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Inside the Hell of Israel’s Second Lockdown – The Daily Beast

Israelis just want to fly away.

The atmosphere was so grim as the nation entered a coronavirus lockdown on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, that there appeared to be no escape.

One meme making the rounds showed desperate hands reaching out of the sea towards a far-off airplane flying high in a deep blue sky, accompanied only by the traditional greeting of “Shana Tova,” a good year.

The greeting felt hollow as Israel entered into the year 5781 as the first country on earth to impose a second national lockdown.

Alone in small home-bound pods, unable to gather or to pray in synagogues, and confused by the government’s constantly evolving, often contradictory guidelines, Israelis feel alienated, angry, and appalled.

    They did not feel this way in early March, when Israel went into its first lockdown. The nation, which began to closing its borders in late January, appeared to have the health crisis under firm control. The quarantined Passover and Easter season was greeted with hardiness and even some good humor.

    In late May, after the third inconclusive Israeli election in under a year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu established an uncomfortable team-of-rivals coalition keeping him in power for a further 18 months, which he called a “corona emergency coalition.”

    His government’s handling of COVID-19 resulted in only 250 deaths and was so admired that even countries with no diplomatic ties to Israel tried to emulate its success.

    Three months later, tiny Israel—with a population of 9.2 million people—holds a world record no country wishes for: the highest number of new cases of COVID-19 per million.

    I’d fly to Abu Dhabi. If we already had direct flights, I’d go there to escape the lockdown.

    During the weeks in which Israel precipitously tumbled from best to worst in its handing of the novel coronavirus, Netanyahu blamed the spiraling fiasco on the public, on his rival-turned-political-partner Benny Gantz, on the opposition, and on Ronny Gamzu, his recently appointed corona czar, whose advice has generally been ignored by a government hobbled by rivalries and by sectarian coalition considerations.

    The national angst was summed up by Hiba Abu Much, a laboratory scientist interviewed by Israeli radio.

    With barely disguised exasperation, Abu Much, a graduate of the Technion, one of the most prestigious academic institutions in Israel, said, “I have two degrees in medical science, ten years of experience in the field, I barely get to see home, all for an hourly wage of $12.50.”

    “No new positions are opening up,” she continued, “operations are being canceled, patients are not being discharged from hospital, the coronavirus is raging, and the Ministry of Health’s director general flew to Abu Dhabi.”

    Instead of bringing the COVID-19 crisis under control, Netanyahu has presided over a head-turning series of diplomatic coups, culminating with the establishment of diplomatic ties with the United Arab Emirates, which was celebrated earlier this week at the White House.

    But plush, inviting Abu Dhabi, the Emirati capital, which Israelis have never before been able to visit, feels farther away than ever for hardworking parents who sent their kids back to school on September 1 for what turned out to be a two-week term.

      The shambolic reopening of schools in early summer is considered the trigger that set off Israel’s deadly second wave.  Israel is now seeing astronomic growth of new COVID-19 infections, which currently stand at about 6,000 new cases a day.  

      Amid sniping between ministers who are supposed to define policy, no one knows how the school year will resume after the month of Jewish High Holy days, which end in mid-October.

      “I’d fly to Abu Dhabi,” Fares Fahhan, the owner of a hardware store on Hebron Road, a major Jerusalem artery, said wistfully on Friday as a police officer walking by glared at his unmasked face. “If we already had direct flights, I’d go there to escape the lockdown.”

      Netanyahu and Trump have trumpeted a new era of direct flights between Tel Aviv and previously unattainable Arab capitals, but as airlines struggle to survive and COVID-19 rages, they have not yet been put into place.

      The new lockdown imposes stay-at-home orders on all Israel, allowing citizens to distance themselves from their residences by about half a mile if they need essentials such as food or medicine.

      Fahhan’s losses are significant. His income in the summer of 2020 is 53 percent less than it was in the summer of 2019, his landlord refuses to reduce the rent, he hasn’t qualified for any of the meager national schemes intended to help save small businesses, and City Hall has only given him a 25 percent reduction on Jerusalem’s hefty municipal tax.  

      “It is very hard,” he says. His location in Abu Tor—a well-to-do neighborhood about evenly divided between Jewish and Arab residents who enjoy DIY home improvements—used to be an advantage, but now he’s hobbled with high rent and expenses and “people just don’t leave their houses, and when they do, they have no money. They buy a battery.”

      Meanwhile, Netanyahu has been increasingly preoccupied by an economy buckling under the pressure of coronavirus-related layoffs and slowdowns, and a swelling protest movement demanding his resignation, often under the banner “Crime Minister.”

      Netanyahu calls the protesters “left-wing anarchists.” On Friday, The Black Flag movement, which has been driving the protests, flew a drone over Tel Aviv’s grand—and now empty—Rabin Square, where they had painted the words, “The lockdown is Bibi’s fault” in huge letters.

      The police also took to the air, posting a video showing Israeli highways swirling below, almost completely empty.

      Retired General Yaakov Amidror, Netanyahu’s former National Security Adviser and a pillar of Israel’s right-wing security establishment, hailed the accord with the UAE as “something unequivocally good for Israel,” but acknowledged that if the political instability persists, “Netanyahu’s problem will not be the Middle East, it’ll be the middle class.”

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      Israel's secret

      Israel’s Secret Plan to Ship 60000 Palestinians to Paraguay Revealed in Unclassified Docs – The Daily Beast

      Unclassified minutes of a secret Israeli cabinet meeting held 51 years ago reveal that Israel planned a massive transfer of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip to the tiny Latin American country of Paraguay.

      The protocols of the May 1969 government vote exposed an Israeli-Paraguayan agreement to “encourage the emigration” of 60,000 Palestinians from territories Israel captured during the 1967 Six-Day War.

      The transcript, revealed on Tuesday, detailed each nation’s commitments, including Israeli funding for flights transferring Palestinians who agreed to leave the Gaza Strip, a $100 grant per deportee, and a payment of $33 per person to the Paraguayan government, which in turn promised the refugees permanent residence and a four-year path to citizenship.

        At the time the accord was ratified, Paraguayan tyrant Alfredo Stroessner was 15 years into what would become the longest dictatorship in Latin American history and was better known for sheltering top Nazi officers than for welcoming refugees. Notorious SS doctor Josef Mengele was among the Third Reich élite who fled to Paraguay after World War II. Stroessner’s interest in the Palestinian immigrants was likely connected to his nation’s urgent need for agricultural workers who could help pull his cash-strapped and resource-poor nation into subsistence.

        Details of the scheme confirm long-held Palestinian claims that Israel, from its inception, wanted only to rid itself of the native Arabs living on land under its rule.

        Kamal Cumsille, a University of Chile professor of Arab studies and an expert on Arab migration to Latin America, told The Daily Beast, “There is no doubt Israel maintained a hostile policy aimed at Palestinians leaving,” but said he “never heard of an actual agreement” for the transfer of Palestinians until the exposé, which was first revealed in a broadcast by Eran Cicurel, foreign editor for the Israeli Kan News.

        The shock does not stop there. Despite its importance, the Israeli-Paraguayan scheme appears to have been stymied by poor planning, blundering Mossad agents, and a quickly overlooked terrorist attack that left one Israeli dead and helped launch the wave of Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) terror against Israeli targets that characterized much of the ’70s and ’80s.

        It appeared to be a massive conspiracy that not coincidentally was concealed from public view.

        It is unclear how many Palestinians emigrated to Paraguay within the short-lived plan’s framework. In a 2004 interview, Meir Novik, a police commander involved in the operation, said “a few dozen Palestinians” had moved. Speaking with Cicurel, Paraguayan authorities concurred. 

        But Moshe Peer, an Israeli diplomat who in 1970 served as Israel’s consul to Paraguay and as the Israeli embassy’s first secretary, said in a 2004 interview that thousands had been transferred.

        On May 4, 1970, a year after the Israeli government formally approved of the plan, two Palestinian transferees armed with rifles forced their way into the Israeli embassy in Asuncion, Paraguay, with the aim of assassinating Ambassador Benjamin Varon. 

        When told Varon was out that day, Khaled Derwish Kassab, 21, and Talal al-Demasi, 20, instead shot and killed Edna Peer, 34, the ambassador’s secretary who was also the diplomat Moshe Peer’s wife and a mother of three.

        Two years later, a Paraguayan court sentenced the pair, identified as PLO members, to 13 years in jail.

        By then, Israel had become the target of much more ambitious attacks by PLO terrorists, including the 1972 massacre of its Olympic team in Munich.

        The strikes didn’t stop, including two now infamous attacks perpetrated by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a far-left faction of the PLO. In 1976, an Air France jet destined for Tel Aviv was hijacked to Entebbe, Uganda. Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, brother of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was killed while commanding the successful rescue mission. In 1985, the Achille Lauro, an Italian cruise ship sailing from Egypt to the Israeli port of Ashdod, was commandeered, resulting in the death of American passenger Leon Klinghoffer, 69.

        Ben Gurion’s aim was as much land as possible, with as few Arabs as possible living on it.

        Cicurel unearthed the damning 1969 protocol in a tranche of recently declassified documents. “I couldn’t believe my eyes,” he said. “It appeared to be a massive conspiracy that not coincidentally was concealed from public view.”

        Allusions to a transfer plan have slipped out over the years, but never any information hinting at its true dimensions.

        In 1969, with Israel still basking in the euphoria of its 1967 victory over the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq, the nation’s leaders had no idea how to proceed regarding almost one million Palestinians now under their rule.

        Israel had evaded the issue of Palestinian refugees displaced by its 1948 war of independence. According to Tom Segev, the preeminent Israeli historian and expert on the nation’s establishment, Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben Gurion, envisioned “a Jewish state in the land of Israel, with maximum territory and minimum Arabs.”

        Of the estimated 950,000 Arabs living in the British-controlled land which became Israel, close to 80 percent fled or were expelled during the war. About 150,000 remained, becoming Israeli citizens.

        The Mossad agent who accompanied them promised he’d return in two or three weeks to see how they were doing, and never came back.

        “Maximum territory doesn’t mean all the land,” explained Segev, whose most recent book is the 2018 Ben Gurion biography A State at Any Cost.  “It never has. In 1948, Ben Gurion ordered the army not to extend to east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, not because we didn’t have the force to conquer it—we did—but because so many Arabs lived there. His aim was as much land as possible, with as few Arabs as possible living on it. Whenever the possibility of an Israeli expansion to land with a major Arab population came up, the answer was no.”

        Yet 19 years later, Prime Minister Golda Meir confronted the conundrum of the fate of the same stateless Palestinians, who, she said in an interview, “have nowhere to turn for their needs than us.” About 300,000 of them lived in Gaza.

        Meir weighed various options, including asking Egypt and Jordan, who ruled over the West Bank and Gaza until the 1967 war, for help.

        “For many years, Israeli diplomats stationed from Australia to Brazil were charged with handling the matter of refugees, with the aim of settling them elsewhere,” Segev says. “It was the desire of the state of Israel to solve the problem this way. So for Golda, this plan was just another in a long line of similar schemes.”

        Little is known of other initiatives to transfer Palestinians, but the Paraguay plan was singularly concrete and ambitious. And, according to Moshe Peer, it was also a botched “security failure.”

        “If they knew a group like this was coming to Paraguay, why was the embassy not secured?” he asked in a largely unnoticed 2004 interview with the Israeli newspaper Maariv. In what appears to be the only public statement he ever made on the events, Peer disclosed an excruciating coincidence: he was the diplomat responsible for implementing the Palestinian resettlement plan.

        Three weeks before the embassy shooting, Peer found himself rescuing a Mossad agent who was arrested after complaints from a few of the transferred Palestinians, who sensed they’d been abandoned without money and without work.

        Mosssad agents provided the operation’s backbone, scouting out possible émigrés in Gaza and promising resettlement in Paraguay.

        In the week after his wife’s murder, one of them made Peer swear not to breathe a word of the plan for at least 30 years.

        Peer said that Gazan refugees “were assured they’d become landowners, that this was their promised land. The Mossad agent who accompanied them promised he’d return in two or three weeks to see how they were doing, and never came back. They were told ‘start working, you’ll get the money later.’ They felt they’d been set up.”

        “They looked for the ambassador and when they couldn’t find him, they shot my wife,” he concluded. “My family was the victim of this transfer.”

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