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My Israel Scouts leader died defending our country. I won’t let him be a statistic.

EDITOR’S NOTE: On Oct. 7, Hamas gunmen swarmed an Israeli army base in Zikim, on the north side of the Gaza border. First Lt. Yannai Kaminka, 20, was among the officers killed in the defense of the base, which saved the lives of around 90 new recruits.

Kaminka was the son of Eyal and Elana Kaminka of Tzur Hadassah, a village southwest of Jerusalem. His father is a poet; his mother, originally from Davis, California, is active in Tag Meir, a nonprofit that promotes coexistence between Arabs and Jews. “After school, Yanai volunteered with at-risk children for a year,” she remembered in a note to friends announcing his death. “In the army, he was always concerned about his fellow soldiers, asking about their families and if they lacked anything — food, clothing, or were in any difficulty. He once invited a Palestinian neighbor to speak with his friends to help them better understand the challenging reality you live in.”

Kaminka was also a madrich, or leader, in the Israel Scouts movement. One of his former scouts, Benjamin Siegel of Westchester County, New York, remembered Kaminka, posthumously promoted to second lieutenant, in a tribute Oct. 10 at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, New York. His remarks are reprinted below.

(JTA) — I live in Westchester County, New York, but I am also Israeli. A proud Israeli.

My family came to the United States three years ago, when I was 13. But Israel remains my true home.

We are from Tzur Hadassah, a beautiful community in the Jerusalem mountains of about 5,000 people. Everyone knows everyone.

As I was getting ready for bed late on Friday, Oct. 6, my phone erupted with alerts of rocket attacks across Israel, seven time zones away. Nothing could have prepared us for what was to follow.

The scope and brutality of the Hamas invasion early in the morning soon became apparent. Dispatches from Israeli media became more horrible by the hour. Family and friends in Israel kept feeding us more information. And it was all bad.

The day after the invasion started, I woke up to a text from one of my best friends that I should never have received. 

Yannai was dead.

Like me, Yannai Kaminka was American and Israeli. He was also my Israel Scouts leader.

In Israel, the Scouts, known as Tzofim, is our everything. There’s no real comparison in the United States. It’s our youth group, our community, our best friends, our leadership training. 

We were a band of brothers and sisters, meeting three times a week, from fourth grade through high school. Yannai was our leader — a madrich, to use the Hebrew word.

He was smart, fun, funny, strong. We always tried to tackle him and take him down, but he was too strong for us. We didn’t mind. He was like a big brother to us all. 

Soldiers grow up fast in the Israeli Defense Forces and can be given a level of responsibility most people who never served in the military would find daunting.

Yannai became an officer of basic trainees. He loved the work, pouring his heart and soul into making his soldiers better. Israeli officers always lead from the front. Yannai worked himself to the point of exhaustion. When he’d come home on a weekend pass, he would pretty much sleep for two days straight.

That dedication was on full display when the Hamas terrorists invaded from Gaza. His trainees were still too new to press into action, so more senior officers went out to confront the attackers. One of Yannai’s squad commanders was hit in the head and injured. Yannai evacuated her under fire and took her position. He and other IDF soldiers fought off Hamas for two hours, saving an untold number of lives, before they were hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and killed instantly.

Yannai was 20.

I stare at a photo Yannai’s mom sent us of him and four other soldiers. They are smiling, just hanging out and having a good time. It is the smile that gets me. It’s one of the things I will remember most about Yannai. Smiling came so easily for him.

In the photo is a young woman, the one he evacuated under fire. She came to his funeral bandaged. Another is in the hospital with serious injuries. The other two in the photo spoke at his funeral.

I told you how in Tzur Hadassah everyone knows everybody. It was no exaggeration. Everybody there stood outside with Israeli flags to honor Yannai on his final journey. 

He had done so much for so many in so short a time.

I will not let Yannai be a statistic. I will not stand by as others attempt to justify the invasion and killing spree that has left at least 1,400 Israelis dead, thousands more wounded and pierced the sense of invincibility in a nation whose spirit was bent but will not be broken. 

The ensuing days after the attack brought out some of the worst I’ve seen in people. Some protests glorified Hamas’ systematic slaughter, rape, torture and kidnapping of innocent people, as if that barbarism was somehow a rationale to avenge Palestinian grievances against the Israeli government.

While many of my friends in Westchester have supported and consoled me, some, including at my school, posted on social media about how Israel and Israelis brought this on themselves. How sad. How absurd. Maybe they would like to tell Yannai’s family how they feel. 

I suspect they would feel differently if they had met Yannai — the fun-loving kid you wanted to be like, to measure up to. The one who would effortlessly care about you as he set you on the path to finding your best self.

Yet even Yannai had his rough days. Once, his dad wrote him a poem to brighten his mood. The last line was, “Only at night do you see the stars.” It became Yannai’s personal slogan. He and his soldiers painted it on the wall of his army unit’s headquarters.

I wish I could see my friend again. My grief will take a long time to subside. But I will remain strong. Because that is what Yannai would expect of me and of us all. And I never wanted to disappoint him.

Yannai Michael Oded Kaminka. Remember his name. Honor his memory. May it always be a blessing. 

The post My Israel Scouts leader died defending our country. I won’t let him be a statistic. appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Flip through the digital edition of the Summer 2024 print magazine from The Canadian Jewish News

We’ve produced a collection of feature articles four times a year since 2022. A special edition of this magazine will appear in mid-September—with reflections on the Jewish year that was. And in December, look out for a reimagined publication with a name of its own. Get future copies delivered to your door as a thank-you […]

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Top US Official Calls Hamas Leader Sinwar a ‘Psychopath,’ ‘Messianic’ as Ceasefire Talks Swirl

Yahya al-Sinwar, head of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas in the Gaza Strip, attends a meeting with people at a hall on the seashore in Gaza City. Photo: Yousef Masoud / SOPA Images/Sipa via Reuters Connect

A senior US official said that Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar is the Palestinian terrorist group’s ultimate decision maker and has little interest in reaching a ceasefire deal with Israel, in testimony before a US Senate subcommittee hearing on Tuesday.

“At the end of the day, there’s one guy 10 stories below the ground: a psychopath, messianic in his own belief that he has established himself in history, and [he believes that] there’s a sunk cost of having lost thousands of fighters and carnage in Gaza,” said Barbara Leaf, the US assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs.

Sinwar, the top Hamas official in Gaza and the mastermind behind the terrorist group’s Oct. 7 massacre across southern Israel, has reportedly been hiding in Hamas’ extensive network of underground tunnels during Israel’s ongoing military campaign in the coastal enclave.

Leaf’s comments echo others made by Biden administration officials.

In April, a US official told reporters that Sinwar is single-handedly holding up any progress on a potential hostage deal.

The senior Biden administration official said that while Hamas’ political bureau has shown some willingness to compromise on the terrorist group’s most hardline positions, Sinwar’s maximalist demands continuously win out.

“Sinwar has made the decision he’d rather hold [the hostages seized by Hamas terrorists on Oct. 7] than secure a ceasefire, and that’s just the truth of the situation,” the official said.

Leaf, in her testimony on Tuesday, said that Qatar — where many top Hamas political officials are based — has been “squeezing” the group — though to little effect, according to a report from Axios.

“There’s a cadre of political officials of Hamas in Doha, and boy do they squeeze them, I can assure you they squeeze them,” Leaf said.

Israel has described Hamas’ response to the new US ceasefire proposal as total rejection. But efforts to secure an agreement are still continuing, according to mediators in Qatar and Egypt, backed by the United States.

The Axios report added that Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed Bin Abdul Rahman al-Thani met on Tuesday in Doha — Qatar’s capital — with senior Hamas officials in an attempt to reach a breakthrough in the talks about the hostage and ceasefire deal.

Egypt and Qatar — which along with the United States have been mediating between Hamas and Israel — said on June 11 that they had received a response from the Palestinian groups to the US plan, without giving further details.

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Blinken Confirms US Pausing Bomb Shipment to Israel After Netanyahu Calls for End to ‘Inconceivable’ Weapons Halt

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken hold a joint news conference in Jerusalem, May 25, 2021. Photo: Menahem Kahana/Pool via REUTERS

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday confirmed the US was still withholding a shipment of bombs to Israel, hours after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for Washington to remove restrictions on arms deliveries to the Jewish state and asserted that the top American diplomat had assured him the Biden administration was working to lift any halts on weapons.

The Biden administration is “continuing to review one shipment that President [Joe] Biden has talked about with regard to 2,000-pound bombs because of our concerns about their use in a densely populated area like Rafah. That remains under review,” Blinken said at a news conference at the US State Department.

However, he added, the administration is committed to making sure “that Israel has what it needs to effectively defend itself.”

Blinken’s remarks came after Netanyahu posted a video online earlier in the day in which he lamented that the US recently paused a weapons shipment to Israel and threatened to block more but said Blinken told him that Washington was seeking to end any halts on arms deliveries.

“When Secretary Blinken was recently here in Israel, we had a candid conversation. I said I deeply appreciated the support the US has given Israel from the beginning of the war,” Netanyahu said.

“But I also said something else. I said it’s inconceivable that in the past few months, the administration has been withholding weapons and ammunition to Israel,” he continued. “Israel, America’s closest ally, fighting for its life, fighting against Iran and our other common enemies.”

The Israeli premier then asserted that Blinken told him the issue would be addressed.

“Secretary Blinken assured me that the administration is working day and night to remove these bottlenecks,” Netanyahu said. “I certainly hope that’s the case. It should be the case. During World War II, Churchill told the US: ‘Give us the tools; we’ll do the job.’ And I say, ‘Give us the tools, and we’ll finish the job much faster.’”

Following Netanyahu’s comments, both the White House and the US State Department refuted his apparent claim that Washington was withholding more than a single shipment of bombs.

“Everything else is moving as it normally would move, and again, with the perspective of making sure that Israel has what it needs to defend itself against this multiplicity of challenges,” Blinken said.

The White House echoed Blinken’s comments, saying that only one shipment of 2,000-pound bombs had been withheld and nothing else.

“We genuinely do not know what he’s talking about,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. “We just don’t.”

Jean-Pierre added that the US and Israel have been having discussions about the release of the shipment but that there was no update at this time.

“There are no other pauses, none,” Jean-Pierre said. “No other pauses or holds in place.”

On Monday, unconfirmed reports in both Israeli and German media said that during Netanyahu’s meeting with Blinken in Jerusalem last week, the Israeli premier urged the US to return the frequency of its arms shipments to the level immediately after Oct. 7, when the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas launched the war in Gaza with its massacre across southern Israel. According to the reports, Blinken said that Washington would remove all restrictions on weapons transfers to Israel in the coming days.

Netanyahu also reportedly warned Blinken that the slowing of aid and the perception of America’s weakened support for Israel benefits Iran and its terrorist proxies across the Middle East, including Hamas, emboldening them to intensify attacks against Israel and potentially resulting in a broader regional war.

The Biden administration has been under intense pressure from Democrats, especially those on the progressive left, to condition if not outright withhold US military support for Israel. Critics of Israel have argued the Israeli military campaign in Gaza has killed too many civilians and led to a humanitarian disaster in the Palestinian enclave. Israel has said Hamas is to blame for starting the war, stealing aid, and intentionally placing its operation centers inside or underneath civilian sites.

Hamas started the war with its surprise invasion of Israel on Oct. 7, when the terrorist group murdered 1,200 people and kidnapped over 250 others as hostages. Israel responded with its ongoing campaign aimed at freeing the hostages and destroying Hamas, which rules Gaza.

In recent months, the Biden administration has become increasingly critical of Israel’s operations both in public and private, pressuring Jerusalem to change its military strategy and seek a ceasefire.

The issue came to a head last month, when Biden announced that it would cease a bomb shipment to Israel and threatened to halt more weapons deliveries if the Israeli army launched an offensive in Rafah, a city in southern Gaza and Hamas’ last major military stronghold.

I made it clear that if they go into Rafah – they haven’t gone in Rafah yet – if they go into Rafah, I’m not supplying the weapons that have been used historically to deal with Rafah, to deal with the cities — that deal with that problem,” Biden told CNN.

Israeli officials and experts have said operating in Rafah is essential to eliminating the last remaining Hamas battalions. Netanyahu said the Jewish state appreciates US support but “will stand alone” if necessary.

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