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As we Israelis await a ground war in Gaza, normal life has ground to a halt

MODIIN, Israel (JTA) – Living in Israel these days feels like existing in a state of suspended animation. 

We’re caught in an uneasy in-between moment: after the shocking events of Oct. 7 and before the uncharted territory of a dangerous ground war of uncertain duration and scope. 

We know how it started, but we don’t know how it will end. 

Everything feels different from before the Hamas attack. With 360,000 Israeli reservists mobilized, a huge swath of Israelis aged 20 to 50-something have disappeared from homes, families, workplaces and communities. My son’s homeroom teacher has been called off to war. My neighbor’s son. My brother. 

In the central Israeli city where I live, located alongside the West Bank security fence, armed volunteers staff makeshift checkpoints at city entrances. Unarmed residents like me have been deputized for neighborhood watch duty, cruising around in siren-bearing vehicles equipped with walkie-talkies and instructions to report any suspicious characters or activity. 

Businesses are operating with skeletal staffs, if at all. Major Israeli employers have announced furloughs. Traffic is light because so few people are commuting to work. Non-essential services are being cut or reduced, from recycling to library hours. Schools that had been shuttered since before the war are starting to reopen, but on reduced schedules because they can’t have more students than can fit into their bomb shelters. Universities are closed until December — at least.

With shipping traffic to Israel disrupted and international flights sharply reduced, Israelis are experiencing shortages. Some local food manufacturers can’t staff their factories or pick the produce in their fields because they depend on Palestinian day laborers who are now barred entry into Israel, or Thai farmworkers who left after at least 24 of their countrymen were killed in Hamas’ attack. The first week of the war, supermarkets ran out of tomatoes and cucumbers. Last week it was eggs. 

Tourists have disappeared, entertainment venues and many restaurants remain closed, and shuttered museums are moving important holdings to safe places. 

Israel’s hotels are bursting at the seams, however, filled with many of the 200,000 or so Israelis who have been evacuated from their homes near the front lines. This already small country roughly the size of New Jersey feels even smaller with areas near Gaza and Israel’s northern border now closed military zones. Every day the authorities announce more evacuations. 

What little activity there is in this country of nearly 10 million is focused on the war effort. Volunteers are sending toiletries, cigarettes and fresh underwear to soldiers at the front. Psychologists and social workers are counseling the newly bereaved. In my neighborhood, friends are providing meals to an evacuee family whose father was gravely wounded in Hamas’ initial attack (more than 5,000 Israelis have been wounded since the fighting began). Teenagers are helping farmers harvest their unpicked produce before it rots. Tech-savvy entrepreneurs are operating a civilian-run “war room” in Tel Aviv to try to help with the more than 200 Israeli hostages

Behind everything looms the great unknown of where this war will lead and whether it will engulf all of Israel.

A makeshift memorial on a boulevard in Modiin, Israel, for those killed in Hamas’ attack that began on Oct. 7, 2023. (Uriel Heilman)

Hamas shocked Israelis two weeks ago with its brutal attack; one can only guess what surprises it’s planning for Israeli ground troops once they roll into Gaza. Hezbollah has been testing Israel along the country’s northern border with Lebanon with daily artillery attacks and attempted infiltrations; Israel has fired back. If the militia’s Shiite backers in Tehran press Hezbollah to mount a major attack, a hard-pressed Israel could find itself fighting a two-front war with an adversary far more potent than Hamas. Several days ago, Houthi militiamen in Yemen fired missiles toward Israel. U.S. warships in the Red Sea intercepted them.

Clashes between Palestinians in the West Bank and the Israeli military are growing daily. Israeli authorities say they’ve thwarted numerous attempted terrorist attacks and have arrested more than 800 Palestinians. Israel has fast-tracked firearms permits for settlers in the West Bank, and settlements there are rushing to bolster their perimeter security. 

Every day brings news of additional Israeli deaths — from fighting in the West Bank, rocket fire from Gaza, anti-tank fire from Lebanon. Three weeks ago, a single deadly incident might have dominated a full day of the news cycle; today it’s swallowed by a torrent of new developments and fatalities. 

Israel is still finding corpses, identifying bodies and burying the dead from Hamas’ surprise attack, and the airwaves are filled with heroic tales of Israeli soldiers and ordinary citizens who rushed southward on that terrible Saturday to try to save loved ones and strangers. 

The scenes of death and destruction caused by Israeli strikes in the Gaza Strip get limited attention here; Israeli media are more focused on the fight ahead and Israeli suffering. The main news from overseas, aside from President Joe Biden’s interventions on Gaza, are the demonstrations and condemnations of Israel coming from protesters in Europe, American college campuses and Arab capitals. 

Now Israel appears to be in a lull — the quiet before the storm. The incessant rocket attacks from Gaza have become more sporadic and shorter in range; Hamas may be conserving what remains of its arsenal for the next stage of fighting. The hundreds of thousands of Israeli soldiers massed along the country’s borders are in a holding pattern, ready and waiting for orders from above. 

Along with them, all of Israel is holding its breath.

The post As we Israelis await a ground war in Gaza, normal life has ground to a halt appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Israeli and Jewish activists take campaign for greater concern about Oct. 7 sex crimes to UN

(JTA) — Less than a week after the United Nations secretary general urged an investigation into reported sexual violence by Hamas, the Israeli U.N. mission held a conference on the allegations and pressed the international community to speak out more forcefully against them.

“We have come so far in believing survivors of sexual assault in so many situations. That’s why the silence on these war crimes is dangerous,” said former Meta COO Sheryl Sandberg, the event’s keynote speaker. “The world has to decide who to believe. Do we believe the Hamas spokesperson who said that rape is forbidden, therefore it couldn’t have possibly happened on October 7th? Or do we believe the women whose bodies tell us how they spent the last few minutes of their lives?”

A CNN op-ed by Sandberg, and an accompanying Instagram post, have been at the center of a growing protest by Israeli and Jewish women who charge that the U.N. and other international bodies have dismissed or downplayed reports of sexual violence during Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel. The protest has spread via the hashtag #Me_Too_UNless_UR_a_Jew and found its real-life expression in Monday’s event, which drew 700 people to U.N. headquarters on Manhattan’s East Side.

Israeli U.N. Ambassador Gilad Erdan took aim in particular at U.N. Women — the organization’s arm for promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment — which caught flak for posting and then deleting a statement condemning the Hamas attack.

“Sadly, the very international bodies that are supposedly the defenders of all women show that when it comes to Israelis, indifference is acceptable,” Erdan said in his opening remarks.

“U.N. Women ignored all of the proof and were blind to all the evidence, including video footage of testimonies of sexual crimes,” he said. “Instead of immediately supporting the victims, U.N. Women brazenly suggested that Hamas’ gender-based violence be investigated by a blatantly antisemitic U.N. body.”

The condemnation of the U.N. is the latest in a long line of complaints Israel has had about the body both before and during its ongoing war with Hamas. In late October, Erdan called on Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to resign after he said the Oct. 7 attack “did not happen in a vacuum.”

The United Nations General Assembly has yet to condemn Hamas and has called for a cessation of the conflict, which restarted last week after a seven-day pause in which Hamas released more than 100 hostages and Israel released hundreds of Palestinian security prisoners..

Last week, Guterres called for an investigation into sexual violence by Hamas. But speakers at Monday’s event pushed for more from world leaders. Sandberg called for “the entire U.N. to formally condemn, investigate, hold the terrorists accountable.” Erdan, to loud applause, called for an “investigation of U.N. Women’s indifference to the heinous crimes against Israeli women”

In the nearly two months since the Hamas attack in Israel on Oct. 7, Israeli law enforcement, search and rescue groups, and the country’s recently formed Civil Commission on October 7 Crimes by Hamas against Women and Children have collected evidence and testimony regarding Hamas’ sexual violence on Oct. 7. Over the weekend, The Sunday Times reported testimony from survivors of the Nova music festival recalling women being gang raped and beheaded.

Sheila Katz, the CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, which organized the event along with other women’s rights groups, drew a parallel between last week’s Torah portion, which includes the Biblical story of the rape of Dinah, and the experiences of the victims of Oct. 7. Katz noted that Dinah’s voice is notably missing from the Biblical narrative.

“For generations, survivors of sexual assaults have looked to Dina’s story because it speaks so powerfully to the secondary trauma of being unheard, ignored and reduced to mere objects for debate,” said Katz, who invited people to step out of the room if they felt the need, given the graphic nature of the event. “And we heard this with new significance this year, because Israeli women and girls were recently tortured, raped, and killed, forever silenced by Hamas.”

Several actors attended the event, including Tovah Feldshuh, Julianna Margulies, Emmy Rossum and Debra Messing, all of whom have spoken out against antisemitism or Hamas’ attack. (Margulies was also fresh off an apology after making disparaging comments about Black Americans who have not supported Jews after Oct. 7.)

The event also featured people who tended to victims of the event, including representatives from ZAKA, the Orthodox Israeli first-responder organization, and the Israeli police, who have been collecting and documenting evidence from victims of sexual violence and people who witnessed the violence. They recounted graphic stories, to which the crowd responded vocally with murmurs, gasps and tears. Some in the audience exchanged tissues, hugs and pats on the back for extra support.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, a Democrat, also came and discussed seeing a compilation of footage of the attack that a group of senators recently viewed.

“I’ve seen much of the raw footage. It takes your breath away,” she said. “You can’t unsee it.”

Speaking to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency after the event, Sandberg said silence surrounding sexual violence is connected to a dearth of female representation on the world stage.

“You look in that hall at those flags — those are countries run by men, very few are run by women. I really wanted that to change in my lifetime. It’s not going to happen, not going to be close,” she said. “But that means the progress we fought for to get women’s women’s rights and protection of our bodies, protection of who we are, protection against systematic, sexualized violence — can’t be lost. And that is why anyone can speak out. And when they speak out, we have to all unite together as quickly as possible.”

The post Israeli and Jewish activists take campaign for greater concern about Oct. 7 sex crimes to UN appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Canada’s Rally for the Jewish People brought thousands to Ottawa calling for the return of the hostages in Gaza—while delivering a loud rebuke to the recent waves of antisemitism

A detailed report from a spirited snowy scene on Monday afternoon.

The post Canada’s Rally for the Jewish People brought thousands to Ottawa calling for the return of the hostages in Gaza—while delivering a loud rebuke to the recent waves of antisemitism appeared first on The Canadian Jewish News.

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Despite bus driver boycott, thousands attend pro-Israel rally in Ottawa

MONTREAL (JTA) — Despite a foot of snow in Montreal and chartered buses that never showed up in Toronto, thousands of Canadian Jews assembled on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday to voice solidarity with Israel and decry a rise in antisemitism.

Despite concerns over overall security in Canada’s capital city, which was tight, the rally’s speakers included several prominent Canadian politicians, Jewish leaders, college students who feel unsafe on campus and family members of Israelis taken hostage or killed by Hamas on Oct. 7.

Local Jewish leaders called the event, organized by Jewish federations across Canada and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, a historic gathering. But just weeks after a similar incident in Detroit before a massive pro-Israel rally in Washington, 17 of 70 chartered buses did not show up to pick up rally-goers in Toronto.

Organizers called the no-show bus company antisemitic.

“Despite charging in full in advance and confirming its participation, the [unidentified] company did not send a single bus and has declined all communications while refusing to provide any explanations,” said Adam Minsky, president and CEO of United Jewish Appeal Federations in Toronto.

“We are driven to the view that this shameful decision is intended to disrupt our peaceful rally out of hatred toward Jews,” he added. “What happened today is sickening and outrageous. We will respond aggressively with every legal and public affairs tool at our disposal.”

Israel’s ambassador to Canada Iddo Moed, Liberal Party member of parliament Anthony Housefather and deputy Conservative Party leader Melissa Lantsman all spoke on Monday.

“This is not 1943. I’m grateful that Israel exists and has an army to fight back against those who launched this pogrom,” said Housefather, who is Jewish and represents Montreal’s heavily Jewish Mount Royal district.

Raquel Look, whose son Alexandre was murdered at the music festival in southern Israel attacked by Hamas on Oct. 7, called on Canadian politicians to take more action against antisemitism. Hate crimes against Jews — including multiple incidents that have involved Molotov cocktails thrown at Montreal-area synagogues — have spiked across Canada.

“Our sorrow is deep and immeasurable but today we want to channel this immense pain into a call for action,” Look said. “Please let us honour his memory by standing up against the forces that seek to destroy Jewish and Canadians values we hold so dear.”

The post Despite bus driver boycott, thousands attend pro-Israel rally in Ottawa appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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