain. A high standard trial showed only 22% effectiveness against the variant. This was for mild and moderate illness only though. (Level 1 – RCT on young, healthy people). (High-level evidence.)

3.    The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine’s efficacy against severe disease in South Africa is still unknown and being determined. (High-level evidence.)

4.    The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is a single-dose vaccine, showed a 82% efficacy against the original strain. This dropped against the variant to 57%, but the number remains high against preventing serious disease, hospitalisation, and death, even against the variant – 83%. This is very important. (High-level evidence.)

5.    Pfizer, Moderna, and Sputnik vaccines may achieve similar results against the variant. No trials have been released on them yet.

6.    All these vaccines are safe. The question remains which are effective in the South African context. (High-level evidence.)

7.    The second wave in South Africa is almost over. The R value is 0.43 at the moment. This means we are in a recovery phase. This is the lowest the R value has been since the pandemic began. (Middle-level evidence.)

8.    A third wave is probable – soon. As early as April – June. This is probably inevitable. (Low-level evidence – expert opinion.)

9.    The extent of the third wave is determinable by preventative, non-pharmacological behaviour. (High-level evidence.) Masks and social distancing are definitely here to stay for the next year at least. (Expert opinion – low-level evidence.)

10.  COVID-19 can be contracted twice – particularly with different variants being present. (High-level evidence.)

11.  COVID-19 is likely to last for the rest of our lives and become endemic. However, with the correct vaccination, its clinical effects can be attenuated and it will hopefully tend towards a more common cold. (Low-level evidence. Expert opinion.)

Let’s take a feather out of our South African scientists’ hat, salute our government for its transparency and its approach to following the science, and put up with the unexpected hurdles along the way.

  • Dr Daniel Israel is a family practitioner in Johannesburg.

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OP-EDS

Holocaust analogies are hurtful no matter what

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The Holocaust was a catastrophe of such epic proportions that the Jewish world will never fully recover. There are still those alive who experienced the horror of it, and for whom it’s not just a distant memory or historical fact. It’s therefore not surprising that emotions run high whenever the subject is broached.

In this milieu, sensitivity around it can and should be expected. Yet, it has become increasingly common for different forms of Holocaust analogies and comparisons to be made.

However hurtful, not all Holocaust analogies are intended maliciously. For many, it’s used carelessly and for different gains, including the making of political points. However, some are obviously and intentionally offensive, and aim to evoke as much harm as possible. I think here of the placing of posters of Anne Frank wearing a keffiyeh around the campus of the University of the Witwatersrand by the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement during the so-called Israel Apartheid Week in 2018. It took the symbol of the innocence of the Jewish child who died in Bergen-Belsen. It’s clear that in this case, the context, message, intention, and appropriation of the Holocaust was consciously done to evoke the most hurt possible. And the hurt was, indeed, deep.

This past month, there have been a number of high-profile examples of analogies both here and in America. Christiane Amanpour used it as comment about Donald Trump, while the Democratic Alliance (DA) used it to comment on the Economic Freedom Fighters. There was a huge uproar in response to these comparisons, not least as both were made on the anniversary of Kristallnacht.

While the intentions of Amanpour and the DA weren’t directed at the Jewish community, it was the Jewish community among others in both countries that protested. Again, Jewish communities were hurt.

This past month, there was also a parody in which the chief rabbi was portrayed as Hitler. Seemingly made by Jewish members in the community, it was intended as a spoof around a polemic that has been discussed in the community. While the intention may have been satirical, many members of the community were extremely hurt.

The deepest, darkest moments of our history shouldn’t be used to score political points or elicit cheap laughs. This is particularly egregious when the target is the chief rabbi. Nobody, whether they are leaders of the community or not, should be compared to Hitler. It’s clear that irrespective of the intention of those making comparisons, the effect on the Jewish community is the same: hurt, disbelief and anger. Inconsequential comparisons with the Holocaust undermines the unprecedented horror that it was.

The SA Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) is often tasked with deliberating on how to respond to these types of offensive and hurtful incidents. And there is a great sensitivity in our community around our response. It’s our job at the SAJBD to determine the most appropriate response, and we take our role seriously. We look at where the content originates, the context in which it is said, the intention of those that say it, and how it’s felt by those who are targeted.

The SAJBD has years of experience in doing this, and consults broadly with fellow Jewish community organisations across the world, such as the Anti-Defamation League, the World Jewish Congress, and the American Jewish Committee, as well as local and international academics.

One of the aspects we look at is how the message is received. While not all messages will be received by all members of the community in the same way, the level of hurt is the same.

What’s clear is those who make the comments shouldn’t be the ones who determine whether those comments are offensive or harmful or even antisemitic. For example, the BDS movement (and Jeremy Corbyn for that matter) deny wholeheartedly that their words, actions, and associations are antisemitic. In fact, they try to turn our accusations against us. And, no doubt, they will claim that “some of their best friends are Jewish”. But they are antisemitic.

Ultimately, though, all Jews have been affected in some way by the Holocaust. And it’s not for anyone (Jewish or otherwise) to use these terms lightly. It’s the reality of the Jewish people that we have learnt throughout our entire history that words spoken have consequences.

  • Mary Kluk is the president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, and the director of the Durban Holocaust & Genocide Centre.

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