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The late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon once said, “What you see from here you don’t see from there.” That is one of the takeaways from a recent Israel tour I took part in with other Americans. The things we saw there opened the eyes of the members of our group to the threats to Israel created by Iran and its proxy Hezbollah, and a clear understanding of dangerous reality facing Israelis that one rarely sees in the Western media.
Our itinerary included several days in an area of Israel called Western Galilee located near the border with Lebanon. The beautiful scenery of this remote region can be misleading. The nature of the threats can only be truly understood by being in Israel on the ground, or in some cases, underground.
Our trip was sponsored and organized by Western Galilee Partnerhip2gether (P2G) under the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Partnership Unit, a joint project with the Jewish Federations of North America. The purpose of P2G is to promote people-to-people relationships. Our group included 11 non-Jewish community leaders, and 9 Federation professionals, from the consortium of 16 American-Jewish communities, and Budapest, Hungary that are partnered with Western Galilee through P2G.
The purpose of this trip was not political but rather to showcase all that is good about Israel, especially the ethnic and religious diversity of Western Galilee. However, gaining an understanding of Israel also means learning about the security challenges from Iran and its proxies. It is part of the reality that Israelis live with every day, especially in Western Galilee.
On the first day of our tour, we went to visit Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya. Now you may ask, why would a tour group go to see a hospital?
This unique hospital is located just six miles from the border with Lebanon. You can see the hills of Lebanon from the windows of the hospital. The implications of the hospital’s proximity to the border soon became apparent on our tour.
During the Second Lebanon War of 2006, Hezbollah fired 4,000 rockets at northern Israel over a 33-day period. Many of the rockets targeted Nahariya and the area surrounding the hospital.
In fact, one of the rockets made a direct hit on the hospital. Our tour guide showed us the remains of that Katyusha rocket which is showcased near the entrance to the hospital. Fortunately, no one was hurt and that’s because all the patients and staff of the hospital had already been moved to the special underground facility that had been built in 2003.
During the 2006 war, Galilee Medical Center treated 1,800 casualties, including both soldiers and civilians, in this underground facility. The story of Galilee Medical Center during the war was told by an 8-year old girl named Yuval in a moving report shown on Israel television.
Today, the walls of the underground facility have murals painted by teen volunteers to lighten the atmosphere, yet there is no escaping the stark reality that we encountered. Part of our tour included an explanation of the special air filtration system that can be used in case of a biological or chemical weapons attack.
The underground facility is not the only reason we went to tour the hospital. The minute you walk through its doors, you encounter the incredible ethnic and religious diversity of Western Galilee that most Americans don’t know about.
I call Western Galilee a microcosm of what peace could look like one day in the Middle East. It is a diverse region of 600,000 Israeli citizens including Christian-Arabs, Muslim-Arabs, Druze and Jews. The patients and staff of the hospital clearly reflect this diversity, and that begins with the Director General of the hospital, Dr. Masad Barhoum, himself a Christian-Arab.
Dr. Barhoum told us how the hospital had provided life-saving treatment for some 3,000 Syrians who were severely wounded in the Syrian civil war and transported to the hospital by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The fact that Israel and Syria are still technically in a state of war makes this one of the most powerful humanitarian stories of our times.
Yet, all of Israel, including Western Galilee and its countless examples of peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews, are the targets of Iran and Hezbollah and their strange obsession with the destruction of Israel.
And now Dr. Barhoum has to prepare his staff for an increasingly dangerous scenario. In his briefing to our group, he talked about the next war. Because Iran has supplied Hezbollah with more than 130,000 rockets and missiles, we could see 4,000 rockets a day being launched at Israel.
Another eye-opener for our group came from a visit to a kibbutz that actually sits on the border with Lebanon. (The name of the kibbutz is not disclosed here so as not to reveal sensitive security information).
The security coordinator of the kibbutz took us right up the border fence with Lebanon. However, to get to the fence, we had to walk through an Israeli army outpost with a unit of Merkava tanks guarding the border. Standing on the border, we saw the hills of southern Lebanon. But the beauty and quiet of the area belies the hidden dangers beyond the border. Iran and Hezbollah are there.
What astounded the members of our group was the fact that a residential neighborhood of the kibbutz is no more than 100 yards from the border. As one of my counterparts said, “I can’t believe there’s a children’s playground being guarded by tanks”.
By seeing the reality of Israel’s borders on the ground, one begins to make personal connections to the larger picture of the security challenges facing Israel.
During the trip I told our group of Iran’s ongoing efforts to upgrade the range and accuracy of Hezbollah’s vast rocket arsenal. After our trip, I shared a video of a detailed briefing given by IDF spokesman LTC Jonathan Conricus at the AIPAC Policy Conference which explained Hezbollah’s precision guided missile project and their efforts to dig terror tunnels under the northern border that were thwarted by the IDF.
Although our tour of Israel did not take us to Israel’s southern border with Gaza, the reality of Gaza did come to us.
On the last night of the trip we were in a restaurant in Jerusalem when the Red Alert app on my telephone started going off. This alerted me to rockets attacks from Iran’s proxies on Israel’s southern border: Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza.
I told my American counterparts not to worry as Gaza is 60 miles from Jerusalem, and typically they don’t fire rockets that far away. My friend said, “Bob, 60 miles is not that far!”
I told them that my son, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren live in Rehovot which is about 35 miles from Gaza, and that just last November, they were the target of rocket attacks while my wife was visiting there.
And I told them about life in an Israeli town called Sderot located on the Gaza border, a regular target of rockets attacks. Because of Iran’s ongoing support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad, more than 80% of the children in Sderot grow up with some form of PTSD.
In order to truly understand the threats that Iran and Hezbollah pose to Israel and the wider Middle East, we must make the effort to seek out the human stories like those we encountered on our Israel trip. For all of us who work for the non-partisan advocacy group United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), there is some personal aspect of the threats posed by this dangerous regime that motivates our work.
The experiences that the members of our group had on the trip made it clear that those who truly care about peace and human rights must make the effort to turn the complexity of Middle East politics into a deeper more personal understanding of reality.