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What really happened in Israel this week

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It’s just gone 03:00 in the morning on Wednesday, 12 May. I’m hunkering down in a bomb shelter which doubles up as my study in Tel Aviv. I’ve checked a few times that the iron door and window are tightly shut. I can hear the sirens screeching overhead, followed by a pause, and then a massive explosion.

Just a few hours ago, I was outside on the streets, which are eerily quiet for this busy city.

An earlier night-time drive into neighbouring Holon was even more unusual. A main thoroughfare was cordoned off by police and firemen who were shouting into their cell phones and at each other. Half an hour earlier, a rocket had hit an empty bus and debris was lying everywhere. The glass windows of nearby shops had been completely shattered, and residents were coming to assess the damage. Four people are being treated in hospital, one of them a five-year-old girl.

It’s been chaotic since last Friday night, when clashes erupted outside the Al Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem. For five consecutive nights, the pattern has been pretty much the same. Muslim worshippers make their way into the Old City through Damascus Gate while outside, Israeli police and the army take up position. There’s even a section where the journalists stand. After the prayers, a group of youngsters inevitably start hurling water bottles, rocks, and glass at the officers who after a while, respond by charging into the crowd, arresting some of the protestors, and firing stun grenades. It’s predictable.

Hamas, the rulers in Gaza, are egging on the protestors. The announcement by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that he was postponing Palestinian elections – the first in 15 years – indefinitely, and blaming Israel for it, didn’t help. Neither did the fact that this is happening during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a heightened time of religious sensitivity. It also comes after the Supreme Court was meant, on Monday, to give a ruling on the evictions of about 70 Palestinians from houses in the contested East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah that Jews say they owned before 1967. The court has delayed the announcement of its decision.

But still, the result is the worst violence in four years, and it has quickly spread to other Israeli Arab localities. The city of Lod just outside Tel Aviv is in lockdown. The Israeli army imposed a state of emergency after troops had to evacuate some Jewish residents amid clashes between Arabs and police and after buildings, including a synagogue, were set alight.

At the time of writing, five Israeli civilians and one soldier have been killed. The latter happened after Hamas fired an antitank missile at an Israeli jeep on Wednesday morning. One of the Israeli civilians killed was a pensioner who was too old to get to a shelter and who died alongside her Indian helper in their home.

Hamas has criticised Israel for trying to change the status quo in Jerusalem, but Israeli soldiers insist they are reacting only after coming under fire. They accuse Palestinian youngsters of shoring up stones, rocks, and homemade ammunition inside the Al Aqsa compound and attacking them with it.

But the international community is clearly more on the side of the Palestinians. Amnesty International has accused Israel of excessive force that I, as a journalist covering the protests, dispute. There are certainly some instances of the Israeli security forces manhandling and violently attacking protestors but on the whole, certainly outside Damascus Gate where I’ve been most of the week, it’s dangerous for the troops as they are provoked and hit with things that could seriously injure them if they weren’t wearing helmets.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he wouldn’t give in to rogue elements trying to disrupt Jerusalem, and in his latest speech has threatened that Hamas will pay a “dear price”.

I’m on the phone constantly with my colleagues in Gaza. One lives in the Hanadi Tower, a 13-storey residential building in Gaza city, that collapsed on Tuesday after Israeli air strikes targeted an office used by the political leadership of Hamas. An hour before the strike, residents were warned to leave their homes by the Israeli Defense Forces and hence there were no reports of injuries. But my colleague is now homeless.

I also have an Israeli friend who phoned me in tears. Her son is among the thousands of soldiers who have been called up to the Gaza border. It’s not yet clear if Israel plans a ground offensive but all options are on the table. Five thousand additional reserve troops have also been making their way to beef up the army in the southern Israeli communities and help those maintaining calm in Israeli cities across the country – Haifa, Ramle, Akko, Beer Sheva, and others.

While between 80% to 90% of rockets fired from Gaza – and to date there have been more than 1 200 in total – have been shot down by Israel’s anti-missile defence system, the Iron Dome, many Israeli civilians are choosing to move to the north out of harm’s way – hopefully.

Several of those I interviewed blame American President Joe Biden for the flare-up. After he took office in January, Biden expressed little interest in pursuing an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. He’s also been reluctant to get involved in the current conflict, but is being urged to do so. The clashes have caught his administration on the back foot. By comparison, the Trump administration showed unstinting support for Netanyahu and hostility towards the Palestinians.

“If Trump was in office now,” many Israelis tell me, “the Palestinians would be too scared to act like they are now. But they know Biden won’t do anything!”

Come tonight – and probably for the rest of the week – I’ll be sleeping in my bomb shelter, as will hundreds of thousands of Israelis. Gazans, too, will be hunkering down where they can find shelter. No-one wants another war; but then again no-one’s being asked.

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1 Comment

  1. M Hook

    May 13, 2021 at 2:46 pm

    Interesting view, but lost me when Biden was blamed and Trump lauded.

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Going to Rage like ‘playing Russian Roulette’

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Expert in mass gathering medicine, Professor Efraim Kramer, told the SA Jewish Report this week that “Rage is nothing short of teenage Russian Roulette that may take the lives of its participants and cause large national collateral damage in disease and death, as it did last year.”

Kramer said this following a letter written by the Gauteng General Practitioners Collaboration (GGPC) was sent to local principals, begging them to tell students not to go to end-of-year Rage festivals because of the pandemic.

Matric Rage is a group of festivals held at South African coastal towns like Plettenberg Bay and Ballito to celebrate the end of school. Matric Rage 2020 is widely considered to be the super-spreader event that fuelled South Africa’s deadly second wave of COVID-19.

This year’s Matric Rage organisers say they have put safety measures and protocols in place, including that no one can attend without being fully vaccinated. But in their letter, the general practitioners (GPs) say, “However good their intentions, we don’t believe that the COVID-19 safety measures suggested by the organisers can prevent the spread of the virus. A large gathering like this, run over a few days, and consisting of excited teens is the ideal environment for a super-spreader event – as last year’s event demonstrated. Even a ‘vax passport’ [now that 18 year olds are eligible] and daily rapid antigen tests are unlikely to be able to contain an inevitable presence and spread of COVID-19 amongst the revellers and beyond them to more vulnerable people.

“Given the low vaccination rate in South Africa, a festival event of this size poses a considerable risk of a significant and unnecessary contribution to a fourth spike [wave],” they said.

Kramer, head of the Division of Emergency Medicine at the University of the Witwatersrand, and professor of Sports Medicine at Pretoria University, said, “No parent has the right to put their children, other children, and society at health risk because of irresponsible personal excuses that the youngsters need to chill out. These mass gathering, high-risk events can cause death – it’s no different to drinking and driving. Or will the same parents agree to drinking and driving because their kids had a difficult year?” he asked rhetorically.

“I agree that the young generation have sustained COVID-19 collateral damage psychologically, emotionally, and even mentally, all requiring adequate and appropriate countermeasures and social counselling activities,” said Kramer. “However, it’s what’s done, how it’s done, when and where it’s done, and the attention to health-precaution detail that’s primary and paramount.

“Regarding vaccination, these close-contact, mass gathering, crowded events remain a super-spreader, and have resulted in the unvaccinated and partially vaccinated occupying the majority of hospital ICU [intensive-care unit] beds, mechanical ventilators, and sadly, coffins,” he said.

“If Rage continues unabated against sound medical advice, no participant should be allowed back home without full COVID-19 testing. In addition, no participant should be allowed into any communal event including shuls or related activities without evidence of full COVID-19 testing. Finally, no participant should be allowed back to school or education institutions without evidence of full COVID-19 testing.

“Let us not redress COVID-19 collateral damage by bring out the worst in us,” he pleaded. “Let it rather bring out the best, the most innovative, the most exciting, energetic, low risk, safety-assured events that allow us all – young and old – to socialise with each other again. It can be done with discipline, attention to detail, direction, and supervision with effective command and control. All for one, and one for all.”

But one Cape Town parent, Mike Abel, said he will allow his son to go to Rage. “The fine balancing act as a parent is always to consider your children’s physical health and their mental health. These two don’t always go hand in hand when your kids run onto a rugby or hockey pitch with gum guards, head guards, knee guards, and silent words to the gods,” he said.

“Lockdown and COVID-19 restrictions have played havoc with mental and physical health. As social creatures, our children have become more sedentary and disconnected. Rage is an opportunity for excitement, fun, and reconnection.

“Our son is 18 and vaccinated. Is Rage ideal? No. Is it 100% safe? No. Do we think it’s the right decision for him to go? Yes. It will be better for him than not going. He’ll have fun. He’ll let off steam. He’ll connect, laugh, play, swim, and enjoy his new-found freedom and transition from school to this new chapter and adventure. Will we sleep easy while he’s there? No. But we hope his maturity, sense of responsibility, and values will guide him well-ish. Our kids need a degree of risk and freedom for both their physical and mental well-being.”

The GGPC letter was drafted by a group of GPs including three local Jewish doctors. One of them, Dr Sheri Fanaroff, said, “Even with COVID-19 protocols in place, in reality they don’t happen. It’s the same as saying there should be no drugs allowed, but we know there are. I have a matric child, and I’m happy for her to go away and have fun, but not to a massive organised event. Yes, they’ve had a lousy two years, but there are safer ways to have fun. Parents don’t want to make their child be the only one that’s excluded, and we would rather the events be cancelled altogether than force parents and children to make a choice.

“The other issue is that many kids born later in the year won’t be fully vaccinated and two weeks post vaccination by the time Rage comes. Many don’t want to get vaccinated during exams,” she said. “And while young people don’t always get extremely ill from COVID-19, we are seeing a fair amount of long-term consequences. A good percent of this age group are battling six months later with chronic fatigue, arthritis, joint pain, brain fog, and the emotional consequences of all of that.”

Another GP involved in the drafting of the letter, Dr Daniel Israel, said, “One has to differentiate between normal social events and super-spreader events. I’m pretty pro people getting out socially at the moment with safe protocols, but super-spreader events are a no-go. These are teenagers who have just finished matric, and everything about their partying has to do with consumption of alcohol, physical closeness, and small spaces, which all lends itself to COVID-19 spreading. So, by the nature of the people who come to it, you can’t have a safe event.

“A question could be, ‘well these are young, healthy kids – what’s the difference?’ But we know even from last year that when they get home, they don’t isolate properly, they go home on planes, and they do spread it,” he said. “So, the same way that we haven’t been able to do certain things in a pandemic – like Broadway is closed – we think Rage should be closed too. We may be able to have holidays, but not Rage. We’re hoping that next year, we’ll be in a different place.”

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Twenty-one year old survives COVID-19 by a breath

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We’ve all heard that COVID-19 doesn’t generally affect young people. So when Capetonian Ryan Lipman tested positive in late July, he thought his age was in his favour. He was wrong.

The young musician fought for his life for three weeks in hospital, including 11 days in the intensive care unit (ICU). Now, he has survived to tell the tale, and is begging the unvaccinated to get the jab.

“That first night in hospital was when I realised how serious COVID-19 is,” says Lipman. “Without oxygen, it feels like you are trying to breathe through a toothpick. You cannot get enough air into your lungs.

“I messaged my mom saying how scared I was. I believed that this was how it was going to end. I was going to die from COVID-19.”

He was the youngest COVID-19 pneumonia ICU patient at Milnerton Mediclinic. Recalling the moment he was wheeled in, he says, “All I could see was people on ventilators. Mouths open. Pipes everywhere. I completely lost it. I begged them not to let me die. I barely ever cry, but being in the ICU at the age of 21 with COVID-19 pneumonia, not knowing if you will ever see your family again … trust me, you learn that crying is pretty much all you do.”

Going back to the beginning, he says his family was careful to follow the COVID-19 protocols. “All I ever wanted was to stay clear of this virus. But we celebrated my dad’s birthday by going out for supper – a rare treat in a pandemic.” He’s not sure where his family picked up the virus, but it could have been there. First, his mother got sick, but she had already had one dose of the vaccine. His father had had two doses, and only had mild symptoms.

Lipman also tested positive. He wasn’t vaccinated as he was too young at the time. “It started with chills and a headache. While I have asthma, I’m 21 and healthy.” They all registered with the Community Security Organisation’s COVID-19 Wellness Programme. “Without this monitoring programme, I don’t think I would be alive today,” he says.

“On day two, I woke up with body aches and fatigue. With every movement you make, it feels like someone is aggressively hurting you. Day three began with a raging fever that wouldn’t go down, day four with pain in my chest and back. With a dry cough and extreme dizziness, I woke up on day eight with my oxygen levels dropping to 90%. My dad decided he was taking me to the hospital. At first, I refused. Why would I need to go to hospital for COVID-19? This doesn’t happen to young people.”

But he eventually agreed, and it turned out to be a lifesaving decision. “I later asked my doctors what would have happened if my father hadn’t brought me in when he did. They told me that any later, the outcome would’ve been very different.”

At the hospital, he says, “One nurse put a nasal cannula in my nose, one inserted a drip and one checked my blood pressure and oxygen saturation, which were now at 88%.

“A representative from Pathcare came to take a ‘blood gas’ from an artery to see exactly how much oxygen was in the blood. The pain is excruciating because it’s done ‘blind’. You can’t see an artery, so if the person drawing the blood doesn’t hit the artery, the needle digs deeper.”

The Emergency Room doctor listened to Lipman’s lungs. “I can still hear her shouting, ‘I think we have a case of COVID-19 pneumonia, I need dexamethasone’. The doctor explained that I was hypoxic.” He was admitted. The next morning, his oxygen levels were still at 88%.

“Night arrives and my fear gets worse as I still feel like I cannot get air into my lungs. I ask the nurse to increase the flow rate. At about two in the morning, my breathing problems start to increase again. I find my remote on the floor and manage to grab it with the small amount of energy I have, but it had stopped working.

“It was at this point I started to believe that this was my end. I prayed to G-d and told Him that if it’s my time, he must just take me. I managed to crawl out the bed and banged on the window to get the nurse’s attention. After fixing my remote, I felt that maybe the flow of oxygen was too much, making it even more difficult to breathe. As she slightly decreased the flow of oxygen, an overwhelming feeling of relief came over me as I could finally breathe.”

His oxygen levels went down to 86%, and he was put on a high flow oxygen system. “This delivers humidified oxygen up to 60 litres per minute. They left me for two hours flat on my stomach to see if they could get my oxygen levels back to at least 95%. This is an incredibly uncomfortable experience. The head nurse checked my SATS again – 89%. She added a re-breather mask. I’m now on the highest amount of oxygen before they ventilate you.”

Lipman was then moved to ICU, where he saw things that no 21-year-old should see – “the weeping cries of people saying goodbye to their family members, people getting intubated in front of you, and people passing away.

“The head nurse promised me he would do everything to get me out of there alive and said I needed to keep positive. I’ve learnt that as much as COVID-19 is a physical fight, it’s also a mental fight.”

His parents were allowed to visit him in ICU. “As my father left, I begged him to get me out of there. Every day in ICU was the same. Imagine a blood gas every morning? To stop this pain, my doctor decided that I would need an arterial line for blood to be taken at any time without having to stab a needle into my artery. I would basically become a ‘blood tap’. As the line was inserted, I screamed in pain. As soon as the doctor flushed the line, my entire hand started to burn. An intense burning never experienced before in my life.”

Eating was a huge battle, as “every time that mask came off for a few seconds, I would need to catch my breath. Just slightly adjusting my body so that the physios could work on my back would feel like I had run a marathon.

“Each day, the physios push you to your max with breathing exercises as well as physical exercises. It took six days to get me standing and another five days to learn how to walk again.”

Lipman slowly and miraculously recovered. “I couldn’t believe I survived. I constantly feared death. It was too close for comfort.”

Before he left the hospital, he returned to the ICU one more time to thank them. “All I needed to say was ‘thank you all for saving my life’ to turn me into a complete emotional wreck. ‘I could have died, I could have died,’ I cried. ‘But you didn’t. You were given a second chance at life – now take it,’ they said.

“This experience has taught me so many things, but mainly, to be grateful for every single moment,” he says. “I was nearly on a ventilator, fighting for my life, and endured traumatic events that will most likely haunt me forever. My parents were vaccinated and I wasn’t. Please get vaccinated.”

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Community called to back anti-corruption body

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A proposition for a new, independent anti-corruption body landed on President Cyril Ramaphosa’s desk on Tuesday, 24 August, and those who have spent years toiling to make it happen are asking the South African Jewish community to support it in any way it can.

“Our community was burnt by the actions of the ‘Gupta minyan’ during state capture,” says community stalwart Mark Hyman. He is the founder and director of a new organisation called Citizens for Integrity, and played a key role in putting together the memorandum sent by nongovernmental organisation (NGO) Accountability Now to the president this week.

“Corruption has decimated other Jewish communities living in failed African states. This is relevant to us all. As Jews, we cannot stand by and let corruption happen. We need to get behind this process.”

Accountability Now proposes the formation of a Chapter Nine anti-corruption body provisionally called the Integrity Commission. Chapter Nine institutions refer to organisations established in terms of Chapter 9 of the South African Constitution to guard democracy.

One of Accountability Now’s directors, Paul Hoffman SC, says that this specialist, elite, and independent anti-corruption body would help to prevent, combat, investigate, and prosecute the corrupt in our midst.

“Serious corruption, be it in the form of state capture, ‘covidpreneurism’, or orchestrated looting and rioting is the number-one threat to the rule of law and the success of our Constitution,” says Hoffman.

Accountability Now has advocated the need for such a body for more than a decade. It believes it has now become a matter of urgency due to the shrinking economy and unrest being fomented. “The beauty of the Chapter Nine umbrella is that the body cannot be closed down as easily as the Scorpions were dissolved,” says Hoffman.

In the memorandum that was sent to the president and Parliament this week, Accountability Now called for the introduction of a constitutional amendment and enabling legislation for the establishment of constitutionally compliant anti-corruption machinery of state in South Africa.

“Serious forms of corruption like grand corruption, state capture, and kleptocracy in South Africa are criminal violations of fundamental constitutional and human rights. They are literally killing many South Africans, mostly the poorest, and some of the whistle blowers,” says Hoffman.

“The anti-corruption machinery of state in South Africa isn’t fit for purpose, especially regarding serious corruption in all its forms,” he says.

Hoffman says Ramaphosa was asked in Parliament in 2019 to consider the establishment of a Chapter Nine anti-corruption body, to which he replied that he would “mull over” the “refreshing idea”.

Then, in August 2020, the African National Congress (ANC) National Executive Committee (NEC) instructed cabinet to set up new anti-corruption entity. It envisaged a stand-alone, single, permanent, and independent body, capable of dealing with corruption without fear, favour, or prejudice. That resolution hasn’t been acted on openly yet.

However, in his State of the Nation address in February, Ramaphosa announced that there was a long-term plan for a new anti-corruption body that reported to Parliament, but he would need to consult about it over the next two years.

“He clearly didn’t see it as urgent then, but we disagree, as South Africa is sliding toward failed-state status,” says Hoffman. “So, we sat down and prepared a constitutional amendment and enabling legislation. To get there, we have proposed a divorce between the NPA [National Prosecuting Authority] and the justice department so as to secure the independence of the NPA and eliminate the influence of the executive branch of government over it.

“We also proposed a definition of serious corruption which is those cases in which more than R5 million is involved. Only cases of serious corruption will be dealt with by this new commission. The idea is that it will be a ‘one stop shop’ with a branch in each province. It will investigate and prosecute under one leadership, as the Scorpions did before it was disbanded,” he says.

“All aspects of serious corruption will be dealt with by this one body,” he says. “It will be overseen only by Parliament, and have its own accounting officer. Parliament will determine the name of such a body in the process of legislating it.

“The Hawks will carry on – they will lose jurisdiction only in dealing with serious corruption. The NPA will also continue, but the prosecuting of serious corruption will go to this new body. We also say that this new body must be given guaranteed finances – it should be entitled to 0.03% of the national budget in the preceding year.

“It will have civil jurisdiction and the capacity to recover loot, seize and preserve proceeds, and ensure that they are restored to those who were looted,” says Hoffman. “We hope that a good half of the estimated R1.5 trillion of state-capture loot will be recovered within a year of this body being formed. The longer we leave it, the harder is it to chase up. Already, banks and professionals caught up in state capture and exposed at the Zondo Commission are low-hanging fruit.”

He says the reason they have done this now is because “we believe its time has come. First, the ANC NEC asked for it. There might be slightly different terminology, but nothing we are proposing is different to what it asked for in August last year. Then, in July 2021, the Democratic Alliance announced that it wanted the Hawks to be converted into an anti-corruption body under Chapter 9. This is a step in the right direction, but we believe it’s not enough in the current circumstances. The NPA is unable to do its work on corruption because of saboteurs planted within it by [former president, Jacob] Zuma. Rather than swim against the tide, handpick independent experts for a new organisation so that it can do its work properly.”

Hoffman says this change is important and urgent for us all, but particularly for the business community, which holds the key to turning the beloved country around.

“New investment in South Africa won’t occur if the perception is that it is a corrupt country. But if the government ‘walks the walk’ on countering corruption, confidence will grow that investment is safer. Also, it’s about keeping to the rule of law and realising the promise of the Constitution and its Bill of Rights. Poverty, inequality, and joblessness can best be addressed via the vigorous growth of the economy.”

Willie Hofmeyr, the retired head of the asset forfeiture unit at the NPA, and also a founder and director of Citizens for Integrity, has also put his weight behind the initiative. “Given where we are in South Africa, we need a body whose sole focus is corruption,” he says. “The Jewish community has always been at the forefront of change in South Africa. Corruption is our biggest challenge since apartheid. It’s the biggest threat our country faces, and it’s a war that we cannot afford to lose.”

Hoffman is asking the community to be “active and participative citizens, and write to the president and the secretary of constitutional review in Parliament expressing your support”.

In addition, he says, “Accountability Now is a small section 18A compliant NGO that’s entirely reliant upon donations to do its work. All directors and trustees are unpaid volunteers, and its overheads are kept to the barest minimum. If you are of a mind to support Accountability Now, a pay gate portal is available on its website.”

Visit the integrity commission page, www.accountabilitynow.org.za, for more information and a look at the draft bills proposed.

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